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Category: Technology

2

Making Universities Pay for Government Surveillance

computer-surveillance.jpg.gifIn 1994, Congress passed a law called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which requires telecommunication providers to build wiretapping and surveillance capabilities for law enforcement officials into their new technologies.

A recent rulemaking by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) significanty expands the reach of CALEA beyond telephone companies and ISPs:

The federal government, vastly extending the reach of an 11-year-old law, is requiring hundreds of universities, online communications companies and cities to overhaul their Internet computer networks to make it easier for law enforcement authorities to monitor e-mail and other online communications.

The action, which the government says is intended to help catch terrorists and other criminals, has unleashed protests and the threat of lawsuits from universities, which argue that it will cost them at least $7 billion while doing little to apprehend lawbreakers. . . .

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Revenge of the Splog

splog.jpgI previously blogged about splogs earlier this week. This recent Wall St. Journal article (one of the rare freebies on the WSJ website) has some more interesting information about splogs:

Just this past weekend, Google’s popular blog-creation tool, Blogger, was targeted in an apparently coordinated effort to create more than 13,000 splogs, the search giant said. The splogs were laced with popular keywords so that they would appear prominently in blog searches, and several bloggers complained online that that the splogs were gumming up searches for legitimate sites. . . .

Many spammers are buying special software on the Web that allows them to automatically create scores of phony blogs in mere seconds. One program cited by splog critics is BlogBurner, which starts at $47 a month. The tool “creates a unique blog for your Web site in less than one minute — even if you know nothing about computers,” according to the BlogBurner.com site.

BlogBurner’s founder, Rick Butts, denies that his software is used by spammers. He says it is used by business owners to automatically create blogs based on content pulled from their Web sites. He acknowledges that the blogs being created by BlogBurner are often used to help draw attention to a company’s main Web site. “I’m not going to pretend to say we’re altruistically creating blogs for humans to read,” he says, adding that other companies have mimicked his software and sold it to spammers.

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2

When Google Is King

google3.jpgWe are entering the age of the Google Empire. As Randy Picker at the Chicago Law Faculty Blog notes in a review of John Battelle’s The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture:

Microsoft was the king of the personal computer, and the Windows Desktop represented the most valuable real estate available. The rise of search has changed that. Search is now the front-door to the Internet, and the documents located there are often more important than those that sit on your computer. Google, not Microsoft, is defining the new interface to the Internet.

Babies are now being named after Google.

Google is filing for patents for techniques to target ads based on search results.

Google has recently added features such as Blog Search, Instant Messaging, Email, Video Search, Maps, and more. There’s also the much discussed Google Print in the works.

And Google is now unwittingly entering into international affairs, finding itself in the middle of the squabble between China and Taiwan.

All roads, it seems, are leading to Google.

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4

Splogs

splog5.jpgWhat’s a “splog” you might ask? It’s the newest kid on the block, the ugly offspring spawned when spam and blogs mate. As one blogger describes them:

Splogging is a term coined by Mark Cuban to describe blogs with no added value, existing solely to trick people into visiting and exposing them to advertising. Splogs are often encountered in two ways: by searching for a key word on a search engine, or receiving it as a fradulent hit through your RSS aggregator. More often than not, they’re automated, linking to countless blogs and other websites, using keywords selected solely to attract more eyeballs and click-throughs for their advertising. And automation means that splogs are being created at a dizzying pace, to the point that when you do a search for almost any term, you’re bound to get a bunch of hits that are nothing but money-hungry splogs.

Yes, the person who coined the term “splog” is Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.

Splogs are used to increase the page ranking of a website in Google. It is a way to game the Google system, to get one’s website to appear higher up on the result list for particular searches. Splogs work by generating a lot of links. They are not real blogs; instead, their content is generated by randomly grabbing chunks of text from other blogs. And they are easy to create, given that Google’s Blogger service allows anybody to create a blog for free. They are often constructed automatically by computer programs. Here’s an image of part of what appears to be a splog:

splog3.jpg

Thus far, the best article I’ve been able to find about splogs is one by Online Media Daily. According to the article:

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4

When Your Cell Phone Can Recognize You

cellphone2b.jpgIn Finland, scientists are developing a cell phone that can recognize who you are by the way you walk. According to one article:

Researchers at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have developed a prototype of a cell phone that uses motion sensors to record a user’s walking pattern of movement, or gait. The device then periodically checks to see that it is still in the possession of its legitimate owner, by measuring the current stride and comparing it against that stored in its memory.

If the phone suspects it has fallen into the wrong hands, it will prompt the user for a password if they attempt to make calls or access its memory.

As for accuracy:

Ailisto says, using the simple motion sensing gait method, the prototype phone correctly identified when it was being carried by someone other than its owner 98% of the time. It also only triggered accidentally, when it was with its rightful owner, 4% of the time.

4

Using Cell Phones to Catch Speeders

speeding-cartoon1.jpgA glimpse into the not-too-distant future . . .

You’re driving along the highway. There is only light traffic on the road, and there’s not a cop in sight. You decide to give in to that dastardly rebel within and go 10 miles over the speed limit. You get to your destination without incident, a few minutes early. The sun is shining in the sky; there’s not a cloud in sight. It’s a happy day. Life is good.

But then a few weeks later, you discover that the day wasn’t as cheery as you had thought. That’s because you were caught for speeding that day. Your ticket arrives in the mail. But there were no police officers along the route, no speed traps, no surveillance cameras. How did you get caught?

You were ratted out, betrayed by a traitor in your car. No, not a secret agent, not a rat, not a mole. Instead, it was something you trusted the most, an inseparable companion . . . it was your cell phone.

According to the AP:

Driving to work with your cell phone on, you notice the traffic beginning to slow down. Instantly and unbeknown to you, the government senses your delay and flashes a traffic congestion update over Web sites and electronic road signs.

Other motorists take heed, diverting to alternative routes or allowing more time for their trips.

Futuristic as it might seem, the scenario actually is pretty close to becoming reality.

In what would be the largest project of its kind, the Missouri Department of Transportation is negotiating with private contractors to monitor thousands of cell phones, using their movements to produce real-time traffic conditions on 5,500 miles of roads statewide.

Cell phone users won’t even know anyone’s watching them. But transportation and technology leaders assure there is no need to worry – the data will remain anonymous, leaving no possibility of tracking specific people from their driveway to their destination.

I have a quote in the story, but I’m not saying anything really profound, so I won’t bother excerpting it.

Since there is no tracking that can be linked to identifiable people, the cell phone tracking described by the article appears to pose little of a privacy concern. However, it isn’t too hard to imagine in the future new ways that these devices can be used. Previously, I blogged about how cell phones can function as an RFID device to track people’s movement. With the technology described in the AP article, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine cell phones being used to determine a driver’s rate of speed. Would there be a problem if cell phones were used as a way to nab speeders?

This raises another question regarding the enforcement of the law. When we devise ways to more perfectly enforce laws such as speeding, is this desirable? To keep this post from getting too long, I will explore this question in a separate post.

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The Airline Screening Playset: Hours of Fun!

After blogging a few weeks ago about the airline screening playset, I went ahead and ordered one.

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Each day, I would check my mailbox, eager with excitement about its arrival. Today, it finally arrived. I rushed to open it and began what would be hours of exciting play. Here’s what came in the playset:

TSAToy1.bmp

I was a bit disappointed in the toy’s lack of realism. There was only one passenger to be screened. Where were the long lines? The passenger’s clothing wasn’t removable for strip searching. The passenger’s shoes couldn’t be removed either. Her luggage fit easily inside the X-ray machine. There were no silly warning signs not to carry guns or bombs onto the plane. And there was no No Fly List or Selectee List included in the playset.

Another oddity was that the toy came with two guns, one for the police officer and one that either belonged to the X-ray screener or the passenger. The luggage actually opened up, and the gun fit inside. I put it through the X-ray machine, and it went through undetected. Perhaps this is where the toy came closest to reality.

The biggest departure from reality was that the passenger had a cheery smile on her face.

airlinetoy1c.jpg

To make the toy more realistic, I required the passenger to show her ID, which she didn’t have. Indeed, the playset didn’t come with an ID card, so it wasn’t the passenger’s fault. But I had the screener cheerfully deny her the right to board the plane. Ha!

TSAToy1.bmp

But she still had that silly smile.

airlinetoy1c.jpg

I wasn’t ready to give up, however, so I decided to have her searched from head to toe with the magnetic wand.

TSAToy1.bmp

But she still had that smile.

airlinetoy1c.jpg

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Wikimania

Dan mentions the possibility of writing a paper by Wiki. He even hints that this could affect legal academia. (And I for one am shocked, shocked at the suggestion that the responsibility of writing legal scholarship might be farmed out to anonymous hooligans on the web, rather than continuing with the time-honored method of farming it out to minimum-wage research assistants).

(Definitional note for those who didn’t read Dan’s post: A wiki is an open website which allows anyone to edit any entry; the most successful is the online encyclopedia Wikipedia).

But let’s ask the real question — is Dan going far enough with wikimania? Or are there more places where wiki adoption could take the place of help out law professors?

WikiRankings.

U.S. News unreliable? Princeton Review incomprehensible? Leiter just too political? Welcome to WikiRankings. Every school is ranked, and everyone can participate in the process. Indulge in your urge to tell people that NYU stinks or that [insert your alma mater here] is really the best school in the country. (Potential downside: Columbia grads who insist on continually mentioning the fact that NYU stinks).

Wiki Law Review.

Your article will be read by an unknown number of random web participants, who can vote on which articles they like best. (How is this different from normal law review submission?)

Once accepted for publication, it will be edited through the efforts of anonymous Wikizens and then published online. (Oh, it’s an online journal!).

Hey, I like these innovations so far. Long live Wikis! I suppose it doesn’t hurt any that I’m teaching at Thomas Jefferson — currently ranked #7 in the country, according to WikiRankings* — and that I’ve just had five articles accepted by the Wiki L. Rev. Where else can we introduce Wikis?

Wiki Tenure Committee.

On second thought, let’s not go there.

* I deny all reports that in an original version of this post I wrote “and it would be ranked higher if I had coded a better javascript voting program.”

3

Wiki Your Papers?

Wikipedia.jpgNeed a proofreader and fact checker? Let the collective community of the Internet do it for you. According to CNET:

When Esquire magazine writer A.J. Jacobs decided to do an article about the freely distributable and freely editable online encyclopedia Wikipedia, he took an innovative approach: He posted a crummy, error-laden draft of the story to the site.

Wikipedia lets anyone create a new article for the encyclopedia or edit an existing entry. As a result, since it was started in 2001, Wikipedia has grown to include nearly 749,000 articles in English alone–countless numbers of which have been edited by multiple members of the community. (There are versions of Wikipedia in 109 other languages as well.) . . . .

Jacobs decided to craft an article about Wikipedia, complete with a series of intentional mistakes and typos, and post it on the site. The hope was that the community itself would be able to fix the errors and create a clean version that would be ready for publication in Esquire’s December issue. The original version was preserved for posterity.

“The idea I had–which Jimmy (Wales, Wikipedia’s founder) loved–is that I’d write a rough draft of the article and then Jimmy would put it on a site for the Wikipedia community to rewrite and edit,” Jacobs wrote on the page introducing the experiment. Esquire “would print the ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions of the articles. So here’s your chance to make this article a real one. All improvements welcome.” . . .

According to the Wikipedia page for Jacobs’ story, the article was edited 224 times in the first 24 hours after Jacobs posted it, and another 149 times in the next 24 hours.

What result?

On the latest version of the article, the original author writes:

Hello Wikipedians,

I just wanted to thank you all so much for participating in this experiment. It was absolutely fascinating. I was riveted to my computer, pressing refresh every 45 seconds to see the next iteration. And the next and the next. For the last few days, my wife has been what you might call a Wikipedia Widow.

I feel like I should submit all my articles to the community to get them Wikipedia-ized. I can’t wait to print this in Esquire magazine.

Thanks again.

AJ Jacobs

If any students are reading, don’t even think about it . . .

Hat tip: Michael Zimmer

13

Airport X-Ray Peep Shows

x-ray2.jpgAccording to the New York Times, the TSA is moving closer to deploying a new kind of X-ray machine at airports, one that sees through people’s clothing:

Among the most controversial technology being looked at by the Transportation Security Administration is the backscatter body scanner. The device – a boxy contraption that beams low-level X-rays through people’s clothing – has received a lot of attention because of the explicit images of passengers’ bodies it can produce.

This summer, for instance, Lori Borgman, a family humor columnist, wrote that such images were “bound to find their way to the break room, the Internet and the tabloids.” The American Civil Liberties Union has called the backscatter a “virtual strip search.”

As a result, the Transportation Security Administration has approached the deployment of the machines tentatively over the last several years. “I think that as we make the decision to roll out and go to pilot tests and move forward, we need to be sure we’re doing it in a responsible manner,” said the agency’s chief technology officer and assistant administrator, Clifford Wilke. “A person’s first experience with a new technology will determine their perception.”

But there are signs that the T.S.A. is preparing to make its move. The agency said it did not have a specific timeline, but statements made in early August by the two manufacturers of the technology – American Science and Engineering and Rapiscan Systems, a division of the OSI Systems electronics company – indicated that the plans could be made public within the next two months.

Does this technology establish the appropriate balance between privacy and security?

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