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Posted on Techdirt - 7 September 2013 @ 12:00pm

Fogbugzd's Favorite Techdirt Posts Of The Week

By J. Evan Noynaert, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Missouri Western State University

This was a short week at Techdirt thanks to the Labor Day holiday in the United States.   Even though it was a short week, we may eventually see it as a pivotal week in the emerging NSA revelations.  We started seeing some push-back against the scope of the snooping when we saw the author of the Patriot Act, Jim Sensenbrenner, and members of the Church Commission tell a court that the NSA had gone too far.  Even more surprising is that they did it in support of an ACLU lawsuit (and Sensenbrenner’s brief was with the EFF); the NSA/FISA scandal is making strange bedfellows. The government continues to face push-back from other sources.  Some of these were symbolic, such as the Brazilian President’s threat to cancel a US visit over NSA spying. She also backed it up with a threat to cancel four billion dollars worth of contracts with US companies.  That is just the sort of thing that tends to get real attention in Washington these days. 

And apparently the scandal is getting some attention in the Obama administration as well as in the NSA itself.  The NSA review board is now accepting comments on aspects of the scandal that the rest of the NSA won’t even acknowledge.  The White House CIO seemed to be refuting the claims that we shouldn’t worry because “just metadata was collected”   He gave a great explanation about how much can be revealed by “just metadata,” especially if you collect vast quantities of it.  Even President Obama got in on the act by wavering ever so slightly.  True, he is still in denial about many aspects of the situation, but the acknowledgment that we may need some changes is at least a glimmer of hope.  So the administration as a whole seems to be entering the schizophrenic phase of policy development.  It is going to be interesting in the coming weeks to see how they resolve the issue.   We can hope that they come down on the side of openness, but there is still a great danger that they will manage to gag the dissenters and go back to stonewalling.

I had a real dilemma when Mike asked me to write this week’s favorites.  I didn’t have a favorite post for my “Favorite Posts” post.  Then I awoke to my salvation.  Mike published “Online Security isn’t Over; It’s Just Beginning.”  It is the call to arms that we need.  Mike quoted Micah Lee:

Giving up and deciding that privacy is dead is counterproductive. We need to stop using commercial crypto. We need to make sure that free software crypto gets serious security and usability audits.

If we do this right we can still have privacy in the 21st century. If we give up on security because of this we will definitely lose.

The NSA scandal should be a wake-up call to everyone involved in technology (basically everyone).  There are things we can do now.  We should probably start by assuming that every commercial cryptography product has been compromised.  Every commercial operating system is suspect.    The NSA seems to have gotten backdoors introduced into just about every major commercial security product including many that are not US based companies.   We have to assume that if NSA can get in, then so can others.  Apparently one of the NSA’s surprises when they bugged the UN was that the Chinese were already there.   Perhaps the most troubling thing about the NSA’s methods is that they preferred to have backdoors installed in the software.  An NSA backdoor makes life simple for the NSA.  But backdoors almost always compromise the security of the software overall.   Backdoors can often be opened by others; they are one more lock that can be picked by an intruder.   Backdoors also tend to be patches on existing security systems.   Given the fine-tuning that goes on in the design of security systems, tacking on a backdoor often involves some sloppy methods that give attackers additional soft spots that can be exploited.

If people start turning their backs on commercial security solutions they will probably have to embrace some of the excellent open source security solutions.  It is much harder if not impossible to build backdoors into software that the open source community obsesses over as it goes line-by-line through the code.  But that’s not to say that open source is fully safe.  I will admit to being one of the conspiracy nuts who has been concerned that the NSA has influenced the development of some protocols and has managed to sneak in some subtle tells and weaknesses.  The open source community needs to revisit all of its software systems and look for hidden weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  Techdirt has been calling for rebuilding the Internet since at least 2003.  This brings me to my penultimate favorite article of the week, “The US Government Has Betrayed the Internet; It’s Time to Fix That Now.”  The title aptly sums up our current situation.  The US Government has betrayed the Internet as well as the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, American Citizens, and our allies.   The easiest to repair of all those betrayals is the Internet.  As technology leaders we can start that process now.  Ironically, the NSA has served up the perfect opportunity to make it very difficult to spy on the Internet.

So it will be interesting to see what will come in the week ahead.  One thing that surprised me  as I looked back through the week’s posts, we hadn’t heard from Team Prenda, and it felt like we really needed that kind of comic relief. Thankfully, just as I was finishing this post, Team Prenda delivered.

Posted on Techdirt - 14 May 2011 @ 12:00pm

Evan Noynaert's Favorite Techdirt Posts of the Week

This week’s favorites post comes from Evan Noynaert, Assistant Professor

at Missouri Western State University.

This was a great week to be posting my favorites because it started off with Nina Paley’s When Copyright And Contracts Can Get In The Way Of Art.

That was a wonderful piece on several levels. First, of course, is the marvelous art work. It is under a free license, so I expect to see at least bits and pieces of the art work showing up in a variety of media. The discussion of her relationship with the museum was also interesting. It was a perfect illustration of the principle that “managers like to manage.” In many cases, like this one, they tend to over manage. Someone decided that proper management required a contract. The contract they produced was silly because it included an absurd non-compete clause and completely ignored the first use rights that should have been important to the museum. One of the commenters followed up with a criticism that the problems were caused by lack of a contract, but what the situation really showed was that a signed contract is meaningless if it is poorly drawn up.

Krishna the Cowherd Prince

Then later in the week we were treated to more of Nina’s work when Mike wrote about her Kickstarter Project. I was amused when Mike said that he wanted several copies to hand out. That sounds a lot like handing out religious tracts, and, I guess for some of us, bringing some sanity to the IP system does amount to a religious mission.

One thing has changed since I started reading Techdirt years ago. It seemed like most articles back then were about what is wrong with the IP system. At every turn, it seemed like the IP holders were expanding their rights at the expense of the public interest. Things are different now as we see more and more common sense being introduced into IP issues and various judges and even legislatures realizing that the public interest is not always best served by extending trademark, copyright, and patent protection at every opportunity. Yes, we still have bad things like the PROTECT IP Act proposal hanging over our heads, but there is a lot of good news.

At the risk of being a Pollyana, I would like to highlight some of the positive events this week. We saw good news from Europe, where one European court found that Freedom of expression about Darfur is more important than Louis Vuitton’s trademark. We also saw the European Court of Human Rights say that newspapers don’t need to pre-inform celebrities of coverage. In Ireland, it looks like they are at least considering stronger support for fair use. In the US, we saw Koch Brothers Can’t Abuse Trademark & Hacking Laws To Sue Satirical Critics. The Koch case seems like a pretty straightforward freedom of speech issue, but I am not sure the ruling would have been the same a few years ago. We also saw Patent Hawk’s wings get clipped with a ruling that his editable toolbar patent is invalid. On the more academic side, we saw an important statement about The Anachronism Of Today’s Patent And Copyright Laws. And we had a group of legal scholars stand up and explain why ACTA requires congressional approval. In the business arena, we saw Google follow Amazon’s lead and just say “NO” to RIAA demands for licenses for their cloud music locker. Now I would like to see Google create a music home page that has links to sites and musicians that provide free and Community Commons music that can be easily transferred to your music locker. Google could probably make a fair amount of money by providing searches that included both paid and unpaid advertisements. It would be interesting to see how long it takes for RIAA companies to start buying those advertisements and giving away promotional music.

Finally, one issue that Mike raised this week was in the article about Google’s internal collision course of Chrome versus Android. I agree that there does not seem to be much coordination going on between Android and Chrome at the moment, and that it is a huge burden for any company to maintain two different operating systems. However, this is Google, and Google has proven to be extremely flexible in the past. They have a corporate culture of trying lots of different things and learning from their failures as well as their successes. I would not describe Chrome and Android as being on a collision course. I think it would be more accurate to say that they are on parallel courses. For example, Google TV didn’t work out well under Chrome, so they are going to try Android on the next iteration. I’m not sure that the real problems of Google TV have much to do with the operating system, but the situation does illustrate potential advantages of having two different operating systems in place. Eventually the two will probably merge, or, if the Chrome laptops are not successful, perhaps Chrome will just Wave and fade away. I think that even if the Chrome OS is a failure, it isn’t an indictment of Google but rather an example of how Google is willing to take chances, accept some failures, and move on.

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