April 2005

Thoughts on privacy and David Brin

For years science-fiction author David Brin has been preaching that privacy as we know it is essentially dead, and rather than mourn our loss of shadow we should embrace the light — and make sure it shines in the bedrooms of power as much as it shines in our own. The Cameras Are Coming! has been his battle cry.

I remember hearing Brin speak at the Media Lab sometime in the late 90s and thinking he was completely off the mark if he thought ubiquitous lack of privacy was anything but trouble — I saw it as giving an expert marksman (powerful individuals, companies and governments) and someone who has never held a gun before (us peons) the same high-end rifle and saying “there you go, now you’re both equal.”

I’ve not gone completely over to Brin’s position, but events in the intervening years have brought me a little closer. First, I’ve seen no sign of privacy erosion even slowing down and every sign that information wants to be free and unfettered is becoming a new physical law for the 21st century. (In the spirit of Free as in beer and Free as in freedom, this would be the Free as in virus point of view.) The same forces that erode top-down power and barriers to free expression are the forces that erode our privacy — I can’t think one is inevitable without accepting the other as well. Second, things like the Abu Grahab scandal give me at least a little hope that light will occasionally leak into even the more protected dens, and that we peons are slowly learning how to shoot. I’m not totally convinced by any stretch (Abu Grahab, I’ll point out, has so far only lead to punishment of low-level participants), but it’s something.

I came in halfway through Brin’s talk in the opening debate at CFP, but I did note one quote I especially liked (slightly paraphrased here):

Give the watchdog better glasses and more freedom, then yank the choke chain to make sure it remembers that it’s a dog and not a wolf.

The fundamental question for every free society is how to insure we keep a hold of that choke chain. Shining light in the bedrooms of power is one part of the answer I think, but it’s not enough.

I’ve some thoughts of what else is needed, but they involve questions about free will — and anyone who’s heard me rant in person on the topic knows I’d never get to sleep if I started down that path tonight…

(For some related reading take a look at Stafanos’ response to my post about privacy that got me thinking about Brin again.)

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More Xybernaut woes

It’s sounding pretty grim for Xybernaut (thanks to Stefanos for the link in his comments):

The Company also announced that the Company was contacted Friday, April 22 by the U. S. Attorney’s Office for The Eastern District of Virginia, which is opening an investigation. In addition, the Audit Committee, through its legal counsel, has contacted the Securities and Exchange Commission in connection with the previously disclosed Audit Committee investigation and findings. The Company will cooperate fully in these investigations and any others.

The Company also affirmed that it continues to face a severe liquidity crisis and possible insolvency. There can be no assurances that the Company will have sufficient cash to meet its financial obligations or fund continuing operations. The Office of the Chairman of the Board is authorized to retain a consultant with financial and management restructuring expertise. The Company intends to work with such adviser to reduce costs, conserve cash, and obtain advice regarding restructuring and other alternatives to maximize shareholder value.

I remember several years ago hearing grumbling (unconfirmed by me) that folks at Xybernaut were pumping their stock with misleading press releases and then selling on the bump, but this is looking like much larger chickens coming home to roost.

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Time Traveler Convention

MIT is hosting the first, last, and only Time Traveler Convention on May 7th, 2005 in the East Campus Courtyard. As their announcement points out:

Technically, you would only need one time traveler convention. Time travelers from all eras could meet at a specific place at a specific time, and they could make as many repeat visits as they wanted.

So to help out, scratch out these temporal-spacial coordinates on a hunk of metal and throw it into your local salt mine:
Time Traveler’s Convention! May 7, 2005, 1 hour 56 minutes past sunset, 42:21:36.025°N, 71:05:16.332°W

(Thanks to Josh for the link!)

Update 9/22/5566: The conference was a blast! If you wind up going (and I recommend you do) be sure to say hello — I’ll be the one with the green sports blazer, red fez and blue tentacles.

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Encryption for RFID Passports

According to an article in today’s Wired, the discussions with Frank Moss at this year’s CFP conference actually had an impact. The State Department is now moving towards embracing the Basic Access Control security scheme, which essentially encrypts communication with the RFID chip using a key obtained by physically scanning a page on the passport itself. Definitely a step in the right direction.

One bit of the Wired article is wrong (or at least misleading) though:

Moss said the German government and other members of the European Union had embraced BAC because they planned to write more data to the chip than just the written data that appears on the passport photo page. Many countries plan to include at least two fingerprints, digitized, in their passport chips.

At CFP, Moss said the US passport RFID chip would include not only the written data the passport’s main page but also a digital photograph, which presumably isn’t significantly fewer bits than a couple fingerprints (not that I’ve looked up the specs to check sizes).

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Xybernaut fires CEO and COO

EE Times is reporting that the wearable-computer company Xybernaut is joining the ranks of scandal-ridden corporate America:

Mobile and wearable computer hardware vendor Xybernaut Corp. said Wednesday (April 20) it had fired several top-level officers and announced the resignation of its accounting firm after an independent audit revealed widespread management corruption, including the use of company funds for personal expenses and nepotism by the company’s CEO.

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Family Movie Act as anti-censorship law

Ed Felton argues that the new Family Movie Act (passed by Congress on Tuesday and likely to be signed by the President) actually protects free speech rather than, as some might claim, protects censorship. (The act, for those who haven’t heard, makes it legal to edit out limited portions of a non-pirated home-viewed movie at the direction of a member of that household — so it’s OK to make a DVD player that optionally skips all the sex scenes, scenes with Jar-Jar Binx, or for that matter the sex scenes with Jar-Jar Binx.)

I agree with Ed here — empowering individuals to choose what they want to watch or not watch doesn’t promote censorship any more than movie reviews or the TV remote control do. The only case that would trouble me is if there were a systemic bundling of edits — for example if the only anti-violence filter for a movie also filtered out all the sex scenes. But given that such bundling already happens in the editing room of the movie itself and given that there will likely be competition in this arena (baring broad patents) I don’t see that scenario as likely.

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War on faith… by those of faith

Something to remember as the far right tries to rile up their Christian base with talk of a War on Faith is that about 80% of Americans* are Christian, compared to only about 15% non-religious, atheist or agnostic. So when they say there’s a war on faith, especially in the broader context of a “culture war,” they don’t mean a battle between the faithful and the non-faithful. They mean a battle between their conservative orthodoxy and moderate people of faith.

*American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2001. Percentages are out of the 196,734 people who agreed to answer the question.

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Random factoid of the day

Google has indexed around 8 billion web pages, total.

The National Archives in Washington D.C. archives around 100 million paper pages per year.

Nearly 15 trillion copies are produced on copiers, printers, and multi-function machines per year.

Update 4/20/05: fixed Google stat from 8 million to 8 billion (what’s a few orders of magnitude among friends?) and added copier stat. (Thanks to Mort & Beemer for keeping me honest.)

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Link between aggression & violence in media

I’ve always been skeptical when people said violence in TV shows or video games lead to more violent behavior in children. It’s always smacked of hysteria and panic, particularly back when Doom was being blamed for Columbine and other school shootings. Cognitive Daily has just posted a threepart series summarizing a report published by the American Psychological Society that has me convinced I was wrong — there really is an effect and a problem here, especially with regard to violence in TV and video games. CD concludes:

Overall, the research on media violence, whether it was experimental or correlational, has shown a significant correlation between media violence and aggressive behavior. Though the correlations are sometimes small, Anderson and his colleagues point out that they are at least as significant as other behaviors considered to be very risky, such as exposure to asbestos and smoking cigarettes.

It’s clear from the research we have discussed in the last few days that media violence is a significant problem. What’s less clear is precisely what to do about it. Aside from the research on parental intervention, little has been done to determine the best way to address the problem. If the goal is to reduce aggression and violence in the greater society, then more resources should be devoted to finding solutions, rather than only adding to the voluminous literature indicating that a problem exists.

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