moving tale

September 11, 2007

Here’s a charming idea – a “create your own path” story stenciled on the sidewalks of San Francisco! Found via if:book.

sidewalk.jpg.


“communities of interest”

September 9, 2007

The FBI has had to halt a data-mining project that overstepped even the generous boundaries of the PATRIOT Act. They were having telecoms suck in the records of people “once removed” from persons of interest. The trouble is, the old way of doing things was to start with a crime and some reason to think a person was involved. Now, mere association can make you a suspect in a crime that hasn’t happened.

As I read the Times coverage I kept mulling over the way that the Web has allowed communities to flourish, in a good way. We find out who likes reading the same kinds of books at Library Thing. We network with groups of friends we’ve only met online at Facebook. We let Google store our searches and read our mail so that we can trade that data for convenience – and so advertisers can find communities that might be interested in their products. No wonder the government wants in on the act.

And then I came to this section of the article:

Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania and a former researcher for AT&T, said the telecommunications companies could have easily provided the F.B.I. with the type of network analysis data it was seeking because they themselves had developed it over many years, often using sophisticated software like a program called Analyst’s Notebook.

“This sort of analysis of calling patterns and who the communities of interests are is the sort of things telephone companies are doing anyway because it’s central to their businesses for marketing or optimizing the network or detecting fraud,” said Professor Blaze, who has worked with the F.B.I. on technology issues.

Such “analysis is extremely powerful and very revealing because you get these linkages between people that wouldn’t be otherwise clear, sometimes even more important than the content itself” of phone calls and e-mail messages, he said. “But it’s also very invasive. There’s always going to be a certain amount of noise,” with data collected on people who have no real links to suspicious activity, he said.

We’re going to have to make a choice. If we don’t put limits on what corporations can do as they track our phone calls and Internet usage and who we associate with, if we give away our private data without complaint, the constitutional limits that protect the individual from abuses of power will grow increasingly meaningless.


more DOJ-y news

September 7, 2007

The Justice Department just told the FCC that they oppose net neutrality. Their pals at AT&T might suffer and that would hurt consumers because … uh … let’s see …. oh yeah! If AT&T couldn’t charge more, they couldn’t use that money to develop the Internet to its full potential and that would be bad for us. Screw libraries and universities, what do they contribute? Bunch of troublemakers.


Unconstitutional!

September 7, 2007

Yes! A judge has just said (again) that NSLs are unconstitutional!! Well, duh, we knew that. But it’s good to have it on record, and with a civics lesson built right in.

Specifically, the automatic and unlimited gag order, and the indiscriminate way in which they’ve been handed out, offers the FBI an opportunity to suppress speech based on its content – broadly and indefinitely. That’s a violation of the first amendment. Later in the decision the judge apologizes for stating the obvious, but points out that our system of government is built on a separation and balance of powers. Congress may decide benightedly to hand its authority over to the executive, but they can’t make laws that do the same with the powers of the judicial branch. That’s a violation of the doctrine of the separation of powers, so NSLs are unconstitutional on those grounds. (The law, passed by Congress, says the executive doesn’t have to pay attention to those men in black dresses. Well … that’s not within their authority. Whoops!)

The decision (built around a John Doe – but not the John Doe of the library case, because the government dropped their gag order to avoid losing in court) – has been stayed pending appeal.


twin peeks

August 21, 2007

Two items in beSpacific’s list of new stuff caught my eye today because they seem to comment on each other.

First, the University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics provides the numbers that back up what everyone already knows. The rich are getting richer (the people with incomes in the top two percent have doubled their wealth in the past twenty years) – while the poor get poorer. (The people in the lowest 25% have less than they did in 1984.) “Trickle down economics” so popular in the Reagan era apparently involved something other than money.

But never fear, the government is hard at work to ensure that top two percent won’t have to suffer the indignity of removing their shoes at the airport. Our tax dollars are at work seeking out a company that can develop a shoe screener for those who can afford to be in the “registered traveler” program. Actually, the TSA doesn’t collect that much money for the program – it’s the private sector partners who get to charge the big bucks for membership in the club. But that’s okay, we will remain ahead of other nations when it comes to developing cutting-edge shoe screening technology.


look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane …

August 20, 2007

It’s Big Brother!

Why should the Chinese authorities have all the fun?


…and a side of paranoia, please

August 12, 2007

Nothing like a cup of joe to start the day. Unless it’s a story like this one in the Times to get your adrenaline pumping. US firms are financing a Chinese surveillance system that sounds straight out of a dystopian SF novel. Using a combination of surveillance cameras, face recognition software, and chips embedded in identity cards, authorities will be able to identify criminals. And everyone else.

Data on the chip will include not just the citizen’s name and address but also work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status and landlord’s phone number. Even personal reproductive history will be included, for enforcement of China’s controversial “one child” policy. Plans are being studied to add credit histories, subway travel payments and small purchases charged to the card.

Security experts describe China’s plans as the world’s largest effort to meld cutting-edge computer technology with police work to track the activities of a population and fight crime. But they say the technology can be used to violate civil rights.

All of which reminds me of the opening of Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil in which a swatted fly falling into a typewriter changes the name “Tuttle” to “Buttle” and sets off a chain reaction that ruins lives. Ductwork and mountains of office paperwork take on sinister lives of their own, as well, showing what happens when we let the machine take over. All rendered in a curious retro-techno satirical carnival of badly-run state power.

It’s not technology that I distrust. It’s the people using it.


under oafs

August 5, 2007

First the Senate caved, then the House. I’m depressed. Wasn’t the last election supposed to mean something? And what about that oath everyone takes to defend the Constitution against all enemies? Oh, wait … Pogo explained all that years ago.

It doesn’t make me any happier that erosions to our rights are justified in the name of overcoming new technologies. That’s what you hear constantly in the absurd crackdown on supposed copyright violators.

Update, August 21st – Threat Level just reported that the teen charged with piracy for filming twenty seconds of Transformers to show her little brother plead guilty to avoid jail time and a much higher fine.  What a great way to grow your market.


there’s a Schroedinger’s Cat quality to this situation

August 1, 2007

It’s clear now (if it wasn’t already) that the feds have been up to more mischief than they have ever admitted to. The Terrorist Surveillance Program (including monitoring e-mails from abroad) was only part of a larger program, presumably the Everybody Else Surveillance Program. While intimating there’s more where that came from, the administration won’t back up AG Gonzalez’s story that … well, he was only referring to a little bit of what’s going on. Why not? Threat Level explains that a judge has ruled in the AT&T suit that once the administration lets the cat out of the bag, they can’t avoid a lawsuit by calling it a state secret.

Now the government faces the dilemma of having to choose between letting Gonzales be investigated or impeached by keeping officially silent on what other surveillance activities the government secretly engaged in, or protecting the Attorney General and the Administration’s credibility by disclosing more about the program and putting itself and its alleged telecom partners in increased legal jeopardy.

So, if the only way to find out if the cat in there is alive or dead is to let it out of the bag . . . don’t open the bag. Once the waveform collapses, your defense might, too.

Of course, given the speed of the courts and their deference so far to official secrets, the cat will be about 110 years old before the bag is opened.


non-fiction

June 26, 2007

Unfortunately. You’d have a hard time making any of this believable in a paranoid, high-octane thriller. John Doe and company spoke at this year’s ALA conference to share what it’s like to live under an NSL gag order.

The four librarians under the gag order weren’t allowed to talk to each other by phone. So they e-mailed. Later, they weren’t allowed to e-mail.

After the ACLU took on the case and it went to court in Bridgeport, the librarians were not allowed to attend their own hearing. Instead, they had to watch it on closed circuit TV from a locked courtroom in Hartford, 60 miles away. “Our presence in the courtroom was declared a threat to national security,” Chase said.

Forced to make information public as the case moved forward, the government resorted to one of its favorite tactics: releasing heavily redacted versions of documents while outing anyone who didn’t roll over for Uncle Sam. In this case, they named Chase, despite the fact that he was legally compelled to keep his own identity secret.

Then the phone started ringing. Pesky reporters wanted info. One day, the AP called Chase’s house and got his son, Sam, on the phone. When Chase got home, he took one look at his son’s face. “I could tell something was very wrong,” he said. Sam told him the AP had called saying that Chase was being investigated by the FBI. “What’s going on?” Sam asked his father. Chase couldn’t tell him. For months, he worried about what his son must have been thinking. As the case moved forward, the librarians had to resort to regular duplicity with co-workers and family — mysteriously disappearing from work without an explanation, secretly convening in subway stations, dancing around the truth for months. The ACLU even advised Chase to move to a safehouse.

The government only lifted the gag order when it looked as if it would be struck down in court. Thousands of citizens living under the same Kafkaesque gag order face prison if they go public.  Though I suppose the FBI would point out it’s not so bad so long as you don’t fight back.


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