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Hold the fireworks

Sydney_new_year_eve_fireworks_2016.jpg
I like neither large crowds nor loud noises, but I can't help feeling sad about the number of places - Brussels, Paris, Munich, Moscow - that felt the need to close down or limit New Year's celebrations. Not London or New York: they're deploying extra police and carrying on. Sometimes capitalism wins: with a captive audience of 1 million, Times Square restaurants got to charge extra hundreds of dollars per meal, and who would dare to try to stop them?

As world problems go, cancelling fireworks is small beer - although the right to assemble was important enough to put in the US First Amendment - but it seems emblematic of a year that began with the Charlie Hebdo murders and ended with any and all attacks, no matter how small, being characterized as "terrorism" and examples of the radicalizing power of the internet.

With only 30 days to go before the Iowa caucus kicks off the US presidential primary season, it's reasonable to hope that people won't really need the Chrome extension offering Donald Trump-free browsing. Mr Schlonged has known exactly how to play a media looking for a circus clown to liven up proceedings. Of course, the petition to ban Trump from entering Britain, signed by 566,949 (at last count) won't go anywhere because, as the submitter notes, rich and powerful people are not considered likely to cause social harm. With so many refugees entering Europe, even Sweden might have less room for him than they used to.

Despite myriad efforts to increase surveillance and data collection on all of us, privacy had some good moments. Long pending, the data protection reform package was finally agreed in mid-December. In September, Austrian law student Max Schrems won a European Court of Justice ruling that the Safe Harbor agreement under which so much data was transferred to US servers, was invalid. In July, UK courts awarded a win to the MPs Tom Watson and David Davis in the case they brought against the UK government over the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act.

Even so, that same week heralded the new frontier of computer dangers, that increased software control over the physical world also provides new ways of bypassing the law, when Volkswagen was caught programming its cars to cheat on emissions tests. The case was just one of several examples of the move of traditional net.wars topics into the physical world. In April, John Deere and General Motors tried to claim that the software embedded in vehicles means that repairing your own tractor is illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In the world according to John Deere - and, we found in December, Philips light bulbs - we're just licensees. Expect much more of things not working and refusing to play with each other as the Internet of Things takes shape.

US owners of drones are now required to register with the Federal Aviation Authority, whose new, widely criticized rules also create a no-fly zone around Washington, DC, thereby shutting down a dozen or two drone clubs that have operated without trouble for years. (One such group, the DC Area Drone User Group, spoke at Computers, Freedom, and Privacy in 2013 and 2014.)

According to November's Surveillance Camera Commissioner's report (PDF), shrinking budgets are causing local authorities to move away from 24/7 CCTV monitoring. However, some are moving to public-private partnerships to finance this and saving money by replacing knowledgeable managers with less-skilled operators. The report also notes that the central, police-accessible Automatic Number Plate Recognition database adds 30 million reads a day from its network of 8,300 cameras. Some police want to raise the time this data is kept from two years to seven years.

Other 2015 watershed moments: the NASDAQ made its first bitcoin trade. Usability pioneer Donald Norman and Mac designer Bruce Tognazzi accused Apple of abandoning usability in favor of aesthetics - and inspiring many other companies to do the same, giving us a web filled with poor-contrast grey text. Ad blockers became institutionalized. Governments adopted magical thinking. Finally, the Open Addresses project that looked so promising back in April was killed by the digital cholera that had been plaguing it all along.

For 2016 here are two (sadly) easy predictions.

The dispute between governments and the laws of mathematics will continue. Microsoft has said it will notify users when state-sponsored actors hack into their data. Legalizing such hacking is one plank of Britain's draft Investigatory Powers bill; David Cameron has indicated that will be illegal to tell users when they're being monitored. A lot more about this will be discussed at the tenth Scrambling for Safety event, scheduled for January 7. Come to learn more about surveillance, privacy, technology, and the investigatory powers bill.

The amount of money spent in this election cycle will set yet another record. Last time - 2012 - was the first trillion-dollar election. What do we get for all that? The money will repair no bridges, rescue no one from poverty, do nothing about climate change. Instead, the money will pay for millions of interrupted dinners, phone messages, emails, and TV/radio ads...and eventually deliver a severely compromised president and Congress that half the country viscerally despises. Ain't democracy grand?

Happy new year, folks.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter. Our apologies that comments here are shut down because of spambots.

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