By Jesse Brown - Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - 0 Comments
Is the U.S. government trying to create a biometric database of every American’s face? The answer depends on whom you ask, whom you trust, and how you define “biometric.”
Here’s what we know: The U.S. Senate is debating immigration reform legislation that contains an “identity authentication” clause calling for the Department of Homeland Security to establish and administer a “photo tool.” The tool would use facial recognition technology to ensure employers only hire people who are legally allowed to work in America.
As Wired reported, for this to function, an applicant’s photo would have to be run against a database of every single citizen and legally landed immigrant. Wired called the suggested photo library an expansive “biometric database” leading to a National I.D card — a much-feared concept by freedom-loving Americans on either side of the political spectrum.
By Jesse Brown - Monday, May 13, 2013 at 9:05 PM - 0 Comments
Here’s how it works: you get a threatening letter in the mail from a law firm representing a film production company. It says you illegally downloaded Paparazzi Princess: The Paris Hilton Story. It demands you fork over $2,000, or else be hauled in to court where evidence of your guilt will be presented.
You don’t remember downloading Paparazzi Princess: The Paris Hilton Story, but maybe your wife did? Or perhaps your niece … or that houseguest last summer? What about your neighbours: you did give them your WiFi password that one time —
You think about hiring a lawyer, but realize legal fees alone will likely top two grand. Instead you visit the website mentioned in the letter, enter your credit card number and pay some stranger a good deal of money to leave you alone.
By Jesse Brown - Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 12:06 PM - 0 Comments
Timothy Quinn has found a use for hate.
He and his team have built a tool called Hatebase that scours the world’s tweets for hate speech. Hatebase is an effort of The Sentinel Project for Genocide Projection, a Toronto-based NGO. It indexes real-time utterances of all known epithets and their places of origin. If hateful tweets are geo-tagged, Hatebase can pinpoint a surge in racism to its origin, getting as “granular” as a six-block radius.
Hate speech, Quinn says, is one of the main precursors to violence and mass atrocity. By constantly monitoring the world’s social media chatter, Hatebase aims to build an early warning system for ethnic conflict, even genocide. He brings up the Rwandan Genocide, immediately before which the term “inyenzi”, meaning “cockroach”, was widely used on the radio in the ’90s in an effort to dehumanize Tutsis by Hutus. “Inyenzi” reached peak usage right before the mass killings began.
If it happened again today, the word would probably spike on social media too, giving NGOs and the international community an opportunity to intervene and prevent atrocities. “I’ll know it’s a success,” says Quinn, “when we have Amnesty International, Red Cross, Ushahidi and USAid pulling our data.” By offering its data free through an API, other organizations can plug Hatebase in to their own systems. Quinn sees the tool not as a sole predictor of conflict, but as a powerful data point that can be layered in with other information to paint a detailed picture of trouble brewing around the world. Continue…
By Jesse Brown - Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 12:42 PM - 0 Comments
The lucky winners of Google’s #ifihadglass contest have received their digital spectacles in the mail and are flaunting them around town (the towns in question primarily being San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles). To qualify, they have proven themselves innovative, or at least famous enough to be granted the privilege of paying Google $1,500 for a first generation pair of Google Glass headwear, and now they want you to know it.
This has prompted some concern. Over at The New York Times, Jenna Wortham worries “about the future of new technology and who gains access to it first — part of a much larger debate concerning the undercurrents of power and privilege that course through the Web.”
Between the hefty sticker price and the snobby Google selection process, Wortham speculates that ”Glass…poses an inkling of a trend toward technology for the 1 percent”.
By Jesse Brown - Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 6:02 AM - 0 Comments
Last week, the titans of Canadian cinema joined forces to make their case for a mandatory all-Canadian movie channel that they would own collectively: Robert Lantos, David Cronenberg, Paul Gross, Deepa Mehta, Denys Arcand, Guy Maddin and more — the gang was all there. Each took a turn to present the case in favour of forcing Starlight channel onto every Canadian cable and satellite subscriber’s TV, and obligating each of us to pay for it. Lantos called film “the highest achievement of mass culture.” Cronenberg said our movies ”represent the high-water mark in Canadian creative and cultural expression.”
I love movies, too. Who doesn’t? But what they had to say is worth repeating:
- Producer Denise Robert said she’s ”very concerned” for the future of her teenage daughter who watches too many American movies and not enough Canadian ones.
- When asked why the public should be forced to pay for a station many don’t want and won’t watch, Paul Gross said it’s the only way Canadians will realize how much they “need” Canadian films.
- Director Deepa Mehta told the CRTC that Starlight will “make piracy impossible” because people will finally be able to watch Canadian films legally.
As self-important (and perhaps, delusional) as the directors were, I believe they were well-intentioned. And yet producer Robert Lantos, the majority partner in Starlight, said things to the CRTC and to the press that do not seem to match what Starlight said in its official application.
Starlight wants more money from Canadians per year than we give to Telefilm Canada. Unlike Telefilm, Starlight is a private company, and we’ll have no way to hold it accountable once it gets a licence (the CRTC doesn’t audit the books of TV channels). The CRTC and the public have one chance to scrutinize what Lantos and Co. are proposing to do with our money during the next seven years.
I think it’s crucial to hold them to account while we can.
Here’s what Lantos told my Maclean’s colleague Brian D. Johnson, when presented with the criticism that Starlight wants not only to show Canadian movies, but also to make them, using public funds to finance a private movie studio:
“There is no studio model. Calling it a studio is inaccurate.”
Yet here’s what the Starlight application says:
“… the (Starlight) Fund will operate as a ‘mini-studio’ and will receive and evaluate proposals in the same way that successful studios do.”
— Paragraph 97 of Starlight’s supplementary brief.
The chief concern with this studio model is that Starlight would own and exploit the films it makes with public money as any movie studio or distributor would, assuming none of the risk while reaping the rewards. Lantos verbally denied this last week to the CRTC and earlier to Macleans:
“Starlight will not own, produce or distribute films. The copyright will be owned by the producer.”
Yet here’s what the Starlight application says:
“The (Starlight) Fund will take a majority equity position in the film(s) and will organize the exploitation of the film(s) through the normal theatrical, home video, and broadcast windows.”
— Paragraph 93 of Starlight’s supplementary brief.
“… the company will have exclusive Canadian broadcast rights in the film(s) and the film(s) will have (their) first broadcast window on the service. The company will also control and exploit other rights, including theatrical, home video and foreign rights.”
— Paragraph 99 of their supplementary brief.
There are other financial questions about the budget line items in Starlight’s proposal:
- Starlight has $26.5 million earmarked in its first year to produce its first crop of films. Anyone familiar with film production knows that taking eight to 12 films from pitch to production in one year is just about impossible — unless Starlight has projects ready to go from its well-established celebrity director shareholders, something it has promised not to do. So what’ll happen with the $26.5 million?
- Starlight wants about $4.5 million a year for “promotion.” But this won’t be used to promote the films it produces, which have promotion expenses built into their budgets. It also won’t likely be used to promote the channel—mandatory carriage channels don’t really advertise, since we’re already forced to subscribe. What will the $33 million be used for?
- In addition to about $5.5 million a year for its administration’s salaries, Starlight wants one million a year for “management services” and another $1.5 million a year for “other.” Who’s going to get this money?
In their intervention to Starlight’s application, George Burger and VMedia dropped this cheeky bombshell: should the CRTC deny Starlight its mandatory carriage licence, VMedia will develop and release a Canadian Movie app to deliver the rich history of Canadian cinema to anyone who wants it for $1.99 a month.
Meanwhile, the NFB has announced that in 2014 it will launch a subscription streaming video service, a Netflix of documentaries with a library of films made throughout the globe. Both projects hint at a different future for Canadian film—one that’s accountable to an audience and to the marketplace, and one in step with where viewers are actually going: away from linear broadcast TV, and toward the Internet. It may be worth mentioning that neither of these projects will cost Canadians $700+ million dollars.
Robert Lantos is an old hand at the CanCon game, and he’s tapped some big names to help paint a CRTC regulatory decision as a tribunal on the future of Canadian cinema and Canadian culture.
This, it is not. Funding Lantos’ private movie studio is not the same thing as funding the arts. Canadians and the CRTC should proceed with caution. Early signs are, they will. As CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blaise put it to the Starlight crew, “you are in the business of illusions. We are in business of regulating.”
Follow Jesse Brown on Twitter @JesseBrown
(With a hat-tip to the Globe and Mail’s Steve Ladurantaye for live-tweeting the hearings)
By Jesse Brown - Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 11:47 AM - 0 Comments
The NFB just gets it.
Today, as the wildly popular Hot Docs festival plays to packed crowds in Toronto, they’ve announced a major new effort: a global subscription-based movie service specializing in “auteur” documentaries, debuting in 2014. No word yet on pricing or who their “prestigious” international partners are, but I’m sold on the idea alone. This is a product strangely absent from the online streaming video marketplace, and it’s awesome to see a Canadian cultural institution seizing that opportunity and leading, instead of waiting to see if some American startup can make a go of it first.
By Jesse Brown - Monday, April 29, 2013 at 2:58 PM - 0 Comments
The tweet sounded like a joke. Kirstine Stewart, vice president of CBC English language services (translation: the woman who runs the CBC) has left the public broadcaster to head up Twitter Canada. Why did it seem like a prank?
Because there is no Twitter Canada.
So what does it mean?
For the CBC
It’s hard to see an upside to this for the Ceeb. Stewart was in the middle of steering a major “renewal” effort, an attempt to find steady footing following massive budget cuts and layoffs. News was “modernized”, radio razed, and a major emphasis on primetime TV ratings began to bear fruit. Online has languished, as it awaited new management, with the exception of one major project, the free streaming CBC Music service. Like these changes or hate them, most CBC employees accepted them, and welcomed Stewart as their face. She washed away much of the bad taste left by her predecessor, the detested Richard Stursberg. For those weathering the storm within the CBC, trusting in Stewart’s relentless positivity (is there a more exuberant executive on Twitter?) and believing that they would all pull through the bad times together, her departure can’t be good news. I know a number of young(ish) CBC employees who’ve been debating whether or not to keep building careers at the Ceeb, questioning what place it will have in tomorrow’s digital media environment. Morale must suck for them today.
Why is Twitter opening a Canada outpost anyway, and why do they want Stewart to lead it? Stewart’s first (mini) interview today was with U.S. site TechCrunch, which hurt my feelings, but which provided a hint about what Twitter will be up to here. Stewart spoke to TechCrunch in riddles, describing herself as a “longtime champion of great content,” an area where Twitter is doing “incredibly exciting” things. She also commented on Twitter’s newest ally, the massive ad firm StarCom MediaVest, which Stewart said is “really setting itself up as quite the partner”.
Reading the tea leaves here, this talk is all about Twitter’s second-screen dreams. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo recently remarked that Twitter’s future is intertwined with television, as a “complementary” media platform. Be it Oscars, Olympics, or news, Twitter sees huge traffic spikes when big TV events occur and viewers want to chatter about them. This audience is ripe for targeted advertising, and Twitter wants to work with big brands on hybrid campaigns. TV ad spots are bought at the national, not international level. If Twitter wants to piggyback Canadian TV advertising deals, it’ll need a Canadian office. So far, they’re hiring ad sales people here, not developers. Twitter Canada will likely have little to do with technology, a field Stewart has no experience in. She is a career television executive, and Twitter must be hopeful that she can cut them a clear path through Canada’s insular and change-resistant TV and advertising industries.
For Kirstine Stewart
What would you rather do, make TV shows or sell Twitter ads? Leaving the CBC for Twitter sounds sexy, but for an executive known for getting deeply involved in the creative side of television production, Twitter may prove a bore. True, it’s a far more dynamic setting than the CBC, but Stewart will be subservient to big decisions made in San Francisco, and she’ll have to compel Canadian brands to take chances and invest online, when they’re notorious for waiting to see how things go down in the U.S. first. It’s a lot less power than she’s used to.
There’s nothing bad about this for the rest of us, but there’s not much to get excited about either. Best case scenario: Twitter makes like Google and opens up a Canadian policy shop to deal with privacy, regulation, and free expression issues. Twitter has generally protected its users’ rights admirably in the U.S., and Canadians could use some of that here.
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By Jesse Brown - Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 11:13 AM - 0 Comments
In the face of Canada’s incomprehension, grief and anger over the Rehtaeh Parsons case, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was characteristically calm and reasonable — at first. In his initial reaction to the tragedy, he said the following:
“I think we’ve got to stop using just the term ‘bullying’ to describe some of these things. Bullying to me has a kind of connotation … of kids misbehaving. What we are dealing with in some of these circumstances is simply criminal activity.”
Sober words. Rape is a crime. Threats and defamation are crimes. Harassment and invasion of privacy can be crimes. We have laws that clearly define these offences and their punishments. What happened to Rehtaeh Parsons was (as Harper put it), sickening, and we should not for a moment tolerate it. But let’s not use a reductive, juvenile and hazy term like “bullying” to describe it. Instead, let’s learn the truth, enforce our laws and punish anyone who has committed a crime against this girl. Continue…
By Jesse Brown - Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 10:35 AM - 0 Comments
What role did the website reddit play in the aftermath to the Boston Marathon bombings? It depends who you ask.
GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram maintains that in crowdsourcing the manhunt for the bombers, reddit was practising a new kind of unruly journalism. Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic feels that in mistakenly identifying an innocent man as a suspect, reddit was guilty of reprehensible vigilantism. Reddit’s official blog has called the campaign a “witch hunt,” scrubbed the thread from its servers and apologized. Others feel reddit has no need to apologize.
I think they’re all wrong. “Reddit” didn’t do anything. The site is an open, anonymous forum where anyone can say anything. It’s comprised of millions of people, using pseudonyms to link to stories, make comments, share content and rank each other’s input. When someone on reddit is saying one thing, someone else is saying the opposite.
When we blame or applaud reddit for the /r/findbostonbombers thread, are we blaming “oops777,” the user who started the thread? Is he “reddit”? Or is it the user who pointed a finger at the wrong guy? What about the thousands of users who participated in the thread (some of whom did so in order to criticize it), or the millions who followed the thread without contributing to it? This audience contained dozens of journalists covering the story, some of whom ran with the erroneous information they found there. Is reddit to blame for this spread of false information onto Twitter, Facebook, and then into mainstream news reports?
It’s a ridiculous question. For our purposes, in making sense of what happened last week, reddit doesn’t really exist. It’s not an organization or individual of any kind. It’s as useless a noun as ”the Internet,” or “humanity.” Is humanity to blame for the Boston bombings? I guess so, but that’s a pointless way to think about it.
A couple of dudes are the culprits, allegedly. Similarly, people are individually responsible for each act of analysis, documentation, rumour mongering and hysteria that occurred during those frightening hours. Whether they were pursuing these actions on reddit, Twitter, or the nightly news is beside the point.
Despite what the headlines say, reddit did not apologize for what happened. It can’t, any more than the city of Boston can apologize for what happened. Like reddit, Boston is just a place where things transpired. Reddit’s staff regrets some of what happened on its service, and that’s fine.
But the lesson for me, as someone who’s as guilty as anyone of using this easy shorthand, of ascribing actions or motives to Twitter, to Anonymous, to 4Chan, or to the Internet itself, is that the practice should stop. It’s fun to say “the Internet” loves authenticity or that “Anonymous” has targeted so-and-so. Perhaps there was a time when it meant something, when the Internet itself had a certain culture, or when Anonymous was a specific community. No longer. On this point at least, technology critic Evgeny Morozov is right- the Internet does not exist. The Internet is almost everyone now, which also means that it’s no one.
I need to find new language to talk about these things, as difficult as that will be.
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By Jesse Brown - Monday, April 8, 2013 at 4:11 PM - 0 Comments
Wikileaks has just dropped a data dump of 1.7 million U.S. diplomatic and intelligence cables, published on a site they call the Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy. The documents are all dated between 1973-76, and include over 200,000 items relating directly to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Journalists and academics have begun sorting through the missives, many of which shed new light on America’s relationships with oppressive regimes in Latin America. Also of note are detailed reports on The Yom Kippur war, Israel’s 1973 conflict with Egypt and Syria. Many formerly secret memos are included.
“Formerly” secret not because of Wikileaks, but because the documents have all been publicly available at the National Archives. All that Wikileaks has done here (and by Wikileaks, it seems that we’re talking chiefly about Julian Assange, who reportedly engineered this release personally while in exile) is collect the data, put it online, organize it, alert the media to it, and make it easily searchable.
Which is a lot.
By Jesse Brown - Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 2:30 PM - 0 Comments
A shiny Mark Zuckerberg nervously revealed Facebook’s long-anticipated phone today. Or rather, he revealed that the Facebook Phone is not a phone.
The product is called Facebook Home. Zuck calls it an “integration,” but essentially it’s a slick skin for Android—a new interface that hides your apps and turns your wallpaper into your Facebook News Feed. New pictures and messages auto-load in a rotating screen show, and you can pop into any item to comment, chat, click links, and so on. If you want to do something old-fashioned like Gmail or Twitter, you must swipe past Home.
It’s nice-looking enough, for what it is. But what it is is an assumption that users want to use Facebook to filter everything they do with their smartphones. That’s not how Zuckerberg put it—he presented Home as a tool that lets people view the world through the lens of their friends. We don’t want a grid of apps when we swipe our phones on, he argued, we want to know who’s saying what, who’s doing what, and most of all, who’s trying to communicate with us. Putting friends first isn’t a bad concept for the smart-phone experience. But Facebook thinks that friends = Facebook and Facebook = friends. If this were ever true, it isn’t now.
Facebook’s biggest challenge today isn’t conquering mobile, creating the killer advertising format or even signing up users. It’s relevance retention. Few of us ever leave Facebook, officially. But how many people have stopped enjoying it, using it as much, or caring as much? The signal-to-noise ratio on Facebook has been degrading steadily, bringing us five unwanted ads or updates for every relevant item.
I don’t know what Facebook can do about this. Tools to quarantine real friends from duds haven’t caught on. Cory Doctorow predicted in 2008 that your creepy ex co-workers would eventually kill Facebook in just this manner. He was half right.
By now, your network is likely to contain more ex-lovers, ex-friends, ex-schoolmates and ex-colleagues than it does people you want to connect with on the daily. But he was wrong about Facebook dying, and about everyone abandoning it to hop on to the next social network.
Or at least, he’s not right yet.
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By Jesse Brown - Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 2:03 PM - 0 Comments
MP3s are no different than CDs: if you want one, you should buy it. That’s the argument music labels including Capitol have been making to music fans for the last 14 years. Of course, when you buy a CD, you have the right to sell it. Here, Capitol feels that MP3s are totally different.
Last year Capitol sued ReDigi, a start-up that lets you re-sell your legally purchased digital music. ReDigi performs technological somersaults to make MP3s behave like CDs. Its Marketplace app verifies that your MP3 was legally purchased, then allows you to sell it to someone else at a discounted rate. Once you make the sale, ReDigi deletes the MP3 from your hard drive.
A U.S. District Court in New York has just ruled in favour of Capitol. Judge Richard J. Sullivan found ReDigi to be in violation of copyright law, on the basis of some pretty flimsy details:
“…the fact that a file has moved from one material object – the user’s computer – to another – the ReDigi server – means that a reproduction has occurred. Similarly, when a ReDigi user downloads a new purchase from the ReDigi website to her computer, yet another reproduction is created. It is beside the point that the original phonorecord no longer exists. It matters only that a new phonorecord has been created.”
I’ll resist the urge to mock Judge Sullivan for calling an MP3 a “phonorecord” (or at least, I’ll save that for Twitter). That grandpa term isn’t his, it comes from the copyright laws he’s interpreting. It should provide some insight into just how desperately in need of modernization this legislation is. Even without such amendments, Sullivan has leeway to read and apply the law flexibly, but he’s chosen to forgo that discretion. So while he might be adhering peevishly to the letter of copyright law, he does so in complete disregard for its spirit.
What’s actually beside the point here is how many copies ReDigi incidentally creates in the process of brokering a legitimate sale. Seriously, why would a copyright holder care, so long as there’s just one copy, which was legitimately paid for, trading hands?
Beyond the court’s small-minded interpretation of the law, this case provides real-world examples of a couple of persistent truths:
- The music industry has no consistent ideology or principles about digital music beyond the short-term preservation of their perceived interests. An MP3 is just like a CD, until that means that they might get cut out of a sale, in which case it isn’t like a CD at all.
- This belligerent attitude has long been described by technologists as an obstacle to innovation and invention. This case demonstrates just that. Capitol is seeking $150,000 from ReDigi. Per song.
Let that be a lesson to anyone else with a good idea for a music app.Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown
By Jesse Brown - Friday, March 29, 2013 at 6:50 PM - 0 Comments
That’s how a DDos attack was described by many in the press, earlier this week. Today they’re wiping egg of their faces as the Internet chugs along just fine, with few having noticed even the slightest slowdown in their online connections.
I’m not saying that nothing happened. There was a conflict between spam fighters and spam hosters, and it did result in a big Denial of Service attack. But a Dutch DDoS attack is similar to an Italian traffic jam: something of little relevance to Canadians.
What is it about these tech doomsday stories that we find so irresistible? From the Y2K bug to the Conficker worm to the DNSChanger malware, the mainstream media has been blowing tech threats out of proportion and getting things wrong for years. But no amount of embarrassment results in greater scrutiny or savvy. It’s like Geraldo at Al Capone’s vault, over and over again.
Reporters, supposedly skeptical by trade, are ever-ready to parrot dire press releases from security and anti-virus firms who make money by keeping people paranoid about their computers (the “almost broke the Internet” line, for example, which the Toronto Sun ran in their headline, came from the company blog of CloudFlare, who specialize in fighting DDoS attacks).
So what’s with our blind spot?
Here’s one theory: it’s a wish fulfillment fantasy. I know lots of folks in legacy news organizations who have fuzzy dreams of the Internet suddenly melting. Maybe that’s why they jump with joy at reports suggesting that their fantasies are coming true!
Or perhaps it’s simply revealing of a major deficiency in tech reporting. If your beat is the Internet’s infrastructure, how do you cover it? You’re at the mercy of data from security specialists working for private firms.
Whatever the cause, two things are certain: the real virus here is the contagious, hysterical tech headline, and the real attack is on the credibility of us technology journalists.
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By Jesse Brown - Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 3:10 PM - 0 Comments
The Supreme Court of Canada has figured out what any teenager could tell you: text messages are private.
This surprisingly controversial ruling overturns a lower court’s decision against Telus, which fought laudably to protect their customers’ privacy from police investigators.
The cops sent Telus a warrant in March 2010 asking for all texts yet to be sent between two subscribers during a two-week period beginning in April 2010. Telus asked the courts to deem that a wiretap, which needs its own court order—one that’s harder for law enforcement to get.
The Crown argued that since Telus makes backup copies of customer’s texts, requesting access to them is not an “interception” of a communication, but something more like a request for access to a filing cabinet, which would be covered under a general warrant. The Supreme Court shot down this flimflammery and ruled that a person’s level of text-message privacy shouldn’t hinge on their choice of carrier (the other big wireless companies don’t make backups of texts).
It seems like common sense for the court to consider wiretapping a text-message exchange the same thing as wiretapping a voice conversation, and to demand an equivalent level of oversight. But common sense is uncommon when it comes to legislating electronic privacy.
The court’s job was easy here, since it was a rare case in which digital information had a direct analogue corollary. Most of the data we create resembles nothing from the past, and the law will have to do some original thinking to catch up.
Case in point is cellphone mobility pattern — not GPS data, but rather cell-tower “pings.” A recent study found that these digital trails can be a more accurate personal identifier than fingerprints. With just four cell tower pings (which happen whether or not you place a call), researchers were able to pluck an individual from a crowd of 1.5 million with 95 per cent accuracy.
Once these methods are available to law enforcement, ping data will be the new black. I wonder what the courts will make of that.
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By Jesse Brown - Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 3:58 PM - 0 Comments
It’s nice to have famous readers.
Last week I posted an interview with George Burger, an executive at a fledgling Internet TV startup who put forth a compelling argument against movie producer Robert Lantos’ proposal for Starlight, a mandatory, all-Canadian movie channel. Forcing Canadians to buy another channel, he argued, will only balloon “basic” cable packages, hampering unbundled Internet TV startups like his own.
Apparently, Lantos didn’t care for the bad press. He gave my Maclean’s colleague Brian D. Johnson this interview, where he insinuated that Burger is motivated by some unexplained personal grudge. Lantos also took his famous buddies Paul Gross and David Cronenberg to the editorial boards of the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, where they vowed to not draw salaries from Starlight, presenting the project as a benevolent project for the common cultural good. They called Starlight something “important for the country” that they don’t particularly want to do, but feel compelled to do, out of “deep emotions” for Canadian culture. Lantos called Canadian films “orphans,” and cast himself as their saviour. They convinced Martin Knelman of the Star that resistance to their plan comes not from a public unwilling to subsidize their costly passion project, but from the greedy”cable giants.”
I’m re-engaging with the topic now to clear up a couple of points, and to put forth a modest proposal.
Lantos’ chief complaint is with George Burger’s numbers. Burger says Starlight will cost Canadians around $775 million over its 7-year licence, a fairly epic sum for a private company to ask of the public. Lantos calls this figure “grossly exaggerated,” as Starlight is requesting the CRTC grant them wholesale fees of just 45 cents a month per viewer, or $300 million over seven years, “unless,” he says “the carriers mark up the price.”
They will. It’s all but certain the price will double before it shows up on your monthly cable bill. That’s how it works, plus there are other hidden costs. Lantos seems to feel that just because he won’t be getting the addition hundreds of million, then we won’t be spending them. Either that, or he’s insulting the public’s intelligence with a huckster’s pitch: “for just pennies a day…” when he knows the true costs. It’s similarly meaningless that he won’t be drawing a salary. Starlight would be a for-profit company built with public funds. Lantos stands to make millions.
There’s another big problem with Starlight’s holy mission to save Canadian film. You might call it “The Tom Green Problem.”
You probably haven’t seen Freezer Burn, the 2008 comedy starring Tom Green as a down-and-out hockey player who protects Earth from an alien invasion. But you did pay for it: $1.5 million in taxpayer funds went to the production through Telefilm Canada. More recent examples include Space Milkshake and Dead by Dawn 3D, both released last year. I haven’t seen any of these movies, so I won’t call them duds. But I think they definitely qualify as some of Lantos’ “orphans,” CanCon films that nobody wanted. Cronenberg, Lantos and Gross would have us believe the films they wish to showcase are all art house gems that fell through the gears of the merciless Hollywood-driven movie machine. But the truth is, most Canadian films are unseen because Canadians don’t want to see them. In other words, maybe it’s not the lack of a mandatory all-Canadian movie channel that stands between Canadian films and Canadian audiences. Maybe it’s a lack of (enough) good Canadian films.
Which brings me to my modest proposal (and back to my official technology beat):
If Robert Lantos sincerely believes Canadian films are in dire need of a good platform, then by all means, let him build one. But let it be a modern one—not an obligatory TV station, rammed down the public’s throat by the CRTC, but a Canadian Netflix equivalent that gives the public online access to the films we pay for each year.
Many will demand that such an enterprise be forced to fend for itself on the free market, charging a Netflix-like monthly fee. But c’mon- as if! We all know such a site would go bust in a year. The truth is, I would have no problem supporting a subsidized online Canadian film portal. It would cost a fraction of the scandalous sum Starlight wants, and it would enable Lantos to stream Canadian films to the Canadian public for free.
Which makes sense to me. After all, we’ve already paid for them.
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By Jesse Brown - Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 10:43 AM - 0 Comments
If comedian Lenny Bruce were alive today, he’d be a hacker.
Think about it; there’s not much left to say on a stand-up stage that truly threatens authority or social orthodoxy. It’s hard to imagine Louis CK or Chris Rock going to jail, or even to court, over their filthy routines. But governments, courts and corporations are proving remarkably touchy about what we do and say with our computers. While Lenny Bruce was sentenced to jail for using common language to say things that were obviously true, today you can similarly lose your freedom for using common computer techniques to expose obvious realities.
Case in point is the trial of Weev. Andrew Auernheimer, the infamous hacker/troll/prankster, has been sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for violating the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the same law used to prosecute Aaron Swartz.
Here’s what Weev did: Continue…
By Jesse Brown - Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 10:38 AM - 0 Comments
Starlight is a proposed TV channel dedicated exclusively to Canadian film. It’s owned by producer Robert Lantos and two partners, and has the support of a veritable who’s who of Canadian filmmaking. As the CRTC considers Starlight’s application for a “mandatory carriage” license, Lantos has been making passionate pleas to the public to support his cultural undertaking, and the media has been largely sympathetic.
George Burger is not. Burger, a film industry veteran, is now a partner in VMedia, a small Toronto startup offering TV subscribers cheap, largely unbundled channel packages over IPTV (Internet Protocol Television). The CRTC is supposedly encouraging cable, satellite, and IPTV providers to break up channel packages and offer more ” a la carte” choice, and VMedia has emerged to do so and thus compete with Videotron, Bell, Shaw and Rogers. VMedia has filed an intervention with the CRTC against Starlight and other proposed mandatory carriage channels. [Note: Maclean's is owned by Rogers Communications, which has also filed an intervention against Starlight's proposal.]
George Burger spoke with me this week from his Toronto office.
What’s your objection to a channel dedicated to Canadian film?
I don’t have an objection at all. I think it’s a terrific idea. What I object to is the Canadian public taking on all the risk, while the principals get all the benefit. They have no skin in the game. They would have an easy time getting a “category A” license (which would make the channel available to viewers, but not mandatory -ed). They don’t appear to be confident about that.
Robert Lantos says this will cost Canadians just a few cents a day. You have a different figure.
Overall you’d be looking at probably about $775 million gross out of the public’s pockets over the seven year license.
So you see this as yet another public subsidy for Canadian film.
Look, for the last 40 years, well-intentioned bureaucrats and regulators have been trying to get Canadian-made films to catch fire with the Canadian public. No matter their targets, box office market share for English-language Canadian film resolutely clings to 2-2.7 per cent. We need a cold, clinical analysis of the value for money of all this initiative.
Lantos and his partners say that’s because there’s nowhere for people to see Canadian movies. They get made, but people can’t watch them…
…and if they were just made available, we’d watch more of them. It’s a false argument. Over 10,000 hours of Canadian films are already available on TV each year. It’s not exactly the Sahara desert of Canadian film. But every time we talk about how acclaimed our films are, we always get back to the same four or five titles. There’s something wrong with this picture.
Starlight isn’t just proposing to show Canadian movies, they’re promising to make them. They say they’ll put 70 per cent of their revenues back into original productions.
It’s easy to say that when it’s not your money that you’re committing. Why not 90 per cent? If you started up a charity, you don’t pat yourself on the back for spending most of the money people donate to you. But there’s more–once those movies are made, they’ll be owned by Starlight!
How exactly would the granting of this license hurt VMedia, your Internet TV startup?
VMedia’s business model is based on our ability to maximize choice and flexibility for Canadian viewers. We provide conventional TV service plus equal access to OTT (over the top) Internet services like Netflix and Google Movies that traditional broadcasters are not going to promote or make seamless for their customers, because it makes it easy to leave their content. So we’ve been negotiating maximum flexibility from channel suppliers.
Yes, as much as possible. If we offer bundles, it’s not by our choice.
So every new channel granted mandatory carriage compromises your ability to do so.
That’s right, I have to increase my infrastructure and my basic channel pricing.
Isn’t your argument against “mandatory carriage” as a whole, and not with this specific channel?
I look at mandatory carriage as a privilege unto itself. To be asking that subscribers have to pay for these channels in addition is quite a stretch. There are lots of channels that would give their eye teeth to be carried on basic for free, because that’s 12 million homes you’re in automatically. It’s like being put on the middle shelf of every supermarket in Canada.
But what they want is more than great placement–it’s a forced purchase.
Yes, this is the only industry where Canadian consumers are actually obliged to purchase something. The fact is, as a matter of policy, the CRTC wants to keep people in the broadcasting universe as opposed to losing them to the Internet world. Does anyone believe that jamming more channels at us is going to do that? It’s going to send viewers to the exits.
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By Jesse Brown - Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 5:39 PM - 0 Comments
So goes one of the world’s most popular myths. Kids may have an irresistible attraction to interactive screens and an uncanny ability to figure out how to play games and use apps, but when it comes to the code that makes these things work, most kids are totally ignorant. In fact, they are the most technologically illiterate generation of computer-using kids yet. Older, dumber computers forced their users to be smarter. Having to enter commands into an MS-DOS prompt meant speaking to computers in their own cryptic language, which forced us to learn how these machines think. Today’s kids are brought up on user-friendly, idiot-proof devices that don’t even require the know-how to to replace the batteries. The result is a generation of kids who are as reliant on technology as they are mystified by it.
Here’s how Barack Obama recently put it:
“Given how pervasive computers and the Internet are now and how integral they are in our economy and how fascinated kids are with them, I want to make sure they know how to actually produce stuff using a computer and not simply consume stuff.”
The urgency around learning code is increasing, and an all-star crew of tech titans and celebrities have teamed up to push the message directly to kids through Code.Org, a non-profit dedicated to improving the dreadful reality that only 10 per cent of schools bother to even offer coding class. Here’s their mandatory inspirational video, complete with celebs:
The incentives for learning code are laid on thick: coding will make you a “wizard” with “magical superpowers”. It will make you popular with the girls, just like Bill Gates. It will make you a rock star, just like will.I.am. Less revoltingly, and more plausibly, it will get you a job, a promise not even law school can make these days.
This pro-programming propaganda is very nice and well-intended, but I’d suggest that they’re gilding the lily. Not everyone who learns to code will become a coder and create programs. Not everyone should. Obama’s desire to make sure kids know how to “produce stuff” with code is overly ambitious and unrealistic. I can’t build a light bulb–I can barely change one. But I do have a basic understanding of what electricity is and how it works. Anyone living in our society and lacking this, I hope we’ll agree, is dangerously ignorant, helpless and vulnerable, existing in a world that might as well be illuminated by magical fairies.
Similarly, to walk the earth ignorant of what computers really are and how they work is unacceptable. I’m hopeful for a time when computer literacy is compulsory at the grade school level, taught alongside reading, writing, adding and subtracting as part of a basic literacy skill set.
Understanding technology doesn’t make you a wizard, it’s just part of being an informed citizen.
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By Jesse Brown - Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 4:41 PM - 0 Comments
Some opinions are so ignorant and wrong that those who choose to express them deserve to be shunned. We can’t, nor should we, silence any opinion. But if a person espouses certain ideas, it’s perfectly acceptable for that person to be ostracized from public discourse. Publications, broadcasts and universities should refuse to associate with a person who says such things. They can still talk, but we needn’t listen.
Conservative mentor Tom Flanagan has expressed just such an opinion.
I’m not talking about his recent comments on child pornography.
I’m referring to Flanagan’s remarks about Julian Assange. In 2010, speaking on CBC’s Power and Politics about Assange’s publication of U.S. diplomatic cables, Flanagan said that “Assange should be assassinated. I think Obama should put out a contract.” In calling for the U.S. government to murder a non-violent foreign citizen who hadn’t been charged with any crime, for what was arguably an act of journalism, Flanagan exposed himself as a radical extremist, unworthy of a seat at any civilized table. That was the time for the CBC to boot him off the air, for his university to fire him, for his political party to oust him, for the Prime Minister to disassociate from him. Not now.
Once again, here are the words Flanagan uttered at the University of Lethbridge last week when asked to clarify his opinion on the consumption of child pornography — words that in a matter of hours cost him his livelihood and reputation:
“I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures.”
It’s perfectly legitimate to make this argument. It’s a reductive argument, it lacks nuance, but it’s an arguable position. Meaning: if you don’t agree with it, argue it. Don’t burn Flanagan at the stake or banish him from the kingdom for it. But that’s what we do to those who dare to challenge the only acceptable position a person can have on child porn: zero tolerance. And with zero tolerance comes zero intelligence and zero reason.
Child porn has become such a radioactive subject that few dare to discuss it rationally. It’s not even a topic anymore — it’s a curse, a weapon, a stigma. Consider the headlines containing the words “Flanagan’s child porn views.” Do you want to have “child porn views”? I sure don’t. I don’t want my name anywhere near the words. Even a whiff of association with them threatens to ruin lives.
So let me bow down to the power of this monstrous term and provide the required disclaimer: I am against child pornography. I think those who create it are awful criminals. I think those who consume it are culpable as well, to a lesser degree, as they create the demand that fuels the production. I think child pornography is really, really bad.
But I dare to ask some questions:
1. When a teenage girl posts a nude picture of herself, does it make sense to charge her with producing child porn? If she sends it to her boyfriend, does it make sense to charge him with possessing child porn? Does it make sense to charge parents for taking bath-time pictures of their small children? Should border agents be allowed to search our phones, cameras and computers for such pictures?
2. Does it make sense to criminalize computer-generated child porn and fictional texts describing child porn, as Canadian law does? Who do these materials harm?
3. It’s easy to end up with child porn on your computer that you never asked for. Click on the wrong site by accident, and your cache will store pictures you never wanted. Is it time to rethink what “possession” of these materials really means?
4. How common a crime is child porn in relation to how often it’s invoked? In Monday’s Montreal Gazette, Allison Hanes wrote that ”child pornography is a scourge of the digital era. (The Internet) has fuelled an insatiable appetite.” But is there any data to prove children are being abused in greater numbers than before the Internet?
5. Police units on the hunt for child porn have incredible surveillance powers that allow them to spy on suspects without warrants, which Internet Service Providers don’t ask for when child porn is mentioned. Are we eroding our privacy rights and our freedoms online because we are afraid to “stand with the child pornographers,” as Vic Toews put it when bullying those who opposed his Internet spying bill?
These are questions we should debate. This is a topic we should discuss. I’m glad Tom Flanagan brought it up.
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By Jesse Brown - Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 3:40 PM - 0 Comments
Today Google turned the heat up on a long simmering project. Google Glass, the possibly game-changing, definitely dorky wearable computer, is looking just about ready for prime-time. Google has begun engaging developers, who have been sworn to secrecy, in hack-a-thons to pump out Glass apps.
Here is today’s promo video, shot entirely through Google Glass glasses:
Yes, it’s another Apple-esque inspirational tear-jerking montage. But what does it actually tell us about the device and its uses?
- Glass seems like it’ll enable a decent first go at augmented reality: the much-hyped but little-realized technology that layers digital information on top of what our eyeballs perceive. Assuming that Google is showing off its best stuff here, it looks like augmented reality will mostly consist of GPS navigation apps, to start.
- Real-time video streaming is pushed hard in the video. This is both nothing new and very cool. On the one hand, we can already stream videos from our phones to remote viewers. But putting this function into a pair of glasses lets us literally show others the world through our eyes. Whether it’s used to vicariously experience fencing, skydiving, or a party for grandma held in another country, this seems like a very special app. Head trip alert: while you’re beaming what you see to a remote viewer’s eyeballs, they’re webcamming their reactions into the top corner of your Google Glass display. You’re not watching them watching you, you’re watching them watching as you. Trippy!
- Existing voice-commanded Google/Android apps seem ported over. “Google Goggles” has been a Labs app for years now. With varying results, it did things like take a picture you just shot of a menu in Japanese and instantly translate it. On Glass, this gets a bit more exciting, especially when combined with instant voice translation. I’d like to see a field test before setting off abroad with it, though.
Critics are already asking what the big deal is with Google Glass. What can it do that smartphones can’t? I don’t share this cynicism. If Google Glass does nothing but put a smartphones’ functionality into our sightlines, it will be an ergonomic triumph. I’d like to think that if good design can do nothing else, it can liberate us from staring at our palms every two minutes.
Google has yet to set a release date for Glass, but if you tell them why you’re super special and really, really deserve to get one first, they just might let you and 7,999 other lucky souls buy one soon for $1,500. Applications are being taken here.
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By Jesse Brown - Monday, February 18, 2013 at 3:21 PM - 0 Comments
Google, responding to anti-piracy pressure from a music industry trade group, is reportedly planning to cut off payments to ad partner sites deemed illegal. “Deemed” is the operative term here; Google, one hopes, already blocks funds to websites proven to be illegal–like, in a court with a judge and due process and that kind of stuff. But illegality in this case will, it seems, be a designation assigned to any website that doesn’t respond to legal threat letters from copyright holders.
Normally this is where I’d make a slippery-slope argument, about how, if this proceeds, it will lead to all kinds of intimidation and abuse. Large companies with deep pockets for baseless legal action will be able to harass small companies and individual publishers into positions in which simply defending themselves will be prohibitively expensive. They will then find themselves blacklisted, their search results demoted, their funds withheld, and they will disappear. These tactics needn’t be constrained to filesharing sites. Eventually, they might be used by political parties or even by governments to push dissenting voices off the Internet.
But luckily, I don’t need to make that speculative argument. You don’t have to use your imagination to picture the logical extremes of fund-blocking. You can just use Google. Search for “Wikileaks funding block” and you can re-live the story of how, shortly after the Pentagon spoke out against Wikileaks, the site found itself blocked from access to millions of dollars donated to the site from supporters.
It’s the slippery slope in reverse. We’ve already seen authorities attempt to kick a legal (until proven otherwise) website off the Internet by blocking its income source. It didn’t work, mind you, but still–normalizing the practice in the name of stopping piracy will only lead to more examples (and, perhaps, to the growth of BitCoin). Any site that allows for content uploads or even user comments might momentarily host copyrighted material (cough! Youtube!). But few sites can volley with big industry players in legal battle.
By setting such a low threshold for illegality, Google may make friends in the music and movie industries. But it will be at the expense of the open Internet, and against the interests of its own users.
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By Jesse Brown - Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 10:39 PM - 0 Comments
In the past three posts I’ve documented the atrocious state of data privacy in the federal government. Through leaks, spies, hacks and willful disregard, Ottawa has had a disastrous few years when it comes to safeguarding the data it collects on us— a 40 per cent uptick in privacy complaints during the past year alone, worsening an already dismal record that dwarfs all privacy complaints against private industry combined. The numbers, again: private industry generated 281 complaints, 19 of which concerned the Internet. Government generated 986.
All of this happened during Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart’s watch. And she is, after all, a watchdog. So where has she been in all of this?
She’s been on Facebook.
During the past five years or so of her 10-year tenure, Stoddart has focused obsessively on curbing the supposed transgressions of social media sites. She has been praised wildly for these efforts, especially by the Globe and Mail, which squeals with delight each time Stoddart, the “trail-blazing,” “fearless privacy cop” “scolds” Facebook, Google, eHarmony, or, most recently, the nominally popular messaging service Whatsapp. What are her accomplishments in this realm? Chief among them, said the Globe, was the time she ”slowed Google’s plans to send cars armed with cameras to capture and post images … on its Google Street website.”
Thanks for that. Google Street View, let’s remember, is a brilliant, useful and free service that’s beloved by everyone except maybe pitchfork-wielding Norweigan scuba divers.
To put Stoddart’s social media fixation into focus: last year, as our government was leaking data by the gigabyte through lost hard drives while being fleeced by an undetected spy with a USB stick , Stoddart released six statements concerning government privacy concerns, and 21 statements about online privacy.
Yes, the Privacy Commissioner complained more about the Internet in 2012 than the entire Canadian population did.
To be clear: Jennifer Stoddart is not responsible for the government’s atrocious record on privacy, its continuing lack of data hygiene, or its basic disregard for the concept of privacy. But you’d think, based on the complaints and the severity of the lapses, that she might have made reforming Ottawa a priority. Instead, she may in fact have made things worse.
Earlier I wrote about Ottawa’s fear of cloud computing, which would have prevented every one of the recent data disasters. What is the source of this aversion to cloud security? Experts who’ve analyzed the Privacy Act can’t seem to find anything that would prevent a government agency from using secure cloud storage. So why do folks in government consider it forbidden?
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact the Privacy Commissioner called for a moratorium on online data transfers for the purpose of Internet metrics, as Global news reported. Google Analytics is a global standard for free web metrics, considered secure by most commercial websites. But in order for Google’s technology to analyze a site’s data, it has to access that data. Stoddart said that’s a bad idea for government, and advised the practise stop. Think about that from the perspective of a federal government IT manager: if the Privacy Commissioner’s official advice is that the cloud is too risky to even pass data through, surely it’s not a kosher place to store said data.
That would be a logical inference, and one many people have likely made. But why assume? Instead, I asked Stoddart’s office what her official position is on cloud computing. Does it, in their opinion, violate the Privacy Act (because if it doesn’t, Stoddart is really in no position to oppose it). Here’s what they told me:
“…we could only make a specific finding following an investigation generated by a complaint. And at this time, we have neither received a complaint nor conducted an investigation related to a federal department or agency using a cloud service.”
The only way the Privacy Commissioner would be able to tell government workers that the cloud is safe to use would be if some government agency went ahead and used it anyway and it turned out not to be safe. They would have to lose data, generating a public complaint, which would then allow the Privacy Commissioner to launch an investigation into the cloud, which they would then need to find safe. Then everyone could use it.
Perhaps it’s unfair to blame Stoddart for the baffling bureaucratic mechanisms that constrain her office. Despite being named Canada’s Most Powerful Woman, her powers are largely symbolic, her office a bully pulpit from which to name and shame those who subject Canadians to exposure. And yet she decides how to use that platform. More than any other Canadian, she has the ability to shape the discourse around privacy, to tell us who we need to watch out for and who can be trusted. She has chosen to generate publicity for herself by amplifying and validating the moral panic surrounding social media services we use voluntarily.
And she has chosen to downplay the flagrant privacy abuses of government, which appointed her, and for whom she is an officer.
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By Jesse Brown - Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 2:17 PM - 0 Comments
Part 2 of a four-part “Privacy Reality Check” series. Click here for part one.
When it comes to privacy, what’s the difference between Facebook and the federal government?
Facebook wouldn’t dream of letting its employees use one. Facebook’s massive library of personal data on its vast user base is its greatest asset. It’s worth billions. If Facebook employees could simply copy this information, or part of it, onto USB keys in order to take their work home, then it would only be a matter of time before Facebook’s biggest asset was leaked to the world. Someone would sell or lose a memory stick, laptop, phone or hard drive. It would show up online, we would all be exposed, and that would be it for Facebook.
Canada’s federal government has no such aversion to portable memory devices. Canadian spy Jeffrey Delisle filled up his memory stick again and again with classified military intelligence that he then shipped off to the Russians. It took more than four years for these constant breaches to get detected. A careless employee of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada lost a USB key with data on 5,000 other Canadians. Even this failed to bring about a change in data-handling policy. Soon a hard drive containing the sensitive personal information of 583,000 student loan borrowers went missing. Nothing has changed. The same thing could happen again today in dozens of federal government offices.
“It’s shameful and shocking,” says David Fraser, a privacy lawyer with the firm McInnes Cooper in Halifax. Ottawa’s sloppy data hygiene, he believes, stems from a wrongheaded aversion to cloud computing:
“The government talks about ‘data sovereignty’ — the idea that data must stay in Canada. It’s a made-up concept. It’s a fiction that it matters where data is located. Then there’s a real phenomenon of ‘server-hugging,’ the erroneous belief that if you can go down into the basement of your building in Gatineau and see a server blink, you know where your data is. The truth is, you have no idea where copies are.”
The security benefits to cloud computing, says Fraser, are many. There’s no need for employees to copy information on to local drives of any kind. Any lost device, says Fraser, “would be stupid. They’re only a portal to the data.” As for inside spies and internal threats, a centralized cloud service knows what’s going on — it knows who is looking at what and when. It can automatically detect suspicious behaviour, and it can be audited when problems arise. Neither Jeffrey Delisle’s spying or the HRSDC leaks could have occurred had cloud security been in place.
Perhaps an anti-cloud argument could be made regarding protection from malicious external threats. But hackers were still able to compromise Finance Canada and the Treasury Board in January of 2011. We never learned what the attackers got (more on this disclosure problem later) but the compromise was bad enough to force the government to completely shut off Internet access in some departments for months (which in turn forced federal employees on to Starbucks’ open WiFi connections with their work laptops!).
Whatever theoretical arguments you might lay out, there’s no getting around the superior track records of secure, private sector cloud data facilities over whatever rubber-band and chewing-gum solutions Ottawa’s disparate IT managers have cobble together. Therein lies a clue to the true motivations for Ottawa’s provincial (sorry) aversion to the cloud. Again, David Fraser:
“We have also seen privacy insecurity being used as a way to prevent outsourcing. Privacy becomes a prop to be used — a fear to pull on to advance a political position.”
It’s understandable that certain security workers in our government would say whatever they feel they must in order to protect their jobs. But there’s no need for us to heed these arguments. The money Ottawa would save taxpayers by using centralized cloud security are considerable. But the most compelling reason for the public to demand this is of course because it’s our information they are putting at risk
I’ll leave you with another difference between Facebook and our government. We choose to give our information to Facebook.
We have no such option when it comes to government data collection.
NEXT: The leaks you never knew. Why government doesn’t have to disclose privacy violations.
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By Jesse Brown - Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 4:07 PM - 0 Comments
Few topics are covered so poorly as online privacy, few are handled with such indifference toward reader interest or facts. Take, for example, last week’s big scary Twitter hack. Twitter realized a significant number of accounts were compromised by a new attack. So it reset passwords. No one has reported any identity theft, fraud, or damage. Twitter issued a blog post to make sure those affected would get online and change their passwords. Somehow, this snowballed into a major privacy story.
While I was delivering some talking-head sound-bites on this item for a certain newscast, the reporter asked me why the Twitter hack was such a huge deal. I was stumped–it wasn’t. So she asked me why it was getting so much attention. I knew the answer, but held my tongue.
Here’s what I was thinking: it gets so much attention because print and TV news love to bash technology, especially social media, and can’t resist a scary story about how the people who use it should be very, very afraid. The truth is, despite years of fear-mongering stories about Facebook identity theft, Gmail phishing attacks and massive Twitter hacks, public interest and concern about these things remains very low. That’s because these things haven’t happened to the vast majority of us, or to anyone we know. For the small number of people this has happened to, the impact is typically minimal. The mainstream news has become the Boy who Cried Internet.
This is not to say privacy isn’t a valid concern when it comes to free Internet services. There’s much to worry about, but little of it has to do with Russian digital mobsters, Chinese military hackers or spammy Nigerian princes. The real data privacy danger–with social media, and beyond–comes from government.
Consider this: federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart’s office received just 18 complaints from the public about (alleged) Internet privacy violations in 2011. In 2010, the number was 19. In Stoddart’s 2011 ranking of privacy-challenged industries, the Internet came in at seventh place, way behind the financial industry, transportation, and telecommunications, which took the top three spots, in that order. Even the hotel industry was worse than the Internet, earning 24 complaints, though you won’t hear much about the privacy dangers of Holiday Inn on the news. But here’s the truly shocking thing: add up all of the public’s privacy gripes with private companies in 2011, and you get 281 formal complaints to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.
Now look at the most recent OPC annual report on alleged government intrusions into our privacy: the number is 986. And that’s an almost 40 per cent jump over the previous year’s number of government-related complaints. As I’ll detail in the next post, these complaints aren’t trivial: the breaches are serious, with real implications, and they stem from a culture of privacy sloppiness (at best). So yes, you should be scared about your privacy. But it’s not Twitter you should be scared of.
Over the next few posts I’ll be telling you what, if anything, is being done about it. Then we’ll look ahead at the real privacy threats Canadians should be thinking about. (Hint: C-30, the defeated Internet Snooping bill just rumbled from its coffin and stuck a zombie finger through the dirt.)
Next: Civil servants with your data in their pants: Why it’s still OK to bring a USB key home in Ottawa.
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