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May 30, 2008


It's easy to found an organization; it's hard to keep one alive even for as long as ten years. This week, the Foundation for Information Policy Research celebrated its tenth birthday. Ten years is a long time in Internet terms, and even longer when you're trying to get government to pay attention to expertise in a subject as difficult as technology policy.

My notes from the launch contain this quote from FIPR's first director, Caspar Bowden, which shows you just how difficult FIPR's role was going to be: "An educational charity has a responsibility to speak the truth, whether it's pleasant or unpleasant." FIPR was intended to avoid the narrow product focus of corporate laboratory research and retain the traditional freedoms of an academic lab.

My notes also show the following list of topics FIPR intended to research: the regulation of electronic commerce; consumer protection; data protection and privacy; copyright; law enforcement; evidence and archiving; electronic interaction between government, businesses, and individuals; the risks of computer and communications systems; and the extent to which information technologies discriminate against the less advantaged in society. Its first concern was intended to be researching the underpinnings of electronic commerce, including the then recent directive launched for public consultation by the European Commission.

In fact, the biggest issue of FIPR's early years was the crypto wars leading up to and culminating in the passage of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000). It's safe to say that RIPA would have been a lot worse without the time and energy Bowden spent listening to Parliamentary debates, decoding consultation papers, and explaining what it all meant to journalists, politicians, civil servants, and anyone else who would listen.

Not that RIPA is a fountain of democratic behavior even as things are. In the last couple of weeks we've seen the perfect example of the kind of creeping functionalism that FIPR and Privacy International warned about at the time: the Poole council using the access rules in RIPA to spy on families to determine whether or not they really lived in the right catchment area for the schools their children attend.

That use of the RIPA rules, Bowden said at at FIPR's half-day anniversary conference last Wednesday, sets a precedent for accessing traffic data for much lower level purposes than the government originally claimed it was collecting the data for. He went on to call the recent suggestion that the government may be considering a giant database, updated in real time, of the nation's communications data "a truly Orwellian nightmare of data mining, all in one place."

Ross Anderson, FIPR's founding and current chair and a well-known security engineer at Cambridge, noted that the same risks adhere to the NHS database. A clinic that owns its own data will tell police asking for the names of all its patients under 16 to go away. "If," said Anderson, "it had all been in the NHS database and they'd gone in to see the manager of BT, would he have been told to go and jump in the river? The mistake engineers make too much is to think only technology matters."

That point was part of a larger one that Anderson made: that hopes that the giant databases under construction will collapse under their own weight are forlorn. Think of developing Hulk-Hogan databases and the algorithms for mining them as an arms race, just like spam and anti-spam. The same principle that holds that today's cryptography, no matter how strong, will eventually be routinely crackable means that today's overload of data will eventually, long after we can remember anything we actually said or did ourselves, be manageable.

The most interesting question is: what of the next ten years? Nigel Hickson, now with the Department of Business, Enterprise, and Regulatory Reform, gave some hints. On the European and international agenda, he listed the returning dominance of the large telephone companies on the excuse that they need to invest in fiber. We will be hearing about quality of service and network neutrality. Watch Brussels on spectrum rights. Watch for large debates on the liability of ISPs. Digital signatures, another battle of the late 1990s, are also back on the agenda, with draft EU proposals to mandate them for the public sector and other services. RFID, the "Internet for things" and the ubiquitous Internet will spark a new round of privacy arguments.

Most fundamentally, said Anderson, we need to think about what it means to live in a world that is ever more connected through evolving socio-technological systems. Government can help when markets fail; though governments themselves seem to fail most notoriously with large projects.

FIPR started by getting engineers, later engineers and economists, to talk through problems. "The next growth point may be engineers and psychologists," he said. "We have to progressively involve more and more people from more and more backgrounds and discussions."

Probably few people feel that their single vote in any given election really makes a difference. Groups like FIPR, PI, No2ID, and ARCH remind us that even a small number of people can have a significant effect. Happy birthday.

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. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

May 23, 2008

The haystack conundrum

Early this week the news broke that the Home Office wants to create a giant database in which will be stored details of all communications sent in Britain. In other words, instead of data retention, in which ISPs, telephone companies, and other service providers would hang onto communications data for a year or seven in case the Home Office wanted it, everything would stream to a Home Office data center in real time. We'll call it data swallowing.

Those with long memories - who seem few and far between in the national media covering this sort of subject - will remember that in about 1999 or 2000 there was a similar rumor. In the resulting outraged media coverage it was more or less thoroughly denied and nothing had been heard of it since, though privacy advocates continued to suspect that somewhere in the back of a drawer the scheme lurked, dormant, like one of those just-add-water Martians you find in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. And now here it is again in another leak that the suspicious veteran watcher of Yes, Minister might think was an attempt to test public opinion. The fact that it's been mooted before makes it seem so much more likely that they're actually serious.

This proposal is not only expensive, complicated, slow, and controversial/courageous (Yes, Minister's Fab Four deterrents), but risk-laden, badly conceived, disproportionate, and foolish. Such a database will not catch terrorists, because given the volume of data involved trying to use it to spot any one would-be evil-doer will be the rough equivalent of searching for an iron filing in a haystack the size of a planet. It will, however, make it possible for anyone trawling the database to make any given individual's life thoroughly miserable. That's so disproportionate it's a divide-by-zero error.

The risks ought to be obvious: this is a government that can't keep track of the personal details of 25 million households, which fit on a couple of CDs. Devise all the rules and processes you want, the bigger the database the harder it will be to secure. Besides personal information, the giant communications database would include businesses' communication information, much of likely to be commercially sensitive. It's pretty good going to come up with a proposal that equally offends civil liberties activists and businesses.

In a short summary of the proposed legislation, we find this justification: "Unless the legislation is updated to reflect these changes, the ability of public authorities to carry out their crime prevention and public safety duties and to counter these threats will be undermined."

Sound familiar? It should. It's the exact same justification we heard in the late 1990s for requiring key escrow as part of the nascent Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. The idea there was that if the use of strong cryptography to protect communications became widespread law enforcement and security services would be unable to read the content of the messages and phone calls they intercepted. This argument was fiercely rejected at the time, and key escrow was eventually dropped in favor of requiring the subjects of investigation to hand over their keys under specified circumstances.

There is much, much less logic to claiming that police can't do their jobs without real-time copies of all communications. Here we have real analogies: postal mail, which has been with us since 1660. Do we require copies of all letters that pass through the post office to be deposited with the security services? Do we require the Royal Mail's automated sorting equipment to log all address data?

Sanity has never intervened in this government's plans to create more and more tools for surveillance. Take CCTV. Recent studies show that despite the millions of pounds spent on deploying thousands of cameras all over the UK, they don't cut crime, and, more important, the images help solve crime in only 3 percent of cases. But you know the response to this news will not be to remove the cameras or stop adding to their number. No, the thinking will be like the scheme I once heard for selling harmless but ineffective alternative medical treatments, in which the answer to all outcomes is more treatment. (Patient gets better - treatment did it. Patient stays the same - treatment has halted the downward course of the disease. Patient gets worse - treatment came too late.)

This week at Computers, Freedom, and Privacy, I heard about the Electronic Privacy Information Center's work on fusion centers, relatively new US government efforts to mine many commercial and public sources of data. EPIC is trying to establish the role of federal agencies in funding and controlling these centers, but it's hard going.

What do these governments imagine they're going to be able to do with all this data? Is the fantasy that agents will be able to sit in a control room somewhere and survey it all on some kind of giant map on which criminals will pop up in red, ready to be caught? They had data before 9/11 and failed to collate and interpret it.

Iron filing; haystack; lack of a really good magnet.

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. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

May 16, 2008

Everything new is old again

One of the curiosities about the future as portrayed in most movies is its homogeneity. Everyone wears all white or all black, or they all dress the same and live in houses with a minimum of furniture all designed by someone who is apparently anxious not to waste any of the Earth's resources. The bar in Star Wars reminded us that in a universe full of intelligent life there will be lots of different shapes and sizes of aliens sentient enough to drink beer. Terry Gilliam's Brazil and similarly established a much more likely look of the future: a junkyard hodge-podge of old and new technologies and styles. Even the most obsessive fashionistas don't throw out all their belongings every couple of years.

The more subtle point about Gilliam's pictures of the future, however, is that the pieces of old technology distributed throughout - the duct work, the weird old teletypes with their magnified son-of-wing-mirror screens - are what make the movie look futuristic instead of dated. By contrast, the then ultra-modern TV and computer screens are, other than the title, the things that have dated about the movie 2001.

I was reminded of these principles this week while reading David Edgerton's The Shock of the Old, newly out in paperback. In it, Edgerton tries something a bit unusual. Most technology histories, as he says, tell the story of innovations: this is how the airplane was invented and now it's everywhere; this is where the Internet came from. Partly, the idea of human past and future history as an orderly succession of inventions displacing each other in turn, is appealing mythology.

Scott Berkun makes a similar point about ideas in this week's other book, The Myths of Innovation. In it, he notes that the most famous moments of insight - Newton's apple, Aristotle's Eureka - were preceded by decades of hard work that promoters and popular culture prefer to ignore in favor of the better story. And partly, a lot of these histories are written by followers of one particular technology or company, who have an interest in making it seem as important as possible.

A lot of my career has been spent reviewing books like these: biographies of Andy Grove, Steve Jobs, or Carly Fiorina; company histories, pro and con, of IBM, Apple, or Amazon.com; creation tales that follow the development of a single technology or product, like cryptography, pen computing, a new mini-computer, or collaborative software. (Some samples of recent reviews are here.) This sort of book is interesting (particularly the latter group, which includes Steven Levy's Crypto, Jerry Kaplan's Go, Tracy Kidder's The Soul of the Machine, and Scott Rosenberg's Dreaming in Code), but they rarely place any of their central subjects into a wider context.

Edgerton, on the other hand, attempts to organize his history by use. This can, of course, lead to some difficult comparisons. Which had more impact on human history, the computer or the screwdriver? Computers have all the publicists, of course, but over time they may, as Donald A. Norman predicted in The Invisible Computer, to become both ubiquitous and ordinary, just part of the landscape's back office. Like electric motors,

Part of Edgerton's point is that quite often when a technology seems to change the world - say, the Pill - it isn't really new. Birth control was available before, in the form of the condom, and given that the condom can prevent disease and the Pill can't, what was the fuss all about? This is one of only a few times that Edgerton just plain missed the point: the huge change the Pill brought was to put women in control of their fertility.

Why do we keep falling for sexy new technologies? Because, as Bruce Sterling writes in his review of Edgerton's book, human hope springs eternal, and every innovation seems like the very one to fulfill all the dreams we've had all along. Those dreams have changed remarkably little in the last century; electricity, radio, telegraphy, computers, television, the Internet were all supposed to bring a new era of democracy, peace, equality, and education.

Even more mundane details don't seem to have changed that much: Popular Mechanics' idea of the smart home in 1939 doesn't sound much different from today's. Nearly 70 years later, we can say the technology is almost there to do most of what they had in mind. (Although the use of mood-altering colors arguably reached its peak in about 1968.)

Future hype has quieted down some since the early days of the Internet, when a host of commentators including French economist and scholar Jacques Attali, Wired founder Louis Rossetto, and hyperbolist John Perry Barlow all compared its importance favorably to the discovery of fire. But as nanotechnology begins to seep - or perhaps goo - into the mainstream, we're beginning to hear the same things again. At last summer's Center for Responsible Technology conference predictions were that molecular manufacturing would bring wealth for all, permanent prosperity, and all without having to work for a living.

I sense that shortly a new technology will be needed to pin our hopes on. For sale: one future, slightly used.

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. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

May 9, 2008

Swings and roundabouts

There was a wonderful cartoon that cycled frequently around computer science departments in the pre-Internet 1970s - I still have my paper copy - that graphically illustrated the process by which IT systems get specified, designed, and built, and showed precisely why and how far they failed the user's inner image of what it was going to be. There is a scan here. The senior analyst wanted to make sure no one could possibly get hurt; the sponsor wanted a pretty design; the programmers, confused by contradictory input, wrote something that didn't work; and the installation was hideously broken.

Translate this into the UK's national ID card. Consumers, Sir James Crosby wrote in March (PDF)want identity assurance. That is, they - or rather, we - want to know that we're dealing with our real bank rather than a fraud. We want to know that the thief rooting through our garbage can't use any details he finds on discarded utility bills to impersonate us, change our address with our bank, clean out our accounts, and take out 23 new credit cards in our name before embarking on a wild spending spree leaving us to foot the bill. And we want to know that if all that ghastliness happens to us we will have an accessible and manageable way to fix it.

We want to swing lazily on the old tire and enjoy the view.

We are the users with the seemingly simple but in reality unobtainable fantasy.

The government, however - the project sponsor - wants the three-tiered design that barely works because of all the additional elements in the design but looks incredibly impressive. ("Be the envy of other major governments," I feel sure the project brochure says.) In the government's view, they are the users and we are the database objects.

Crosby nails this gap when he draws the distinction between ID assurance and ID management:

The expression 'ID management' suggests data sharing and database consolidation, concepts which principally serve the interests of the owner of the database, for example, the Government or the banks. Whereas we think of "ID assurance" as a consumer-led concept, a process that meets an important consumer need without necessarily providing any spin-off benefits to the owner of any database.

This distinction is fundamental. An ID system built primarily to deliver high levels of assurance for consumers and to command their trust has little in common with one inspired mainly by the ambitions of its owner. In the case of the former, consumers will extend use both across the population and in terms of applications such as travel and banking. While almost inevitably the opposite is true for systems principally designed to save costs and to transfer or share data.

As writer and software engineer Ellen Ullman wrote in her book Close to the Machine, databases infect their owners, who may start with good intentions but are ineluctibly drawn to surveillance.

So far, the government pushing the ID card seems to believe that it can impose anything it likes and if it means the tree collapses with the user on the swing, well, that's something that can be ironed out later. Crosby, however, points out that for the scheme to achieve any of the government's national security goals it must get mass take-up. "Thus," he writes, "even the achievement of security objectives relies on consumers' active participation."

This week, a similarly damning assessment of the scheme was released by the Independent Scheme Assurance Panel (PDF) (you may find it easier to read this clean translation - scroll down to policywatcher's May 8 posting). The gist: the government is completely incompetent at handling data, and creating massive databases will, as a result, destroy public trust in it and all its systems.

Of course, the government is in a position to compel registration, as it's begun doing with groups who can't argue back, like foreigners, and proposes doing for employees in "sensitive roles or locations, such as airports". But one of the key indicators of how little its scheme has to do with the actual needs and desires of the public is the list of questions it's asking in the current consultation on ID cards, which focus almost entirely on how to get people to love, or at least apply for, the card. To be sure, the consultation document pays lip service to accepting comments on any ID card-related topic, but the consultation is specifically about the "delivery scheme".

This is the kind of consultation where we're really damned if we do and damned if we don't. Submit comments on, for example, how best to "encourage" young people to sign up ("Views are invited particularly from young people on the best way of rolling out identity cards to them") without saying how little you like the government asking how best to market its unloved policy to vulnerable groups and when the responses are eventually released the government can say there are now no objectors to the scheme. Submit comments to the effect that the whole National Identity scheme is poorly conceived and inappropriate, and anything else you say is likely to be ignored on the grounds that they've heard all that and it's irrelevant to the present consultation. Comments are due by June 30.

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. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

May 2, 2008

Bet and sue

Most net.wars are not new. Today's debates about free speech and censorship, copyright and control, nationality and disappearing borders were all presaged by the same discussions in the 1980s even as the Internet protocols were being invented. The rare exception: online gambling. Certainly, there were debates about whether states should regulate gambling, but a quick Usenet search does not seem to throw up any discussions about the impact the Internet was going to have on this particular pastime. Just sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

The story started in March, when the French Tennis Federation (FFT - Fédération Française de Tennis) filed suit in Belgium against Betfair, Bwin, and Ladbrokes to prevent them from accepting bets on matches played at the upcoming French Open tennis championships, which start on May 25. The FFT's arguments are rather peculiar: that online betting stains the French Open's reputation; that only the FFT has the right to exploit the French Open; that the online betting companies are parasites using the French Open to make money; and that online betting corrupts the sport. Bwin countersued for slander.

On Tuesday of this week, the Liège court ruled comprehensively against the FFT and awarded the betting companies costs.

The FFT will still, of course, control the things it can: fans will be banned from using laptops and mobile phones in the stands. The convergence of wireless telephony, smart phones, and online sites means that in the second or two between the end of a point and the electronic scoreboard updating, there's a tiny window in which people could bet on a sure thing. Why this slightly improbable scenario concerns the FFT isn't clear; that's a problem for the betting companies. What should concern the FFT is ensuring a lack of corruption within the sport. That means the players and their entourages.

The latter issue has been a touchy subject in the tennis world ever since last August, when Russian player Nikolay Davydenko, currently fourth in the world rankings, retired in the third and final set of a match in Poland against 87th ranked Marin Vassallo Arguello, citing a foot injury. Davydenko was accused of match-fixing; the investigation still drags on. In the resulting publicity, several other players admitted being approached to fix matches. As part of subsequent rule-tightening by the Association of Tennis Professionals, the governing body of men's professional tennis, three Italian players were suspended briefly late last year for betting on other players' matches.

Probably the most surprising thing is that tennis, along with soccer and horse racing, is actually among the most popular sports for betting. A minority sport like tennis? Yet according to USA Today, the 2007 Paris Masters event saw $750 million to $1.5 billion in bets. I can only assume that the inverted pyramid of matches every week involving individual players fits well with what bettors like to do.

Fixing matches seems even more unlikely. The best payouts come from correctly picking upsets, the bigger the better. But top players are highly unlikely to throw matches to order. Most of them play a relatively modest number of events (Davydenko is admittedly the exception) and need all the match wins and points from those events to sustain their rankings. Plus, they're just too damn rich.

In 2007, Roger Federer, the ultra-dominant number one player since the end of 2003, earned upwards of $10 million in prize money alone; Davydenko picked up over $2 million (and has already won another $1 million in 2008). All of the top 12 earned over $1 million. Add in endorsements, and even after you subtract agents' fees, tax, and travel costs for self and entourage, you're still looking at wealthy guys. They might tank matches at events where they're being paid appearance fees (which are legal on the men's tour at all but the top 14 events, but proving they've done so is exceptionally difficult. Fixing matches, which could cost them in lost endorsements on top of the tour's own sanctions, surely can't be worth it.

There are several ironies about the FFT's action. First of all (something most of the journalists covering this story don't mention, probably because they don't spend a lot of time watching tennis on TV), Bwin has been an important advertiser sponsoring tennis on Eurosport. It's absolutely typical of the counter-productive and intricately incestuous politics that characterize the tennis world that one part of the sport would sue someone who pays money into another part of the sport.

Second of all, as Betfair and Bwin pointed out, all three of these companies are highly regulated European licensed operations. Ruling them out of action would mean shift online betting to less well regulated offshore companies. They also pointed out the absurdity of the parasites claim: how could they accept bets on an event without using its name? Betfair in particular documented its careful agreements with tennis's many governing bodies.

Third of all, the only reason match-fixing is an issue in the tennis world right now is that Betfair spotted some unusual betting patterns during that Polish Davydenko match, cancelled all the bets, and went public with the news. Without that, Davydenko would have avoided the fight over his family's phone records. Come to think of it, making the issue public probably explains the FFT's behavior: it's revenge.

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. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).