Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Online Privacy Under Seige

Meanwhile, the struggle is underway over the federal government's (and others!) widespread snooping activities, as uncovered by Edward Snowden.  It turns out that France and England, at least also had major programs for gathering and sifting e-mails, telephone and social media data. 

So, despite the fact that Congress had authorized the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) (Pub.L. 95–511, 92 Stat. 1783, 50 U.S.C. ch. 36), many Congressmen, including some who sponsored FISA and the USA PATRIOT ACT in the first place, are now arguing over how to amend the Act, change the court that issues warrants under the Act, and arguing with the Executive branch over what they intended with the laws they passed.

The ACLU has filed with the FISA Court a brief arguing for a public release of the court's records.  Fifteen members of Congress have filed an amicus brief in support of the ACLU's position. 

Here is a handy list of important actions involving FISA, the FISA courts from the Federation of American Scientists.

Atlantic article on how rarely FISA court orders are challenged.

Commentary on some of the proposals in Congress to "modernize" FISA from the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Blog at EPIC.org on FISA courts.

EFF.org on FISA

The decoration if from the movie, 1984, with an image of Big Brother.

Protecting privacy as a human right in the digital world -- Roy Balleste

Our colleague Roy Balleste has a great blog post at the always interesting Circleid blog discussing the importance of privacy in the Internet world -- he cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a source document, in asserting that we must continue to protect individuals' personal information in our increasingly digital world, even in the face of "security interests."  You rock, Roy!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ch-ch-changes -- Landlines bite the dust

More unintended consequences. After Hurricane Sandy, Verizon complained that they really did not want to re-install the copper telephone lines that the storm had destroyed along the New York - New Jersey shore.  For one in four US households, that would not be a problem, according to U.S. Telecom, a trade group that is watching trends in this area.  More households are simply relying on their cell phones and dropping the landline entirely.  However, in rural areas where cell connection is poor, and for people who have medical devices that use telephone connections to "report in,"  landlines are still crucial, according to an AP report.

As with so many technology switch-overs that librarians deal with, this is one more where there is an awkward period between the old and new.  Some folks still rely on the old technology and it's becoming increasingly costly to maintain the old.  In the wake of a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed miles of cable, it would cost a very great deal to lay new wiring, which would only be used by a few customers.  Probably even they would only use the landlines for a few years. 

New York state regulators have given Verizon permission to substitute wireless service for landlines in these area.  The result is that folks with pacemakers, shopkeepers and restaurants that need to verify creditcards, fax machines fail.  In June, the New York attorney general filed an emergency petition to halt the switchover in the Catskill Mountains area.  In New Jersey, the state regulators are still considering Verizon's petition. 

In Washington, D.C., the FCC is considering a similar petition from AT&T to switch customers from landlines to wireless. AT&T is not dealing with storm damage, but is looking at long term economics. They want to select trial areas and see how things go.  This seems better to plan and test the market rather than respond to emergency conditions, at least.

The image of an antique, crank telephone is courtesy of http://filmnorthflorida.com/photos/tag_list/crank+wall+telephone/ the film liaison of Escambia County, Florida. The caption for the photo notes it is a 1901 telephone that is mounted on a kitchen wall and is still in operation.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Dept. of Unintended Consequences: COPPA

Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA, 15 USC §6501 - 6506, PL 105-277)
regulations from the FTC are just going into effect.  The Internet is going to be changing, both for those under 13, and for the website/app providers who deal with them.  COPPA.org offers a website explaining in some detail how to comply with the new regulations. According to the explanation provided there, the Act applies to any
commercial Web site or an online service directed to children under 13 that collects personal information from children or if you operate a general audience Web site and have actual knowledge that you are collecting personal information from children, ...
The COPPA.org website goes on to explain the factors the FTC considers in deciding whether a website or app is directed to children, who is an "operator" and what amounts to personal information.   Then, the COPPA.org folks lay out the requirements of the Act and regulations as cleanly as possible.  This also provides the full text of the Act.

Sadly, despite the efforts to make the Act's requirements seem less overwhelming, it appears that many smaller businesses operating on the Internet or with online services that either cater to children or to a general population that attracts the under-13 crowd, will be completely changing their business model in response.  AdWeek reports that already AOL Kids has stopped working, and at least one academic consultant is recommending smaller businesses simply change their websites to avoid being covered by the Act.   Some foresee that the final result will be less innovation on the Internet.  I hope they are wrong!  I am sure that is not what the FTC or Congress intended.  But many businesses seem quite shy of the new regs.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Metadata of your e-mail

An interesting interview in Sunday, June 30 Boston Globe's Ideas Section with C├ęsar Hidalgo, a professor at MIT's Media Lab.  He is leading a fascinating project that invites volunteers with Gmail accounts to use their Immersion tool to analyze the patterns of the metadata in their account.  It creates a "people-centric" portrait of the networks in your e-mail life, and how thickly interconnected they are with one another.  The data remains completely within the volunteer's  control.  There are several key points the Professor Hidalgo makes in the interview: 
You're seeing all of your network and you're seeing yourself out of it and you're seeing it from afar and you're seeing it in one picture.

You start realizing that, eventually, you are not interacting with people -- you're interacting with webs of people. Because all the people you've interacted with, they're actually connected in tens or maybe hundreds of indirect paths between them.  They exist in your absence. So that out-of-body experience, I've found that it was very powerful.  ....

Q: Are there ethical or political lessons about metadata that Immersion teaches?

Hidalgo: ... if you're going to make platforms that deal with personal data, you have to develop ways of doing this in such a way that you can be transparent with the user about the data you have, about how you're handling it, and about how the user can withdraw the data from your system. 

The image decorating this is not from Immersion, but is a similar sort of graphic, derived from an analysis of a social media network, from http://fastballgirl.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/segmentation-using-gephi/ .   In this case, the person analyzed her own Facebook network.  I will warn my readers that following the Globe article, Immersion is experiencing very heavy traffic and will take your e-mail address to be notified when they have the ability to take more users. I was hoping to tell you about my own experience, but was not fast enough myself!

Fourth of July Protests Against NSA

Happy Fourth of July! Celebrate our freedoms, and contemplate what it takes to maintain them. 

The Boston Globe reports that two groups of web activists are planning protests against the NSA around the Fourth of July. The protests combine web protests with some live protests in selected cities across the country. 

One group is Fight for the Future, which helped coordinate the rallies against SOPA and PIPA last year.  The other group is Restore the Fourth, which is a reference to the Fourth Amendment, not the holiday.

Look for websites to carry messages, and the text of the 4th Amendment.  If you care to join a local rally, Fight for the Future may have information, though I don't see notes there. The closest I find is their page on the NSA cybersecurity program and opposition to Senate bill 2105, the Cybersecurity Act of 2012.  The bill failed to move to a full vote. That link will also provide a handy analysis and history of the bill and those who supported and opposed it. It is a scary sounding piece of legislation, in my opinion, especially in the wake of Snowden's revelations of how much data the NSA is already gathering.