Thursday, April 10, 2014

Internet Security Alert: Heartbleed

OOTJ readers may already have read about Heartbleed, the newest Internet security problem. But just in case you have not heard about this, here is your heads up. The Boston Globe today offered an article by Hiawatha Bray, their wonderful tech columnist, who concludes that "The Heartbleed scare is as bad as it sounds."

Heartbleed is a security glitch at the heart of the security of the Internet, that came about through sloppy coding, in an update of the OSSL software that provides the encryption for about two thirds of Internet sites worldwide. Encryption means the software that scrambles your data as it leaves your computer so it travels safely over the Internet. Only the target network should be able to decrypt the data you sent. So, if you are buying something from an Internet vendor, you send your name, address, credit card number over the web, feeling secure with that https:// in front of the URL. That is what the additional "s" is telling you - that the information is being decrypted between your computer and theirs, for secure transactions.

But a little bit of bad code (OSSL is Open Source, collaboratively coded), in 2012 (!) introduced a serious security lapse in how OSSL has been working. The "secure" data stored at the OSSL-secured servers can be searched and retrieved by hackers. Somebody at Google and at a Finnish security company discovered the problem and announced it this past Monday. A security researcher, for instance, was able to retrieve a name and password from Yahoo mail. Hiawatha Bray did a little checking:
Yahoo says it has fixed the problem on its servers. Meanwhile, other major Internet companies are also offering reassurances. I pinged Amazon.com, Facebook, tax preparation company Intuit Inc., and the Internal Revenue Service. All replied that their computers are not vulnerable to the Heartbleed problem.
He then points out that nobody has reported that their bank accounts have been emptied over the past two years while Heartbleed was laying out there waiting to be exploited. On the other hand, Bray also notes that spy agencies like the NSA or China's Ministry of State Security could have been using Heartbleed as a backdoor for some time and nobody would know. Unlike other hacking access points, Heartbleed leaves no marks!

So, the recommendations of security experts? For at least a few days until the Heartbleed code problem is repaired and replaced at all relevant websites,

1. Do not do any shopping or enter personal information on websites.
2. Wait a few days for Heartbleed to be repaired, then change all your passwords, at least for websites that collect personal information, and
3. Remove all the cookies from your computer, at least the ones for websites that collect personal information.

Image of the bleeding heart flowers is from the Wikimedia Commons, a photo by Pharaoh Hound, who posted it under the the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License. The photo is of the flowers of a pink Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis)- I couldn't bear to put up the more anatomical bleeding hearts I found out there! Thank you, Pharaoh Hound!

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Laptop Debate Continues

Faculty members in all disciplines have debated for years whether students who use their laptops during class actually benefit.  Some claim that permitting laptops in Internet-enabled classrooms leads to students distracting themselves with Facebook, email, Twitter, etc., rather than focusing on the lecture or discussion.  I once visited an adjunct professor's class, and figured out that around 60% of the students were not using their laptops to take notes or do anything else related to that class.  When I mentioned this to the professor, he was surprised, thinking that all the clicking of keys meant that students were taking copious notes.  This was not the case.  The ease of distraction has led some professors to switch off Internet access altogether during their classes, which has always seemed rather paternalistic to me.  Law students are adults, and should be permitted to make their own decisions, even if the decisions are poor.  The other concern about laptops in the classroom is that students, instead of participating in the class, become scribes who take down every word that is said and do not retain anything they hear. 

When I was a student, I always found that I learned best by taking copious notes by hand.  I even chose my bar review course because it didn't have a lot of printed materials, but required students to attend lectures and take notes.  Something about taking down the information by hand seemed to help me retain it.  It wasn't just taking notes in class that helped me; I also went through my notes after the class and amplified and organized them.  It was the only way I could truly master the material. 

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education presents a study done by two researchers on students' note-taking preferences and supports those who believe that laptops are more hindrance to learning than help.  The researchers found that laptop users took more than twice as many notes as students who wrote longhand, but that "While more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindless transcribing content ... the benefit disappears." These findings will be published soon in an article entitled "The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard:  Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note-taking," in the journal Psychological Science.  This article is sure to fuel the ongoing debate over laptops in the classroom.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dropbox terms of service: now requires arbitration


Dear friends: if you use Dropbox, which is a a fabulous free cloud storage service, you may want to pay attention. Today is the first day to opt out of their new term. They are beginning to assume all users agree to a clause that requires they submit all claims to arbitration, unless you opt out during this short (30 day) period.

To opt out, if you already have a subscription, sign in, and select "Privacy" as a link near the bottom left of your home screen, right next to "Help." When you click on "Privacy," it defaults to show you "Privacy Policy," but there are other tabs. Select instead "Terms of Service," the left-most tab. You have to scroll down this page a way, down below "Copyright" and "Termination" and "Limitation of Liability" to find "Resolving Disputes." This is the one you want!

The third paragraph talks about "Opt-out of Agreement to Arbitrate," and gives you a simple hyperlink to click on to do so. You only have to fill in your name as registered with Dropbox to complete the process.

You can read the plain English terms they have there explaining their arbitration agreement. It makes it sound nice and friendly and very attractive. You might note, however, that you are also agreeing that you may not bring any class action, and that if the arbitration fails, you have to bring your suit in San Francisco, California, unless it's a small claims action.

The reason I am opting out of arbitration without a second thought is an article written by my colleagues here at Suffolk about shrink-wrap and click arbitration clauses. These assume you have agreed to binding arbitration to solve disagreements with online service providers, software developers, etc., by unwrapping your package or by subscribing to the service. Dropbox's terms are not too abusive, compared with some of the agreements discussed in my colleagues' article, but it was enough to make me think very hard about agreeing to any sort of forced arbitration clause!

Read:
Rustad, Buckingham, D'Angelo and Durlacher, An Empirical Study of Predispute Mandatory Arbitration Clauses in Social Media Terms of Service Contracts

and for a briefer introduction, see Michael Rustad's blog post at ContractsProf Blog, Michael Rustad on Reforming Wrap Contracts (Nov. 21, 2013).

Friday, March 21, 2014

Virtual Museum Tours!

Google is teaming up with various art museums to create the Google Art Project/Google Cultural Institute. The effort also includes "world wonders" -- world heritage sites of the modern and ancient world. Google comes in with the same technology used to produce Google Streetview, mounted, not on a car, but on a trolley. This came to my attention when the Boston Globe ran a story about one of our local museums, the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum mounting the first-in-New-England virtual tour of their collection. Boston calls itself the Hub (which means Hub of the Universe), and we in New England know that First in New England means first of importance from the Boston point of view...

That said, there are a few other notable museums and sites that are also in the Google Art Project/Cultural Institute, so you will enjoy visiting the site for more than just the charming collection of the Gardner Museum. Isabella Stewart Gardner was a rebel socialite at the turn of the 20th century in Boston, so you can imagine that she was a strong personality. She was much talked about in her own lifetime and continues to be a big figure in Boston lore. She was also a friend of major artists and intellectuals and a major art collector and patron. Her will lays out a remarkable number of rules for continuing her home and collection as a museum, including maintaining the house and collection as she owned it, and free admission to anybody named Isabella. It really is a fun museum because it's in a charming house, with a sunlit, roofed conservatory garden, and a distinctive collection.

More entertainingly still, two days after the Globe article on the Gardner virtual tour appeared, the retired curator of the fabulous Museum of Bad Art (MOBA), wrote a letter to the Globe. The Museum of Bad Art really is a hoot. I have visited and it's fun and very interesting. Many of the works are so bad that they run around the circle of taste into good. MOBA is housed in two places: the basement of Dedham Community Theater and the basement of Sommerville Movie Theater in Davis Square (the branch I visited). The letter so far only appears in the print version, which makes me sad. I reproduce it here:
Gardner museum follows in footsteps of the greats
Upon Reading the headline "Gardner 1st museum in N.E. to offer virtual walk-through" in Wednesday's Globe, I spit my morning coffee all over the front page.

As any student of art histroy should know, the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) pioneered the concept of a virtual art gallery nearly 20 years ago with The Virtual Museum of Bad Art CD-ROM. We're certain that our colleagues at the Gardner Museum would be the first to admit that their impressive new virtual museum owes a debt tot he technological trailblazing of MOBA so many years ago.

In the time of Windows 3.1, floppy disks, and AOL dial-up Internet, the MOBA Virtual Museum not only captured the entire MOBA art collec tion but took you behind the scenes to the offices, the gift shop, the rest rooms, and all the other essential facilities of a modern art museum.

Despite its primitive 1995 technology, the Virtual Museum of Bad Art has withstood the test of time. Even today, by anyone's standards MOBA's Virtual Museum is still clearly very bad.

In the words of one reviewer in 1995 -- "a complete waste of plastic." Jerry Reilly Newton.
Somehow I doubt that we'll see the MOBA in Google's project any time soon. So, if you are ever in Boston, try to make time for a visit. It makes a nice evening out together with a movie!

The image is of Isabella Stewart Gardner, a portrait by Zorn Alexander painted in 1894 in Venice, from the Gardner collection. I chose it over the more staid portrait by the better-known John Singer Sargent because I think it better illustrates the zest Mrs. Jack brought to life, and why she shook Boston up.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Happy Pi Day! Get your geek on.

Happy Pi Day, folks! You can listen to the charming Pi Song, which tells some history about Pi, to the tune of Bye, Bye Miss American Pie. There are a number of competing versions and other Pi Day songs out there.

Of course, you can do what we are doing -- make a pie to eat in honor of the infinite number! Sadly, our pie will be quite finite. Even if we keep dividing it, we will just come to crumbs in the end.

So, reach deep for your inner nerd, and enjoy Pi Day! It's not over yet. 3.14159265... or as Indiana legislators once nearly passed into law, 3.2 (1897 House bill 246, thankfully sidelined by a Purdue professor Waldo who was in the state capital and heard the debates). I had heard of other state legislatures messing around with bills defining Pi, but it appears that these stories may be apocryphal.

Pi is weird enough on its own.

The image of multiple, yummy and creatively decorated Pi Day pies, is credited to djwtwo/flickr/CC BY-NC-SA at Science Friday

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Change Comes to the Bodleian Library


The famed Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford is undergoing a transformation.  A high-tech, off-site storage facility that can house millions of volumes has recently opened, which has made possible the provide more and better space for users.  There is an interesting look at the Bodleian in this video (Building a 21st-century Bodleian), in which one of the librarians describes the storage facility as resembling a DHL warehouse.  Although hundreds of items are retrieved from the facility every day and sent by van to the Bodleian, many items never leave the storage facility and are scanned on site for delivery to the requesting patron's computer.  The video ends on a very update note, declaring that the library and print are far from dead, and that librarians are more relevant now than ever.  Hat tip to Alice Pidgeon, Head of Technical Services at Pace Law Library, for pointing out the video to me.   

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Meanwhile, relations are breaking down between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee

I chose the Washington Post article about Senator Diane Feinstein's outraged speech accusing the CIA of breaking into the computers of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The speech, in fact, does much more than that. It airs the sheer fact that the U.S. intelligence community has operated pretty much without oversight since 9/11. Senator Feinstein describes the Senate Committee charged with overseeing the intelligence branches, and preventing abuses, as being blindsided again and again, lied and appalled at revelations when their staff painstakingly pulls together evidence of the torture involved in the "detention and interrogation program."

The resulting staff report was chilling. The interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detentions sites were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us.
Senator Feinstein explains the heart of the accusation against the CIA, as well as some background on how difficult the CIA has made the job of investigation:
... we sent a request for documents to all relevant executive branch agencies, chiefly among them the CIA. The committee's preference was for the CIA to turn over all responsive documents to the committee's office, as had been done in previous committee investigations.

Director Panetta proposed an alternative arrangement, to provide literally millions of pages of operational cables, internal emails, memos and other documents pursuant to a committee's document request at a secure location in northern Virginia. We agreed, but insisted on several conditions and protections to ensure the integrity of this congressional investigation.

Per an exchange of letters in 2009, then-Vice Chairman Bond, then-Director Panetta and I agreed in an exchange of letters that the CIA was to provide a, quote, stand-alone computer system, end quote, with a, quote, network drive segregated from CIA networks, end quote, for the committee that would only be accessed by information technology personnel at the CIA who would, quote, not be permitted to share information from the system with other CIA personnel, except as otherwise authorized by the committee, end quote.

It was this computer network that notwithstanding our agreement with Director Panetta was searched by the CIA this past January -- and once before, which I will later describe.

.... In May of 2010, the committee staff noticed that the documents had been provided for the committee -- that had been provided for the committee's review were no longer accessible.

Staff approached the CIA personnel at the off-site location, who initially denied that documents had been removed. CIA personnel then blamed information technology personnel, who were almost all contractors, for removing the documents themselves without direction or authority.

And then the CIA stated that the removal of the documents was ordered by the White House. When the White -- when the committee approached the White House, the White House denied giving the CIA any such order.

After a series of meetings, I learned that on two occasions CIA personnel electronically removed committee access to CIA documents after providing them to the committee. This included roughly 870 documents or page of documents that were removed in February 2010; and secondly, roughly another 50 that were removed in mid-May 2010. This was done without the knowledge or approval of committee members or staff, and in violation of our written agreements. Further, this type of behavior would not have been possible had the CIA allowed the committee to conduct the review of documents here in the Senate. In short, this was the exact sort of CIA interference in our investigation that we sought to avoid at the outset.

....

On May 17th, 2010, the CIA's then-director of congressional affairs apologized on behalf of the CIA for removing the documents. And that as far as I was concerned put the incidents aside. This event was separate from the documents provided that were part of the internal Panetta review, which occurred later and which I will describe next.

At some point in 2010, committee staff searching the documents that had been made available found draft versions of what is now called the internal Panetta review. We believe these documents were written by CIA personnel to summarize and analyze the materials that had been provided to the committee for its review. The Panetta review documents were no more highly classified than other information we had received for our investigation. In fact, the documents appeared based on the same information already provided to the committee. What was unique and interesting about the internal documents was not their classification level but rather their analysis and acknowledgement of significant CIA wrongdoing.

To be clear, the committee staff did not hack into CIA computers to obtain these documents, as has been suggested in the press.

The documents were identified using the search tool provided by the CIA to search the documents provided to the committee. We have no way to determine who made the internal Panetta review documents available to the committee. Further, we don't know whether the documents were provided intentionally by the CIA, unintentionally by the CIA or intentionally by a whistle-blower.

In fact, we know that over the years, on multiple occasions, the staff have asked the CIA about documents made available for our investigation. At times the CIA has simply been unaware that these specific documents were provided to the committee. And while this is alarming, it is also important to note that more than 6.2 million pages of documents have been provided. This is simply a massive amount of records.

....

Our work continued until December 2012, when the Intelligence Committee approved a 6,300-page committee study of the CIA's detention and interrogation program, and sent the executive report to the executive branch for comment. The CIA provided its response to the study on June 27th, 2013. As CIA Director Brennan has stated, the CIA officially agrees with some of our study, but has been reported the CIA disagrees and disputes important parts of it.

And this is important. Some of these important parts that the CIA now disputes in our committee study are clearly acknowledged in the CIA's own internal Panetta review. To say the least, this is puzzling. How can the CIA's official response to our study stand factually in conflict with its own internal review?

....

There are several reasons why the draft summary of the Panetta review was brought to our secure spaces at the Hart Building. Let me list them: One, the significance of the internal review, given disparities between it and the June 2013 CIA response to the committee study. The internal Panetta review summary, now at the secure committee office in Hart, is an especially significant document as it corroborates critical information in the -- in the committee's 6,300- page study, that the CIA's official response either objects to, denies, minimizes or ignores.

Unlike the official response, these Panetta review documents were in agreement with the committee's findings.

That's what makes them so significant and important to protect.

When the internal Panetta Review documents disappeared from the committee's computer system, this suggested once again that the CIA had removed documents already provided to the committee, in violation of CIA agreements and White House assurances that the CIA would cease such activities. As I have detailed, the CIA has previously withheld and destroyed information about its detention and interrogation program, including its decision in 2005 to destroy interrogation videotapes over the objections of the Bush White House and the director of national intelligence. Based on the above, there was a need to preserve and protect the internal Panetta Review in the committee's own secure spaces.

Now, the relocation of the internal Panetta Review was lawful and handled in a manner consistent with its classification. No law prevents the relocation of a document in the committee's possession from a CIA facility to secure committee offices on Capitol Hill. As I mentioned before, the document was handled and transported in a manner consistent with its classification, redacted appropriately, and it remains secured, with restricted access in committee spaces.

In December, during an open committee hearing, Senator Mark Udall echoed this request. In early January 2014, the CIA informed the committee it would not provide the internal Panetta review to the committee, citing the deliberative nature of the document. Shortly thereafter, on January 15th, 2014, CIA Director Brennan requested an emergency meeting to inform me and Vice Chairman Chambliss that without prior notification or approval, CIA personnel had conducted a search -- that was John Brennan's word -- of the committee computers at the off-site facility.

This search involved not only a search of documents provided by the committee by the CIA, but also a search of the standalone and walled-off committee network drive containing the committee's own internal work product and communications. According to Brennan, the computer search was conducted in response to indications that some members of the committee staff might already have had access to the internal Panetta review.

The CIA did not ask the committee or its staff if the committee had access to the internal review or we obtained it.

Instead the CIA just went and searched the committee's computers. The CIA has still not asked the committee any questions about how the committee acquired the Panetta review.

In place of asking any questions, the CIA's unauthorized search of the committee computers was followed by an allegation, which we now have seen repeated anonymously in the press, that the committee staff had somehow obtained the document through unauthorized or criminal means, perhaps to include hacking into the CIA's computer network.

....

I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate. I have received neither.

Besides the constitutional implications, the CIA search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance.

Days after the meeting with Director Brennan, the CIA inspector general, David Buckley, learned of the CIA's search and began an investigation into CIA's activities. I have been informed that Mr. Buckley has referred the matter to the Department of Justice, given the possibility of a criminal violation by CIA personnel. ....

Weeks later, I was also told that after the inspector general reviewed the CIA's activities to the Department of Justice -- excuse me, referred the CIA's activities to the Department of Justice, the acting counsel general of the CIA filed a crimes report with the Department of Justice concerning the committee staff's actions. I have not been provided the specifics of these allegations, or been told whether the department has initiated a criminal investigation based on the allegations of the CIA's acting general counsel.

As I mentioned before, our staff involved in this matter have the appropriate clearances, handled this sensitive material according to established procedures and practice to protect classified information, and were provided access to the Panetta Review by the CIA itself.

As a result, there is no legitimate reason to allege to the Justice Department that Senate staff may have committed a crime. I view the acting counsel general's referral as a potential effort to intimidate this staff, and I am not taking this lightly.

I should note that for most if not all of the CIA's detention and interrogation program, the now-acting general counsel was a lawyer in the CIA's counterterrorism center, the unit within which the CIA managed and carried out this program. From mid-2004 until the official termination of the detention and interrogation program in January 2009, he was the unit's chief lawyer. He is mentioned by name more than 1,600 times in our study.

And now, this individual is sending a crimes report to the Department of Justice on the actions of Congressional staff -- the same Congressional staff who researched and drafted a report that details how CIA officers, including the acting general counsel himself, provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice about the program.

.... The staff members who have been working on this study and this report have devoted years of their lives to it, wading through the horrible details of a CIA program that never, never, never should have existed.

They have worked long hours and produced a report unprecedented in its comprehensive attention to detail in the history of the Senate. They are now being threatened with legal jeopardy just as final revisions to the report and being made so that parts of it can be declassified and released to the American people.

Mr. President, I felt that I needed to come to the floor today to correct the public record and to give the American people the facts about what the dedicated committee staff have been working so hard for the last several years as part of the committee's investigation.

I also want to reiterate to my colleagues my desire to have all updates to the committee report completed this month and approved for declassification. We're not going to stop. I intend to move to have the findings, conclusions and the executive summary of the report sent to the president for declassification as release to the American people. The White House has indicated publicly and to me personally that it supports declassification and release.
So Sen. Feinstein serves notice that hardball pressure will not stop the Senate Intelligence Committee from declassifying its report, or continuing to investigate the CIA, at least. Maybe the committee will take its oversight duties more seriously with the other branches as well, now that they know they can be prey as much as any other target.

Edward Snowden at SXSW calls on the tech community to add a technical solution to NSA surveillance


Edward Snowden, who leaked large amounts of data about the U.S. surveillance programs he had worked on, spoke at South By Southwest (now SXSW), with two ACLU staffers, Ben Wizner and Christopher Soghoian. The video is posted a number of places in full, but it's rather horrible to try to watch. Every time Snowden speaks, the audio starts to echo back on itself after a few moments, probably as a result of the wonky connection they cobbled together. The presenter jokes at the start that he is appearing "through seven proxies," but that is a joke, and part of the apology for the poor quality of the connection. "Good luck, I'm behind seven proxies" is an internet meme referring to protecting one's location/identity from being traced. (I warn you that it's really painful to watch the video & try to listen!)

The easier way to follow what Snowden spoke about, and the interesting questions that followed, is to read about it in the press reports. See Washington Post, which offers edited snippets of the Snowden video, CNN (nice details, especially on the questions), and the Guardian, which has a really excellent in-depth detailed report, plus links to all their previous coverage on Snowden, which is just great, from the beginning.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Freedom of religion should not be freedom to discriminate! AZ SB 1062


Well, dang. Arizona just keeps coming on, don't they?

Arizona Senate Bill 1062 amending their current statute on freedom of religion:
"Person" includes [a religious assembly or institution] any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly or institution, estate, trust, foundation or other legal entity.
The removed language in brackets and italicized. The new language is bolded. It might seem innocuous until you start thinking about what this does. It grants the religious status of churches to EVERYBODY in the state -- so businesses, estates, trusts, and any individual who wants to can wrap their discriminatory acts in the mantle of freedom of religion and breeze along. Not covering birth control in their health insurance, or not hiring somebody from a different race or religion just because it offends their own sense of religious propriety. But of course, the rubber really hits the road when it comes to sexual orientation, doesn't it? Now, the good folks of Arizona won't have to be bothered by those uncomfortable gay, lesbian, queer, trans folks, if they just want to claim it is against their personal religion.

If you want to sign a Change.org petition against the bill, do so here.

It might hearten you to know that many Arizona businesses oppose this bill, remembering the financial sting from a previous boycott over their dismissal of Martin Luther King Day as a paid state holiday and then S.B. 1070, dealing with immigration. They are just seeing an economic recovery in the state, and are looking forward to the Superbowl coming in 2015. And already there are calls to move the Superbowl elsewhere because of this bill.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bitcoins -what?


There is a new ATM in South Station in Boston. South Station is a sort of rail and bus hub where the subways, commuter rails, AmTrack and buses all come together on the south side of Boston. Lot of people from all over come through there.

Well the Boston Globe reports they have a Bitcoin ATM machine there. If you've been following the news about this new currency it's kind of interesting, and I'm just imagining how many disappointed and outraged mistaken users might stumble across the machine unless the signage is significantly better than the norm here in Boston. Apparently Boston is a Johnny come lately to the bitcoin ATM party. I read that there are already bitcoin ATMs in Austin, Seattle and Vancouver, and maybe in Calgary. Apparently they are coming to Europe and Asia as well.

Bitcoins are a digital currency. The Wikipedia article states they were introduced as open source software in 2009 by a pseudonymous person or group calling itself Satoshi Nakamoto. It is a peer-to-peer currency, meaning that it isn't minted by a government and doesn't pass through a financial institution. It is "mined" by any individual who has the ability and computing ability to set up a software program to run the cryptography to create bitcoins and also earned by those who manage the "block chains" whereby the transactions using each bitcoin are traced in its records. This prevents double spending, a major problem with digital currencies. The transactions are designed to be very secure and private between the parties. There are several problems, some with gaps in security and some with the extreme volatility of the currency compared against other currencies. There are some news stories recently commenting that this may be settling in the near future.

Most in the news recently, bitcoins have been the object of speculation. When introduced into China, many Chinese citizens became enthusiastic speculators in the global bitcoin market. This caused a spike the value of bitcoins, with a bitcoin trading at the equivalent of $1,100 U.S. in November, 2013 in China. The Chinese government, concerned about an ephemeral and foreign currency flooding their country, had the Bank of China announce in December, 2013 that Chinese financial institutions could not use bitcoin. Shortly after, the Chinese internet ISP Baidu announced it would no longer accept bitcoin to purchase website security services. Since 2009, according to Wikipedia, it has been illegal to purchase real world goods with virtual currencies in China.

Bitcoins, though digital, sometimes have a physical manifestation. They can be turned into a physical coin, usually made of some light weight metal like aluminum, wood, or plastic but often colored gold, to convey its value. In either the physical or digital form, bitcoins can be stolen. They have 2 step security, with a private and a public key. But if a user is not careful storing the data, and generating the key on a secure computer, thieves can apparently retrieve both keys and make off with the coin or coins.

Bitcoins have, like all money, been associated (already!), with organized crime. There has been a money-laundering scheme using bitcoins. There has just been a large denial of service attack on the bitcoin exchanges that forced them to suspend services. That action dropped the value of bitcoins on markets around the world. The bitcoin folks themselves have a sort of "warning" page of things you ought to know before you jump into the bitcoin experiment.

The very beautiful image of one physical form of the bitcoin is from Wikicommons, from Casascius.