Well Known Biases

Politics, Economics, and the Law

Link Roundup – 06/18/12

PC Pro has an article speculating that the U.S. government has planted agents inside Microsoft. Their take is that Microsoft was an unwitting pawn. My take is, should this be true, it’s as likely as not that they were in on it.

The Air Force’s X-37B has returned to Earth.

Now more than ever, governments (U.S. included) are peeking in on your Google data.

Katrina vanden Heuvel writes an op-ed concerning the Obama administration’s “kill list.”

$20 a month for secure communications? Sounds tasty.

The U.K., which I consider the “mineshaft canary” for the U.S., is contemplating alarmingly sweeping communications monitoring. They pinky-swear this won’t include anything like reading your postcards. No, really.

Somewhat closer to home, in Ottawa, equipment is being installed at airports and border crossings that will eventually record your conversations. If you’re bothered by this, then presumably you’re either a terrorist, smuggler, or child predator.

But at least we’re not in Ethiopia, where VoIP services have been made illegal, punishable by 15 years in prison.

Drones at Home

I don’t care for drones on the battlefield. While it is quite possible they cut down on the number of our own military personnel getting killed and/or maimed (you will hear this referred to as “saving lives,” though the drones certainly don’t appear to be saving the lives of anyone else), I believe they create an insurmountable moral hazard.

I am no happier to have them flying around in U.S. airspace. Wired reports that there are, at present, 64 known drone bases on U.S. soil. The number of drones and bases is likely to increase, and drones are likely to proliferate widely. That there would be drones, and drone bases on American soil is interesting, but hardly shocking. The military also has a great many other vehicles, weapons, explosives, etc. on American soil. After all, where else are they supposed to put these things when they’re not being used for the intended purposes? But what uses will these drones be put to, while they’re here? Well, surveying military bases, government property, the occasional disaster zone, and maybe the odd bit of completely-totally-accidental surveillance.

“Oops, it seems we’ve inadvertently spied on you. Don’t worry, we’ll be sure to get rid of that information. Hand to God. Right after hanging onto it for 90 days to see whether we can make a legal case for keeping it, and passing it on to other government agencies if we can.”

Call me cynical, but in the present political and legal climate, I see little reason to suspect the information won’t be retained, given even the flimsiest pretense of a reason. Especially when you’ve got people such as Virginia’s Governor Bob McDonnell saying that police drones would just fantastic.

Increased safety and reduced manpower are among the reasons the U.S. military and intelligence community use drones on the battlefield, which is why it should be considered in Virginia, he says.

Indeed. It’s vital that our gendarmerie be able to enforce order with minimum of cost and inconvenience. And while police drones, at present, are extremely unlikely to act in any capacity other than tracking and surveillance, is it completely out of reason to expect them to evolve into an armed form? Not a week goes by where you don’t read about a questionable police shooting, or wrong-address SWAT raid, or somesuch event. Are police drones something we actually want?

Not that what we want matters very much. The State will exert its will when and where it cares to, so long as we react with our characteristic passivity.

Lawfare reports that Senator Rand Paul (R. KY) has introduced legislation intended to prohibit (for the most part) the use of drones for surveillance by the U.S. government. I wouldn’t bet the farm on the bill passing, but it is nice that someone in Washington is attempting to nip this in the bud.

Link Roundup – 06/14/12

The USAF’s X-37B shuttle will soon come down from orbit. What they’ve had it doing for the best part of a year is a bit of a mystery.

James Freedmon has written a paper, appearing in Stanford Law Review, offering a strategy to help the U.S. government clamp down on organizations such as Wikileaks: Assert copyright over the documents.

The Megaupload case is going nowhere slowly. The U.S. government is now asserting that former Megaupload users may access their files, so long as they pay for it.

Senator Chuck Schumer hast gotten his undies all in a bunch concerning Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s plans to become a resident of Singapore, after renouncing his American citizenship. He has introduced S. 3205, which would amend the tax code to allow for a 30% capital gains tax on anyone “renouncing citizenship for a substantial tax avoidance purpose”, as well as barring them from reentering the United States. The text of the bill is worryingly vague. The statue is written to apply to pretty much whomever the government wishes for it to apply. I’m always deeply unimpressed when legislators craft law expressly for the purpose of settling a score with a specific party.

New York and California would like to force gun makers to microstamp the firing pins of their firearms, in an effort to make it easier to track down guns used in crimes. The New York Times has a piece concerning this pipe dream. There are quotes in the article from industry reps, explaining why this is a pointless idea. Which is nice, because it means I don’t have to repeat them.

Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Kansas Embarrassing Itself Yet Again…

It appears that I may soon have to start adding “Yes, that Kansas” when I tell people where I’m from.

My fine(ish) state has managed to avoid embarrassing spotlighting for a while (well, sort of, anyway…), but it seems this situation may soon change, as the state science standards are coming up for review. You may recall how this went last time, and it’s likely as not that we’ll have a similar kerfuffle this time ’round.

Ken Willard, who would like to assure you that he’s definitely not a “crackpot,” views the standards currently being proposed as flawed, because they “ignore evidence against evolution, don’t respect religious diversity and promote secular humanism, which precludes God or another supreme being in considering how the universe works,” which seems like a roundabout way of saying the standards don’t give the desired prominance to his views that “a wizard did it.”

Sadly, I’ve yet to track down the full text of Mr. Willard’s letter. I’d very much like to read it, though in all likelihood it will just make me mumble to myself in frustration, as I really don’t see the alleged impasse between evolutionary theory and faith. Probably because I’m not a Biblical literalist.

Anyway, I’ll be keeping an eye on this and commenting further. With any luck at all, the Great State of Kansas will come off looking just as silly as we did five years ago.

Information concerning Kansas’ science standards can be found here: http://www.ksde.org/Default.aspx?tabid=4972

Link Roundup – 05/07/12

Does the FBI routinely act as agents provocateurs? Of course they do. David Shipler, at the New York Times, writes an op-ed on the practice.

New York City is Thinking of the Children™, and has banned teachers from ‘friending’ students on social media sites.

Of course, NYC hardly has a monopoly on this, and it appears the UK may also be Thinking of the Children™, and going forward with the notion to filter those pesky interwebs, and force users to opt-in for porn.

And holy crap almighty! The European Union will also be Thinking of the Children™!

Russia is less than thrilled about any planned missile defense system.

The federal government seized a hip-hop music site for over a year while it sat around waiting for proof of any crime.

Not content with arrangements such as that, the FBI is politely asking everyone not to get their panties all up in a bunch over a proposed law to force tech companies to provide built-in backdoors for government snooping. I would, however, encourage you to bunch up your collective panties to an incredible degree. RT’s take here.

NYC may have to defend its “stop and frisk” practices in court.

RT reports on the alleged existence of current U.S. Army procedures for interring American citizens in camps. Sounds like business as usual.

More about the American military’s proposed replacement bomber.

Link Roundup – 05/01/12

All apologies. The blog has been placed firmly on the back burner for a couple of weeks now, while I’ve been tied up with other pursuits. I’ve got some links that have been getting moldy, so I’ll put those here, and should be back with something more substantial in the next couple of days.

A very interesting piece on how regulation and “boutique gasoline” has contributed to current high fuel prices.

Broadcom has unveiled a chip that can determine pretty much exactly where you are. Shall we use this for good, or ill? Probably both.

The FBI says that American universities are chock-full of spies.

A TSA screener discusses how the “virtual strip search” body scanners are profoundly useless. Oh, security theatre…

And in other TSA news, they’re planning on rolling out new identity verification machines. Which will surely not be somehow circumvented.

Nick Merrill is planning to launch an ISP that will be built from day one with customer privacy as a core concern. I’m excited about this project, just as I’m excited about any new service that will shield people from government peeking.

I recall this coming up some time ago, but I never heard what came of it. Apparently the idea of making UK internet users opt-in to be able to view porn is still kicking around in Parliament.

Kim Dotcom may have been improperly extradited, and there may never be a trial on the matter. I’m sure the FBI is less than amused.

The 2012 Olympics: Now with insane levels of brand protection and media control!

It seems that new cars, from 2015 onwards, will be required to include data gathering components.

Government info-ops creating disinformation? If so, I’d be shocked. Shocked!

The Iranian government is claiming that they’re copying the U.S. drone they acquired.

There is legislation in the works (“still,” “again”?) to ban employers from asking for the login information for employees’ social networking profiles.

The threat of “cyber war.” Just another money grab?

An enlightening writeup of how the online black market functions.

Yet Another Rehash of Social Media and “E-privacy”. Again.

It wasn’t “news” the last time I wrote about social media and the degredation of privacy, and it isn’t this time either. It wouldn’t have even been “news” if I’d written on this a couple of weeks ago, when I meant to.

Paul Venezia wrote a good article comparing what is being done in digital space to analogous situations in physical space. The thrust seems to be that these sort of snooping activities, all too common now, are widespread mainly because they’re very easy to do, and there aren’t as many laws concerning them. Reading your email is somehow different from reading your physical mail beacuse, well… it just is. Internet snooping, while it would certainly seem to violate the legal protections of privacy, doesn’t violate the letter. And that makes it A-okay.

A Texas researcher added an app to Facebook, allowing you to name enemies. I haven’t kept up with the story, if there’s indeed a story to keep up with, but by now the app could well have been axed. It’s well known that Facebook has consistently told users to get bent regarding a ‘dislike’ feature. The advertisers-first angle is, of course, spot-on. Facebook is an artificially friendly(ish) place, and that’s good for Facebook’s customers. If the only available options are to either like something, or ignore it, that suits companies just fine. No one can ever hate them, and they’re all seperated only by the degree to which people love them. It’s hard to fault Facebook, really. Most of us would probably do something quite similar, if hawking users’ information would net us $4.27 billion dollars during the year.

On the topic of Facebook, the House shot down a bill that would have outlawed the practice of employers requesting Facebook login information. Also fun, they’re claiming rights to the word ‘book.’ And here’s a look at what Facebook sends police if they subpeona your account.

More in privacy and security news:

Found on Popehat, the Ninth Circuit rejects the government’s attempts to base criminal prosecution on violations of usage agreements. The majority opinion is a pretty entertaining read, too.

The NSA, fattened on post-9/11 dollars, is building a gigantic data center in Utah. I’ll have more to say on this in the future, because it’s a Really Big Deal, but for now I’m just somewhat alarmed. I’d encourage you to be alarmed as well. I’d also encourage you to download a copy of TrueCrypt, and encrypt all your data. Maybe your email too, just for giggles. If my tax dollars are in some small way paying for this, I want to make sure they’ve got plenty to keep them entertained. AES encryption with a suitably strong password should keep even the government busy for a while.

Get out your chemicals and rubber hose, the FBI wants to “advance the science of interrogation.”

DHS to Collect Information on All Air Travelers, Everywhere

The Independent reports that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will be requiring airlines to submit passenger details, even though they’re flying into Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean, and not crossing over American airspace. DHS will “make boarding pass determinations up until the time a flight leaves the gate … If a passenger successfully obtains a boarding pass, his/her name is not on the No Fly list.”

Delightful. I’m always impressed when my country enacts policy that sounds somewhat similar to what the Belarussian’s are doing.

The justification for this is, I’m quite sure, that a terrorist might fly into any one of those places, and then simply wander into the U.S. by land or sea. And if you stop thinking about it right about there, it sounds almost reasonable (ignoring things like privacy, jurisdiction, and sovereignty). But why wouldn’t these bogeymen terrorists simply go to Guatemala, Belize, or Greenland? From there they can pass through Mexico or Canada, and into the United States. It’s a little (or, depending, a lot) further, but what’s a little driving when you’ve got something to blow up?

Naturally then, DHS should be collecting information on travellers headed to those locations. But what if they simply land in a country adjacent? You can see where I’m going with this. A security policy such as this, taken to its logical conclusion, leaves you monitoring everyone, everywhere. And if you commit to monitoring every possible external threat, it seems very silly not to keep an eye out for the internal ones too, which would make some sort of internal passport system suddenly appear “reasonable.” As ever, the bigger devils are in the implications.

As for the rest of the countries involved, they all need to go to their rooms and think about what they’ve done.

Public Education and Social Control

Austin Carroll, a (former) student at Garrett High School in Indiana, was expelled for a post he made on his personal Twitter account. There seems to be some lack of clarity of whether or not he accessed Twitter from his home computer or a school computer. In either case, it appears that the school’s computer system is able to (and apparently does) track posting’s from students’ accounts.

Where to even begin? Stories such as this angry up my blood before I’ve even begun to unpack and examine the implications.

Naturally, if the student is using a school computer, the school is within their rights to regulate the manner in which their computers are used. Yet even if we accept the school’s position that Carroll accessed Twitter from one of their machines, that still leaves several issues. Firstly, isn’t expulsion for a bit of relatively harmless profanity rather harsh? It seems like the sort of transgression which could be addressed with lesser punishments. And if expulsion is on the table for an offense such as this, one would hope that this is clearly spelled out in the usage policy. I’m sure there are provisions for punishments “up to and including expulsion,” but I somehow doubt that any of the students would have seriously expected expulsion to be leveled for cursing. It seems more like a thing you bring to bear if a student has made threats of violence.

Now let’s consider what it means for us if the school is mistaken (or, to be somewhat cynical, misrepresenting the facts). If the school is allowed to regulate speech in cases where a student is neither using school property, nor engaging in threatening speech or speech related to illegal acts, then the school is asserting total control over students’ speech, and the students effectively have “privileges” to speak, and not “rights.” Privileges which can be revoked at the school’s pleasure, if a student expresses themselves in a manner which offends the empowered school officials. The rights of minors are of course already curtailed, but given Carroll is a senior in high school, and it is nearly April, it is reasonable to assume he could easily have already turned eighteen, and therefore is legally an adult. To condense and make explicit, if Carroll is eighteen, and had posted his tweet from home, the school district is asserting the right to punish adults for (and thus control) their private speech, based not upon public-safety necessity, but simply upon what they feel to be appropriate.

Numerous locales have various “anti-bullying” legislation either enacted or in the works, which would regulate both what occurs at the school, and what occurs outside of school. Most of these seem to be overly-broad, to the point of chilling what is, or should be, protected free speech. The Carroll expulsion appears to lack even the flimsy “public safety” framing of these statutes, resting wholly on the school administrators’ sense of propriety. Happily the student body of Garrett High School appears to have reacted to the expulsion quite poorly. But if we as a society roll over on issues such as this, we set rather unnerving precedents, confirming to those in these positions of power that control of our private speech is a thing they can do. It invites authoritarianism. Those who would act as our censors should be called out, shunned, and their power delegitimized.

(I considered posting a link to Garrett High School’s website, but as I cannot be certain of directing you to the correct place, I shall refrain.)

Link Roundup – 03/29/12

A bill in the House would require almost all video games to carry a warning label concerning aggressive behavior.

Sweden may well be on its way to being a cashless nation. Sebastion Anthony, at ExtremeTech, has some thoughts on the topic.

Tennessee has approved legislation allowing public school debate over evolution, and providing for the display of the Ten Commandments. In New York City, officials have taken a somewhat different approach, banning all references on test materials to anything that might be controversial or create negative feeling.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed that visitors of “extremist websites” be put in jail.

The U.S. government plans to levy a 5% tariff on Chinese-made solar panels.

New NHTSA guidelines could essentially kill navigation systems.

Iran, it seems, has been purchasing U.S.-made surveillance equipment and software from Chinese firms.

Speaking of China, a study has found that internet censorship is quite common. I’m shocked. Shocked! Well, not that shocked…

A Brazilian city has embedded tracking chips into their school uniforms.