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A German Take on the NSA

By Tim Butler | Posted at 19:25

A fascinating op-ed in the New York Times from Malte Spitz:

In Germany, whenever the government begins to infringe on individual freedom, society stands up. Given our history, we Germans are not willing to trade in our liberty for potentially better security. Germans have experienced firsthand what happens when the government knows too much about someone. In the past 80 years, Germans have felt the betrayal of neighbors who informed for the Gestapo and the fear that best friends might be potential informants for the Stasi. Homes were tapped. Millions were monitored.

Those last two, short sentences sound familiar?

Three weeks ago, when the news broke about the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata in the United States, I knew exactly what it meant. My records revealed the movements of a single individual; now imagine if you had access to millions of similar data sets. You could easily draw maps, tracing communication and movement. You could see which individuals, families or groups were communicating with one another. You could identify any social group and determine its major actors.

All of this is possible without knowing the specific content of a conversation, just technical information — the sender and recipient, the time and duration of the call and the geolocation data.

The Whistleblower

By Tim Butler | Posted at 15:44

The whistleblower, who revealed the shockingly disturbing surveillance techniques that the National Security Administration has been engaging in, has revealed himself as Edward Snowden.

For him, it is a matter of principle. “The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to,” he said.

I'm sure the government will go after him. I hope the public makes it clear it won't tolerate the government doing so.

Why Aaron's Law is Needed

By Tim Butler | Posted at 22:16

The tragic case of Aaron Schwartz keeps getting more tragic and infuriating:

Middlesex County's district attorney had planned no jail time, “with Swartz duly admonished and then returned to civil society to continue his pioneering electronic work in a less legally questionable manner,” the report said. “Tragedy intervened when Ortiz's office took over the case to send 'a message.'”

Ortiz's clearly self-promoting motives come into clearer focus as the article goes on to describe another one of her current cases:

Ortiz, 57, also came under fire this week for her attempt to seize a family-owned motel in Tewksbury, Mass., for allegedly facilitating drug crimes, despite ample evidence that the owners worked closely with local police. In a stinging rebuke, U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Dein tossed out the case yesterday, siding with the motel owners — represented by the public-interest law firm Institute for Justice — and noting that prosecutors had alleged a mere “15 specific drug-related incidents” over a 14-year period during which “the Motel Caswell rented out approximately 196,000 rooms.”

We need to reform our technology laws and ensure that they protect innovation, but with an eye to protecting people first. It might not be the sort of thing that gets people motivated to go to the polls, but we desperately need copyright and patent reform to end situations like the one that apparently convinced Schwartz he had no better alternative than to kill himself.

Politically Savvy

By Tim Butler | Posted at 14:10

Conor Friedersdorf reports:

Asked who won the town hall between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, Los Angelenos were emphatic. The problem: The event hadn't yet happened.

Frightening and yet seemingly completely in agreement with my own experience discussing candidates with people.

Confirms My Polling Thoughts...

By Tim Butler | Posted at 0:14

I've been rather surprised to see numerous comments this election cycle about Rasmussen's alleged Republican bias in polling data. This was a surprise to me, since I've always found Rasmussen's polling rather accurate, probably in no small part because of Rasmussen's finely tuned robocalling strategy. The rationale for the alleged bias — other than the higher numbers Republicans sometimes receive in Rasmussen's polling — seems to be two-fold: Scott Rasmussen provides analysis for Fox News and is known to be a Republican.

The first issue is circular, since Rasmussen's alleged bias factors into the analysis of Fox News's own bias. Is Alan Colmes biased towards Republicans, too? The second issue is a red herring. Every pollster is biased, but that doesn't really have anything to do with his data unless his data is shown to be inaccurate. A Fordham University professor looked at 20 major polls to see which one most accurately reflected the actual results of the 2008 Presidential Election and found Rasmussen and Pew to be the only ones to match the real results. Rasmussen consistently showed McCain-Palin as stronger than the other polls did, but that wasn't a bias — it was an accurate prediction of how actual voting would go.

I personally don't follow pollsters because I agree or disagree with them, but because I think this or that one gives me better data. Isn't that what most folks (other than a politicos looking to gain momentum) want from polling data?

HT: Houston Chronicle

Speak Softly...

By Tim Butler | Posted at 1:16

Quoth Lesa Jansen:

It's still a mystery why President Barack Obama was holding a baseball bat during his telephone conversation with Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan earlier this week. An official White House photo shows the president with the bat in one hand and a phone in the other.

What was it Teddy Roosevelt said again?

Petition the President on the TSA

By Tim Butler | Posted at 23:30

A We the People Petition on the White House web site aims to involve the president in the debate around the TSA's full body scanners. The petition reads:

In July 2011, a federal appeals court ruled that the Transportation Security Administration had to conduct a notice-and-comment rulemaking on its policy of using “Advanced Imaging Technology” for primary screening at airports. TSA was supposed to publish the policy in the Federal Register, take comments from the public, and justify its policy based on public input. The court told TSA to do all this “promptly.” A year later, TSA has not even started that public process. Defying the court, the TSA has not satisfied public concerns about privacy, about costs and delays, security weaknesses, and the potential health effects of these machines. If the government is going to “body-scan” Americans at U.S. airports, President Obama should force the TSA to begin the public process the court ordered.

Since I signed earlier today, I've seen several thousand more signatures go on the record. We need 17,331 more to “require” the president to respond to this petition.

Patent Reform

By Tim Butler | Posted at 0:51

Thom Holwerda over at OSNews is bit overzealous in his campaign against patent enforcement — he'll defend companies that are blatantly and directly copying Apple in ways that are totally unnecessary — but his list of suggested patent reforms has a lot of good ideas. Most notably, this:

Patent applications must be accompanied by a working prototype that must be presented, in person, by the inventor listed on the application, to the patent office. This makes it impossible to file patents on ideas that have not yet been implemented or productised, and will serve to greatly reduce the number of vague and/or bogus applications.

The payoff is clear: so-called “patent trolls,” whose main business is extorting money out of actually productive companies by patenting often obvious ideas and then waiting to find someone to sue, would have to either start being productive themselves or move on. In some sense I can see a working prototype requirement as being too steep for high tech patents, after all, an inventor may wish to have the protection of a patent before seeking manufacturing partners. On the other hand, perhaps a compromise would be to require those requesting a patent to produce a working prototype within a certain probationary patent window or face loss of the patent.

Similarly, Thom is right that software patents can be stunningly vague and that such overly broad patents should be rejected. Nonetheless, I do not think the solution is to eliminate software patents entirely, but require them to be restricted to a particular implementation of an idea, not a broad concept that can be achieved via many different methods.

Roberts Switched Views?

By Tim Butler | Posted at 23:22

An insightful article on the process behind the Supreme Court's healthcare decision:

Some informed observers outside the Court flatly reject the idea that Roberts buckled to liberal pressure, or was stared down by the President. They instead believe that Roberts realized the historical consequences of a ruling striking down the landmark health care law. There was no doctrinal background for the Court to fall back on - nothing in prior Supreme Court cases - to say the individual mandate crossed a constitutional line.

Are these Legal Aliens?

By Tim Butler | Posted at 23:52

An interesting set of survey results from National Geographic:

Nearly two in three Americans think President Barack Obama is better suited than Republican rival Mitt Romney to deal with an alien invasion, according to a survey released Wednesday.

Good to know.

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