Blown To Bits

Archive for the ‘The explosion’ Category

Is It Illegal to Record an Arrest?

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Depends on who you talk to.

In Blown to Bits, we talk about citizen vigilantism—people taking vengeance on people they see doing bad things, or just snapping pictures of crimes being committed, pictures that may help identify the culprits. The digital explosion has engendered a lot more of this, for both better and worse—we once did not all have cameras on us all the time.

Of course, a technology generation later, we all have not just still cameras, but audio recorders and video cameras too—in cell phones and even iPods. And people are whipping them out when they observe arrests being made, and are using the recordings to embarrass the the police, or to help in the defense of the party being arrested.

Except now, as the Boston Globe reports,  the police are increasingly fighting back, accusing those making the recordings of illegal surveillance, under wiretapping statutes. It’s a fascinating story. Some of the convictions are standing up in Massachusetts—the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in a split decision that the wiretapping statutes apply, unless the recording was made in a public manner. So people hiding the microphone in their sleeve or the camera in their coat may well be in trouble. Chief Justice Margaret Marshall was in the minority, opining

Citizens have a particularly important role to play when the official conduct at issue is that of the police. Their role cannot be performed if citizens must fear criminal reprisals when they seek to hold government officials responsible by recording, secretly recording on occasion, an interaction between a citizen and a police officer.

I don’t envy the police their job. Hell, I wouldn’t be happy if people were video-recording my  every movement while I was doing my job. But what the police are doing while making an arrest seems to me a public act by definition. In other situations (all those traffic-stop videos we see) the police themselves make sure everything is recorded these days. Can’t see why recording the police arresting someone in the public square wouldn’t fall within citizens’ rights.

Way Cool Cover on Russian Edition of Blown to Bits

Monday, January 11th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Not sure if those RJ-45 connectors are supposed to remind us of viruses attacking a cell or spermatazoa on their way to an egg, but it’s a graphic worthy of a video game. The title seems to mean “Attack of the Bits,” except that I don’t think either word is real Russian.

The Scarcest Internet Resource?

Saturday, January 9th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

You can’t get the bits if you don’t have a pipe big enough to get them to you. Because of the engineering, political, and geographic challenges of the Internet pipe problem in the US, there has been a lot of attention focused on broadband diffusion — getting high speed connectivity to lots of people. Of course, businesses compete on their ability to deliver bandwidth — at least where there is competition at all. Mostly in the phone space, it seems, though the Comcast-Verizon FIOS argument certainly generates a lot of advertising revenue locally.

But there is another important Internet resource we almost never think about: IP addresses. Or IPv4 addresses to be precise, the 32-bit unique numbers that identify where the bits are supposed to go when any kind of message is sent to your computer. If you go to WhatIsMyIp or any of a number of other sites, you can see your own, shown as four numbers, each less than 256, separated by dots. That’s about 4 billion possibilities in all, a number that seemed unimaginably extravagant at a time that computers were huge.

Today, with computers in everything, even your wristwatch could use its own IP address, and plenty of devices smaller than that. The pool of IP addresses, which were divided into blocks and given out to nations, and within nations to companies and universities and governments, is being rapidly depleted. Not quite as rapidly as had been feared, but still: A story yesterday reported that there are only 625 days of IP addresses left, at the rate the reservoir is draining.

Various things can be done to stretch the supply. Some parties who got more addresses than they really need may be willing to surrender them voluntarily. NAT technology allows multiple connections to use a single IP address, but there are costs to that.

Sooner or later, we are going to run out of addresses. The solution is already known — IPv6, which uses 128-bit addresses. The code is already in the operating systems of computers being shipped today. But the switchover is likely to be hell — think of the switch of broadcast television to digital, with granny suddenly unable to get her soaps. Except that this switch will have a deadline attached to it.

624 days and counting, according to the current estimate …

Mistrial by Google

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Jury trials are a carefully managed game of information control. The jurors are screened to try to weed out people who know too much ahead of time. Only certain kinds of information are admissible, and whatever is presented by one side can be challenged by the other. The jurors are supposed to isolate themselves from other sources of information — when they go home to their families at night, they are supposed not to talk about the ongoing events or to try to find our more about them. In extreme cases, when it is just too likely that information will assault them by accident, they may be sequestered.

The digital explosion makes such information quarantine an unnatural condition at best, and perhaps an impossible one. And indeed, the New York Times reports today that jurors are routinely using search engines to find out more about the events they are adjudicating. (As Jurors Turn to Web, Mistrials are Popping Up) In a recent trial, a judge at first hoped that only a single juror had been using Google to check things out — in that case, he could throw the juror off the jury and continue the trial.

But then the judge found that eight other jurors had done the same thing — conducting Google searches on the lawyers and the defendant, looking up news articles about the case, checking definitions on Wikipedia and searching for evidence that had been specifically excluded by the judge. One juror, asked by the judge about the research, said, “Well, I was curious,” according to Mr. Raben.

Mistrial. But the impulse is so easy to imagine. I myself was once on a jury trial in a reckless driving case, in which the defendant was charged with careening down residential streets at high speeds. A crucial piece of evidence was a hubcap coming off as he screeched around a sharp corner. The jury deliberations lasted overnight. Were the trial taking place today, I could use Google Street View after I got home to see what that corner looks like.

Did anyone see this coming? Not the attorneys in the case, apparently.

“We were stunned,” said a defense lawyer, Peter Raben, who was told by the jury that he had been on the verge of winning the case. “It’s the first time modern technology struck us in that fashion, and it hit us right over the head.”

Hit over the head by the force of the digital explosion. One minute you have a stable, reliable social institution that is the descendant of centuries of experience, as good and as fair a system as democratic societies know how to create. A minute later, you have to wonder if it can survive at all, since it is premised on conditions that no longer exist.

Facebook Getting Scammy

Thursday, February 26th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Facebook has lowered the standards it uses to decide what kinds of advertisements to accept. Thanks to Valleyway for this list of “services” ¬†it used to ban but now allows:

* “Work-at-Home” Scams
* “Free Trial” Diet Products that bill your credit card well before the trial period ends, then refuse to let you cancel
* “Free Federal Grant Money” rackets where you pay get a list of ‘secret’ free grant programs (no such thing as a free lunch)
* “Free Ringtone” subscription services (The Florida Attorney General’s Office had a field day with this one)
* “Free IQ Surveys” that feed you a bunch of easily answered questions before you are required to pay to see the results.
* “Cash4Gold” Programs encouraging you to shove your jewelery in an envelope and mail it in for a third of its actual value

And some “make-money-with-Google” schemes that were totally bogus, even according to Google.

Facebook has had a bad run of privacy issues, so bad that they can’t be excused simply as misjudgments by the overgrown adolescents who work at the company. (See¬†Your Facebook Data Belongs to Facebook ‚Äî Now and Forever, for example.)

But this one feels different. It looks like a desperate and unsustainable move to increase short-term revenues. This is the sort of thing a company might do to make its balance sheet look good for a potential investor. Or maybe it has just woken up to the fact that it doesn’t have a business model and is developing one by trial and error. Please, guys, talk to your users before you try stuff like this.

Oh yes. And Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, Chris Kelly, is running for the office of Attorney General of California. Perhaps the anyway-sparse adult supervision at Facebook is even scantier these days.

NSF’s Internet Porn

Thursday, January 29th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

An NSF internal report revealed that some NSF workers (including at least one high official) were using their NSF computers and Internet connections to view pornography and participate in pornographic chat rooms. Senator Grassley of Iowa, the same Senator Grassley who put the bogus Rimm report on Internet pornography on the cover of Time magazine a decade ago (p. 239 of Blown to Bits), wants answers from NSF. He is threatening to hold up NSF’s #3 billion share of the stimulus money until the Foundation cleans up its act.

Now this story is a good giggle about human stupidity (OK, male stupidity, I expect) and workings of bureaucracies. You do have to wonder, right off the bat, if NSF is being singled out just because it’s the only agency that actually conducted an internal audit of how its systems are being used. (Have they done that in Health and Human Services, for example?)

But there are a couple of more serious questions this raises. The first is whether Senator Grassley’s problem is the agency’s inefficiency or morals. If the report had said that time was being lost to eBay, or to reading stories about US tariffs on Roquefort cheese, would he have been equally upset? Because there is every reason to think that in offices all over the country, government and corporate, people are spending lots of time doing non-work stuff on the Internet. Given the recession, wouldn’t this be the logical time to try to get full value out of every employee?

And then there is the reminder that this stuff can be tracked. Every web site you visit can be recorded, and employers can monitor, analyze, restrict, and punish what we do on the Internet.

For many of us, the Internet has shattered the barriers between work time and home time; it’s as easy to do knowledge work from home as from the office. A certain amount of bleeding in the other direction is inevitable. Where are the limits of control over employee’s actions? I’m willing to go with the good Senator in condemning someone spending 20% of his office time viewing porn, but the workplace needs some reasonable standards, other than “you can’t do anything personal from your office,” or the surveillance and retaliation is going to be capricious and unpredictable.

Political Warfare Via Public Exposure

Monday, January 19th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

How far is it fair to go to put the spotlight on those opposing you by making public information about them readily accessible? Supporters of gay marriange in California have taken public information — the addresses of those supporters of the gay marriage ban who gave more than $100 — and put it on an easy-to-access map. You can look at the map and see who in your neighborhood gave money to help get the ban passed. Or, who in my neighborhood.

The use of the Internet for public shaming — or is it intimidation? — is not new. The Nuremberg Files was the most troubling example of the genre — listing the addresses of doctors who performed abortions, and graying out their names if they were murdered. The site also listed where their children went to school.

The gay marriage advocates haven’t gone that far, but they have gone far enough to cause some real discomfort. The New York Times reports that to fight back, an attempt will be made to change the law so that the addresses of donors of as little as $100 are no longer public information.

Who has the better of the free speech argument here — those who feel intimidated, and hence feel their speech is being chilled; or those who just want to publish on the Web in a convenient form information that has long been considered public anyway?

News-Driven Automatic Trading?

Friday, January 16th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

FT reports that new trading systems will be driven by news feeds, as well as historical data. Systems would pick out places where a company is mentioned, and predict what might happen to the stock price as a result, and use that information as the basis for buy-or-sell decisions. The hope would be to avoid some of the volatility that recent events have shown are caused by automatic trading systems (at least half of stock trades are now generated algorithmically, not by human decisions on the spot).

Unfortunately, as the article notes, events such as the precipitous drop in United Airlines stock price last fall were caused by reactions to incorrect news items. So we had better hope that the news analysis algorithms will be smarter than human judgment at figuring out which news items should be regarded as trustworthy. (Or perhaps, in the UAL case, how long after selling on the basis of a false rumor to wait before buying back in again, just before everyone else figures out the rumor was false.)

The Last Piano Roll

Monday, January 5th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

QRS, a company in Buffalo, NY, has made its last player piano roll, after more than a century in the business. Readers of Blown to Bits, Chapter 8, will know that George Antheil famously realized that a player piano roll was a generalized digital code that could be used to control communications equipment as well as a musical instrument.

Like the controllers in virtually all communications equipment, piano rolls have been replaced by other digital media. According to the Buffalo News story, QRS “is now a leading manufacturer of digitized and computerized player-piano technology that runs on CDs.”

I wonder if Antheil used QRS pianos for his compositions.

Electronic Gossip

Monday, December 29th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Bella English has a good piece in the Globe today about JuicyCampus, the gossip site for all manner of cruel and mean-spirited postings about college students. She’s got the story pretty much right — what JuicyCampus is doing is appalling and, under CDA section 230, legal. An interesting detail she notes is that two states’ Attorneys General are investigating JuicyCampus for not enforcing its own rules against fraud. In the aftermath of the Lori Drew conviction, such charges may not be over-reaching.

As the article notes, there are mechanisms for at least trying to identify who posts a message if it’s truly defamatory (which requires showing actual damage, not mere cruelty). It’s onerous to bring a libel charge (thanks to the First Amendment), but I’m a bit surprised it hasn’t been attempted — the article, at least, mentions the possibility but not any actual cases where it’s been done. (Though JuicyCampus has turned over IP addresses in other cases where violent crimes seemed to be in the offing.)