Samuel Arbesman writing in WIRED makes a useful suggestion. It’s an obvious one, and that is not intended as a sneer. Re-seeing the obvious is a great gift, as you may have noticed when you ask a friend to look at something you wrote and s/he spots a typo right off, a glaring one too, that changes the whole sense of what you meant. So, Mr. Arbesman usefully directs our attention away from the hoopla about the importance of big sets of data to a consideration of data over time…what he calls “long data”. If your doctor tells you that your blood values are a little odd, and that X is a little low and Y a little high, that might be better understood in a context in which, over a number of years, X and Y have always been that way, and at about the same value too, and you’re not sick and weren’t then. It’s a better picture. You’re a ‘low normal’, with a slight anemia, maybe. So, eat liver. He offers several examples, but the one that impressed me the most was that from the Atlantic cod fishery, which almost collapsed. People were paying attention to the yearly harvest but much less attention to tracking the harvest through time. They would not have been surprised to see declines, due to over-fishing. His point is that we should calm down about the Big and figure out ways to turn it into the Big and the Long.
Well, it does sometimes anyway. And that’s good.The G demands a warrant showing the Organs of State Security have reasonable cause to request the materials. Certain types of information are released with warrants, and the Federales and their “requests” are pretty generally not covered…the “Patriot” Act dontcha know…the one that nobody in Congress read before they voted on it, the one that suddenly materialized right after the 911 attacks, all those pages, just suddenly conjured into existence. Hmmmmm… Google’s position is made possible by the conflicting appellate court decisions on whether the Organs need warrants. Some seem to imply yes and others seem to imply no, and the Supremes have not yet been drawn in and nobody is anxious to do push it. For my money, the Nine would roll over and bow down to the Executive, as they consistently have in “security” matters.
The writer Gore Vidal noted with no little bitterness the changes that had occurred as the USA became more deeply committed to the Cold War. He summed them up in an essay called The National Security State. VIdal traced the emergence and development of practices that would previously never have been allowed, but were now in force on grounds of ‘national security’. Gore Vidal died this year and I’m sure he had plenty of time and occasion to ponder the emergence of the Surveillance Society, an offshoot of the National Security State, in which somebody is watching you, now matter where you are or what you’re doing. A great deal of the watching, however, is not being done by the State, but by commercial enterprises or local metropolitan authorities. Technology to do this is available and relatively cheap, especially when your friendly Homeland Security agency is picking up the check. So, poor slob that you are, your actions online are being tracked by software programs which note how many times you show interest in, say, German Expressionist movies, and then sells that information to Expressionism Are Us, so the company can tailor ads to pester you about whatever it is they’re selling. This non-governmental surveillance online is pervasive, and you, Joe Dolt, are in many databases. The cumulative effect is that a great deal of information is available about a great number of people. And the Organs of State Security can, and do, often, avail themselves of this data whenever it suits them. Two new wrinkles: transit authorities in various cities, from very large ones to burgs that barely maintain service, are installing video and audio surveillance systems in buses. The devices can record rider conversations as well as capture images of the passengers. And the Organs of State Security are paying for the installations. Next, the Federal Trade Commission is bestirring itself to look at the apps installed on kids’ games and similar products. These, too, are capturing data about the little tykes, in depths that range from the casual to the detailed. Names, addresses, GPS location,age, etc. The basis of the FTC’s action is that the companies are not being square with parents about the capture thingy. I hear the old Gestapo man’s justification: “if you have not done anything wrong, you have no reason to worry”. It seems that fewere and fewer Americans are, really, willing to tell the authorities to beat it, if that means some personal inconvenience. Freedom-loving?
That’s the word coming out of Kansas City. We have been reporting to you on Google’s project to install very, very high speed Internet service in KC, as part of a demo project to spark interest in getting the USA’s somewhat creaky infrastructure zooming along a lot faster. The project is named Google Fiber and it seems that the goal is to make Internet service so zippy in KC that places everywhere will be shamed by their backward status and will push for improved, very greatly improved, service in their own municipalities. Google, I guess, will stand ready to help. We’ll see what comes of this.
Bruce Schneier had a good reputation in the somewhat recondite field of cyber-security. He runs a company that advises on such matters, and his writings on the topic make sense and easy to grasp, as long as you are not down too deep in the engine room of check-digits and authentication strings and other apparatus of the security wonk’s trade. The link posted here goes to an interesting survey piece in which he compares the current digital user scene to the feudal order of medieval society in the West, and by that I mean, roughly, the lands west of the old Roman limes or fortified border that marked the Empire off from the barbarian lands to the east. Anyway, back to Schneier. His comparison is just that; a comparison. But a lot of what he says is direct and right on point.It does seem as though a kind of ‘digital feudalism’ is emerging, or even, that it has emerged and is functioning as the de facto social order in Digitopia. In feudalism, there were vassals and lords. The vassal surrendered something to the lord, in return for protection. That ‘something’ was service of one sort or another. The digital vassal surrenders something to Amazon, or Google, or Apple or something. In return, the vassal gets protection: automatic updates, auto backup, etc. The security of these services is much greater that that any individual could get personally. But the ‘service’ the individual yields can be fiscal, in that s/he is more or less bound to buy the Lord’s products and pay the Lord’s fees. OK, medieval society was a great deal more complicated than what we read in the college history texts, and that’s because it had people in it. People always mess up everything, mostly by not fitting neatly into one of the categories they were supposed to fit into, and they were tolerated because they could do something interesting or useful. Anyway, read it here:
This won’t take long. It’s just a link that adds a follow-up to the story about the downfall of CIA Director and four-star general David Petraeus. The link goes to a story about the extent of Federal intrusion into online documents.
Gummints world-wide are asking Google to turn over data on what users in the respective countries are doing online. Do you want to bet which gummint is in the lead in such requests for user info? In fact, this gummint’s requests exceed the requests of all other gummints combined! It has to be some place that hates freedom, right? Well I guess that depends. (Hums) hm hm hm mh mh mhhhhhh, hm hm m m hmmm hmmm. You hear it played and sung at ball games and stuff. But don’t take that ‘freedom’ stuff too seriously. I don’t think the people there do.
The descent of Gen. Petraeus from the shrouded heights of the CIA into French bedroom farce, and not a very good one at that, has taken over the news outlets. The GOP and its candidates are probably glad, since the spotlight is off their misery and onto somebody else’s. Counterparts at intelligence, if that’s the word, agencies all over the world are having a good laugh at DP’s expense. Once we get past the sneering and snickering, the more thoughtful among what H, L. Mencken called the “Booboisie” might ponder how David P was caught out.The FBI got in on what seemed to be some cyber-stalking and unraveled the anonymized source to find out who sent the messages. This takes access to a large body of traffic. Can the Feds get into user information so easily? Well, it seems they can. For years the FBI has had a program called CARNIVORE for accessing and reading email traffic. How often is it used? How? By whom, and under what permissions and with what safeguard? Now you run along, Silly, and don’t ask questions about things that don’t concern you and that you wouldn’t understand anyway. Go watch Dancing with the Stars, or NASCAR. NASCAR is always fun. Big, shiny things moving fast! Now beat it.
What can happen when you and Amazon disagree about something in the so called User Agreement? Well, Amazon can wipe out all your downloaded material, remotely. And you have nothing to say about it. You don’t own all the books you clicked the button for, even though the site encourages you to think so….like “Buy It Now” or something. But it’s not a sale: it’s a lease. All this is called Digital Rights Management or DRM, and the success of online books and the proliferation of e-readers has obscured the fact that the rights picture is exactly the same as it was 10 years ago. If Amazon, or any other content provider, thinks you have violated the terms of service, it can in a click erase everything you may have paid money for. So, walk carefully. And don’t talk about your rights because you don’t have any.
Previously in these lines, I have noted the considerable attention that Google has been attracting on the part of DOJ anti-trust enforcement agencies. It’s been going on for a while, but over the weekend news stories appeared to the effect that regulators are very close to bringing legal action against the search giant. Being big has its benefits and its problems. And one of those problems is that unless people in the agencies are comatose or bought off or muzzled by higher-ups, your activities as a biggie will start drawing attention. No papers have been filed and Google is not sweating, at least not until the actual documents are revealed. The G has been in hot water before, on both sides of the Atlantic, but this one may be much more threatening, such as, the break-up of the company. Standard Oil, the granddaddy of Exon-Moblil, got the anti-trust treatment and had to break up into three companies. We shall see.
Google did a back flip and settled an outstanding legal action against the company for copyright infringement. The suit dates from 2005 and accuses the G of copyright violation for its practice of digitizing books in libraries and then making up to 20% (or so) of them available on its service. Regrettably, this happy conclusion does not remove all of Google’s legal troubles. But, you have to start someplace, and the company is now free to either fight the battle with the Authors’ Guild, or try another settlement.