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October 31, 2014


Back in April, headlines screamed that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs was going to sell the nation's collected tax data to third parties for reuse. This was shortly after the care.data fiasco, so public freakage happened on a grand scale. HMRC said no, no, sharing and maybe recovering costs, not selling and opened a consultation.

This week, the Open Rights Group sent me (an advisory council member), to a roundtable discussion of these issues. I had two main points of interest. First, data-sharing should not become extortion, given that that we are legally obliged to give HMRC our financial data. Second, the open policy effort, presaged by a 2013 tea camp meeting focused on exactly this. Other groups represented at the meeting included the Open Data User Group, the British Bankers' Association, 38 Degrees, the Federation of Small Businesses, HMRC itself, the Chartered Institute of Taxation, which hosted the meeting, and the devil in this particular set of details, Experian.

The questions on the table: whether, how, with whom, under what circumstances, how much, in what form, and at whose expense data should be shared. Two types of data were up for discussion: the VAT registration database and taxpayer information. Both are contentious. The latter, because even the people who post other intimate details online do not post their financial statements. The former, because Britain's 3.7 million sole traders and 434,000 partnerships often register using their principals' home addresses. CIOT president Anne Fairpo suggested instead an online checker for the ownership and validity of VAT numbers.

There was little discussion of *whether*: sharing data for public benefit sounds benign. While most documents talk of eliminating fraud, Edward Troup, the second permanent secretary and tax assurance commissioner for HMRC, noted that current legal restrictions forced HMRC to turn down a proposed NHS study of factors underlying excess winter mortality. This changes the discussion, at least for me: the benefits are no longer solely economic. Trust, Troup said is key to allowing HMRC to pursue its mandated function.

The case for sharing VAT registration data seems to come down to the goal of improving access to credit. Paul Malyon, for Experian, suggested it would give more businesses "score access". How significant the benefit would be, no one was sure: it's just one among many factors in determining risk. Is this a real enough problem to need a 100 percent solution? As Fairpo asked, if the benefit of releasing this data only accrues to 25 percent of businesses, why should 100 percent of those registered have their data released? How much this policy is up for discussion is unclear, given that that the Small Business Enterprise and Employment Bill has already been introduced into parliament with provision for such disclosure included (section 6).

One question is whether to restrict sharing VAT registration data with a selected band of "most favored nations" (such as Experian) or to open it up more broadly to see what innovation and economic benefits might accrue. Having been a (voluntarily) registered sole trader myself, I grasp the invasiveness of simply publishing the dataset openly. But there are also issues around closing this public asset to all but a small group of already entrenched companies with data-driven business models in a discriminatory fashion. Is this the power structure we want for the future? It's certainly against the spirit of what open data is supposed to be about.

Taxpayer data is much trickier. You could see the HMRC folks wince at the memory) 2008 lost HMRC data CDs, but that experience has left HMRC with an acute awareness of what can go wrong. They have procedures, there are criminal sanctions for disclosing data, and so on. Under those conditions, HMRC already shares such data with chosen researchers, who are allowed to access it only in a controlled room on standalone machines. In the three years this Datalab has been running, said Cindy Bell, HMRC's head of information policy and disclosure, there have been no accidental disclosures. The HMRC folks also want to avoid reenacting care.data's missteps. So far, so good.

But that still leaves many concerns. Taxpayer data was not created with sharing in mind. Aggregated data may still reveal details about individuals if it's sliced too thinly (some industries are small and local). Anonymized data...isn't, a hard message to fully get across. Finding the right balance between privacy and the public interest in this area will be particularly fraught. And there are three additional risks that need to be considered. One: as several speakers said, individuals whose data is compromised need remedies and options for redress. Two: we need to plan how to recover from failures if and when. Three; as Jim Killock, ORG's executive director, has said, the fact that several different departments are considering these issues in different ways is not a joined-up approach (even if the goal is joined-up government). What's needed is a broader effort to develop first principles around data sharing. Otherwise, the risk is that incompatible data sharing regimes will become yet another set of barriers.

Finally, I believe individuals want to see and control what is being shared about them in a fine-grained ongoing way. A move to personal data stores could up-end this whole discussion.

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.

October 24, 2014

Ground truthiness

New term of the week: ground truthiness (or it may be a word, groundtruthiness; I don't hear spaces well). It refers to what happens to a shiny, new technology when it moves from abstract theory and neat, clean lab demonstration into the messiness of the real world, where some people have two right thumbs or pendular nystagmus. In the wild, you find reality; you find the truth of what happens on the ground. You find its ground truthiness.

The ground truthiness of biometrics is particularly fragile. It's not just users that can confound things - as James L. Wayman said in 2003 ($), "People never have what you think they're going to have where you think they're going to have it." Bigger issues are the environment, the context of the system, and the needs and expectations of its owners.

The first kind of story is sometimes laughable: a facial recognition system built and marketed in Nigeria that does not work particularly well for dark faces. The second kind is why when you use the airport electronic gates you have to stand correctly on the yellow feet and look ahead so the lighting is right. The last two are the really complex ones.

On Tuesday, at the 2014 biometrics conference UCL researcher Itiel Dror explained that despite their neutral, objective sound, biometrics systems can be as unreliable as human memory. The work Dror described studying cognitive bias in forensics is the fingerprint analogue of the work done by Elizabeth Loftus demonstrating the vagaries of eyewitness testimony ($) and the bias that can be conveyed in police line-ups. After decades of vendor marketing, we tend to think of biometrics as clean, neutral, unimpeachable, and objective: if a fingerprint lying around the scene of a crime matches yours you'd better have a really good explanation. And yet...

The fact is that however neutral the scrap of data that represents a biometric may be, the system it's built into is designed and operated by humans. In one of the applications Dror studied, matching latent fingerprints collected at crime scenes with fingerprints stored in an automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS), the system gives the examiner a list of possible matches, often 15, sometimes as many as 50. Just as Loftus found that eyewitnesses may be influenced by the police's ordering of a lineup, Dror discovered that the expert examining fingerprint matches is influenced by the ordering of the list and also by the context of what they've been told about the case - for example, knowing that the police considers a particular suspect guilty.

Experts in any field, Dror said, learn what elements they can safely ignore. If you know that most of the time the match is in the top few, you may well miss better matches appearing lower down. There are solutions to this, which he proposed. Randomizing the order is the most obvious (and, for similar reasons, is done in some jurisdictions with candidates' names on election ballots). Dror also suggested giving a prize for matches found lower down the list. However, both strategies slow the examiner's work. His compromise is to suggest giving shorter lists (the length to be determined by studying historical data and setting a threshold based on the number of desired hits) and randomizing the items.

"The success of biometrics systems depends on how well they are integrated into a larger cognitive context," he concluded.

In his paper, Dror suggests that this is a new problem that has been introduced by the creation of the giant AFIS databases: in earlier times there tended to be only a few suspects and those were selected based on other criteria than the probability of a biometric match. A similarly new problem, though different in kind, was introduced in India, said Nishant Shah, cofounder of the Centre for Internet and Society, who has been working with the Unique Identification Authority of India. Part of UDAI's goal is to help severely disenfranchised groups such as the homeless, nomadic workers, and asylum seekers. But, he said, "Some communities only survive because they are not counted." And there are other difficulties: village manual labourers do not have legible fingerprints, while in one southern village only the upper castes were registered. The reason: the enrolment equipment was set up on land owned by upper castes, to which the lower castes had no access.

Shortly afterwards, Alan Gelb, from the Center for Global Development, noted that the introduction of systems that tighten the link between identity and citizenship is increasing the number of formally stateless persons, currently estimated at 12 million worldwide. "The privacy gap has gotten a lot of attention," he said, "but there is very little on the risk of exclusion."

None of these problems is specifically about biometrics. But they are all about the difficulties inherent in trying to fit the fuzzy arrangements that humans make among themselves into tidy binary categories. It is a much more profound change than most vendors recognize - especially those like Jim Jasinski, senior vice-president for business development at Digital Signal, who repeatedly insisted that the technology his company sells is "just a conduit".

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.

October 17, 2014

Uppity women

The best answer to bad speech is more speech. The best answer to trolls is not to feed them. The best answer to stupid sexist abuse promulgated by a small minority is a mix: report the death and rape threats, ignore the idiots, and tell the rest of the world why they're wrong.

When Suw Charman-Anderson founded Ada Lovelace Day as a blogging campaign, she said on Tuesday night at London's live celebration, she never expected it to spread as it has, with myriad events around the globe and even finding a footing in non-Anglophone cultures. Sampling his year's crop: the Telegraph, the Guardian - twice, the New York Times, and so many more. Two reruns: XKCD, and 2010's net.wars: Sung heroines.

The idea is simple enough: to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This year's London event, held at the Royal Institution, featured eight speakers showing off the fact that there is nothing about the female brain that is unsuited to any of the sciences. Speakers included Turi King, who uses genetics to answer questions in archeology and anthropology and discussed her work identifying the bones of Richard III; the physicist, oceanographer, and bubble scientist Helen Czerski; designer Steph Troeth; and the structural engineer Roma Agrawal, who spent six years designing the foundations and spire for the Shard, the tallest building in Europe.

The great thing about these talks is that they outlined knowledge and achievements that would be impressive and interesting whoever showcased them. The Skeptic in me especially appreciated Czerski's populist approach to showing how basic physics principles can be demonstrated with ordinary household items such as powdered laundry detergent, tonic water, and her skirt, yet appear in myriad phenomena at all scales. We forget, now that many big advances require expensive equipment and trained experts, that vast tranches of science can be discovered and inferred exactly as they were originally. All you need is curiosity and a willingness to investigate beyond typing search terms into Wikipedia, reading the first paragraph, and muttering "tl:dr".

If it were just one day a year, and the organizers had to scour the backwoods of science and technology to find the same old names popping up, Ada Lovelace Day would be a failure. That they *don't* have to do that shows how far we really have come. Although: clearly not far enough if the Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella can still say women shouldn't ask for raises. (His reasoning, by the way, was familiar to me from 1976, when a renowned middle-aged, British male folksinger informed me that I should not approach people for work but should stay home and practice, and when I was ready work would find me.) Nadella rapidly apologized and said he was "completely wrong"; CSMonitor has followed up with an analysis of the company's actual treatment of its female employees, who are 29 percent of the workforce (17 percent of technology).

Relatedly, on October 9, a special "digital women" edition of Teacamp drew dozens. At this event, speakers noted that training more women is important in solving the skills shortage employers complain about. It's true, and yet it's an argument we shouldn't have to make. It's even a little reminiscent of the world wars, when women staffed the factories while men were at the front - only to be sent home again when the men returned.

The rise of US period TV drama set in the 1940s (Manhattan and 1950s (Masters of Sex) is obviously at least partly attempts to copy the success of the 1960s portrayal, Mad Men (see also the failed, short-lived Pan Am and The Playboy Club). But I also have a theory that part of the appeal of these dramas is to people like watching women who aren't so...uppity.

One thing Mad Men has done exceptionally well is show the way sexism changed as women began penetrating the workplace in new, more substantial roles. The early - 1960, 1961 - sexism in the older generation's style was rather paternal (when they weren't actually screwing the secretaries): patronizing, limiting, dismissive, but veneered with politeness. The younger breed (such as Jay R. Ferguson's Stan Rizzo) arrive with a sneer: more overtly hostile and obnoxious. The contrast between the two is mirrored by the difference in response by the parallel generations of women, perfectly encapsulated by Peggy and Joan's elevator scene (Season 4, episode 8, "The Summer Man").

In many ways, Peggy and her real-life counterparts would have loved to have modern women's problems. To break the ground her generation did, they had to seem impervious to both paternalism and hostility while striving to get their abilities to be taken seriously without being damned as "pushy". They are probably grateful not to have faced revenge porn or the hunting packs of social media (though they did face the tabloids), and at conventions being ignored was a bigger issue than being harassed. One day soon a generation will look back on 2014 and wonder the fuss was about. Happy belated Ada Lovelace Day.

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.

October 10, 2014

The tipping point

So it's treaty time again. Tomorrow, October 11, 2014, will see protests in myriad European cities over the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP, formerly known as TAFTA, for Transatlantic Free Trade Area), a treaty between the EU and US intended, so they say, to ease the free flow of trade by "harmonizing" impedimentary regulations.

Negotiations have been proceeding for more than a year. October 3 saw the conclusion of the seventh round of talks.

At this point, it's traditional for net.wars to highlight the main points of the proposal under discussion. And herein lies the first problem: we don't exactly know. We can speculate, based on leaks of portions of early drafts of this and similar treaties. But the actual text is secret. So secret, in fact, that even members of Congress were excluded. Even if the provisions were wholly benign this would be clearly wrong, given the agendas of organizations that have been consulted: the Business Software Alliance, for example.

It seems unlikely that the treaty's provisions *are* wholly benign; its opponents cover a wide range from labor unions to charities such as War on Want to those concerned about protecting the NHS, thought to be a target for US heathcare companies yearning for European markets.

The EFF's analysis of leaked documents from the separate Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations gives us some idea of negotiating parties' wishlists. More recently, EFF has said that, copyright is now out of TTIP - but, as it also says, other forms of IP law whose expansion could be damaging to the public interest, may still be in, such as trade secrets and patents.

Advocates of the public domain and intellectual property reform twitch nervously when they hear the word "harmonize" because that word has provided the justification for so many recent expansion efforts. This is how 21st century policy laundering works: policies are shopped to countries one is found to adopt it; then its promoters push the others to harmonize with that one. Some years back, the Canadian legal scholar Michael Geist tracked down the source of the most frequently-cited copyright policies - and found that just two organizations were responsible for most of the reports behind them.

The general expectation is that the treaty has in its sights a number of areas where EU and US standards conflict with each other, such as data protection and privacy, and chemical and food safety, including genetically modified organisms. As speakers including Hilda Palmer, Sam Lowe, and Linda Kaucher explained at an event on Monday (the video is here), the difference between EU and US approaches to food and chemical safety is the equivalent of guilty until proved innocent versus innocent until proved guilty. The EU requires the producers of new chemicals and organisms to prove that they are safe; the US takes a science-based approach that so far has permitted the distribution and use of vastly more new chemicals than the EU. In data protection and privacy the difference is better-known: the EU's efforts at negotiating data protection reform have been in the sights of the large US data-driven companies throughout the last couple of years. Monday's meeting also raised financial services as one other area of significant disparity. There, the US's regulatory regime is seen as the stronger one. One might hope that the best regime will win, but the most likely scenario is a corporate grab for the most profitable one.

There is a further sting in the treaty's tail, known as "ISDS", for Investor-State Dispute Resolution, which is designed to strengthen corporations' ability to sue governments over regulations their investors don't like. There are already such cases active: a tobacco company is suing the Australian government over its plain packaging law; the Swedish company Vattenfall is suing Germany for more than $3.7 billion over the decision to phase out nuclear power. Yes: we live in a world where a democratically elected government can be required to spend billions of taxpayers' money to defend itself for making decisions they support.

Treaties are, as ORG's Jim Killock keeps saying, stiff and unresponsive legal instruments. Once a treaty is in place, pre-empting it to change national-level policy in the areas it covers becomes increasingly difficult.

Some people find comforting analyses like this one, which suggests that we shouldn't worry too much about TTIP because the UK won't lose much from it. Treaties have too long a life to make such a statement. What's that old saying? That if you can't tell who the mark is in a poker game it's you?

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.

October 3, 2014

Insecurity by the dozen

At a security seminar today a number of highly skilled professionals voiced their various frustrations: senior managers don't understand the problem; they can't get the budgets, people, and time they need; the industry keeps making the same mistakes over and over; and meantime the threat keeps getting worse. At some point, the conversation veered onto consumers: how responsible should they have to be? How much should they have to know? And why are they still running XP?

At this point it occurred to me that there's a whole load of impediments to security that are rarely discussed because we're too busy thinking about technology, knowledge, and awareness. Herewith, a bunch more reasons why these problems are going to keep getting worse - and I'm limiting the list to things the consumers can control. "Don't shop at Home Depot or Target" is not much help when the next breach is elsewhere.

- Function creep. People do not buy insecure devices. Instead, they buy a phone to make calls, or a car to get them to work and their kids to school without necessarily realizing how the new device is different from the old one. Then someone hacks the car's diagnostic port. *Now* they know.

- Marketing. Banking person says, "Use our safe, secure mobile platform!" Banking person does not say, "But first, you should check that your phone is patched, and take these three precautions." Then, when their work hours are cut a few months later, they're surprised.

- Time. People don't have it, working women especially.

- Good-enough technology. It used to be that you upgraded your desktop PC every couple of years because the new stuff was vastly much better. Now you only upgrade if the machine is really badly broken. Tablets and smartphones will soon enter this phase of their development. Is the Galaxy Note 4 really that much better than the Note 2?

- The learning curve of interface changes. Doesn't matter whether it's an operating system, a browser, or an online site such as Facebook. When they roll out a new version there is always a percentage who can't cope and who either refuse to update or botch the new settings.

- Vendor business models. It is in the interest of Facebook, Google, and other large, data-driven companies to convince users that their services provide private spaces in which users should feel safe about sharing information with each other, even when they shouldn't.

- Vendor marketing. As privacy and surveillance-as-a-service become bigger concerns, security becomes a selling point. But security - as Bruce Schneier has so often said - is a process not a product, and it's an ecosystem not a single solution. So your phone's secure! Great! Unfortunately, you've downloaded a malicious app that's made it not-so-secure, but you don't know this and you've used it to access your bank account, which is now cleaned out. You feel aggrieved, and rightly so. This is similar to the early 1990s, when manufacturers marketed their systems as "easy-to-use", causing much frustration and anger because overall, they weren't so much easy as just slightly easi*er* than the last version.

- Human cognitive limitations. I believe we have hit the theoretical maximum number of passwords that humans can remember. But we have password safes to generate random strings and remember them for us. Only loads of Web sites reject these passwords for not complying with *their* rules for "good" passwords. Some - most egregiously Paypal - bar copy and paste, rendering anything that isn't easily typed impossible. The painful typing on mobile phones does not help this situation.

- Network externalities. Besides the issue of triangulating data, every Web site, every bank, every retailer, every employer sets their security policies and rules in isolation. Blocking copy-and-paste for passwords as above is a good example of not seeing the bigger context. When users are caught between conflicting policies, someone's has to lose.

- Mobility. I can opt out of doing online banking on my mobile phone in favor of my more secure desktop or my physical local functioning bank. Increasing numbers of people do not have these choices, because...

- The 99 percent. As the economic divide increases, more and more people will not be able to afford to upgrade anything and will be forced to rely on a single, increasingly ancient device for the only services available to them, which will be largely digital. When vendors stop patching those systems, we will all suffer the consequences. The 1 percent can avoid those nasty economy class passengers with colds by flying on a private jet. The digital equivalent isn't so easy in a connected world.

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.