I have been baffled to read the more sensationalist headlines claiming that as a result of a case decided this week in the European Court of Human Rights employers now have the right to snoop on employees' messaging. Partly because employers have always had the *ability* even if they didn't have the right, and partly because it doesn't seem to this not-a-lawyer like the original complainant, a Romanian engineer named Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu, had much of a case to begin with.
Barbulescu was fired for using his work Yahoo! Messenger account to send messages to his fiancée even though his employer had officially banned sending personal messages while at work. When the employer wanted to see the logs (which were supposed to be logs of corporate communications), Bartulescu said they were all work communications. They weren't: some were those aforesaid messages to his fiancée. The result is that the engineer remains fired, and the court held that it's not unreasonable for an employer to verify that employees are actually working. The key seems to be that the employer must be clear about what the policy is and how it will be enforced. Which leaves us...exactly where we were, I think.
My recollection is that concern about the possibilities that the arrival of computer systems would enable employers to monitor their employees in depth goes back to at least 1990; I thought I recalled first seeing it in the EU's directive on minimum safety and health requirements for work with "display screen equipment", but rereading the directive today, I can't find it there. The Public Privacy instead cites the 1995 Data Protection Directive, which gives "data subjects" (that's us) the right to be notified when their personal information is collected. So let's say this: I remember being startled sometime in the early 1990s by reading legislation that protected employees from secret monitoring via computer. I may remember wrong.
In any case, as I wrote in the Herald, even people who think they don't care about privacy because "I have nothing to hide" understand this as a loss of personal autonomy they do care about.
In an example of the kind of news we can expect from the Internet of Things, Google apparently deployed a buggy update to its Nest thermostats that caused the batteries to run down and a whole lot of people to get cold. How little we have learned since oh, probably 1960 and any one of dozens of other examples of badly managed software updates. It's tempting to rant about the incompetence of people who can't test things adequately, but the reality is that this particular bug took a couple of weeks to show up while the thermostats kept pointlessly trying to connect to their mothership. So the first mistake is not having a way for the thermostat to say, hey, no internet, and stop trying. The really bigger mistake is the complexity of rebooting these things once the battery has run down: the described nine-step procedure fails every imaginable usability test. So the big lesson here is to design for easy recovery from unexpected failure modes (along the lines of installing a fresh battery and hitting one button). The other lesson is to be smart enough people to buy *stupid* thermostats in the first place, at least until other people have debugged this generation.
In a different example of failure mode, we note an update on the bitcoin community crisis net.wars noted last September. Mike Hearn, one of the earliest (British) bitcoin developers, has quit the project, the currency, and the community, saying that it never occurred to him that the project could fall apart because of "fundamental political disagreements over the goals of the project". Now, it's just possible that bitcoin transactions may shudder to a halt for that reason.
Had Hearn read Nathaniel Popper's Digital Gold: The Untold Story of Bitcoin, he might have been less surprised. In telling the story of bitcoin, the book laid bare the many different motives people had for joining the movement. Some wanted to wrest currency out of government control; others love crypto and experimentation; and still others saw a business opportunity. When something is small, the divergence of motives doesn't matter too much because the immediate goal is the same: make it bigger. It's when a certain amount of growth has been achieved and further-reaching decisions have to be made that disagreement over goals and values kills. As we have written here so often, community does not scale. If Hearn but knew it, the fact that bitcoin has reached this point is actually a sign of some kind of success. However, it's not a sign that bitcoin as it was originally conceived will survive. Instead, as someone predicted a couple of years ago at the Tomorrow's Transactions Forum, the most likely is that the ideas - the blockchain - will be subsumed into our existing financial system.
The bitcoin community as it's been until now will splinter into its varying constituencies. I'd suggest that the present situation is roughly equivalent to the dot-com bust, in which trillions of dollars in market valuations of highly dubious companies disappeared. Even while it was happening, however, almost everyone in the business or technical communities thought the internet was going to a whole lot bigger ten years later. And so it was. I've been and continue to be highly skeptical about bitcoin as a currency - but even I can tell the ideas behind it are not finished, not by any means.
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.