Privacy, censorship, and freedom

Privacy issues in public policy — commercial data privacy, government repression, internet censorship, national ID cards, RFID issues of various kinds, data retention, etc.

February 25, 2010

People are very confused about privacy

According to CNet, Anthony Stancl ran an interesting scheme:

Stancle had been accused of creating a Facebook profile belonging to a nonexistent teenage girl and then, between approximately the spring of 2007 and November of 2008, using it to convince more than 30 of his male classmates to send in nude photos or videos of themselves.

Stancl then reportedly threatened to post the photos or videos on the Internet if they didn’t engage in some sort of sexual activity with him. At least seven of them have said they were coerced into sex acts, which Stancl documented with a cell phone camera.

Stancl’s victims were teenage boys focused on sex — not exactly the world’s clearest thinkers. Even so, I find it remarkable that multiple people would:

  1. Send nude photographs of themselves to a stranger.
  2. Be so concerned about those photographs getting published online that they would submit to sexual blackmail.
  3. Allow the results of their sexual blackmail to be photographed.

Literally — WTF??

January 19, 2009

When law meets technology, and you can help

I’ve been arguing passionately for years that technologists and policy-makers need to work together on ensuring information systems meet life-and-death needs without compromising essential liberties.*  This is obviously a tall order, and last night something struck me — the case of electronic health records should be handled first, basically because it is free of the national-security rigmarole infesting other kinds of privacy issues.

Please take a look. (And please overlook the UI at those links.  It’s been embarrasingly bad, especially in the matter of bullet points, ever since I started blogging there, and this month it got a lot worse. I’m sorry.)

Then please help, by advancing your take on these ideas by any means at your disposal.  It’s going to take years to get all this right.  Freedom hangs in the balance.  We need to start NOW.

Discussion is also underway on Slashdot.

November 24, 2008

You can help with one of the most important public policy issues of our times

I’m pretty passionate about electronic freedom these days.

Issues of privacy and liberty take at least five forms:

  • Censorship
  • Admissible evidence in court
  • Admissible evidence in investigations (not exactly the same thing)
  • The consequences of damaging information leaks from the government to the private sector
  • Potential chill on useful technologies (e.g., electronic health records) caused by any of the other four kinds of issue

Taken together, that amounts to much of the Bill of Rights – or other countries’ equivalents – plus a whole lot of life-saving technology on the side. I.e., it’s more than huge.

That’s from a detailed recent post that ends with a call to action:

Please join me in raising awareness. Blog yourself. Send email to those who might have influence. Or – and this one’s really easy – just go to the suggestion page at www.change.gov and help draw the incoming Administration’s attention toward these crucial issues.

Please, please do at least one of those things. There’s still enough time for freedom to be preserved, since the worst practical threats are still some years off. But if it doesn’t happen during an Obama Administration, when will it happen, in the United States or the rest of the world? The time to make a difference is now.

September 22, 2008

Good riddance to Secure Computing

McAfee has announced a takeover of Secure Computing, ending that company’s independent existence. To this I can only say: It’s about time! Early this century, I was asked to revive my old investment research career and find stocks to short. A promising candidate turned out to be Secure Computing, whose main product lines included:

The short idea was in large part that the firewall-on-a-board idea had caused great overoptimism, stoked by the company. On further digging, I found that CEO John McNulty’s resume, as stated for example in Secure Computing’s SEC filings, seemed inconsistent with his resume as stated in SEC filings of his prior employer. Nobody seemed to care much about correcting that, however. Read more

January 5, 2007

David and Richi on Cisco and Ironport

The Ferris Research lads offer a succinct analysis of the Cisco/Ironport deal. As an old software stock analyst, I was particularly struck by their estimates that A. Cisco paid over 10 times revenue for Ironport and B. Ironport’s revenues weren’t growing. Even more interesting in my opinion is what Richi said to me by e-mail in response to a query, namely (emphasis mine):

Yes, clearly IronPort’s reputation data is part of the prize for Cisco. …

An interesting question is what will happen (if anything) with SpamCop. IronPort deliberately ran SpamCop at arm’s length as a matter of policy. I wonder if Cisco will maintain that policy. SpamCop is of course part of the raw data feeding into SenderBase, along with the data phoned home by the IronPort boxes.

As we’ve seen with the BlackSpider acquisition by SurfControl, spam control companies that aggregate lots of data about spam sources are valuable, for reasons in addition to spam control. If a zombie is sending spam, it’s also probably a potential source of other bad stuff, such as worms and DDoS connections.

Quite possibly, one of Cisco’s goals (dreams?) for this acquisition is to put a whole lot of sender policing into the network infrastructure. Mainly, that’s a good thing — but like most kinds of internet policing, that technology also has the potential for abuse.

In that vein, I note that the Ferris guys say Ironport’s big competitor was Ciphertrust, acquired by Secure Computing. Well, in my opinion Secure Computing are bad guys, or at least were as of my research a few years ago. They have long helped enforce nationwide Web censorship in Saudi Arabia; they got dinged by the SEC for early for CEO stock hyping/selective disclosure; they in my opinion were guilty of a lot more hyping than that; and for the cherry on top of this ethical sundae, CEO John McNulty has a resume in Secure’s SEC filings that is inconsistent with the SEC filings of a previous employer.

November 30, 2006

Anonymizer – penetrating the Great Firewalls of China and Iran

Lance Cottrell of Anonymizer is one of those rare guys who make me believe he started a company in no small part to do good. And so his cloaking-technology company is providing free services to help Chinese citizens sneak through their national firewall, and is doing the same thing for Iran on a paid basis, under contract to the Voice of America. I think this is wonderful, and he reports that it’s working well now. Even so, I think there are scalability concerns. Right now only 10s of 1000s of users are covered. If there were a few more zeroes on that, standard spam-blocking techniques, currently ineffective, might work. What’s more, the Chinese bureaucracy, currently not highly motivated to shut the service down, might bestir itself to be much more effective.

Read more

November 30, 2006

Anonymizer — internet privacy through anonymity

I chatted today with Lance Cottrell, the founder and president of Anonymizer. They’re a little 30-40 person company, but even so they do three different interesting kinds of things. In increasing order of importance, these are:

  1. Provide anonymity services to ordinary individuals.
  2. Provide anonymity services to enterprises (aka enterprise sneakiness support).
  3. Help people get through the national firewalls in Iran and China.

Read more

July 29, 2006

AOL’s IM content privacy policy

AOL’s privacy policy isn’t as bad as Microsoft’s, but it’s no joy either. “Rights” can be a slippery word, as partisans all over the political spectrum are apt to point out.

The contents of your online communications, as well as other information about you as an AOL Network user, may be accessed and disclosed in response to legal process (for example, a court order, search warrant or subpoena); in other circumstances in which AOL believes the AOL Network is being used in the commission of a crime; when we have a good faith belief that there is an emergency that poses a threat to the safety of you or another person; or when necessary either to protect the rights or property of AOL, the AOL Network or its affiliated providers, or for us to render the service you have requested.

July 29, 2006

Microsoft’s non-privacy policy

I just went to download Microsoft Messenger, and reviewed the terms and conditions. The following is excerpted, emphasis mine.

We consider your use of the Service, including the content of your communications, to be private. We do not routinely monitor your communications or disclose information about your communications to anyone. However, we may monitor your communications and disclose information about you, including the content of your communications, if we consider it necessary to: (1) comply with the law or to respond to legal process; (2) ensure your compliance with this contract; or (3) protect the rights, property, or interests of Microsoft, its employees, its customers, or the public.

EDIT: I can’t find anything at all about content privacy on the Yahoo! Messenger privacy page.

July 28, 2006

Would a Google PC succeed?

Richard Brandt asked me to look over his post on the oft-rumored possibility of a Google PC. I actually opined on this back in January, when the rumors were rife in connection with a supposed Wal-Mart sales/marketing agreement. I concluded that that would make a lot of sense for internet connectivity and student/homework uses (I didn’t consider work-at-home or gaming uses because that didn’t seem a good fit with Wal-Mart). The reasoning I came up with back then looks good in retrospect, with only minor tweaks (e.g., my new reason for not worrying about IE-only websites is the IE emulation capability in Firefox).

Richard, however, goes further, thinking that Google could succeed in PCs used mainly to run word processing, spreadsheets, etc.. His arguments include:

Read more

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