Not Saussure

May 28, 2007

Google, privacy and a techie note

Filed under: civil liberties, Internet — notsaussure @ 11:25 am

Via Archrights and Longrider, a Financial Times story from last week about

Google’s ambition to maximise the personal information it holds on users is so great that the search engine envisages a day when it can tell people what jobs to take and how they might spend their days off.

Longrider is quite sanguine about this development, as is the FT editorial; the service is an optional one, they both argue, and if you don’t feel the need to ask Google for suggestions about what to do next weekend or what job you should take, then there’s no need to sign up for it.

Fair enough, though the FT does add the — to my mind, necessary — caveat that

The underlying principle must be informed consent. This means that information should be used only for the purpose for which it was gathered. In general, this should mean that it is not handed over to another organisation without the user’s express say-so. Even if this stance cannot always be maintained – for example, if a government demands information at the time of a security crackdown – then the risk that the data may be passed on in certain circumstances must be made explicit.

I’m always slightly suspicious of data mining for pretty much the same reasons as is the FT. There’s a surprising amount that can be deduced about you from things like supermarket loyalty cards — I’ve worked for a company, albeit on another project, that helps build the software that analyses such data for the supermarkets’ marketing departments, so I know a bit about this — and you’d be astonished both at how accurate the predictions turn out to be, at least based on take-up of personalised offers and vouchers issued on the basis of analysis of your purchasing habits, and you’d also be astonished at the third parties to whom this information is sometimes sold, and what they can do with it.

I mean, if you were a life insurance company wanting to offer the most competitive rates, wouldn’t you be interested in finding out as much as you can about the eating, smoking and drinking habits of a potential customer? I’m not sure if anyone does that — I’d be a bit surprised, though, if an individual supermarket’s marketing department and its financial services department (if it has one) don’t share information. And certainly HM Revenue & Customs have the power — which they use — to check on people’s spending; if you’re a self-employed painter and decorator who’s being a bit remiss with your VAT, I really wouldn’t advise using a loyalty card at one of the big DIY stores, for example.

Anyway, as I say, I’m a bit distrustful of data retention on principle, and this extends to data retained by search engines. People will recall, no doubt, the embarrassment caused to both AOL and its customers — rather more embarrassing for the customers, I think — when, last August,

AOL’s publication of the search histories of more than 650,000 of its users […] yielded more than just one of the year’s bigger privacy scandals.The 21 million search queries also have exposed an innumerable number of life stories ranging from the mundane to the illicit and bizarre.

While users weren’t identified by name, they were given unique user numbers, so, for example, you can find out that

Based on the number of local searches, AOL user 1515830 appears to be a resident of Ohio’s Mahoning County.

and I’m willing to bet that, when she was conducting various searches on March 9 of last year, AOL user 1515830 didn’t expect them to be made public and was justifiably furious when they were (read the CNET story and see if you don’t agree).

For a bit of light relief, turn to the explanations of some of his Google searches the inestimable Jon Swift thought it necessary to provide when he discovered in January 2006 that Google

fighting a subpoena from the Bush Administration to turn over its data on searches in order to defend the Internet Child Protection Act. Of course, I support whatever the Bush Administration thinks it needs to do to protect children from the Internet and think Google should surrender this data immediately. However, I was looking at the record of Google searches I have done and am worried that there might be some misunderstandings when these searches are seen out of context. So in case Google does lose its case, I would like to take this opportunity to explain some of the searches I did so that no one in the Justice Department gets the wrong idea. As you can see there are innocent explanations for all of them

My worries about this sort of thing were hardly assuaged when I read in today’s Register that

Google has faced down one European probe into what it does with people’s personal information, only to be challenged with another.Last October, privacy watchdogs in Norway, which is not part of the European Union but has identical data protection laws, asked Google to justify why it retains people’s search histories for up to two years. Google refused to co-operate.

Now the Article 29 Working Party, which advises the Justice Directorate of the EC, has asked Google to bring its business practices into line with European data protection law so that it gives due respect to people’s privacy.

The article continues,

The Register understands that Google has been the cause of anxiety among members of the A29 Working Party for some years. Their members, who include representatives of national EU privacy watchdogs, are not pleased about how long it keeps information. The Norwegians were also concerned that Google might be using its data stores to create profiles of people’s lives. This was one question Google refused to answer.Leif Aanensen, deputy director general of the Norwegian Office of the Data Inspectorate, told The Register that it had effectively put its Google probe on ice after the data giant refused to accept that it came under Norwegian jurisdiction.

“We are not satisfied,” he said. “We didn’t get the proper answers.”

“Our main issue was their data retention policy and the use of the data they stored. We asked them what they were doing with the personal data – are you creating profiles – they didn’t answer,” he said.

Anyway, if, like me, you are a bit concerned about this sort of thing, you might like to know there’s a Firefox add-on called TrackMeNot. As the project’s home page explains, along with a lot of rather disturbing background about what the US government is doing, or trying to do, with search engine queries,

TrackMeNot runs in Firefox as a low-priority background process that periodically issues randomized search-queries to popular search engines, e.g., AOL, Yahoo!, Google, and MSN. It hides users’ actual search trails in a cloud of ‘ghost’ queries, significantly increasing the difficulty of aggregating such data into accurate or identifying user profiles.


May 19, 2007

Judicial Ignorance

Filed under: Internet, Law — notsaussure @ 4:01 pm

Much comment, particularly at The Magistrate’s Blog) about Mr Justice Openshaw’s rather unfortunate remarks about his purported ignorance of this interweb thingy:

A British judge admitted on Wednesday he was struggling to cope with basic terms like “Web site” in the trial of three men accused of inciting terrorism via the Internet.

Judge Peter Openshaw broke into the questioning of a witness about a Web forum used by alleged Islamist radicals.

“The trouble is I don’t understand the language. I don’t really understand what a Web site is,” he told a London court during the trial of three men charged under anti-terrorism laws.

Prosecutor Mark Ellison briefly set aside his questioning to explain the terms “Web site” and “forum.” An exchange followed in which the 59-year-old judge acknowledged: “I haven’t quite grasped the concepts.”

Violent Islamist material posted on the Internet, including beheadings of Western hostages, is central to the case.

Concluding Wednesday’s session and looking ahead to testimony on Thursday by a computer expert, the judge told Ellison: “Will you ask him to keep it simple, we’ve got to start from basics.”

Younes Tsouli, 23, Waseem Mughal, 24, and Tariq al-Daour, 21, deny a range of charges under Britain’s Terrorism Act, including inciting another person to commit an act of terrorism “wholly or partly” outside Britain.

Tsouli and Mughal also deny conspiracy to murder. Al-Daour has pleaded not guilty to conspiring with others to defraud banks, credit card and charge card companies.

Prosecutors have told the jury at Woolwich Crown Court, East London, that the defendants kept car-bomb-making manuals and videos of how to wire suicide vests as part of a campaign to promote global jihad, or holy war.

The trial continues.

As Bystander JP notes, the Judicial Communications Office , has issued a statement explaining something that, I hope, was clear to anyone who understands how courts work:

A media report on a judge reported as saying “I don’t really understand what a website is” has been taken out of context

News reports have appeared implying that Mr Justice Openshaw, in the course of proceedings, did not understand the term ‘website’.

In fact the Judge is currently in the fifth week of presiding over a trial which is largely based on computer generated evidence. Evidence is being provided by expert witnesses that will inevitably be of a specialist nature.

Trial judges always seek to ensure that everyone in court is able to follow all of the proceedings. They will regularly ask questions – not for their own benefit – but on behalf of all those following a case, in the interests of justice.

In this specific case, immediately prior to the judge’s comment, the prosecution counsel had referred to various internet forums with postings of comments relevant to the case. Mr Justice Openshaw was simply clarifying the evidence presented, in an easily understandable form for all those in court.

Mr Justice Openshaw is entirely computer literate and indeed has taken notes on his own computer in court for many years.

But, as Bystander says, the damage is done;

the words that he spoke will have reinforced the impression among the less-cerebral classes that the judiciary as a whole are a lot of out-of-touch old duffers who have trouble remembering how to tie their shoelaces.

Seems to me that the learned judge faced a difficult problem. Forensic evidence is frequently very difficult. You can’t have a situation whereby — as is the very real risk with forensic evidence — someone comes in and says to the jury, I’m the expert and take it from me, that woman must have murdered her children and those Irishmen accused of planting bombs in Birmingham must have been handling explosives and the jury has to accept it.

It has to be tested, and, if the defence have — for example — perfectly reasonably asked the forensic expert how he can be sure, beyond reasonable doubt, that a message posted on an internet forum by ‘The Masked Avenger’ was, in point of fact, sent by the defendant rather than anyone else in the world who has access to the internet and who might have chosen that soubriquet, the answer can get very complicated indeed. And the jury has to understand the answer if there’s to be a fair trial, which is what the system’s supposed to be about.

What’s the judge to do? Say, ‘well, I understand what you’ve just told us, but half the jury look completely bemused, so please spell it out in words of one syllable that even an idiot can understand’?

For a major trial like this, Mr Justice Openshaw will of course have spent weeks reading the case papers, including both the witness and case statements, so obviously he’s going to have a pretty fair idea of what Dr Strabismus of Utrecht, the world -renowned expert in whatever it is, is going to say and why it’s important. He may even, having come across technical matters he doesn’t understand, have used Mr Google’s remarkable machine — or asked his grandson to work it for him — the better to have informed himself on the topic. The jury, though, don’t have that advantage.

Clearly the remark was, in the event, unwise, since the press are all too pleased to find a judge asking something like ‘Who are the Beatles?’ , since that all goes to show that these old duffers who’ve spent their entire careers dealing with alleged criminals and their victims don’t know half as much about anything as do the editor of the Daily Rant and his readers (to whom, God help us, the Home Secretary — who knows far more about anything than does anyone, of course, and particularly about how to get himself and his party re-elected — has to listen).

But the judge still has to ensure a fair trial — fair to the defendants and fair to the Crown — which means making sure the jury can follow what’s often highly technical evidence. Or, even if I don’t think it’s highly technical, the man who fixes my central heating (and can’t believe my depths of ignorance on that topic, though he’s astonished at my ability to build his website for him) might find it confusing. And either of us might find ourselves on a jury, asked to decide about someone’s liberty and reputation.

May 16, 2007

Online safety and moral panic

Filed under: Internet, Panic — notsaussure @ 11:10 am

Devil’s Kitchen is, to my mind, rightly sceptical about some shock … horror statistics from the NSPCC about ‘unwanted experiences’ that children in the UK apparently suffer each day when using the internet. Like DK, I’m of the view that ‘unwanted experiences’ are pretty much part of life and that computers do usually come with an off-switch. Indeed, you could argue that it’s probably safest that children learn to cope with the bullying or unwanted sexual advances that many of them will, unfortunately, encounter at some point during either their childhood or their adult lives by first encountering such things at a safe distance rather than face-to-face.

I’m not being blasé about this, but the fact is that the world isn’t always a particularly pleasant place, and life’s a lot safer and more enjoyable if you have the skills and confidence both to avoid getting into bad situations in the first place and also to deal with them when, inevitably, they do arise.   Better to begin to acquire them, perhaps, in the virtual world, where the threats are more controllable and help is usually closer to hand, than in the actual one.

One of the comments to DK’s piece suggests that

The NSPCC is an organization due a bigger looking-at than it gets,

which prompts me to chuck in my couple of euros’ worth. I fell out with the NSPCC in a big way getting of for 20 years ago when the ‘satanic ritual abuse‘ débâcle really got going. It sounded distinctly fishy to me and then I read Rosie Waterhouse’s classic article on the subject in the Independent on Sunday, which pretty much crystallised my concerns. Strangely enough, I can even remember where I was when I read the article; it made that much impression on me.

The NSPCC, it may be remembered, had been pretty vocal in helping stir up the, quite literal, witch-hunt. Since, at the time, I regularly contributed to the NSPCC, I thought I’d drop them a line asking why they’d been using my money to such mischievous effect. This was, I recall noting to them, particularly galling at a time when systematic abuse in various children’s homes was coming to light. It was, I reasoned, inconceivable that the NSPCC hadn’t received complaints from any of the children on the receiving end of this abuse, so how come they were apparently ignoring actual abuse and, instead, starting up wild-goose chases to disastrous effect?

The reply I received was so breath-taking in its cynicism that it shook even me. Yes, apparently they’d had their doubts about this ritual abuse malarkey but I had to realise that they did an awful lot of very necessary work for children, this costs money, and tabloid bandwagons are a very good way of raising much-needed funds. They rather ducked the question about why they’d failed to spot what was going on in various children’s homes over the years, and hoped they could count on my continued support.

People will perhaps not be surprised to learn that this hope proved misplaced.

Coming at a time when, over in the USA  apparently

parents rate Internet Safety as being a more serious health threat to children than school violence, sexually transmitted diseases, abuse and neglect.

Yes, the Internet,

with the predictable result that

“state and federal legislators appear to have responded to public concerns about Internet safety for children, considering new legislation and issuing consumer alerts”.

it’s perhaps not surprising that the NSPCC has seized this new fund-raising opportunity. But I can’t say I much like it.

As a bit of light relief, people might want to visit this prophetic animation, with a fine Doghorse and  Miss Prism ditty. You won’t regret it.

April 26, 2007

Wikipedia, bloggers and accuracy

Filed under: Blogroll, Internet — notsaussure @ 6:55 pm

Tim Worstall discusses the views of Oliver Kamm and Stephen Pollard on Wikipedia. Oliver Kamm complains that

By design, the most popular reference source on the Web operates by consensus rather than by discriminating between fact and error.

This leads to errors; he writes,

Here is a small example concerning my family, and that I cite because I therefore know the subject and it illustrates what I’m talking about. It would be difficult to name an African country that has suffered war in the last 40 years and whose travails have not been reported by Martin Bell for the BBC. One of those countries, however, is Rwanda. Wikipedia’s entry for Martin, sure enough, cites prominently his journalism from that country – a body of work that no one has seen because it doesn’t exist. It’s the type of small error – something that might have happened, but didn’t – that no amateur editor would feel sufficiently strongly about to check, or sure about to delete. Inevitably, given Wikipedia’s reach and unwarranted use even by serious newspapers, that factoid will make its way into profiles and, one day, obituaries of the man. It’s not important; it doesn’t affect his professional reputation one way or the other; it’s just wrong. By not discriminating between fact and error, the Web and specifically Wikipedia increasingly blur the distinction between them.

Stephen Pollard agrees, drawing attention to inaccuracies in the entry on him,

The entry on me, for instance – probably the only subject about which I can claim to the the world’s leading expert – has so many basic errors of fact that it is laughable.

He then goes on to discuss some of them; his biography of David Blunkett wasn’t official, he’s never appeared on Question Time and so forth. He writes,

I have made a point of never correcting it because once I start, there will be no end to it, as it is forever altered with new errors.

However, someone’s corrected it, and within hours of Mr Pollard’s criticisms appearing. I thought of correcting the Martin Bell entry, but, instead, left a comment in the Discussion section, drawing attention to Kamm’s complaint. In under an hour, someone replied, (more…)

April 21, 2007

Fraud victims wrongly convicted in Operation Ore?

Filed under: Internet, Law — notsaussure @ 1:38 pm

Via Tim Worstall, a very disturbing account from Alex at The Yorkshire Ranter of how many of the men caught up in the Operation Ore child pornography prosecutions may have been completely innocent victims of credit card fraud and phishing — essentially, their stolen credit card details were apparently run through a site, in order to generate charges that the fraudsters pocketed, that provided merchant services to various shady enterprises, including vendors of child pornography.

Alex’s article is based on an article by investigative journalist Duncan Campbell in The Guardian and a much longer piece by him in PC Pro (pdf).

Someone’s commented on Tim’s article to the effect there are — or should be — safeguards against wrongful conviction in this sort of case. Well, yes, there are, and they should be effective, but they clearly didn’t protect the people who, as Campbell describes in his article, had their computers seized and lived with these charges hanging over their heads for a year or 18 months before being dropped or thrown out by the judge. Nor did they protect people who apparently wrongly accepted cautions in the mistaken belief this would be an end to the matter (it isn’t, since that means admitting the offence, and ending up on the Sex Offenders Register).

And, in the light of what Campbell has to say about the police’s unwillingness to turn over unused materials to defence lawyers (and, I think, lack of knowledge at the time among many of the criminal bar about phishing) there’s no knowing how many people were mistakenly advised to plead guilty to incitement to create child pornography (the standard charge in Operation Ore when the prosecution found someone’s credit card details on one of these sites but nothing on his computer) on the grounds that they’d be found guilty anyway and might as well get it over with in return for a lower sentence.

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January 6, 2007

Trying out your new sword on a chance wayfarer

Filed under: history, Internet, Philosopy — notsaussure @ 2:28 pm

Listening to The News Quiz on Radio 4 this lunchtime, I heard Jo Brand explaining that her favourite word was a Japanese term meaning ‘to try out your new sword on a passer-by’, which she rather liked the sound of (assuming, one supposes, she felt herself at no risk of being the passer-by), but she couldn’t remember the Japanese term for this practice. This vaguely reminded me of an essay I’d read years ago — must have been late ’70s or early ’80s — when I came across a discussion of the practice in a philosophical essay of that title, which used it to attack moral and cultural relativism. Apparently, the Japanese samurai not only had to be able to kill their masters’ enemies in battle but they had to be able to dispatch them with a single blow; failure so to do was apparently an immense dishonour and the only possible way to atone for it was to commit ritual suicide.

Consequently, the provident samurai would, on taking delivery of a new sword, obviously want to road-test it to determine it was, in fact, ‘fit for purpose.’ There were complex rules about who could be used as guinea-pigs in these experiments and, apparently, chance wayfarers were the best choice. The author of the essay used this example to try to argue that, no matter how tolerant and liberal minded one was, and no matter how much one understood the cultural milieu of the samurai, there was no way a C20th Western liberal could begin to justify the practice.

My take on it, by the way, was that it probably — no matter what anyone said — didn’t go down too well with chance wayfarers in Japan at the time, so this was probably another example of a particular group in a society trying to pretend its cultural practices were the norm, and, in any case, if anyone tried to explain that his habit of running about slicing people up would have been considered perfectly normal behaviour in C16th Japan, that was all very interesting but not much of a guide to behaviour in Britain nowadays and that our legal system takes a dim view of such activities; I’ve always rather liked the quote attributed to General Napier when he was suppressing sati in British India:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

(another example of powerful elites determining social morality, you see).

Anway, my curiosity piqued by Jo Brand’s recollection of the practice, I thought I’d try to look up the article, or at least the Japanese term for it. Mr Google quickly led me to To Try a New Sword on a Chance Wayfarer: This blog, a crossroads. My words, a sword. You, a chance wayfarer, where the latest entry is:

Hey English people!

Why are you visiting my blog? Don’t get me wrong; I love new visitors, especially from outside the USA. But I’ve been getting a bunch of visits from people in England searching for variations of “to try a new sword on a chance wayfarer.” It’s made me really curious. Are you all looking it up for a Japanese language class assignment or something?

So it rather seems that a lot of other people wondered about the term, too.

I was also delighted to discover from one of the comments that the Japanese term is Tsujigiri (辻斬)

Who says you never learn anything from fooling about on the internet?

(Now, let’s see what this does for my hits).

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September 10, 2006

There ought to be a law…

Filed under: civil liberties, Internet, Mental Health, Panic, Suicide — notsaussure @ 2:59 am

BBC NEWS | Health | Call to ban pro-suicide websites
Call to ban pro-suicide websites

The government should make it illegal for internet sites to incite or advise people on how to commit suicide, a charity says.

Papyrus, set up to tackle young suicide, said the risk posed by pro-suicide websites was not being taken seriously enough.

The charity said the 1961 Suicide Act should be amended to make it illegal to publish such material on the web.

The government said it was looking at how rules could be tightened.

At the moment, the law says it is illegal to aid, abet, counsel, procure or incite someone to commit suicide, but to be successfully prosecuted the individual has to have knowledge and participated in the suicide.

The charity said it was aware of nearly 20 internet-related suicides cases in the UK in the last five years.

Papyrus said typing “I want to kill myself” into an internet search engine offers access to 5m sites, many of which give information on how to commit suicide or were chat-rooms where techniques are discussed.

A spokeswoman added: “The sites take no responsibility for the advice they give, do not identify themselves and generally create an atmosphere where suicide is normal, acceptable and to be encouraged.

“The fact is that it is illegal to groom a child to have sex, but not to kill themselves.”

An unfortunate quote, there; I rather doubt that Papyrus want to make suicide a crime again — I hope they don’t, for it certainly wouldn’t help the young people about whom they’re concerned — and the article’s just explained that it is, in fact, illegal under the 1961 Suicide Act to ‘groom’ someone to kill himself.

The problem is that this doesn’t cover putting up a website to encourage unidentified people to kill themselves, and, even if it did, it’s difficult to see how you’d enforce such a law against a US-based website.

Fortunately, the government seem, for once, to be aware that “It is a very complex issue, as many of these sites are hosted abroad and UK law won’t apply there” (a polite way of saying it’s a non-starter), so it looks as if we’ll be spared a new offence of ‘glorification of suicide’ or whatever Papyrus might have in mind.

Papyrus are quoted as saying that ‘it was aware of nearly 20 internet-related suicides cases in the UK in the last five years’, which I suppose sounds more than ‘between three or four a year’, which — assuming they’re talking about young people committing suicide — means about 1% of suicides are ‘internet-related’, whatever that means; according to Mind, each year around 400 people aged between 15 and 24 kill themselves (girls are much more likely attempt suicide, seriously or not, but boys are considerably more likely actually to kill themselves).

Mind’s discussion of the causes of suicide among young people suggests that, perhaps not surprisingly, the groups most at risk include the homeless,  young lesbians and gay men (presumably because they’re worried and confused about their sexuality, or subject to bullying because of it), people with mental illness and drug and alcohol abusers.

Seems to me that Papyrus’s campaigning efforts would be much better directed towards helping these groups rather than getting up moral panics about the threats of the evil interwebs and asking government — who normally don’t need much encouragement — to pass unenforceable and unnecessary laws.

Miss Prism and Doghorse have a very apposite movie on a related topic at ecletech.

September 8, 2006

Reassuring to know…

Filed under: hubris, Internet — notsaussure @ 6:33 pm

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | ‘Name and shame’ plan for websites
“I would no more ban the internet as a whole than ban a library, but you need to look at those sections that create a risk. Then you have to think about inhibiting people from going to it,” Mr Gamble told the Financial Times.

The report explains,

Websites that fail to protect children from sexual predators could face legal action from a new online child protection agency.The huge popularity of social networking sites such as MySpace, where millions of youngsters have posted personal information, has increased concern at the potential for paedophiles to ‘groom’ youngsters for abuse through the internet.

Websites that are “obstructive or unhelpful” would be “named and shamed” and legal action against them would be considered, said Jim Gamble, the former anti-terrorist police officer who heads the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.

Can anyone think of any ‘legal action’ a British agency could realistically take against US-based MySpace with any more hope of success than it could attempt to ‘ban the internet’, as Mr Gamble assures he has not intention of doing?

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