Entries Tagged "searches"

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Fearing Google

Mathias Döpfner writes an open letter explaining why he fears Google:

We know of no alternative which could offer even partially comparable technological prerequisites for the automated marketing of advertising. And we cannot afford to give up this source of revenue because we desperately need the money for technological investments in the future. Which is why other publishers are increasingly doing the same. We also know of no alternative search engine which could maintain or increase our online reach. A large proportion of high quality journalistic media receives its traffic primarily via Google. In other areas, especially of a non-journalistic nature, customers find their way to suppliers almost exclusively though Google. This means, in plain language, that we ­ and many others ­ are dependent on Google. At the moment Google has a 91.2 percent search-engine market share in Germany. In this case, the statement “if you don’t like Google, you can remove yourself from their listings and go elsewhere” is about as realistic as recommending to an opponent of nuclear power that he just stop using electricity. He simply cannot do this in real life ­ unless he wants to join the Amish.

A reaction. And another.

Posted on May 6, 2014 at 10:30 AMView Comments

The Story of the Bomb Squad at the Boston Marathon

This is interesting reading, but I’m left wanting more. What are the lessons here? How can we do this better next time? Clearly we won’t be able to anticipate bombings; even Israel can’t do that. We have to get better at responding.

Several years after 9/11, I conducted training with a military bomb unit charged with guarding Washington, DC. Our final exam was a nightmare scenario — a homemade nuke at the Super Bowl. Our job was to defuse it while the fans were still in the stands, there being no way to quickly and safely clear out 80,000 people. That scenario made two fundamental assumptions that are no longer valid: that there would be one large device and that we would find it before it detonated.

Boston showed that there’s another threat, one that looks a lot different. “We used to train for one box in a doorway. We went into a slower and less aggressive mode, meticulous, surgical. Now we’re transitioning to a high-speed attack, more maneuverable gear, no bomb suit until the situation has stabilized,” Gutzmer says. “We’re not looking for one bomber who places a device and leaves. We’re looking for an active bomber with multiple bombs, and we need to attack fast.”

A post-Boston final exam will soon look a lot different. Instead of a nuke at the Super Bowl, how about this: Six small bombs have already detonated, and now your job is to find seven more — among thousands of bags — while the bomber hides among a crowd of the fleeing, responding, wounded, and dead. Meanwhile the entire city overwhelms your backup with false alarms. Welcome to the new era of bomb work.

Posted on November 5, 2013 at 6:53 AMView Comments

Detaining David Miranda

Last Sunday, David Miranda was detained while changing planes at London Heathrow Airport by British authorities for nine hours under a controversial British law — the maximum time allowable without making an arrest. There has been much made of the fact that he’s the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter whom Edward Snowden trusted with many of his NSA documents and the most prolific reporter of the surveillance abuses disclosed in those documents. There’s less discussion of what I feel was the real reason for Miranda’s detention. He was ferrying documents between Greenwald and Laura Poitras, a filmmaker and his co-reporter on Snowden and his information. These document were on several USB memory sticks he had with him. He had already carried documents from Greenwald in Rio de Janeiro to Poitras in Berlin, and was on his way back with different documents when he was detained.

The memory sticks were encrypted, of course, and Miranda did not know the key. This didn’t stop the British authorities from repeatedly asking for the key, and from confiscating the memory sticks along with his other electronics.

The incident prompted a major outcry in the UK. The UK’s Terrorist Act has always been controversial, and this clear misuse — it was intended to give authorities the right to detain and question suspected terrorists — is prompting new calls for its review. Certainly the UK. police will be more reluctant to misuse the law again in this manner.

I have to admit this story has me puzzled. Why would the British do something like this? What did they hope to gain, and why did they think it worth the cost? And — of course — were the British acting on their own under the Official Secrets Act, or were they acting on behalf of the United States? (My initial assumption was that they were acting on behalf of the US, but after the bizarre story of the British GCHQ demanding the destruction of Guardian computers last month, I’m not sure anymore.)

We do know the British were waiting for Miranda. It’s reasonable to assume they knew his itinerary, and had good reason to suspect that he was ferrying documents back and forth between Greenwald and Poitras. These documents could be source documents provided by Snowden, new documents that the two were working on either separately or together, or both. That being said, it’s inconceivable that the memory sticks would contain the only copies of these documents. Poitras retained copies of everything she gave Miranda. So the British authorities couldn’t possibly destroy the documents; the best they could hope for is that they would be able to read them.

Is it truly possible that the NSA doesn’t already know what Snowden has? They claim they don’t, but after Snowden’s name became public, the NSA would have conducted the mother of all audits. It would try to figure out what computer systems Snowden had access to, and therefore what documents he could have accessed. Hopefully, the audit information would give more detail, such as which documents he downloaded. I have a hard time believing that its internal auditing systems would be so bad that it wouldn’t be able to discover this.

So if the NSA knows what Snowden has, or what he could have, then the most it could learn from the USB sticks is what Greenwald and Poitras are currently working on, or thinking about working on. But presumably the things the two of them are working on are the things they’re going to publish next. Did the intelligence agencies really do all this simply for a few weeks’ heads-up on what was coming? Given how ham-handedly the NSA has handled PR as each document was exposed, it seems implausible that it wanted advance knowledge so it could work on a response. It’s been two months since the first Snowden revelation, and it still doesn’t have a decent PR story.

Furthermore, the UK authorities must have known that the data would be encrypted. Greenwald might have been a crypto newbie at the start of the Snowden affair, but Poitras is known to be good at security. The two have been communicating securely by e-mail when they do communicate. Maybe the UK authorities thought there was a good chance that one of them would make a security mistake, or that Miranda would be carrying paper documents.

Another possibility is that this was just intimidation. If so, it’s misguided. Anyone who regularly reads Greenwald could have told them that he would not have been intimidated — and, in fact, he expressed the exact opposite sentiment — and anyone who follows Poitras knows that she is even more strident in her views. Going after the loved ones of state enemies is a typically thuggish tactic, but it’s not a very good one in this case. The Snowden documents will get released. There’s no way to put this cat back in the bag, not even by killing the principal players.

It could possibly have been intended to intimidate others who are helping Greenwald and Poitras, or the Guardian and its advertisers. This will have some effect. Lavabit, Silent Circle, and now Groklaw have all been successfully intimidated. Certainly others have as well. But public opinion is shifting against the intelligence community. I don’t think it will intimidate future whistleblowers. If the treatment of Chelsea Manning didn’t discourage them, nothing will.

This leaves one last possible explanation — those in power were angry and impulsively acted on that anger. They’re lashing out: sending a message and demonstrating that they’re not to be messed with — that the normal rules of polite conduct don’t apply to people who screw with them. That’s probably the scariest explanation of all. Both the US and UK intelligence apparatuses have enormous money and power, and they have already demonstrated that they are willing to ignore their own laws. Once they start wielding that power unthinkingly, it could get really bad for everyone.

And it’s not going to be good for them, either. They seem to want Snowden so badly that that they’ll burn the world down to get him. But every time they act impulsively aggressive — convincing the governments of Portugal and France to block the plane carrying the Bolivian president because they thought Snowden was on it is another example — they lose a small amount of moral authority around the world, and some ability to act in the same way again. The more pressure Snowden feels, the more likely he is to give up on releasing the documents slowly and responsibly, and publish all of them at once — the same way that WikiLeaks published the US State Department cables.

Just this week, the Wall Street Journal reported on some new NSA secret programs that are spying on Americans. It got the information from “interviews with current and former intelligence and government officials and people from companies that help build or operate the systems, or provide data,” not from Snowden. This is only the beginning. The media will not be intimidated. I will not be intimidated. But it scares me that the NSA is so blind that it doesn’t see it.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

EDITED TO ADD: I’ve been thinking about it, and there’s a good chance that the NSA doesn’t know what Snowden has. He was a sysadmin. He had access. Most of the audits and controls protect against normal users; someone with root access is going to be able to bypass a lot of them. And he had the technical chops to cover his tracks when he couldn’t just evade the auditing systems.

The AP makes an excellent point about this:

The disclosure undermines the Obama administration’s assurances to Congress and the public that the NSA surveillance programs can’t be abused because its spying systems are so aggressively monitored and audited for oversight purposes: If Snowden could defeat the NSA’s own tripwires and internal burglar alarms, how many other employees or contractors could do the same?

And, to be clear, I didn’t mean to say that intimidation wasn’t the government’s motive. I believe it was, and that it was poorly thought out intimidation: lashing out in anger, rather than from some Machiavellian strategy. (Here’s a similar view.) If they wanted Miranda’s electronics, they could have confiscated them and sent him on his way in fifteen minutes. Holding him for nine hours — the absolute maximum they could under the current law — was intimidation.

I am reminded of the phone call the Guardian received from British government. The exact quote reported was: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” That’s something you would tell your child. And that’s the power dynamic that’s going on here.

EDITED TO ADD (8/27): Jay Rosen has an excellent essay on this.

EDITED TO ADD (9/12): Other editors react.

Posted on August 27, 2013 at 6:39 AMView Comments

Another Perspective on the Value of Privacy

A philosophical perspective:

But while Descartes’s overall view has been rightly rejected, there is something profoundly right about the connection between privacy and the self, something that recent events should cause us to appreciate. What is right about it, in my view, is that to be an autonomous person is to be capable of having privileged access (in the two senses defined above) to information about your psychological profile ­ your hopes, dreams, beliefs and fears. A capacity for privacy is a necessary condition of autonomous personhood.

To get a sense of what I mean, imagine that I could telepathically read all your conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings — I could know about them in as much detail as you know about them yourself — and further, that you could not, in any way, control my access. You don’t, in other words, share your thoughts with me; I take them. The power I would have over you would of course be immense. Not only could you not hide from me, I would know instantly a great amount about how the outside world affects you, what scares you, what makes you act in the ways you do. And that means I could not only know what you think, I could to a large extent control what you do.

That is the political worry about the loss of privacy: it threatens a loss of freedom. And the worry, of course, is not merely theoretical. Targeted ad programs, like Google’s, which track your Internet searches for the purpose of sending you ads that reflect your interests can create deeply complex psychological profiles — especially when one conducts searches for emotional or personal advice information: Am I gay? What is terrorism? What is atheism? If the government or some entity should request the identity of the person making these searches for national security purposes, we’d be on the way to having a real-world version of our thought experiment.

But the loss of privacy doesn’t just threaten political freedom. Return for a moment to our thought experiment where I telepathically know all your thoughts whether you like it or not From my perspective, the perspective of the knower — your existence as a distinct person would begin to shrink. Our relationship would be so lopsided that there might cease to be, at least to me, anything subjective about you. As I learn what reactions you will have to stimuli, why you do what you do, you will become like any other object to be manipulated. You would be, as we say, dehumanized.

Posted on July 9, 2013 at 6:24 AMView Comments

Privacy Protests

Interesting law journal article: “Privacy Protests: Surveillance Evasion and Fourth Amendment Suspicion,” by Elizabeth E. Joh.

Abstract: The police tend to think that those who evade surveillance are criminals. Yet the evasion may only be a protest against the surveillance itself. Faced with the growing surveillance capacities of the government, some people object. They buy “burners” (prepaid phones) or “freedom phones” from Asia that have had all tracking devices removed, or they hide their smartphones in ad hoc Faraday cages that block their signals. They use to surf the internet. They identify tracking devices with GPS detectors. They avoid credit cards and choose cash, prepaid debit cards, or bitcoins. They burn their garbage. At the extreme end, some “live off the grid” and cut off all contact with the modern world.

These are all examples of what I call privacy protests: actions individuals take to block or to thwart government surveillance for reasons that are unrelated to criminal wrongdoing. Those engaged in privacy protests do so primarily because they object to the presence of perceived or potential government surveillance in their lives. How do we tell the difference between privacy protests and criminal evasions, and why does it matter? Surprisingly scant attention has been given to these questions, in part because Fourth Amendment law makes little distinction between ordinary criminal evasions and privacy protests. This article discusses the importance of these ordinary acts of resistance, their place in constitutional criminal procedure, and their potential social value in the struggle over the meaning of privacy.

Read this while thinking about the lack of any legal notion of civil disobedience in cyberspace.

Posted on July 3, 2013 at 12:30 PMView Comments

How the NSA Eavesdrops on Americans

Two weeks ago, the Guardian published two new Snowden documents. These outline how the NSA’s data-collection procedures allow it to collect lots of data on Americans, and how the FISA court fails to provide oversight over these procedures.

The documents are complicated, but I strongly recommend that people read both the Guardian analysis and the EFF analysis — and possibly the USA Today story.

Frustratingly, this has not become a major news story. It isn’t being widely reported in the media, and most people don’t know about it. At this point, the only aspect of the Snowden story that is in the news is the personal story. The press seems to have had its fill of the far more important policy issues.

I don’t know what there is that can be done about this, but it’s how we all lose.

Posted on July 1, 2013 at 12:16 PMView Comments

Training Baggage Screeners

The research in G. Giguère and B.C. Love, “Limits in decision making arise from limits in memory retrieval,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences v. 19 (2013) has applications in training airport baggage screeners.

Abstract: Some decisions, such as predicting the winner of a baseball game, are challenging in part because outcomes are probabilistic. When making such decisions, one view is that humans stochastically and selectively retrieve a small set of relevant memories that provides evidence for competing options. We show that optimal performance at test is impossible when retrieving information in this fashion, no matter how extensive training is, because limited retrieval introduces noise into the decision process that cannot be overcome. One implication is that people should be more accurate in predicting future events when trained on idealized rather than on the actual distributions of items. In other words, we predict the best way to convey information to people is to present it in a distorted, idealized form. Idealization of training distributions is predicted to reduce the harmful noise induced by immutable bottlenecks in people’s memory retrieval processes. In contrast, machine learning systems that selectively weight (i.e., retrieve) all training examples at test should not benefit from idealization. These conjectures are strongly supported by several studies and supporting analyses. Unlike machine systems, people’s test performance on a target distribution is higher when they are trained on an idealized version of the distribution rather than on the actual target distribution. Optimal machine classifiers modified to selectively and stochastically sample from memory match the pattern of human performance. These results suggest firm limits on human rationality and have broad implications for how to train humans tasked with important classification decisions, such as radiologists, baggage screeners, intelligence analysts, and gamblers.

Posted on May 24, 2013 at 12:17 PMView Comments

The Boston Marathon Bomber Manhunt

I generally give the police a lot of tactical leeway in times like this. The very armed and very dangerous suspects warranted extraordinary treatment. They were perfectly capable of killing again, taking hostages, planting more bombs — and we didn’t know the extent of the plot or the group. That’s why I didn’t object to the massive police dragnet, the city-wide lock down, and so on.

Ross Anderson has a different take:

…a million people were under virtual house arrest; the 19-year-old fugitive from justice happened to be a Muslim. Whatever happened to the doctrine that infringements of one liberty to protect another should be necessary and proportionate?

In the London bombings, four idiots killed themselves in the first incident with a few dozen bystanders, but the second four failed and ran for it when their bombs didn’t go off. It didn’t occur to anyone to lock down London. They were eventually tracked down and arrested, together with their support team. Digital forensics played a big role; the last bomber to be caught left the country and changed his SIM, but not his IMEI. It’s next to impossible for anyone to escape nowadays if the authorities try hard.

He has a point, although I’m not sure I agree with it.

Opinions?

EDITED TO ADD (4/20): This makes the argument very well. On the other hand, readers are rightfully pointing out that the lock down was in response to the shooting of a campus police officer, a carjacking, a firefight, and a vehicle chase with thrown bombs: the sort of thing that pretty much only happens in the movies.

EDITED TO ADD (4/20): More commentary on this Slashdot thread.

Posted on April 20, 2013 at 8:19 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.