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September 24, 2010

Lost in a Haystack

In the late 1990s you could always tell when a newspaper had just gotten online because it would run a story about the Good Times virus.

Pause for historical detail: the Good Times virus (and its many variants) was an email hoax. An email message with the subject heading "Good Times" or, later, "Join the Crew", or "Penpal Greetings", warned recipients that opening email messages with that header would damage their computers or delete the contents of their hard drives. Some versions cited Microsoft, the FCC, or some other authority. The messages also advised recipients to forward the message to all their friends. The mass forwarding and subsequent complaints were the payload.

The point, in any case, is that the Good Times virus was the first example of mass social engineering that spread by exploiting not particularly clever psychology and a specific kind of technical ignorance. The newspaper staffers of the day were very much ordinary new users in this regard, and they would run the story thinking they were serving their readers. To their own embarrassment, of course. You'd usually see a retraction a week or two later.

Austin Heap, the progenitor of Haystack, software he claimed was devised to protect the online civil liberties of Iranian dissidents, seems unlikely to have been conducting an elaborate hoax rather than merely failing to understand what he was doing. Either way, Haystack represents a significant leap upward in successfully taking mainstream, highly respected publications for a technical ride. Evgeny Morozov's detailed media critique underestimates the impact of the recession and staff cuts on an already endangered industry. We will likely see many more mess-equals-technology-plus-journalism stories because so few technology specialists remain in the post-recession mainstream media.

I first heard Danny O'Brien's doubts about Haystack in June, and his chief concern was simple and easily understood: no one was able to get a copy of the software to test it for flaws. For anyone who knows anything about cryptography or security, that ought to have been damning right out of the gate. The lack of such detail is why experienced technology journalists, including Bruce Schneier, generally avoided commenting on it. There is a simple principle at work here: the *only* reason to trust technology that claims to protect its users' privacy and/or security is that it has been thoroughly peer-reviewed - banged on relentlessly by the brightest and best and they have failed to find holes.

As a counter-example, let's take Phil Zimmermann's PGP, email encryption software that really has protected the lives and identities of far-flung dissidents. In 1991, when PGP first escaped onto the Net, interest in cryptography was still limited to a relatively small, though very passionate, group of people. The very first thing Zimmermann wrote in the documentation was this: why should you trust this product? Just in case readers didn't understand the importance of that question, Zimmermann elaborated, explaining how fiendishly difficult it is to write encryption software that can withstand prolonged and deliberate attacks. He was very careful not to claim that his software offered perfect security, saying only that he had chosen the best algorithms he could from the open literature. He also distributed the source code freely for review by all and sundry (who have to this day failed to find substantive weaknesses). He concludes: "Anyone who thinks they have devised an unbreakable encryption scheme either is an incredibly rare genius or is naive and inexperienced." Even the software's name played down its capabilities: Pretty Good Privacy.

When I wrote about PGP in 1993, PGP was already changing the world by up-ending international cryptography regulations, blocking mooted US legislation that would have banned the domestic use of strong cryptography, and defying patent claims. But no one, not even the most passionate cypherpunks, claimed the two-year-old software was the perfect, the only, or even the best answer to the problem of protecting privacy in the digital world. Instead, PGP was part of a wider argument taking shape in many countries over the risks and rewards of allowing civilians to have secure communications.

Now to the claims made for Haystack in its FAQ:

However, even if our methods were compromised, our users' communications would be secure. We use state-of-the-art elliptic curve cryptography to ensure that these communications cannot be read. This cryptography is strong enough that the NSA trusts it to secure top-secret data, and we consider our users' privacy to be just as important. Cryptographers refer to this property as perfect forward secrecy.

Without proper and open testing of the entire system - peer review - they could not possibly know this. The strongest cryptographic algorithm is only as good as its implementation. And even then, as Clive Robertson writes in Financial Cryptography, technology is unlikely to be a complete solution.

What a difference a sexy news hook makes. In 1993, the Clinton Administration's response to PGP was an FBI investigation that dogged Zimmermann for two years; in 2010, Hillary Clinton's State Department fast-tracked Haystack through the licensing requirements. Why such a happy embrace of Haystack rather than existing privacy technologies such as Freenet, Tor, or other anonymous remailers and proxies remains as a question for the reader.

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.

September 17, 2010

Science is vital

"Should I burn the check or eat it?" a broke friend with with bank account difficulties asked once.

Deciding what you can do without in a financial crisis is always tough, whether you're an individual or a government. Do you cut cold weather payments to the elderly? Dump pre-school programs? Sell off nationalized industries, pocket the debt, and use the cash as if it were income instead of irreplaceable capital? Slash arts funding knowing that you will be attacked by every high-profile actor and creator as a philistine? Flood prevention. Investment in new technologies to combat climate change. Police. Every group has its own set of arguments about why it shouldn't bear the brunt of government cuts. Everyone is special.

That may in fact be why the coalition government warned at the outset that slashing budgets would be across the board and that everyone would feel the chill. The UK Film Council, Becta, public sector...

And science research, spending on which is due to be reviewed next month. Even Harris, the former LibDem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, has argued that science research is the foundation of future economic growth; Professor Brian Cox has compared the possibility of mothballing the expensive particle accelerator projects Diamond and Isis to "building the Olympic stadium and then not using it". (Not building the Olympic stadium - not winning the Olympics - not *bidding* on the Olympics would all have been fine with me, but this is the problem with trying to balance interest groups.)

At first glance, it's easy to see why business secretary Vince Cable would think it's a good idea for scientists to become more commercial: get industry to provide more funding and discontinue work that is "neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding", as the Guardian has him saying. While we've all heard the jokes about Drunken Goldfish and Other Irrelevant Scientific Research, the thing is that science - especially basic research - isn't so neatly categorized. When it is - when commercial interests take over too strongly - the underlying fundamental advances are lost, taking with them the next generation of new ideas.

Twenty years ago, when I first started doing technology journalism, I was told there were three great corporate research labs in the US: Xerox PARC, IBM Watson, and Bell Labs. Bell Labs was broken up along with its parent company, AT&T; PARC is not the force it was. Only IBM is still making news with its research. A lot of talent is now congregating at Google. In any event, over the last two decades most corporate research has in general become much more tightly focused on producing results the funding companies can use right away. That was a major reason why MIT's Media Lab was so successful at attracting funding from so many companies: it offered them a way to back less specifically focused research for relatively modest sums.

But basic research is the real blue-sky stuff, where you don't know what you have until some time later. In its heyday, IBM did both: it invented dye lasers, which had relatively little impact within the company but much more outside it, as well as DRAM and disk drives, which more obviously benefited the company itself. James McGroddy, then director of IBM research, told me in 1991 (for Personal Computer World) that even apparently irrelevant scientific research did have benefits for IBM even if they couldn't be easily quantified. For example, the company can more easily take advantage of advances if the people who made them are in its employ. Plus, expertise can cross disciplines: he cited the example of IBM mathematicians who find hard problems to work on within IBM customer needs (such as how to optimize airline schedules). More subtly, the production of Nobel prize-winning work made IBM the kind of place that the best people wanted to be.

All these points are relevant to national research programs, too, and lead directly to points Harris and others have made: that if you remove the facilities that allow scientists to work they will perforce go elsewhere. It is unfortunate but true that highly educated, very talented, creative people - and that is what scientists are - have choices about these things. And once you start to lose this generation of scientists, the next generation will follow of necessity because the way you become a great scientist is to be trained by and work with great scientists during your developmental years. The decisions made in this area today will make the difference between the UK's continuing to be a country that punches well above its weight in terms of size, population, and natural resources and the UK's becoming the third world country the Pope's aide already thinks it is (although hasn't anyone who's had to take one of those buses from plane to jetway thought the same thing?).

There must be some way of balancing the finances such that we do not throw away the future to pay for the present. Julian Huppert has tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament, and there are demonstrations brewing. Imagine: Sheldon is marching.

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.

September 10, 2010

Google, I want a divorce

Jamie: You're dating your mailman?
Lisa: Why not? He comes to see me every day. He's always bringing me things.
Jamie: Mail. He brings you mail.
Lisa: Don't judge him!

- from Mad About You, Season 3, Episode 1, "Escape From New York".

Two years ago, when Google turned ten years old I was called into a BBC studio to talk about the company. Why, I was asked, did people hate Microsoft so much? Would people ever hate Google, too? I said, I think, that because we're only aware of Microsoft when its software fails, our primary impression of the company is frustration: why does this software hate me?

Whereas, I went on to say, to most people Google is like the mailman: it's a nice Web site that keeps bringing you things you really want. Yes, Street View (privacy), Google Books (copyright), and other controversies, but search results! Right out of the oven!

This week I can actually say it: I hate Google. There was the annoying animated Buckyball. There was the enraging exploding animation. And now there's Google Instant - which I can turn off, to be sure, now I can't turn off Google's suggestions. Pause to scream.

I know life is different for normal people, and that people who can't touch type maybe actually like Google's behaving like a long-time spouse who finishes all their sentences, especially if they cannot spell correctly. But neither Instant nor suggestions is a help when your typical search is a weird mix of constraints intended to prod Google into tossing out hits on obscure topics. And you know what else isn't a help? Having stuff change before your eyes and disrupt the brain-fingers continuum. Changing displays, animations, word suggestions all distract you from what you're typing and make it hard to concentrate.

A different problem is the one posed by personalized results: journalists need to find the stuff they - and lots of other people - don't know about. Predictive and personalized results typically will show you the stuff you already do know about, which is fine if you're trying to find that guy who fixed your garage door that time but terrible if what you're trying to do is put together new information in new ways (like focus groups, as Don Draper's said in the recent Mad Men episode "The Rejected".)

There are a lot of things Google could do that would save me - and millions of other people - more time than Instant. The company could get expunge more of the link farms and useless aggregator shopping sites from its results. Intelligence could be better deployed for disaggregation - this Wendy Grossman or that one? I'd benefit from having the fade-in go away; it always costs me a few seconds.

There are some other small nuisances that also waste my time. On the News and some other pages, for example, you can't right-click on a URL and copy/paste it into a story because a few years ago doing that started returning an enormously long Google-adulterated URL. Simply highlighting and copying the URL into Word puts it in weird fonts you have to change. So the least slow way is to go to the page - which is very nice for the page but you're on deadline. And why can't Google read the page's date of last alteration (at least on static pages) and include that in the search listing? The biggest time-waster for me is having to plough through acres of old stuff because there's no way to differentiate it from the recent material. I also don't like the way the new Images search pages load. You would be this fussy, too, if you spent an hour or two a day on the site.

Lauren Weinstein has turned up some other, more serious, problems with Google Instant and the way it "thinks". Of course, it's still in beta, we all know this. Even though Yahoo! says hey, we had that back in 2005. (And does anyone else think the mention of "intellectual property" in that blog post sounds ominous?) Search Engine Watch has more detail (and a step-by-step critique; it's SEW's commentators' opinions that Yahoo! did not go ahead with its live offering because it had insufficient appetite for product risk - and insufficient infrastructure to support it.

So, for me personally the upshot is that I'm finally, after 11 years, in the market for a replacement search engine. Yahoo! is too cluttered. Ask.com's "question of the day" annoys me because, again, it's distracting. Altavista I abandoned gratefully (clutter!) in 1998 even though it invented the Babelfish. Dogpile has a stupid name, is hideous, and has a horoscope button on the front page. Webcrawler doesn't quick-glance differentiate its sponsored links. Cuil has too few results on a page and no option to increase them. Of course, mostly I want not to have to change.

Perhaps the most likely option is the one I saw recommended on Slashdot: Google near-clone DuckDuckGo, which seems to have a good attitude toward privacy and a lot of nifty shortcuts. I don't really love the shading in and out as you mouse over results, but I love that you can click anywhere in the shading to go to the page. I don't like having to wait for most of the listings to load; I like to skim all 100 listings on a page quickly before choosing anything. But I have to use something. I search to live.
So many options, yet none are really right. It may just be that as the main search engines increasingly compete for the mass-market they will be increasingly less fit for real research. There's an important niche here, folks.

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.

September 3, 2010

Beyond the zipline

When Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Sports Night) was signed to write the screenplay for a movie about Facebook, I think the general reaction was one of more or less bafflement. Sorkin has a great track record, sure, but how do you make a movie about a Web site, even if it's a social network? What are you going to show? People typing to each other?

Now that the movie is closer coming out (October 1 in the US) that we're beginning to see sneak peak trailers, and we can tell a lot more from the draft screenplay that's been floating around the Net. The copy I found is dated March 2009, and you can immediately tell it's the real thing: quality dialogue and construction, and the feel of real screenwriting expertise. Turns out, the way you write a screenplay about Facebook is to read the books, primarily the novelistic, not-so-admired Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, along with other published material and look for the most dramatic bit of the story: the lawsuits eventually launched by the characters you're portraying. Through which, as a framing device, you can tell the story of the little social network that exploded. Or rather, Sorkin can. The script is a compelling read. (It's actually not clear to me that it can be improved by actually filming it.)

Judging from other commentaries, everyone seems to agree it's genuine, though there's no telling where in the production process that script was, how many later drafts there were, or how much it changed in filming and post-production. There's also no telling who leaked it or why: if it was intentional it was a brilliant marketing move, since you could hardly ask for more word-of-mouth buzz.

If anyone wanted to design a moral lesson for the guy who keeps saying privacy is dead, it might be this: turn out your deepest secrets to portray you as a jerk who steals other people's ideas and codes them into the basis for a billion-dollar company, all because you want to stand out at Harvard and, most important, win the admiration of the girl who dumped you. Think the lonely pathos of the socially ostracized, often overlooked Jenny Humphrey in Gossip Girl crossed with the arrogant, obsessive intelligence of Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. (Two characters I actually like, but they shouldn't breed.)

Neither the book nor the script is that: they're about as factual as 1978's The Buddy Holly Story or any other Hollywood biopic. Mezrich, who likes to write books about young guys who get rich fast (you can see why; he's gotten several bestsellers out of this approach), had no help from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, What dialogue there is has been "re-created", and sources other than disaffected co-founder Eduardo Saverin are anonymous. Lacking sourcing (although of course the court testimony is public information), it's unclear how fictional the dramatization is. I'd have no problem with that if the characters weren't real people identified by their real names.

Places, too. Probably the real-life person/place/thing that comes off worst is Harvard, which in the book especially is practically a caricature of the way popular culture likes to depict it: filled with the rich, the dysfunctional, and the terminally arrogant who vie to join secretive, elite clubs that force them to take part in unsavoury hazing rituals. So much so that it was almost a surprise to read in Wikipedia that Mezrich actually went to Harvard.

Journalists and privacy advocates have written extensively about the consequences for today's teens of having their adolescent stupidities recorded permanently on Facebook or elsewhere, but Zuckerberg is already living with having his frat-boy early days of 2004 documented and endlessly repeated. Of course one way to avoid having stupid teenaged shenanigans reported is not to engage in them, but let's face it: how many of us don't have something in our pasts we'd just as soon keep out of the public eye? And if you're that rich that young, you have more opportunities than most people to be a jerk.

But if the only stories people can come up with about Zuckerberg date from before he turned 21, two thoughts occur. First, that Zuckerberg has as much right as anybody to grow up into a mature human being whose early bad judgement should be forgiven. To cite two examples: the tennis player Andre Agassi was an obnoxious little snert at 18 and a statesman of the game at 30; at 30 Bill Gates was criticized for not doing enough for charity but now at 54 is one of the world's most generous philanthropists. It is, therefore, somewhat hypocritical to demand that Zuckerberg protect today's teens from their own online idiocy while constantly republishing his follies.

Second, that outsized, hyperspeed business success might actually have forced him to grow up rather quickly. Let's face it, it's hard to make an interesting movie out of the hard work of coding and building a company.

And a third: by joining the 500 million and counting who are using Facebook we are collectively giving Zuckerberg enough money not to care either way.

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.