Archives For internet

gawking_600

Now, is it just me or are you not really a celebrity until you either have a naked photo spread of yourself in a random glossy magazine, or your very own sex tape? It’s almost as if the gossips who decide who’s who on national television won’t pay attention to you unless there’s either an attention-pleading nudie spread or a threat of a sex tape looming over your head. But alas, the heady days of the celebrity sex tape might be coming to an end, according to Amanda Hess, a conclusion she bases on the ever less enthusiastic reaction of the public to the latest scandals such as The Fappening and Hulk Hogan’s recorded foray into swinging. As Hess sees it, we’ve entered sex tape and celebrity nudity fatigue because there have simply been too many tapes, pictures, and rumors, and the trend is so widespread, very likeable entertainers are affected by hackers in search of sleaze. Instead of laughing at the lax security and overconfidence of C-list actors and actresses, and the desperate pleas for attention from D-list has-beens, we are now empathizing with the invasions of privacy done to make a scuzzy buck off the shock value.

While this may all be true, I think there’s a very important piece of the puzzle Hess is missing in this regard and it has to do with the ubiquitous, internet-connected technology always within an arm’s reach. Back in the days of Tommy Lee and Pamela, you had to set up a camera, make a tape, have that tape duplicated, use fairly convoluted equipment to digitize it, upload it to a web server which you had to configure correctly to accept the format in which you digitized it, spread the word on countless message boards, manually submit it to a search engine, and finally, over the course of a few months actually get widespread notice of the sex tape. Just writing that out would be enough to make you winded, but also shows why celebrities thought they would be in the clear if they just hid their tapes well enough. But today, the camera is on your phone, video gets recorded in a standard format for which everyone has players, and with one-click uploads, you can go from casual sex to amateur porn stardom in a matter of minutes. And many do.

Having constant access to technology has also taken a great deal of flirting and hook ups to the web where you can find anyone from a soul mate, to quick, no-strings-attached fun. And much like the old joke about male masturbation, there are two types of people who use technology to help them flirt, those who send nudes, and those who lie about it. In fact, spies intercepting web cam and IM traffic on popular messaging platforms between regular people in the UK were just straight up shocked at how much nudity they saw. If the 11% number doesn’t seem that high to you, keep in mind that said spies were actually trying to do some targeted snooping, so most of the nudity they saw was after attempts to filter it out. We get naked for the camera so often, we overwhelm top notch government data centers with high tech filtering mechanisms to the point where “well, I tried searching for it and all this porn came up” is a real problem for spies on top secret versions of the internet built specifically to exclude civilian distractions and access.

It’s even a widespread problem for kids just entering puberty. Teens with low self-esteem and a hunger for approval and cred send naked pictures to each other all the time. Adults who need a confidence boost about their bodies can easily solicit strangers’ opinions in anonymous forums, even though they probably shouldn’t. And even when we take pains to make our adult pictures, videos, and chats private, all it takes is one small security hole or a careless moment, and bam, some hacker can get into out accounts and either harvest what we already have, or install very nasty malware to capture some of our sexual moments. Of course we could run with the notion that we shouldn’t share anything we don’t expect to be public and if there are naked pictures of us on the web, we deserve it. But this is a downright sociopathic line of reasoning, on par with a defense of a burglar who only stole your stuff because you didn’t have stronger locks while also lacking the good sense to only buy things you were prepared to lose in a robbery. If you tried to protect your assets and failed, telling you to protect them better, or not have them, is asinine.

So what does this all have to do with the decline of the celebrity sex tape/leaked pic genre? We went from giddy curiosity, to boredom as such tapes were being released for publicity and a bit of cash, to a nasty feeling in the pit of our stomachs as we’ve now taken enough nudes or done enough adult things on the web to realize that we might be next. There are extortionists whose goal it is to trick you into getting sexual with them and then blackmail you. There’s the revenge porn business, perhaps the sleaziest scam of all time. When we know that celebrity nudity was really hacked rather than made in an attempt for another 15 minutes of fame, and we can also be compromised in much the same way, as two non-famous victims of The Fappening were, it becomes a lot less fun to watch these videos or pics. Rather than guilty pleasures brought to us by paparazzi in that TMZ celebs-behaving-badly school of tabloid gossiping, they very much hit home like the gross invasions of privacy they are. And not having enough means of stopping a nasty hack that will embarrass us, we cringe in reply, knowing we can suffer the same fate…

facebook like

Adrian Chen is somewhat of an expert on controversial social media content. After all, his most popular story was a damning expose of a forum moderator who posted all sorts of controversial and questionable content on reddit. But after sifting through the deepest and darkest dungeons of reddit and finding leaked content guidelines for Facebook moderators overseas, Chen finally got a shot at the big leagues and went to Russia to track down the HQ of the infamous army of internet trolls operated by the country’s intelligence services. The results weren’t pretty. While it seemed like a productive trip confirming much of what many of us already know, he fell for one of the oldest scams in the book and was used in a fake news article claiming that he was a CIA operative who was recruiting neo-Nazis to encourage anti-Russian protests. Which in Russia is about the moral equivalent of recruiting the pedophiles from NAMBLA to lobby states to change their age of consent laws. In case that wasn’t clear, they really, really hate neo-Nazis.

This is really par for the course when it comes to dealing with today’s Russian media which has been feeding its citizens a steady diet of conspiracy theories. The people who tricked Chen are the same people who use David Icke as a political science expert and interview him while he’s going on and on about American-driven New World Order-style machinations to quickly cut the cameras and microphones before he can go on to point the finger to a group of alien lizards in change of the planet. Just like the Soviet propagandists of the previous generation, they give it their all to make life outside of Russia seem downright hellish for the average person, and paint the world as being mostly aligned against Russia simply for the sake of keeping a former grand superpower down so they can easily steal nuclear weapons, vast oil and gas reserves, and lure impressionable, young, highly educated youth overseas with empty promises of wealth, luxury, and non-stop parties after work. I can’t tell you when it started, but I can tell you that is began in the Russian part of the web as Chen accurately describes, and gotten exponentially worse.

However, Russia is not unique is doing this. It may perhaps be one of the best troll factories out there, but it’s far from the only one. You can probably safely assume that a third of pretty much everything you see on the web is fake, created by trolls, paid shills, or click-farm workers whose job it is to add fake Facebook likes and Twitter followers for corporations, think tanks, and even political candidates. With the anonymity of the internet comes freedom, but with that freedom is the understanding that it can be abused to present lies and facilitate frauds on a massive scale, and since many people still don’t take internet seriously enough, one can get away with lying or scamming for cash with no real consequence. Ban fake accounts or trolls? Others will pop up in seconds. It’s like trying to slay a hydra that can also regrow its heart. All you can really do when it comes to dealing with the fake web is to stay on alert, always double check what you see, and don’t be shy about checking accounts for something that looks or feels wrong. You might not be able to catch every troll and fraud every time, but you’ll weed out the vast majority who want to recruit you to support a fraudulent cause, or trick you into spreading their lies…

[ illustration by Aaron Wood ]

not simba

You would think that with the advent of ubiquitous internet access across much of the world, we should have done away with many popular urban legends, misconceptions, and outright lies for fun and profit that appeared long ago and were summarily debunked. But sadly, since we gave everyone with internet access the ability to post something to it, many of these misconceptions, myths, and fabrications are still around and going strong, things like the myth that Einstein had once flunked math made up by Ripley’s (he was actually always a math whiz), or that spinach is full of iron made possible by someone not knowing how decimal places work (it’s actually about as good of a source of iron as watermelon), and many others I’m sure you can recall after this little prompt. In this spirit, David McCandless of Information Is Beautiful, who inspired a popular post on exactly how many nukes it will take to end civilization as we know it, created a brief and handy infographic of 52 of the world’s most popular misconceptions and why they’re wrong.

While it’s an interesting exercise in just how much common knowledge is so mistaken, it doesn’t answer the question of why these myths still persist. And there really isn’t one common answer, especially when it comes to religious beliefs and pop history. Sometimes people just won’t look for themselves because they place too much trust in someone’s retelling of a story. Sometimes they’re just too lazy to check the facts. But sometimes they just desperately want to believe the myth they do and will rationalize away any explanation for why it may be wrong. For any skeptic that last reason for the propagation of myths and legends is the hardest to fight because they’re dealing with people who are putting up an active resistance to the facts, so much so that they’ll believe the very opposite of what’s actually happening to avoid having to change their beliefs in the way the world must work. And as skeptics, we have an obligation to object when such willful obstinacy turns into harmful agendas affecting people’s health and legal rights…

[ ullustration by Tsao ]

server rack

Yes, I know, it’s been a while since my last post but life has a way of getting in the way of steady, regular blogging. And of course there’s still the work on Project X on the horizon which will affect that happens to Weird Things, but more on that in due time. Today’s topic is one which I heavily debated with myself before addressing because it’s been a near constant drumbeat in the news and the coverage has been almost overwhelmingly tilted towards setting the outrage dial all the way to 11 and tearing the knob off. I’m talking about the family of NSA surveillance programs for monitoring the internet and intercepting immense amounts of traffic and metadata, of course. As the revelations have been dropped on a regular schedule, the outrage keeps getting louder. In the techie media the most prominent reaction is "how could they?" According to online activists, the internet exists for the free exchange of ideas and a way to speak truth to power when need be, so the NSA’s snooping is a violation of the principles on which the internet was built.

Unfortunately, that’s just a soothing fantasy we tell ourselves today. Originally, the internet was developed as a means to exchange information between military researchers and Tor, the go-to tool for at least partial online anonymity (unless you get a nasty virus) was being developed to hide the tell-tale signs of electronic eavesdropping via onion routing by the U.S. Navy until it was spun off by the EFF. And while the web was meant to share scientific data for CERN over a very user unfriendly network at the time, it was given its near-ubiquity by big companies which didn’t adopt the technology and wrote browsers out of the goodness of their heart and desire to make the world into one big, global family, but because they wanted to make money. The internet was built to make classified and complex research easier, tamed for profit, and is delivered via a vast infrastructure worth many billions operated by massive businesses firmly within the grasp of a big government agency. It’s never been meant for world peace, anonymity, and public debate.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we can give political dissidents voices and promote ideas for peace and cooperation across the world at nearly the speed of light. We should be doing as much of that as possible. But my point is that this is not the primary function of the system, even if this is what cyber-anarchists and idealistic start-up owners in the Bay Area tell you. It’s a side-effect. So when massive companies give data flying through the web to spy agencies on request and even accept payment for it, we’re seeing the entities that built the system using it to further their own goals and means, and to comply with orders of governments that have power to bring them down if they want. It’s not fair, but picking a fight with the NSA is kind of like declaring that you’re going to play chicken with a nuclear aircraft carrier while paddling a canoe. At best, they’ll be amused. At worst, they’ll sink you with nary an effort. Wikipedia can encrypt all of its traffic as a form of protest, but a) the NSA really doesn’t care about how many summaries of comic book character plot lines you read, and b) if it suddenly starts caring, it’ll find a way to spy on you. It’s basically the agency’s job, and we’ve known it’s been doing that since 2006.

For all the outrage about the NSA, we need to focus on the most important problems with what’s going on. We have an agency which snoops on everyone and everything, passively storing data to use if you catch their attention and it decides you merit a deep dive into their database that’s holding every significant electronic communication you’ve had for the last decade or so. This is great if you’re trying to catch spies or would-be terrorists (but come on people, more than likely spies based on the infrastructure being brought into focus), but it also runs against the rights to due process and protection from warrantless, suspicionless searches and seizures. Blaming the legal departments of Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo for complying with official orders is useless, and pretending that an information exchange network built to make money and maintained by a consortium of profit-minded groups is somehow a bastion of freedom being corrupted by the evil maws of the U.S. government just seems hopelessly naive. Americans don’t like to think of their country as a global hegemony just doing what global hegemons do and using its might to secure its interests. They like to think of it as having a higher calling. For them, reality bites.

But again the sad truth is that this is exactly what’s going on. While transparency activists loose their fury and anger in the media and on the web, realpolitik is relentlessly brutal, treating entire nations exactly like pawns on a chessboard. For all the whistleblowing of the past five years, not that much of the leaked information was really that shocking. It just confirmed our fears that the world is ran by big egos, cooperation is rare and far between, and that as one nation is aiming to become another global hegemon, the current one is preparing for a siege and quietly readying a vast array of resources to maintain its dominance, if not economic, then military and political. On top of that, rather than being elected or asked to rise into its current position, it chose to police much of the planet and now finds itself stuck where it doesn’t want to be. We know all this and a great deal of this is taught in history class nowadays. We just don’t really want to deal with it and the fits of rage towards corporations and government agencies somehow corrupting the system they built for power and profit seem to be our reaction to having to deal with these fast after the last whistle was blown. Sadly, we don’t get the world we want, we get the one we really build.

map of the web

Plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth has accompanied the mostly closed door ITU sessions in which the fate of the free web is supposedly being decided. The global communications group’s head is worried about stopping cyberwarfare and criminals using spyware to pull off heists. The world’s authoritarians and dictators are asking for less online anonymity and more control over what’s being said on the web. The bureaucrats are asking for more centralized oversight on the international level, believing that U.S.-based ICANN to be the internet’s self-appointed masters, despite the ICANN hosting a global advisory board representing over 100 nations. And none of the parties involved in trying to reshape the internet seem to know what they’re doing, almost as if they believe that the global communication networks is a series of tubes they can re-rout with executive orders served to some nerds with gravity-defying ties and black-rimmed glasses. The truth is that whatever they try to do to tame the internet is almost certainly doomed to fail.

First, as it’s been pointed out several times on this blog, filtering and inspecting data generated by web users is impractical, expensive, and won’t catch what those administering the mechanism are trying to catch. Want to try to deep packet inspect all the traffic coming into an IXP? Best of luck there tiger. You will be looking at oceans of data, much of it containing completely useless information, data about background processes, and encrypted transactions. To find a nebulous target in this torrent of bytes is like standing in front of a tsunami and insisting on extracting just an ounce of water from it, and not just any ounce of water but from droplets that started out as a bit of meltwater flowing into a river across the ocean from you. Other than throttling down much of the web to a screeching halt as you parse petabytes of data per day, you’re going to have to give up on this idea. There’s a reason why dictatorships architect their internet infrastructure to easily cut the cord rather than surgically cut down the troublemakers. They know that trying to root out rebels and activists via deep packet inspection alone simply won’t work.

Secondly, you can demand that people use their real names on the web all you want, but there are tools to get around these requirements. Credentials can be spoofed, stolen, or hijacked by someone who has even a modicum of skill, proxies around the world can obscure your origin on the web, and it takes a very dedicated and expensive effort (like the Great Firewall of China) to even make it challenging to hide who you are online if you really don’t want to be tracked. If I run the Tor browser, disable scripts, cookies, and history, and refresh my identity on a regular basis during a browsing session, whatever sites I’m visiting will think I’m from Poland, or Norway, or the Czech Republic. Likewise, they won’t be able to see where I go since they can’t save cookies on my machine or silently load an app in the background via a hidden iframe since Javascript won’t be enabled. Yes, surfing the web like this is rough, but it does make you a lot harder to identify and find unless you’re already on the authorities’ radar for one thing or another, usually political activism outspoken enough to encourage a malevolent regime’s thugs to pay you a visit.

Finally, ICAAN is indeed powerful, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of internet management. It has a vast international advisory board and it handles top level domains and domain name issues; it’s the concierge for the user- and business-friendly aspect of the web. But without ICAAN, you can still have servers running websites. You might need to enter 74.125.224.72 to get to Google in IPv4 or say, 2001:4a2b:6d4f:8f3f in IPv6 to get there, or set up your own DNS server to do your own DNS resolution rather than rely on a large group of professionals to do it for you, but it can be done. In fact there’s a small number of other DNS root providers who index niche domains or try to circumvent the ICAAN roots for ideological and security reasons, essentially creating what amounts to a competing mini-web. So it’s not as if ICAAN has any real monopoly on how much of the web is wired. Likewise, what would controlling ICAAN do for the world’s paper pushers? Their governments can easily register any top level domain they wish for what amounts to a laughable amount of money for them: $185,000 to start and $25,000 a year to renew.

And all that leaves us with the question of what the ITU is trying to accomplish. If they can’t deep packet inspect the web for safety, force people to use their real names, and force the wasteful and unnecessary experiment of creating a non-U.S. ICANN clone, what’s the point of all the big, dramatic meetings? Well, bureaucrats have meetings. It’s just what they do. Their job is to meet and talk about things, then talk about other times they met to talk about related things. Policy is made either at the blistering pace of a narcoleptic turtle on sodium pentothal or cobbled on the fly when an emergency strikes and new laws have to be enacted quickly to soothe the public or authorize a new course of action. But in the meantime, the bureaucrats meet and talk with little to nothing coming out of the meetings. If anything, this ITU summit looks like paper pushers with a more or less passing idea of what the web is — not the internet mind you, just the web — giving each other their wish lists for what they could do with it. And let’s remember what happens with a lot of wish lists. They get discarded when the wishes actually have to be turned into reality.

internet cat

For the last few years, we’ve all been told that ill-considered pictures on social media sites were going to come back to bite us. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter if you had a few crazy or wild pictures from your college days on Facebook because you’d just limit the access to your friends and it’s college so those days are past and should have nothing to do with your ability to do the job for which you’re applying. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Employers are judgmental and your privacy settings can be manipulated or circumvented, and lately there have been too many cases of employers doing exactly that. And without a court order and a lot of hard work, you will not be able to prove that you were rejected for a job not because you didn’t have a high enough GPA or enough years of experience, but because a picture of you having — gasp! — some fun once in a while, made a prudish HR manager purse his lips in disapproval and ditch you.

To help remedy this state of affairs, Viviane Reding, a high ranking European politician, is now trying to introduce a "right-to-forget" law which would mandate that pictures you no longer want on social media sites are removed and stay gone. Technically, social media sites already comply with takedown requests but the process can be slow and cached versions can still rear their ugly heads if someone knows how to rephrase a search. This law basically wants the image to vanish from the web as much as possible, and by doing, is asking too much. Once a picture is out on a website, it can be downloaded and reposted, cached, and distributed at a whim and any picture that goes viral can have literally thousands of different copies residing on servers around the world. Just try to track all of these copies down. You won’t be able to because the very nature of the internet today will be against you. That means that if you become internet famous for taking some very awkward body shots at a bar snapped by an amused stranger, you’ll just have to live with knowing that there’s little you can do to make sure that picture is wiped out.

So this is a bit of an issue, isn’t it? With everybody carrying around a camera linked to a social media ecosystem that’s not going anywhere anytime soon, despite its poor profitability, you will either have to watch your every step, become a homebody, or just deal with the consequences as they come. We can no longer get away with stashing embarrassing or questionable photos of ourselves in a shoe box or throwing them in the trash. How do we handle that? My suggestion is purely non-technical. We adapt our culture to deal with it and think twice before anything goes online under our names. That’s all we can really do because adding more filters, blocks, hacks, and privacy settings just tends to create new security holes and rarely deter determined sleuths with a good grasp of how social media and exploits work. And employers looking through profiles on social media sites will need to stop looking just because they can, since so many of them will already perform background checks, credit checks, employment verifications, education checks, and drug tests. Really, that should be more than enough.

digital cloud

Good stories need conflict, and if you’re going to have conflict, you need a villain. But you don’t always get the right villain in the process, as we can see with the NYT’s scathing article on waste in giant data centers which form the backbone of cloud computing. According to the article, data centers waste between 88% and 94% of all the electricity they consume for idle servers. When they’re going through enough electricity to power a medium sized town, that adds up to a lot of wasted energy, and diesel backups generate quite a bit of pollution on top of that. Much of this article focuses on portraying data centers as lumbering, risk averse giants who either refuse to innovate out of fear alone and have no incentive to reduce their wasteful habits. The real issue, the fact that their end users demand 99.999% uptime and will tear their heads off if their servers are down for any reason at any time, especially during a random traffic surge, is glossed over in just a few brief paragraphs despite being the key to why data centers are so overbuilt.

Here’s a practical example. This blog is hosted by MediaTemple and has recently been using a cloud service to improve performance. Over the last few years, it’s been down five or six times, primarily because database servers went offline or crashed. During those five or six times, this blog was unreachable by readers and its feed was present only in the cache of the syndication company, a cache that refreshes on a fairly frequent basis. This means fewer views because for all intents and purposes, the links leading to Weird Things are now dead. Fewer views means a smaller payout at the end of the month, and when this was a chunk of my income necessary for paying the bills, it was unpleasant to take the hit. Imagine what would’ve happened if right as my latest post got serious momentum on news aggregator sites (once I had a post make the front pages of both Reddit and StumbleUpon and got 25,000 views in two hours), the site went down due to another server error? A major and lucrative spike would’ve been dead in its tracks.

Now, keep in mind that Weird Things is a small site that’s doing between 40,000 to 60,000 or so views per month. What about a site that gets 3 million hits a month? Or 30 million? Or how about the massive news aggregators dealing with hundreds of millions of views in the same time frame and for which being down for an hour means tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue? Data centers are supposed to be Atlases holding up the world of on-demand internet in a broadband era and if they can’t handle the load, they’ll be dead in the water. So what if they wasted 90% of all the energy they consumed? The clients are happy and the income stream continues. They’ll win no awards for turning off a server and taking a minute or two to boot it back up and starting all the instances of the applications it needs to run. Of course each instance takes only a small amount of memory and processing capability even on a heavily used server, so there’s always a viable option of virtualizing servers on a single box to utilize more of the server’s hardware.

If you were to go by the NYT article, you’d think that data centers are avoiding this, but they’re actually trying to virtualize more and more servers. The problem is that virtualization on a scale like this isn’t an easy thing to implement and there’s a number of technical issues that any data center will need to address before going into it full tilt. Considering that each center uses what a professor of mine used to call "their secret sauce," it will need to make sure that any extensive virtualization schemes it wants to deploy won’t interfere with their secret sauce recipe. When we talk about changing how thousands of servers work, we have to accept that it takes a while for a major update like that to be tested and deployed. Is there an element of fear there? Yes. But do you really expect there not to be any when the standards to which these data centers are held are so high? That 99.999% uptime figure allows for 8 hours and 45 minutes of total downtime in an entire year, and a small glitch here or there can easily get the data center to fail the service contract requirements. So while they virtualize, they’re keeping their eye on the money.

But the silver lining here is that once virtualization in data centers becomes the norm, we will be set for a very long period of time in terms of data infrastructure. Very few, if any, additional major data centers will need to be built, and users can continue to send huge files across the web at will just as they do today. If you want to blame anyone for the energy waste in data centers, you have to point the finger squarely at consumers with extremely high demands. They’re the ones for whom these centers are built and they’re the ones who will bankrupt a data center should an outage major enough to affect their end of month metrics happen. This, by the way, includes us, the typical internet users as well. Our e-mails, documents, videos, IM transcripts, and backups in case our computers break or get stolen all have to be housed somewhere and all these wasteful data centers is where they end up. After all, the cloud really is just huge clusters of hard drives filled to the brim with stuff we may well have forgotten by now alongside the e-mails we read last night and the Facebook posts we made last week…

Usually, if you try to pass a law that regulates a sophisticated, multifaceted piece of technology, you would get together with a wide spectrum of experts to figure out how what you’re planning to do will affect the technology and its use in the real world, then modify your proposal accordingly. Or you could just, you know, follow what the lobbyists who know just as little about the technology as you tell you, and create a mess which would entail ridiculous risks for every website or blog owner in the United States, then name it PROTECT IP and SOPA. As has become the custom of the current Congress, they went with the latter method of lawmaking and are really thinking about passing a law which will allow anyone to take down your site at a moment’s notice without just cause or due process. Even not reacting to a takedown request quickly enough can terminate your site, cut off any payments you receive for it, and land you on search engine blacklists for alleged offenses.

As my long-time readers know, I always strive to put all sorts of interesting images to go along with my posts and a lot of these graphics come from various image search sites, and often, the images don’t have attribution to their original creators. Sometimes that’s by design because the creators meant to submit it that way, other times the images were submitted without their permission. Realizing that this happens, I have a special note on the FAQ page telling image owners to contact me if their image is used without proper attribution or simply remove it completely if they don’t want it associated with the post. Over the last three years, I got a total of two such e-mails, one asking for a takedown, and the other for attribution, and we resolved things quickly and very amiably. Under SOPA, both of these e-mails could’ve shut down Weird Things and severed payments from its syndication deal if either of the rights holders thought that a day was too long to wait for me to check the blog’s inbox and respond. And guess what? Virtually every blogger would have the same exact problem. We can just be humming along today and get yanked out of existence tomorrow thanks to a random complaint.

Even worse, science blogs are at risk from creationists, psychics, and anyone else whose ideas we’d critique because while cranks are already a viciously litigious lot when allowed to be, armed with SOPA, they would have the power to shut down skeptics entirely. They’ve done this before by removing videos criticizing canards by creationists with fake copyright claims, saying that using snippets of their videos was an infringement and trying to get the skeptics responding to them banned on YouTube. Nevermind that using quotes for parody or criticism is protected under the Fair Use clause and that such protection is vital for lively public discourse. An overburdened and terrified host that doesn’t want to get sued will simply yank a site based on nothing but one irate pseudoscientist’s or creationist’s claim, unwilling and unable to go into details of whether the claim was legitimate or not. SOPA basically opens the door to a whole new kind of harassment and censorship, one that can seriously impact the flow of good science and reason on the web. Should we even start thinking about all the atheist blogs and communities that sprang up in the last five or six years?

Considering that those writing for and using these sites get death threats and vows of action against them or their fans and family members, do we even need to spell out the kind of damage religious fundamentalists on a rampage can do to their online work? These copyright protection laws are extremely open to abuse, and will enable outright legalized censorship where the most thin skinned and the most aggressive will dictate what can be said, by whom, and in what tone. Hopefully both these bills wither and die in Congress and a new tool for copyright enforcement can be created, one that doesn’t put the entire web at risk of being gutted by greedy or easily offended trolls, or put a gun to the heads of any tech service which distributes user-managed content to make it more conveniently accessible. In their current state PROTECT IP and SOPA would kill tech jobs, as well as silence numerous blogs that don’t have the resources to pay their hosting company wads of cash for keeping them open while they fight the allegations against them. All courtesy of the people who thought that the total shutdown of the internet would be a great way to defend ourselves from a cyber-attack

[ illustration by Ramyb ]

Wired Magazine has an interesting history lesson on the virtual currency bitcoin, both the good and the bad as well as some stabs at the dark at its most likely pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto. While I’m not an expert in security, I took enough coursework in the subject to find my way around infosec papers and after reading the article, quickly made my way to read the blueprints for bitcoin. It’s certainly a nifty system and it’s an interesting approach to authentication of virtual currency data. There’s no need for a central mint because as the number of bitcoins grows, they generate a large distributed proof-of-work trail which is rather difficult to spoof or overshadow single-handedly or even with a team. The paper also presents both computational and social engineering ideas to get users to play by the rules and minimize the chance of cheaters or hijackers in the system, which I found to be a nice touch. The source code for the system, readily available online in Java, C++, and C#, looks fairly solid. But bitcoin does have its share of problems and as the Wired story notes, they don’t stem from bugs in the technology stack or the encryption methodology, but from the people using it.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about bitcoin is that it’s not just an attempt to redesign currency in the age of primarily electronic monetary exchanges and change how we think about money for the first time in nearly a century. It may not have been intended to be as much of a philosophical and political statement as it was a new approach to managing financial assets, but that’s what it became for a number of people who had deep mistrust of banking in general, especially central banks and organizations like the IMF and the WTO. To them, the idea of printing money rather than pinning it to physical assets such as gold, meant that all money was basically worthless debt and the inflation generated by "quantitative easing" was just begging for trouble because the central bankers were playing fast and loose with virtual cash. And there is some validity to that. If inflation soars as your income remains either stagnant or fail to meet the pace with inflation, everything starts to become more and more expensive. This is actually what’s happening through the Great Recession. Prices for everything are rising but wages are not growing, putting more and more strain on the middle class and the poor and that’s generally a serious red flag about the state of the economy at large. Without globalization and companies’ ability to sell in other markets, the recession may have turned into a depression.

Enter the bitcoin. With a set maximum of 21 million units and a predictable downward curve of growth, simply mining more coins on demand won’t work and there is no central issuing authority to regulate the coin flows, which must ease the minds of more libertarian bitcoin users who think that the Fed is a essentially a criminal enterprise scamming the nation and the banks are in on it. With the system being peer to peer, it’s truly up to the wide open, unregulated market to decide what happens. And that’s where the problems come into play. It may seem tempting to think that the wisdom of crowds will win out and there needs to be no regulation since things will eventually sort themselves out, but as I’ve pointed out before, this assumes that game theory is a good model for how humans make financial decisions. Research shows that it’s most certainly not, and a whole lot of books about the kind of greed, shortsightedness, and glibness displayed by bankers throughout the subprime boom can testify to that quite well. So what happens when you give the crowd full control of new currency? The users who can mine the most and hoard the most gain control of it, and that’s exactly what has been happening with bitcoin. Several large mining pools and online exchanges are basically in charge of the currency’s fate and considering that the tighter the bitcon supply, the more a coin will be worth, they have every incentive to hoard whatever they mine or whatever they control, creating new vulnerabilities along the way, the kind of vulnerabilities that not even the most complex and effective encryption algorithm can solve.

Nakamoto never intended to have large bitcoin pools concentrated in few hands or to have users hand over a large virtual wallet to online repositories which functioned exactly like the banks that were meant to be made obsolete by the P2P nature of the currency. Users who handed over their coins to MyBitcon and Bitomat found out the hard way that you really can’t trust anybody online when the former site went dark until its owner came back to say he was hacked and all the bitcoins were now lost, and the latter which said it overwrote its wallets by accident. It didn’t help matters that the owner of MyBitcoin seems to have been running the whole site from some unspecified location in West Indies and tried to stay as far under the radar as possible. Likewise, there is a persistent PR nightmare of the currency being hijacked by those seeking to buy illegal services, drugs, or other illegal goods via the dark net, using its anonymity-enabling features to make payments without a trail for law enforcement to follow. While money laundering can technically be done with any currency and doesn’t say anything about the design of the bitcoin, it does mean that politicians will now seek to bring it to heel and take away some of its true P2P features or make it a crime not to expose your identity when paying in bitcoin. That would mean that security holes will actually have to be created, putting more virtual wallets at risk.

But the bitcoin experiment gives us an interesting insight into how an unregulated market works. Created by a mysterious stranger, a night owl very possibly of British origin, and distributed as an experiment in currencies for a new century, it was intended to be a tool for the people, ran by the people rather than a central bank. And while it started out as a heady free for all, it quickly became very structured with pseudo-banks, exchanges, a clutch of large mining operations able to throttle or boost the bitcoin supply, and all the ingredients for several major players and early adopters to gain monopolies and dominate the entire bitcoin ecosystem. I can’t say it was such a surprising turn of events because in unregulated markets, early adopters and players who have a disproportionate amount of resources will try to create lucrative monopolies by controlling the market. Back at the dawn of the 20th century, the same exact thing happened throughout the economy. Virtually every industry was dominated by a monopoly or an oligopoly of trusts which either destroyed or absorbed any competitor on the horizon, and fixed prices to ensure their perpetual profitability. From the trajectory of the bitcoin, this might well be replayed on the web a century later and the results could be very similar, with a call for trust-busters to come in and free up the bitcoins through digital regulations, or by creating another few million units…

Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at an international development think tank, has a column arguing that we’re not necessarily improving the developing world when we rush to give broadband to the poor and that there’s plenty of other things to fix before billions are raised to lay fiber and open internet cafes. If you either have very good memories or just use the search function around here, you may remember that I had similar thoughts on this very subject when talking about a plan to give developing nations satellite-based internet access and my stance on the issue hasn’t changed. Obviously, information exchange is good and it helps everybody who can efficiently exchange data to do so. However, when talking about IT in the developing world, what we need to be concerned about most isn’t broadband but energy and infrastructure because without those two, having broadband is pretty much meaningless. This is an issue of capacity vs. throughput and any international aid groups thinking that extra capacity will boost an economy are forgetting that they need to ensure that there is a real economy to boost in the first place. And throughput is what helps to establish and foster that economy.

Here’s the deal. Your standard, broadband optimized web page is about a megabyte in size and loads rather slowly on dial up and 3G wireless modems. But that web page is also littered with big graphics, ads, and all sorts of background scripts that make it look pretty and let the links change color when you hover over them. I would venture to guess that a Third World farmer looking to see for how much he can sell his wares over at a local market doesn’t need to log on to a major website to do it and a stripped-down mobile version or a black and white SMS will do the trick. A text message can be less than a kilobyte in size and travel across even the slowest network with no problem. As long as you have a signal, you’re good to go. The only problem is if you’ll be able to get a strong signal and ensure that the texts can keep flowing. Using a broadband connection will not give the farmer in question any real boost in performance. In fact, he’ll probably never notice the difference because the text will arrive in mere seconds. However, his country now has an excess capacity that might be going to waste and concentrated in urban areas where it will be likely used for entertainment. Broadband is a premium, leisure product that lets you play games and watch videos, not a basic necessity.

What is a basic necessity however, is to make sure that access to crucial data is reliable and that whatever a tower or a network of wires needs to keep transmitting data packets is being generated. That means a better energy grid and the infrastructure to support it, and crews who’ll do the regular maintenance and updates. If a foreign investor sees that data services are reliable and robust enough to conduct day to day business in any city of a developing nation, it will have a much stronger business case for making an investment there than in nations where some cities have world-class broadband services and others have a patchy, outdated network of poor cell phone and data coverage. Of course that said, data along doesn’t drive an economy. There should be roads, sanitation, good housing, security, and an educated workforce. Developing nations won’t benefit by being given whatever is the latest craze in the development community as a magic bullet because a nation is ultimately its economy and institutions working together. When you can increase school attendance and then use the gains in pupils to improve the population’s basic education levels, you’re doing more for the economy than laying down miles and miles of fiber ever would. And believe it or not, it seems that the former costs less than the latter and is logistically easier to implement. Maybe we should focus on that first.