July 22, 2024

Archives for 2009

DARPA Pays MIT to Pay Someone Who Recruited Someone Who Recruited Someone Who Recruited Someone Who Found a Red Balloon

DARPA, the Defense Department’s research arm, recently sponsored a “Network Challenge” in which groups competed to find ten big red weather balloons that were positioned in public places around the U.S. The first team to discover where all the balloons were would win $40,000.

A team from MIT won, using a clever method of sharing the cash with volunteers. MIT let anyone join their team, and they paid money to the members who found balloons, as well as the people who recruited the balloon-finders, and the people who recruited the balloon-finder-finders. For example, if Alice recruited Bob, and Bob recruited Charlie, and Charlie recruited Diane, and Diane found a balloon, then Alice would get $250, Bob would get $500, Charlie would get $1000, and Diane would get $2000. Multi-level marketing meets treasure hunting! It’s the Amway of balloon-hunting!

On DARPA’s side, this was inspired by the famous Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge, in which teams built autonomous cars that had to drive themselves safely through a desert landscape and then a city.

The autonomous-car challenges have obvious value, both for the military and in ordinary civilian life. But it’s hard to say the same for the balloon-hunting challenge. Granted, the balloon-hunting prize was much smaller, but it’s still hard to avoid the impression that the balloon hunt was more of a publicity stunt than a spur to research. We already knew that the Internet lets people organize themselves into effective groups at a distance. We already knew that people like a scavenger hunt, especially if you offer significant cash prizes. And we already knew that you can pay Internet strangers to do jobs for you. But how are we going to apply what we learned in the balloon hunt?

The autonomous-car challenge has value because it asks the teams to build something that will eventually have practical use. Someday we will all have autonomous cars, and they will have major implications for our transportation infrastructure. The autonomous-car challenge helped to bring that day closer. But will the day ever come when all, or even many, of us will want to pay large teams of people to find things for us?

(There’s more to be said about the general approach of offering challenge prizes as an alternative to traditional research funding, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Tinkering with Disclosed Source Voting Systems

As Ed pointed out in October, Sequoia Voting Systems, Inc. (“Sequoia”) announced then that it intended to publish the source code of their voting system software, called “Frontier”, currently under development. (Also see EKR‘s post: “Contrarianism on Sequoia’s Disclosed Source Voting System”.)

Yesterday, Sequoia made good on this promise and you can now pull the source code they’ve made available from their Subversion repository here:

Sequoia refers to this move in it’s release as “the first public disclosure of source code from a voting systems manufacturer”. Carefully parsed, that’s probably correct: there have been unintentional disclosures of source code (e.g., Diebold in 2003) and I know of two other voting industry companies that have disclosed source code (VoteHere, now out of business, and Everyone Counts), but these were either not “voting systems manufacturers” or the disclosures were not available publicly. Of course, almost all of the research systems (like VoteBox and Helios) have been truly open source. Groups like OSDV and OVC have released or will soon release voting system source code under open source licenses.

I wrote a paper ages ago (2006) on the use of open and disclosed source code for voting systems and I’m surprised at how well that analysis and set of recommendations has held up (the original paper is here, an updated version is in pages 11–41 of my PhD thesis).

The purpose of my post here is to highlight one point of that paper in a bit of detail: disclosed source software licenses need to have a few specific features to be useful to potential voting system evaluators. I’ll start by describing three examples of disclosed source software licenses and then talk about what I’d like to see, as a tinkerer, in these agreements.

Soghoian: 8 Million Reasons for Real Surveillance Oversight

If you’re interested at all in surveillance policy, go and read Chris Soghoian’s long and impassioned post today. Chris drops several bombshells into the debate, including an audio recording of a closed-door talk by Sprint/NexTel’s Electronic Surveillance Manager, bragging about how easy the company has made it for law enforcement to get customers’ location data — so easy that the company has serviced over eight million law enforcement requests for customer location data.

Here’s the juiciest quote:

“[M]y major concern is the volume of requests. We have a lot of things that are automated but that’s just scratching the surface. One of the things, like with our GPS tool. We turned it on the web interface for law enforcement about one year ago last month, and we just passed 8 million requests. So there is no way on earth my team could have handled 8 million requests from law enforcement, just for GPS alone. So the tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement. They also love that it is extremely inexpensive to operate and easy, so, just the sheer volume of requests they anticipate us automating other features, and I just don’t know how we’ll handle the millions and millions of requests that are going to come in.

— Paul Taylor, Electronic Surveillance Manager, Sprint Nextel.

Chris has more quotes, facts, and figures, all implying that electronic surveillance is much more widespread that many of us had thought.

Probably, many of these surveillance requests were justified, in the sense that a fair-minded citizen would think their expected public benefit justified the intrusiveness. How many were justified, we don’t know. We can’t know — and that’s a big part of the problem.

It’s deeply troubling that this has happened without significant public debate or even much disclosure. We need to have a discussion — and quickly — about what the rules for electronic surveillance should be.

Tech Policy in the SkyMall Catalog

These days tech policy issues seem to pop up everywhere. During a recent flight delay, I was flipping through the SkyMall Catalog (“Holiday 2009” edition), and found tech policy even there.

There were lots of ads for surveillance and recording devices, some of them clearly useful for illegal purposes: the New Agent Cam HD Color Video Spy Camera (p. 14), the Original Agent Cam Color Video Spy Camera (p. 14), the Video Recording Sunglasses (p. 23), the Wireless Remote Controlled Pan and Tilt Surveillance Camera (p. 23), the Spy Pen (with hidden audio and video recorders, p. 42), the Orbitor Electronic Listening Device, and the GPS Tracking Key (p. 224)

There were also plenty of ads for media-copying technologies, of the sort that various copyright owners might find objectionable: the LP and Cassette to CD Recorder (p. 16), the Slide and Negative to Digital Picture Converter (p. 17), the Digital Photo to DVD Converter (p. 20), the Easy Ipod Media Sharer (p. 27), the One Step DVD/CD Duplicator (p. 31), the Photograph to Digital Picture Converter (p. 40), and the Crosley Encoding Turntable (converts LP records to MP3s, p. 179).

Are these things illegal? Probably not, I guess, but there are surely people out there who would want to make them illegal. And some of them are pretty good ways to get a tech policy debate started.

I’m not about to start reading the SkyMall catalog for fun. But it’s interesting to know that it offers more than just Slankets and yeti statues.

Advice on stepping up to a better digital camera

This is a bit off from the usual Freedom to Tinker post, but with tomorrow being “Black Friday” and retailers offering some steep discounts on consumer electronics, many Tinker readers will be out there buying gear or will be offering buying advice to their friends.

Over the past several months, several friends of mine have mentioned that they were considering “moving up” to a D-SLR camera and asked me for advice. I’ve been what you might term a “serious amateur” photographer since high school, when I was the head photographer for the school yearbook and newspaper. (It was a non-trivial issue for me to decide whether to make my career in photography or in computers.)

To address this, I wrote a guide to upgrading your digital camera. I’ve written this for a non-technical audience. Pass it around and enjoy.