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June 25, 2010

New money

It seems that the Glastonbury Festival, which I tend to sniffily dismiss as a Woodstock wannabe, is to get rid of cash. I can understand their thinking: cash is expensive for the festival to transport, store, and guard and creates security problems for individual festival-goers, too. Mr Cashless himself, James Allan, will be pleased. Although, given his squirming reaction to being offered cash at a conference a few months ago, it's hard to believe he'd regard an outdoor festival as sufficiently hygienic to attend.

But here is the key bit:

As well as convenience and security issues, Barclaycard's Mr Mathieson said that information gathered from transactions could be valuable for future marketing. "For example if the system knows what time you went and bought a beer and at which bar, it can make a guess which band you were about to see," he said. "Then the organizers could send you information about upcoming tours. The opportunities are exciting."

Talk about creepy! Your £5 notes do not climb out of your wallet to chirp eagerly about what they'd like to be spent on.

One of the things we talked about in the history of cypherpunks session at CFP last week (the video recording is online) was what ever happened to digital cash, something often discussed in the early 1990s, when cryptography was the revolution. First proposed by David Chaum in an influential Scientific American article in 1992, it was meant to be genuinely the equivalent of anonymous cash.

Chaum's scheme was typically brilliant but typically facing a hard road to acceptance (he has since come up with a clever cryptographic scheme to secure electronic voting). Getting it widely deployed required two things: the cooperation of banks and the willingness of consumers to transfer what they see as "real money" into an unfamiliar currency with uncertain backing. Consumers have generally balked at this kind of thing; the early days of the Net saw a number of attempts at new forms of payment, and the only ones that have succeeded are those that, like Paypal, build on existing and familiar currencies and structures. You could argue that frequent flyer miles are currency and they are, but they generally come free with purchases; when people do buy them with what they perceive as "real" money it's to acquire a tangible near-term benefit such as a cheap ticket, elite status for their next flight, or a free upgrade.

Chaum understood correctly, however, that the future would hold some form of digital cash, and the anonymous version he was proposing was a deliberately chosen alternative to the future he saw unfolding as computerized transactions took hold.

"If the trend toward identifier-based smart cards continues, personal privacy will be increasingly eroded," he wrote in 1992. And so it has proved: credit cards, debit cards, mobile phone and online payments are all designed to make every transaction traceable.

"The banking industry has a vested interest in not providing anonymous payment mechanisms," said Lance Cottrell at CFP, "because they really like to know as much information as they can about you." Combine that with money-laundering laws and increased government surveillance, and anonymous digital cash seems pretty well dead. The one US bank that tried offering DigiCash, the St Louis, Missouri-based Mark Twain bank, dropped the offering in September 1998 because of low take-up; shortly afterwards DigiCash went into liquidation.

Before heading out to CFP, my bedtime reading was Dave Birch's Digital Money Reader 2010, a compilation of all his digital money blog postings, with attached comments, from the past year. Birch is seriously at war with physical cash, which he seems to perceive as the equivalent of an unfair tax on people like him, who would rather do everything electronically. Because the costs of cash aren't visible to consumers at point of use, he argues, people are taught to think of it as free, where electronic transactions have clearly delineated costs. If people were charged the true cost of paying with cash, surely the percentage of cash payments - still around 80 percent in Europe - would begin to drop precipitously.

But it seems clear that the hidden cost of electronic payments as they are presently constituted is handing over tracking data. A truly anonymous Oyster card costs nothing extra in financial terms, but you pay with convenience: you must put down a £5 deposit for a prepaid card at a tube station, and you must always remember to top it up with notes at station machines. Similarly, you can have an anonymous Paypal account in the sense that you can receive funds via a throwaway email address and use them only to buy digital goods that do not require a delivery address. But after the first $500 or so you'll have to set up another account or provide Paypal with verifiable banking information. Because we have so far not come up with a good way to estimate the value of such personal data, we have no way to calculate the true cost of trackable electronic payments.

Still, it occurs to me writing this that if cash ever does die under the ministrations of Birch and his friends, the event will open up new possibilities for struggling post offices everywhere. Stamps, permanently redeemable for at least their face value, could become the new cash.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

June 18, 2010

Things I learned at this year's CFP

- There is a bill in front of Congress to outlaw the sale of anonymous prepaid SIMs. The goal seems to be some kind of fraud and crime prevention. But, as Ed Hasbrouck points out, the principal people who are likely to be affected are foreign tourists and the Web sites who sell prepaid SIMS to them.

- Robots are getting near enough in researchers' minds for them to be spending significant amounts of time considering the legal and ethical consequences in real life - not in Asimov's fictional world where you could program in three safety llaws and your job was done. Ryan Calo points us at the work of Stanford student Victoria Groom on human-robot interaction. Her dissertation research not yet on the site, discovered that humans allocate responsibility for success and failure proportionately according to how anthropomorphic the robot is.

- More than 24 percent of tweets - and rising sharply - are sent by automated accounts, according to Miranda Mowbray at HP labs. Her survey found all sorts of strange bots: things that constantly update the time, send stock quotes, tell jokes, the tea bot that retweets every mention of tea...

- Google's Kent Walker, the 1997 CFP chair, believes that censorship is as big a threat to democracy as terrorism, and says that open architectures and free expression are good for democracy - and coincidentally also good for Google's business.

- Microsoft's chief privacy strategist, Peter Cullen, says companies must lead in privacy to lead in cloud computing. Not coincidentally, others are the conference note that US companies are losing business to Europeans in cloud computing because EU law prohibits the export of personal data to the US, where data protection is insufficient.

- It is in fact possible to provide wireless that works at a technical conference. And good food!

- The Facebook Effect is changing the attitude of other companies about user privacy. Lauren Gelman, who helps new companies with privacy issues, noted that because start-ups all see Facebook's success and want to be the next 400 million-user environment, there was a strong temptation to emulate Facebook's behavior. Now, with the angry cries mounting from consumers, she's having to spend less effort convincing them about the level of pushback companies will get from consumers if they change their policies and defy their expectations. Even so, it's important to ensure that start-ups include privacy in their budgets and not become an afterthought. In this respect, she makes me realize, privacy in 2010 is at the stage that usability was in the early 1990s.

- All new program launches come through the office of the director of Yahoo!'s business and human rights program, Ebele Okabi-Harris. "It's very easy for the press to focus on China and particular countries - for example, Australia last year, with national filtering," she said, "but for us as a company it's important to have a structure around this because it's not specific to any one region." It is, she added later, a "global problem".

- We should continue to be very worried about the database state because the ID cards repeal act continues the trend toward data sharing among government departments and agencies, according to Christina Zaba from No2ID.

- Information brokers and aggregators, operating behind the scenes, are amassing incredible amounts of details about Americans and it can require a great deal of work to remove one's information from these systems. The main customers of these systems are private investigators, debt collectors, media, law firms, and law enforcement. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse sees many disturbing cases, as Beth Givens outlined, as does Pam Dixon's World Privacy forum.

- I always knew - or thought I knew - that the word "robot" was not coined by Asimov but by Karel Capek for his play R.U.R. (for "Rossum's Universal Robots", which coincidentally I also know that playing a robot in same was Michael Caine's first acting job). But Twitterers tell me that this isn't quite right. The word is derived from the Czech word "robota", "compulsory work for a feudal landlord". And that it was actually coined by Capek's older brother, Josef..

- There will be new privacy threats emerging from automated vehicles, other robots, and voicemail transcription services, sooner rather than later.

- Studying the inner workings of an organization like the International Civil Aviation Organization is truly difficult because the time scales - ten years to get from technical proposals to mandated standard, which is when the public becomes aware of - are a profound mismatch for the attention span of media and those who fund NGOs. Anyone who feels like funding an observer to represent civil society at ICAO should get in touch with Edward Hasbrouck.

- A lot of our cybersecurity problems could be solved by better technology.

- Lillie Coney has a great description of deceptive voting practices designed to disenfranchise the opposition: "It's game theory run amok!"

- We should not confuse insecure networks (as in vulnerable computers and flawed software) with unsecured networks (as in open wi-fi).

- Next year's conference chairs are EPIC's Lillie Coney and Jules Polonetsky. It will be in Washington, DC, probably the second or third week in June. Be there!

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

June 11, 2010

Bonfire of the last government's vanities

"We have no hesitation in making the national identity card scheme an unfortunate footnote in history. There it should remain - a reminder of a less happy time when the Government allowed hubris to trump civil liberties," the Home Secretary, Theresa May, told the House of Commons at the second reading of the Identity Documents Bill 2010, which will erase the 2006 act introducing ID cards and the National Identity Register. "This will not be a literal bonfire of the last Government's vanities, but it will none the less be deeply satisfying." Estimated saving: £86 million over the next four years.

But not so fast...

An "unfortunate footnote" sounds like the perfect scrapheap on which to drop the National Identity Register and its physical manifestation, ID cards, but if there's one thing we know about ID cards it's that, like the monster in horror movies, they're always "still out there".

In 2005, Lilian Edwards, then at the Centre for Research in Intellectual Property and Law at the University of Edinburgh, invited me to give a talkIdentifying Risks, on the history of ID cards, an idea inspired by a comment from Ross Anderson. The gist: after the ID card was scrapped in 1952 at the end of World War II, attempts to bring it back an ID card were made, on average, about every two or three years. (Former cabinet minister Peter Lilley, speaking at Privacy International's 2002 conference, noted that every new IT minister put the same set of ID card proposals before the Cabinet.)

The most interesting thing about that history is that the justification for bringing in ID cards varied so much; typically, it drew on the latest horrifying public event. So, in 1974 it was the IRA bombings in Guildford and Birmingham. In 1988, football hooliganism and crime. In 1989, social security fraud. In 1993, illegal immigration, fraud, and terrorism.

Within the run of just the 2006 card, the point varied. The stated goals began with blocking benefit fraud, then moved on to include preventing terrorism and serious crime, stopping illegal immigration, and needing to comply with international standards that require biometric features in passports. It is this chameleon-like adaptation to the troubles of the day that makes ID cards so suspect as the solution to anything.

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, Tony Blair rejected the idea of ID cards (which he had actively opposed in 1995, when John Major's government issued a green paper). But by mid-2002 a consultation paper had been published and by 2004 Blair was claiming that the civil liberties objections had vanished.

Once the 2006 ID card was introduced as a serious set of proposals in 2002, events unfolded much as Simon Davies predicted they would at that 2002 meeting. The government first clothed the ID card in user-friendly obfuscation: an entitlement card. The card's popularity in the polls, at first favourable (except, said David Blunkett for a highly organised minority), slid inexorably as the gory details of its implementation and costs became public. Yet the (dear, departed) Labour government clung to the proposals despite admitting, from time to time, their utter irrelevance for preventing terrorism.

Part of the card's sliding popularity has been due to people's increased understanding of the costs and annoyance it would impose. Their apparent support for the card was for the goals of the card, not the card itself. Plus, since 2002 the climate has changed: the Iraq war is even less popular and even the 2005 "7/7" London attacks did not keep acceptance of the "we are at war" justification for increased surveillance from declining. And the economic climate since 2008 makes large expenditure on bureaucracy untenable.

Given the frequency with which the ID card has resurfaced in the past, it seems safe to say that the idea will reappear at some point, though likely not during this coalition government. The LibDems always opposed it; the Conservatives have been more inconsistent, but currently oppose large-scale public IT projects.

Depending how you look at it, ID cards either took 54 years to resurface (from their withdrawal in1952 to the 2006 Identity Cards Act), or the much shorter time to the first proposals to reinstate them. Australia might be a better guide. In 1985, Bob Hawke made the "Australia card" a central plank of his government. He admitted defeat in 1987, after widespread opposition fueled by civil liberties groups. ID card proposals resurfaced in Australia in 2006, to be withdrawn again at the end of 2007. That's about 21 years - or a generation.

In 2010 Britain, it's as important that much of the rest of the Labour government's IT edifice, such as the ContactPoint database, intended to track children throughout their school years, is being scrapped. Left in place, it might have taught today's generation of children to perceive state tracking as normal. The other good news is that many of today's tireless campaigners against the 2006 ID card will continue to fight the encroachment of the database state. In 20 years - or sooner, if (God forbid) some catastrophe makes it politically acceptable - when or if an ID card comes back, they will still be young enough to fight it. And they will remember how.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series.

June 4, 2010

Return to the hacker crackdown

Probably many people had forgotten about the Gary McKinnon case until the new government reversed their decision to intervene in his extradition. Legal analysis is beyond our expertise, but we can outline some of the historical factors at work.

By 2001, when McKinnon did his breaking and entering into US military computers, hacking had been illegal in the UK for just over ten years - the Computer Misuse Act was passed in 1990 after the overturned conviction of Robert Schifreen and Steve Gold for accessing Prince Philip's Prestel mailbox.

Early 1990s hacking (earlier, the word meant technological cleverness) was far more benign than today's flat-out crimes of identity fraud, money laundering, and raiding bank accounts. The hackers of the era - most famously Kevin Mitnick were more the cyberspace equivalent of teenaged joyriders: they wandered around the Net rattling doorknobs and playing tricks to get passwords, and occasionally copied some bit of trophy software for bragging rights. Mitnick, despite spending four and a half years in jail awaiting trial, was not known to profit from his forays.

McKinnon's claim that he was looking for evidence that the US government was covering up information about alternative energy and alien visitations seems to me wholly credible. There was and is a definite streak of conspiracy theorists - particularly about UFOs - among the hacker community.

People seemed more alarmed by those early-stage hackers than they are by today's cybercriminals: the fear of new technology was projected onto those who seemed to be its masters. The series of 1990 "Operation Sundown" raids in the US, documented in Bruce Sterling's book , inspired the creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Among other egregious confusions, law enforcement seized game manuals from Steven Jackson Games in Austin, Texas, calling them hacking instruction books.

The raids came alongside a controversial push to make hacking illegal around the world. It didn't help when police burst in at the crack of dawn to arrest bright teenagers and hold them and their families (including younger children) at gunpoint while their computers and notebooks were seized and their homes ransacked for evidence.

"I think that in the years to come this will be recognized as the time of a witch hunt approximately equivalent to McCarthyism - that some of our best and brightest were made to suffer this kind of persecution for the fact that they dared to be creative in a way that society didn't understand," 21-year-old convicted hacker Mark Abene ("Phiber Optik") told filmmaker Annaliza Savage for her 1994 documentary, Unauthorized Access (YouTube).

Phiber Optik was an early 1990s cause célèbre. A member of the hacker groups Legion of Doom and Masters of Deception, he had an exceptionally high media profile. In January 1990, he and other MoD members were raided on suspicion of having caused the AT&T crash of January 15, 1990, when more than half of the telephone network ceased functioning for nine hours. Abene and others were eventually charged in 1991, with law enforcement demanding $2.5 million in fines and 59 years in jail. Plea agreements reduced that a year in prison and 600 hours of community service. The company eventually admitted the crash was due to its own flawed software upgrade.

There are many parallels between these early days of hacking and today's copyright wars. Entrenched large businesses (then AT&T; now RIAA, MPAA, BPI, et al) perceive mostly young, smart Net users as dangerous enemies and pursue them with the full force of the law claiming exaggeratedly large-figure sums in damages. Isolated, often young, targets were threatened with jail and/or huge sums in damages to make examples of them to deter others. The upshot in the 1990s was an entrenched distrust of and contempt for law enforcement on the part of the hacker community, exacerbated by the fact that back then so few law enforcement officers understood anything about the technology they were dealing with. The equivalent now may be a permanent contempt for copyright law.

In his 1990 essay Crime and Puzzlement examining the issues raised by hacking, EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow wrote of Phiber Optik, whom he met on the WELL: "His cracking impulses seemed purely exploratory, and I've begun to wonder if we wouldn't also regard spelunkers as desperate criminals if AT&T owned all the caves."

When McKinnon was first arrested in March 2002 and then indicted in a Virginia court in October 2002 for cracking into various US military computers - with damage estimated at $800,000 - all this history will still fresh. Meanwhile, the sympathy and good will toward the US engendered by the 9/11 attacks had been dissipated by the Bush administration's reaction: the PATRIOT Act (passed October 2001) expanded US government powers to detain and deport foreign citizens, and the first prisoners arrived at Guantanamo in January 2002. Since then, the US has begun fingerprinting all foreign visitors and has seen many erosions to civil liberties. The 2005 changes to British law that made hacking into an extraditable offense were controversial for precisely these reasons.

As McKinnon's case has dragged on through extradition appeals this emotional background has not changed. McKinnon's diagnosis with Asperger's Syndrome in 2008 made him into a more fragile and sympathetic figure. Meanwhile, the really dangerous cybercriminals continue committing fraud, theft, and real damage, apparently safe from prosecution.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.