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.

July 25, 2006

Scatterchat and Tor vs. The Great Firewall of China

Hacktivismo has just released Scatterchat, an IM tool intended to beat repressive regimes’ firewalls. Unlike other anonymizer types of tools that use Chinese repression mainly as a marketing hook, Scattershot seems to truly be focused on its stated goal. I haven’t figured out whether it does much clever other than leverage Tor, an anonymous network established by the Electronic Freedom Foundation to try to beat traffic analysis. This all sounds like a perfect example of what I’ve been calling for — technological creativity directed at beating technological repression.

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July 24, 2006

Universal surveillance of vehicle movements

This is scary stuff. And we’re not going to wind up stopping it, even if we try. We can only hope to blunt its ill effects, by adopting new laws and legal principles that prevent misuse of data the government has already collected.

June 20, 2006

Why I feel qualified to pontificate about public policy

Maybe I should explain why I feel motivated and qualified to hold forth at such length about public policy issues such as net neutrality, free-world privacy, authoritarian censorship, economic development, and so on.

If you’re reading here, you’re probably familiar with my software industry credentials — top-ranked stock analyst, top-tier product analyst, sometime entrepreneur, etc. If not, there’s always my official bio. But I also have some non-trivial public policy and economics chops. I spent two years at the Kennedy School of Government after getting my Ph.D. Then, turning down an assistant professorship at the Kellogg School of Management as well as research jobs at RAND and IDA, I went to Wall Street — which is, if one chooses to make it such, one heck of a further education in economics. And then in the mid/late 90s, Linda and I actually got active in the internet services market, analyzing, consulting, etc. Indeed, we even (re)wrote a few speeches for Steve Case of AOL, including some Congressional testimony.

Bottom line: Yes, I actually have some idea what I’m talking about. 🙂

June 17, 2006

Layer 7 stateful deep packet inspection — the privacy threat is more serious than we thought

I’ve been reading up on net neutrality, and was just hit by an unhappy realization.

The technology that’s kicked off the whole debate is Layer 7 stateful deep packet inspection. This a feature of telecom equipment, originally found only in high-end firewalls, but now evidently found throughout Cisco’s (and surely also its competitors’) product lines. In IP telecom without this feature, the equipment just sees packets of data, and perhaps header information, but can’t look at the data’s content. However, when you’re looking at Layer 7, the equipment is looking at what the application sees. Everything is visible — every record, every word. And if Cisco’s marketing materials are to be believed, all that technology exists today.

The dangers this presents in terms of privacy and censorship, whether in the basically free countries or the basically authoritarian ones, should be obvious. Fighting for freedom is more urgent than we previously realized.

June 13, 2006

How to protect our freedoms, strengthen developing economies, and make money

My Computerworld column finally came out this month, pointing back here. Only there were typos and omissions in the URLs. Also, a couple of the key notes here were incorrectly published in draft form, and got reedited. So let me summarize again, and reiterate the internal links.

1. There’s a whole section on privacy, censorship, and freedom, both domestic and abroad. You can also find a link to it in the left sidebar.

2. I proposed two modes of hands-on involvement in fighting authoritarian-government censorship and repression. One is to immediately adopt the quick-and-dirty tactics of, by adding a little code to your websites. (I’ve done that already on four sites.) The other is to help me theorize about a badly needed next-generation improvement on those.

3. There’s a whole section on technology-related economic development (again, also accessible from the left sidebar), most of it added recently in connection with my preparations for or ruminations after TechLeb. The most actionable private-sector idea in the lot is probably this one.

Please help. Everybody can.

June 10, 2006 in practice

Four days ago, I posted advocating putting code from onto your site. The goal is to fight censorship by spreading censored text across as many web pages as follows. And as you can see from the green/yellow box in the upper left of this page, I followed my own advice.

Well, here’s my very preliminary report:

1. It looks ugly, and has a pair of mandatory outgong links to Amnesty International and

2. Since I picked a small size, there isn’t much text, and even so it’s hard to read.

3. Disappointingly, what little text there is doesn’t seem to change very often beyond a fixed rotating set of snippets.

4. I can’t detect a performance impact on my sites.

Well, there’s a lot more to do, but it’s at least a start.

June 9, 2006

Terrorism prevention in practice

The following comes from a family friend, Mike Grant, who happens to work for an IT vendor, Trilogy. He’s your typical white, American-accented, personable, well-mannered, well-organized, highly intelligent, highly articulate mid-20s Johns Hopkins graduate. Read more

June 9, 2006

Qui custodiet ipsos custodes?

I’ve argued long and loud that even the most secret of government probing needs to be done in some sense openly. That’s hardly a new observation with me. For example, David Brin argued the point effectively in The Transparent Society.

Tom Greene, however, makes the case even more effectively, in just one sentence:

It’s ironic that spooks so often remind us that we’ve got nothing to fear from their activities if we’ve got nothing nasty to hide, while they themselves are rarely comfortable without multiple layers of secrecy, anonymity and plausible deniability.

And he backs it up (actually, precedes it) in this excerpt:

The best conversation I had was with Robert van Bosbeek of the Dutch National Police. I asked him if he was tempted to buy anything.

“Not really,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s always good to see what’s on offer. Basically, we’re three or four years ahead of all this.”

He said that in the Netherlands, communications intercept capabilities are advanced and well established, and yet, in practice, less problematic than in many other countries. “Our legal system is more transparent,” he said, “so we can do what we need to do without controversy. Transparency makes law enforcement easier, not more difficult.”

Emphasis mine.

June 7, 2006

Sergei Brin doubts his course in China

From an AP story about a press conference given while he was visiting Capitol Hill for one-on-ones with senators:

Google Inc. co-founder Sergey Brin acknowledged Tuesday the dominant Internet company has compromised its principles by accommodating Chinese censorship demands. He said Google is wrestling to make the deal work before deciding whether to reverse course.

June 6, 2006

Freedom even without data privacy

To reiterate and expand on some points that I keep making:

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