Nerval's Lobster writes: When Ars Technica editor Nate Anderson sat down to write The Internet Police (W.W. Norton & Company, 320 pp.), Edward Snowden hadn’t yet decided to add some excitement to the National Security Agency’s summer by leaking a trove of surveillance secrets to The Guardian.
As a result, Anderson’s book doesn’t mention Snowden’s escapade, which will likely become the security-and-paranoia story of the year, if not the decade. For anyone unaware of the vast issues highlighted by Snowden’s leak, however, The Internet Police is a handy guide to the slow and unstoppable rise of the online security state, as well as the libertarian and criminal elements that have done their level best to counter that surveillance.
Anderson starts off his book in 2000, with an exploration of HavenCo. The people behind HavenCo had a fascinating idea: build a datacenter on a rusting naval fort in the North Sea, and use it to hold data for customers concerned about the government sniffing around. But the company’s dream of constructing a “true libertarian paradise” eventually sank, thanks to a toxic combination of infighting and infrastructure challenges.
HavenCo was an early entrant in a longtime attempt to place a large swath of the Web beyond the reach of governments and corporations, and it definitely wasn’t the last: from Silk Road to MegaUpload, the properties dedicated to a “liberated Net” have proliferated in recent years. Some people founded such sites out of high principle; others for the LULZ; and many because they simply wanted to download movies and music and possibly highly illegal drugs for free.
Anderson does an excellent job of tracing the push-and-pull between these Websites and various government and corporate entities. People form peer-to-peer networks to swap copyrighted content, and corporations sue to shut them down; others set up networks to trade pornography or drugs, and law-enforcement agencies unleash all sorts of surveillance tools to track down the perpetrators; spam networks rise, and governments pass legislation (boosted by corporations) to nuke them off the Web, with varying degrees of success. These attempts at control usually prove successful, at least until new and improved versions of those Websites rise from the smoking ruins of the old.
To his credit, Anderson wears his journalist hat to the proceedings, never tipping his sympathies to one side or the other. He acknowledges that government and law enforcement really do want to keep people safe above all else, even as certain legislatures and police departments run roughshod over citizens’ privacy; he also details how many software creators built their security and privacy tools out of a genuine desire for people to have as much freedom as possible online, only to watch as criminals and others twisted those tools to their own nefarious ends.
Anderson’s conclusion is that society needs an Internet police in order to keep some degree of peace, but that “we need to keep a close eye on them.” In this post-Snowden era, when it seems increasingly clear that governments have the ability to monitor virtually every single aspect of our electronic lives, this bit of advice seems more important than ever.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Over at The Kernel, staff writer Greg Stevens wonders whether police departments around the world should outfit their officers with Google Glass. There’s some logic behind the idea. A cop with wearable electronics constantly streaming audio and video back to a supervisor (or even a Website) would be less likely, at least in theory, to take liberties with civilians’ civil liberties. But not everybody thinks it's such a good idea. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, wrote in a recent blog posting that society needs to make choices “about the extent to which we want to allow the government to store up that data so that it has the power to hit ‘rewind’ on everybody’s lives.” In the view of that organization, “that’s just too much power.” That being said, law enforcement wearing electronics that streams constant video and audio data would still be subject to the law. “If the officer is recording a communication he has in public with someone, there’s probably no wiretap problem since there’s at least the consent of one party and no expectation of privacy,” Hanni M. Fakhoury, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote in an email to Slashdot. “But if he’s recording peripheral communications between two separate individuals, than there’s potential wiretap liability depending on the circumstances.” What do you think? Are cops wearing Google Glass (or similar wearable electronic) a good idea?
Nerval's Lobster writes: Daniel Kottke and Bill Fernandez had front-row seats to the birth of the personal computing industry, as well as the most valuable technology company in the world. Both served as employees of Apple Computer in its earliest days: Kottke working with the hardware, Fernandez developing the user interfaces. Both have some strong opinions about the new feature film, Jobs, which dramatizes the personal and professional escapades of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and his more technically inclined partner, Steve Wozniak. Kottke consulted on early versions of the script, attended the movie’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in February, and is currently planning to see it again shortly after its release on August 16. Fernandez, on the other hand, hasn’t seen it and doesn’t intend to, because he considers it a work of fiction and thinks it will upset him. In this lengthy interview with Slashdot, both attempted to distinguish the facts and longstanding geek legends from the instances of pure creative license exercised by the filmmakers.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Over at The Kernel, staff writer Greg Stevens wonders whether police departments around the world should outfit their officers with Google Glass. There’s some logic behind the idea. A cop with wearable electronics constantly streaming audio and video back to a supervisor (or even a Website) would be less likely, at least in theory, to take liberties with civilians’ civil liberties. But a bunch of people aren't very happy with the idea. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, wrote in a recent blog posting that society needs to make choices “about the extent to which we want to allow the government to store up that data so that it has the power to hit ‘rewind’ on everybody’s lives.” In his view, “that’s just too much power.” But existing laws could also prevent Google Glass from kicking off some kind of Orwellian free-for-all. Under the Wiretap Act, intercepting audio signals is strictly controlled by state and federal statute, and generally requires a judge to sign off on a specific monitoring action. “If the officer is recording a communication he has in public with someone, there’s probably no wiretap problem since there’s at least the consent of one party and no expectation of privacy,” Hanni M. Fakhoury, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote in an email to Slashdot. “But if he’s recording peripheral communications between two separate individuals, than there’s potential wiretap liability depending on the circumstances.” In other words, officers wearing Google Glass during an arrest or search could spark a thorny legal battle, depending on the circumstances. What do you think? Google Glass (or other wearable electronics) for cops a good idea, or an awful one?
Nerval's Lobster writes: The Navajo Nation cut the ribbon August 13 on an $8 million data center that has been under debate and development since 2000, when then-President Bill Clinton expressed shock that a 13-year-old Navajo girl who just won a new laptop couldn’t connect to the Internet. At the time that girl won the laptop in a school contest, the Navajo Nation--a 27,425 square-mile region that covers portions of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico--had barely any IT infrastructure. The incident helped drive debate among leaders of the Navajo Nation, many of whom said they believed adding telecommunications and computing facilities were secondary to other concerns for the chronically poverty stricken region. The 50,000-square-foot facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico includes 25,000-sq.-ft. of datacenter and an equal space for computer training and business incubation, according to Nova Corp., an IT services company owned by Navajo Nation and formed in 2004 to execute an IT plan to create the “Digital Navajo Nation” (PDF). The drive to get it built also helped push development of a $46 million broadband project designed to cover about half of Navajo territory with 550 miles of fiber, 32 new cell towers and upgrades to another 27. It will eventually connect more than 30,000 households and 1,000 businesses.
Nerval's Lobster writes: For most businesses, data analytics presents an opportunity. But for DARPA, the military agency responsible for developing new technology, so-called “Big Data” could represent a big threat. DARPA is apparently looking to fund researchers who can “investigate the national security threat posed by public data available either for purchase or through open sources.” That means developing tools that can evaluate whether a particular public dataset will have a significant impact on national security, as well as blunt the force of that impact if necessary. “The threat of active data spills and breaches of corporate and government information systems are being addressed by many private, commercial, and government organizations,” reads DARPA’s posting on the matter. “The purpose of this research is to investigate data sources that are readily available for any individual to purchase, mine, and exploit.” As Foreign Policy points out, there’s a certain amount of irony in the government soliciting ways to reduce its vulnerability to data exploitation. “At the time government officials are assuring Americans they have nothing to fear from the National Security Agency poring through their personal records,” the publication wrote, “the military is worried that Russia or al Qaeda is going to wreak nationwide havoc after combing through people’s personal records.”
Nerval's Lobster writes: Three years ago, game designer and author Jane McGonigal argued that saving the human race is going to require a major time investment—in playing video games. “If we want to solve problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict, obesity, I believe that we need to aspire to play games online for at least 21 billion hours a week [up from 3 billion today], by the end of the next decade,” she said in a TED talk. Her message was not ignored—and it has indirectly contributed to the formation of something called the Internet Response League (IRL). The small group has a big goal: to harness gamers’ time and use it to save lives after disasters, natural or otherwise. The idea is to insert micro-tasks into games, specifically asking gamers to tag photos of disaster areas. With the IRL plugin, each image would be shown to at least three people, who tag the photo as showing no damage, mild damage, or severe damage. The Internet Response League has been in talks with a couple of indie developers, including one that’s developing a new MMO. Mosur said they’ve tried to get in touch with World of Warcraft maker Blizzard, but haven’t had any luck yet. Blizzard did not return a request for comment from Slashdot.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Oracle CEO Larry Ellison thinks that Apple will collapse without Steve Jobs at the helm. In a televised interview with CBS News, scheduled to air August 13, Ellison called the deceased Jobs “brilliant” and compared him to iconic creators such as Thomas Edison and Pablo Picasso. When asked about Apple’s future now that Jobs is dead, Ellison didn’t hold back: “We already know, we saw—we conducted the experiment, it’s been done.” Raising his hand above his head, presumably to indicate the rise of Apple’s fortunes during Jobs’ initial reign, Ellison said: “We saw Apple with Steve Jobs.” Then he lowered his hand: “We saw Apple without Steve Jobs.” In other words, the period following Jobs’ ouster, when the company’s revenues declined and it launched whole portfolios of consumer products that failed. “We saw Apple with Steve Jobs,” Ellison continued, raising his hand above his head again—this time, to suggest that incandescent period following Jobs’ return to the company, when it released the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and a variety of bestselling PCs. “And now, we’re going to see Apple without Steve Jobs,” he finished, and his hand fell.
Nerval's Lobster writes: In a move that seemed to surprise exactly nobody in the tech world, BlackBerry announced that it would consider selling itself to the highest bidder. Now that BlackBerry’s announced that a company sale is on the table—not a shocker to anyone even vaguely aware of its fortunes over the past few years—it’s worth considering who would snatch it off the market, and why. How about a Chinese company like Huawei or Lenovo? Or maybe Dell or Hewlett-Packard would be willing to shell out the cash for BlackBerry's portfolio and still-significant customer base. Or maybe even a firm like Cisco, more interested in BlackBerry's patents and backend infrastructure than its phones. What company do you think would be best suited to acquire the struggling smartphone maker?
Nerval's Lobster writes: BlackBerry is considering whether to sell itself off to the highest bidder. The company’s Board of Directors has announced the founding of a Special Committee to explore so-called “strategic alternatives to enhance value and increase scale,” which apparently includes “possible joint ventures, strategic partnerships or alliances, a sale of the Company or other possible transactions.” BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins added that, while the committee did its work, the company would continue to its recent overhead-reduction strategy. Prem Watsa, chairman and CEO of Fairfax Financial—BlackBerry’s largest shareholder—announced that he would resign from the company’s board in order to avoid a potential conflict of interest. News that BlackBerry is considering a potential sale should surprise nobody. Faced with fierce competition from Google and Apple, the company’s market-share has tumbled over the past several quarters. In a desperate bid to regain its former prominence in the mobile-device industry, BlackBerry developed and released BlackBerry 10, a next-generation operating system meant to compete toe-to-toe against Google Android and Apple iOS—despite a massive ad campaign, however, early sales of BlackBerry 10 devices have proven somewhat underwhelming.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Government whistleblower Edward Snowden has some choice things to say about the recent controversy surrounding Lavabit. In a statement to The Guardian, he applauded Lavabit’s decision to shut down in response to a government lawsuit while condemning the tech titans’ refusal to do more to lock down users’ data. “America cannot succeed as a country where individuals like Mr. Levison have to relocate their businesses abroad to be successful," he wrote. "Employees and leaders at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and the rest of our internet titans must ask themselves why they aren’t fighting for our interests the same way small businesses are. The defense they have offered to this point is that they were compelled by laws they do not agree with, but one day of downtime for the coalition of their services could achieve what a hundred Lavabits could not.” The question now is whether individuals and businesses will stop using cloud-based services they view as vulnerable to surveillance by third parties such as the NSA and FBI. If that becomes the case, it could seriously affect the business models of Google, Microsoft, and other IT firms that have wholeheartedly embraced the cloud in recent years. It also remains to be seen whether more encrypted-services companies follow in Lavabit’s footsteps and shut down.
Nerval's Lobster writes: In a new interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Bill Gates discussed his Foundation’s work to eradicate polio and malaria, while suggesting that vaccine programs and similar initiatives to fight disease and poverty will ultimately do much more for the world than technology projects devoted to connecting everybody to the Internet. While Gates professes his belief in the so-called digital revolution, he doesn’t think projects such as Google’s Internet blimps (designed to transmit WiFi signals over hundreds of miles, bringing Internet to underserved areas in the process) will do the third world nearly as much as good as basic healthcare. “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that [Internet] balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you,” he said. “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.” Gates then sharpened his attack on the search-engine giant: “Google started out saying they were going to do a broad set of things. They hired Larry Brilliant, and they got fantastic publicity. And then they shut it all down.” Google focusing on its core mission is fine, he added, “but the actors who just do their core thing are not going to uplift the poor.” The Microsoft co-founder also has no intention of following Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and other tech entrepreneurs into the realm of space exploration. “I guess it’s fun, because you shoot rockets up in the air,” he said. “But it’s not an area that I’ll be putting money into.”
Nerval's Lobster writes: Big Blue has announced the development of what it calls a “software ecosystem” for next-generation silicon chips, inspired by the architecture of the human cortex. In theory, this ecosystem will result in technology that mirrors the brain’s perceptive and cognitive functions. “Dramatically different from traditional software, IBM’s new programming model breaks the mold of sequential operation underlying today’s von Neumann architectures and computers,” read IBM’s statement on the matter. “It is instead tailored for a new class of distributed, highly interconnected, asynchronous, parallel, large-scale cognitive computing architectures.” As part of the project, IBM researchers have developed several pieces of software, including a digital neuron model that can process information in a “brain-like” way, and which supports a “wide range of deterministic and stochastic neural computations, codes, and behaviors.” A network of these synthetic neurons could sense, remember, and act upon environmental data. The company’s long-term goal is to create a chip system comprised of billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, one that needs to consume only a little bit of electricity. Such a system could ingest a massive amount of raw information and analyze it at blazing speed—all while leveraging a widely dispersed network of technologically advanced sensors to draw in multiple varieties of data. IBM argues that “traditional” computers simply can’t meet the world's rising computational demands—at least not in the same way as the human brain, which is capable of absorbing and interpreting enormous amounts of information while burning relatively little power and occupying a skull-sized amount of space.
Nerval's Lobster writes: The microelectronic sensors and mechanical systems built into smartphone cameras and other tiny electronic devices may soon evolve into microscopic, custom-printed versions designed as bionic body parts rather than smartphone components. Engineering researchers at Tel Aviv University have developed a micro-printing process that can build microscopic microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) onto a flexible, non-toxic organic polymer designed for implantation in the human body. Current-generation MEMS are typically found in the accelerometers in smartphones, or the tiny actuator motors that focus cell-phone camera lenses. Most are made from substrates based on silicon, and built using techniques common to semiconductor fabrication. The new process, as described in the journal Microelectronic Engineering, relies on an organic polymer that is hundreds of times more flexible than conventional materials used for similar purposes. That flexibility not only makes the units easier to fit into the oddly shaped parts of a human body, it allows them to be made more sensitive to motion and energy-efficient. That alone would give a boost to the miniaturization of electronics, but the stretch and flex of the new materials could also serve as more comfortable and efficient replacements for current prosthetics that sense stimuli from an amputee’s nervous system to power a prosthetic arm, for example, or operate a synthetic bladder.