April 17, 2014

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Lycos Attacks Alleged Spammers

Lycos Europe is distributing a screen saver that launches denial of service attacks on the websites of suspected spammers, according to a Craig Morris story at Heise Online. The screen saver sends dummy requests to the servers in order to slow them down. It even displays information to the user about the current attack target.

This is a serious lapse of judgment by Lycos. For one thing, this kind of vigilante attack erodes the line between the good guys and the bad guys. Spammers are bad because they use resources and keep people from getting to the messages they want to read. If you respond by wasting resources and keeping people from getting to the websites they want to read, it’s hard to see what separates you from the spammers.

This kind of attack can be misdirected at innocent parties. The article says that Lycos is attacking sites on the SpamCop blocklist. That doesn’t fill me with confidence – this site has been on the SpamCop blocklist at least once, despite having nothing at all to do with spam. (The cause was an erroneous complaint, coupled with a hair-trigger policy by SpamCop.)

We also know that spammers have a history of trying to frame innocent people as being sources of spam. A basic method for doing this is common enough to have a name: “Joe job”. Attacking the apparent sources of spam just makes such misdirection more effective.

And finally, there’s the question of whether this is legal. The Heise Online article reaches no conclusion about its legality in Germany, and I don’t know enough to say whether it’s legal in the U.S. Lycos argues that it’s not really a denial of service attack because they’re careful not to block access to the sites completely. But they do brag about raising the sites’ costs and degrading the experience of the sites’ users. That’s enough to make it a denial of service attack in my book.

This idea – attacking spammer sites – is one that surfaces occasionally, but usually cooler heads prevail. It’s a real surprise to see a prominent company putting it into action.

[Link via TechDirt. And did I mention that TechDirt is a great source of interesting technology news?]

UPDATE (Dec. 6): Lycos has now withdrawn this program, declaring implausibly that it has succeeded and so is no longer needed.

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Radio Passports: Bad Idea

An AP story nicely summarizes the controversy over the U.S. government’s plan to add RFID chips to U.S. passports, starting in 2005.

The chips will allow the passport holder’s name, date of birth, passport issuance information, and photograph to be read by radio. Opponents claim that the information will be readable at distances up to thirty feet (about nine meters). This raises privacy concerns about government monitoring, for example of attendance at political rallies, and about private monitoring, especially overseas.

I would certainly feel less safe in certain places if I knew that anybody there could remotely identify me as a U.S. citizen. I would feel even less safe knowing that anybody could get my name and look me up in a database or Google me.

A U.S. government representative says that there is “little risk” to privacy “since we plan to store only currently collected data with a facial image.” In other words, they’re going to take information currently available only to people to whom I hand my passport, plus some extra information, and make it available to everybody who comes near me. Gee, that makes me feel much better.

There is some discussion of encrypting the information, or requiring the passport holder to enter a PIN number to unlock the information. Either of these is some help, but unless the system is designed very carefully, it could still allow dangerous leakage of information.

What I don’t understand is why passports should ever be readable at a distance. Passports should reveal their information only to people or devices who can make physical contact to the inside of the passport. Certainly that’s enough for the immigration agent at the airport, or for any official who asks to inspect the passport. If the officials are doing their jobs, they’ll want to see the physical passport and hold it in their hands anyway.

Oddly, the government’s response to concerns about remote passport reading is to try to limit when the passport can be read remotely. They propose storing the passport in a conductive plastic bag that blocks radio signals, or building a conductive screen into the passport’s covers so that it can be read remotely only when the passport is opened. Either approach adds unnecessary risk – the passport might be read by somebody else when it’s opened.

The right solution, which opponents should advocate, is to remove radio tags from passports altogether, and replace them with contact-readable electronic information.

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Keylogging is Not Wiretapping, Judge Says

A Federal judge in California recently dismissed wiretapping charges against a man who installed a “keylogger” device on the cable between a woman’s keyboard and her computer. I was planning to write a reaction to the decision, but Orin Kerr seems to have nailed it already.

This strikes me as yet another example of a legal analyst (the judge, in this case) focusing on one layer of a system and not seeing the big picture. By fixating on the fact that the interception happened at a place not directly connected to the Internet, the judge lost sight of the fact that many of the keystrokes being intercepted were being transmitted over the Net.

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EFF Names Advisory Board

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has named its first advisory board. I’m on it, along with Michael Froomkin, Paul Grewal, Jim Griffin, David Hayes, Mitch Kapor, Mark Lemley, Eben Moglen, Deirdre Mulligan, Michael Page, Michael Traynor, and Jim Tyre.

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Identification Codes on Printer Output

A Xerox engineer says that color printers from Xerox and other companies print faint information in the background of printed-out pages, to identify the model and serial number of the printer that printed the pages. According to a story, the information is represented as a set of very small yellow dots. (We already knew that some printers did this. The article tells us more about how it’s done.)

We have a Xerox color printer here (a Phaser 860). We tried printing out a page and looking for the dots, but we couldn’t find them, even with the aid of a magnifying glass and blue LED light. If anybody can find the dots on their output, please let me know.

There are still several unanswered questions about this scheme:

Do they use encryption, and if so, how? Even if we can find the dots and read out the digital bits they represent, we may not be able to tell what information those bits are encoding. They might be putting the model and serial number onto the page in such a way that we can learn to read them. Or perhaps they are encrypting the information so that we can’t read out the identifying information but we can at least recognize whether two pages were printed on the same printer. Or perhaps they encrypt the information so that we can’t tell anything without having some secret key.

If there is a secret key, who knows it? The key might be disclosed to the government so that they can extract the model and serial number from a page at will. (And if the U.S. government has the key, which other governments do?) Or the key might be known only to the printer vendor, so that the government needs the vendor’s help to decode the dots. If they use public-key cryptography, then the decoding key might be known only to the government and not to the printer vendor.

Do they try to track who buys each printer? If they can extract the serial number, they might want to know who has that printer. They could try to track the passage of each individual printer through the supply chain, to get an idea of who might have bought it. They might also build a database of information gleaned through service calls and warranty registrations.

What we know already is enough to make privacy advocates itchy. It’s probably possible to design a system that raises fewer privacy issues, while still allowing certain limited use of printer-specific marks as courtroom evidence. For example, one could build a system so that somebody who has physical possession of a printer, and physical possession of a printed page, and access to a special crypto key, can tell whether or not that page was printed by that printer, but can’t learn anything else.

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New Study of E-Voting Effects in Florida

Yesterday, a team of social scientists from UC Berkeley released a study of the effect of e-voting on county-by-county vote totals in Florida and Ohio in the recent election. It’s the first study to use proper social-science modeling methods to evaluate the effect of e-voting.

The study found counties with e-voting tended to tilt toward Bush, even after controlling for differences between counties including past voting history, income, percentage of Hispanic voters, voter turnout, and county size. The researchers estimate that e-voting caused a swing in favor of Bush of up to 260,000 votes in Florida. (A change of that many votes would not be enough to change the election’s result; Bush won Florida by about 350,000 votes.)

No e-voting effect was found in Ohio.

The study looks plausible, but I don’t have the expertise to do a really careful critique. Readers who do are invited to critique the study in the comments section.

Regardless of whether it is ultimately found credible, this study is an important step forward in the discourse about this topic. Previous analyses had shown differences, but had not controlled for the past political preferences of individual counties. Skeptics had claimed that “Dixiecrat” counties, in which many voters were registered as Democrats but habitually voted Republican, could explain the discrepancies. This study shows, at least, that the simple Dixiecrat theory is not enough to refute the claim that e-voting changed the results.

Assuming that the study’s authors did their arithmetic right, there are two possibilities. It could be that some other factor, beyond the ones that the study controlled for, can explain the discrepancies. If this is the case, we can assume somebody will show up with another study demonstrating that.

Or it could be that e-voting really did affect the result. If so, there are several ways this could have happened. One possibility is that the machines were maliciously programmed or otherwise compromised; I think this is unlikely but unfortunately the machines are designed in a way that makes this very hard to check. Or perhaps the machines made errors that tended to flip some votes from one candidate to the other. Even random errors of this sort would tend to affect the overall results, if e-voting counties different demographically from other counties (which is apparently the case in Florida). Another possibility is that e-voting affects voter behavior somehow, perhaps affecting different groups of voters differently. Maybe e-voting scares away some voters, or makes people wait longer to vote. Maybe the different user interface on e-voting systems makes straight party-line voting more likely or less likely.

This looks like the beginning of a long debate.

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TiVo to Display Fast-Forward Banner Ads

TiVo has announced that it will overlay banner ads on viewers’ TV screens when they fast-forward while replaying recorded shows. Many commentators (such as Cory Doctorow) have criticized this move, though Kevin Werbach says it’s no big deal.

As a TiVo user, I’m not sure what to think about this. I would be happier if TiVo didn’t do it, but I’m not surprised that they’re trying to sell the ad space available to them.

There are actually two reasons I want to skip ads. First, I don’t want to wait around while the ad is on. Second I sometimes don’t want to see the ad content at all. (This is especially likely if there are kids around.) If TiVo’s new ads are only shown while I’m fast-forwarding anyway, then they won’t make me wait any longer than I would without the new ads. But they’ll still push the banner ads in my face, which might be annoying, depending on the nature of the ads.

I wonder, though, whether TiVo isn’t interfering with its customers’ viewing more than it thinks. Savvy TiVo users who are sports fans know that there’s a lot of dead time in televised games, even beyond the ads. For instance, fast-forwarding between batters of a baseball game (and between pitches if the pitcher is slow or the batter steps out of the batter’s box) can cut the viewing time for a game in half. Things are still happening during those periods, but they’re perfectly visible on fast-forward. If TiVo starts slapping banner ads over parts of the screen during these periods, this will interfere with the viewing experience.

The biggest question, I think, is whether the introduction of these ads is a single step, or the first step in a systematic redesign of the TiVo interface. The latter would be a mistake. Many TiVo users (including me) have already paid for the service, having bought a TiVo recorder and a lifetime subscription to the service, and they won’t take kindly to any reduction in the quality of the service. And TiVo will face more competition in the future as MythTV gets closer to being consumer-ready.

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Online Lecture

The video of my Princeton President’s Lecture, “Rip, Mix, Burn, Sue: Technology, Politics, and the Fight to Control Digital Media” is now online. The lecture, which lasts about an hour, is a layperson’s introduction to the technology/copyright wars. I gave it on October 12. The first six minutes of the video consists entirely of introductions, which can safely be skipped.

UPDATE (Nov. 22): This entry has been updated to point to a new page for the lecture, which includes a Creative Commons license for the lecture video, and will eventually link to the lecture in more formats.

Princeton offers a great set of lecture videos on the net.

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Copyright, Copynorms, and Plagiarism

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting piece in the Nov. 22 New Yorker, reflecting on the discovery that Frozen, a Broadway play, included language lifted from an earlier Gladwell article.

Equally interesting is the reaction of Dorothy Lewis, a New York psychologist who was the subject of Gladwell’s earlier article. One of the characters in Frozen is very similar to Lewis, to the point that Lewis’s friends and colleagues see the character as being Lewis. Lewis may or may not have a legal remedy, but she feels violated, especially since the character commits an indiscretion that Lewis herself did not.

And yet the public outcry over Lavery’s copying, such as it is, points to the copying of wording, rather than any of the other copying that occurred. Why? Gladwell’s exploration of this question is worth reading.

Gladwell correctly separates questions of copyright law from those of plagiarism.
Perhaps this is what distinguishes his view from the conventional wisdom that he describes and then ultimately rejects.

Little by little, the legal rules of copyright are infecting our understanding of plagiarism. Kids, who used to be taught that certain kinds of copying are wrong, or at least disapproved by adults, are now taught about copyright instead. Last year a third-grader told me that it’s wrong to copy a friend’s homework, because the homework is copyrighted.

Adults make the same mistake too. High-profile plagiarism accusations usually point to textual similarities, as if the underlying sin could have been blotted out by a bit of rewording.

This is a shame. Our plagiarism norms exist for a good reason. Intellectual life is about more than copyright.

[link credit: Joe Gratz]

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Spam Kings: Mini-Review

I just finished reading Brian McWilliams’ new book Spam Kings. It’s an entertaining read that offers an interesting, nontechnical peek at some of the personalities behind the spam wars.

The book’s central figure is Davis Hawke, an amoral character responsible for most of the spam promoting male anatomical enhancement products. (The only thing that these products have reliably expanded is Hawke’s cash flow.) Hawke turned to spamming after the failure of his first career as a neo-Nazi leader, and he displays all of the class and moral judgment that one would expect given this background. His (financial) success as a spammer is due to his gift for writing persuasively sleazy ad copy, his persistence, and his willingness to do anything to make a buck. One almost wonders whether such a character could really exist outside of detective fiction; but apparently he does.

The anti-spammers, while somewhat more conventional in personality (but then again, who isn’t) also make interesting character studies. Some are system administrators whose jobs are complicated by spam, but many are like Susan Gunn (a.k.a. Shiksaa), an ordinary netizen who transformed her anger at spammers into a crusade to unmask and frustrate them.

When these personalities collide, the result is a kind of online trench warfare, involving technology, old-fashioned detective work, lawsuits, and occasional threats and intimidation. The spammers are far from unified, double-crossing each other like Elmore Leonard villains. The anti-spammers are at most a loosely organized coalition. Both sides are plagued by leaks and defections. The anti-spammers occasionally break the law; the spammers routinely hide in the quasi-legal murk.

When things heat up, a veteran anti-spammer asks an insightful question: Are we fighting against the spammers, or fighting against spam? Sometimes it does seem that the whole exercise has turned into an elaborate capture-the-flag game between the two communities. Yet despite the occasional excess, one ends up admiring the determination of the anti-spammers, and happy about the results they have achieved. Even as spam multiplies, the life of a spammer is not a happy or comfortable one.

(O’Reilly, the book’s publisher, sent me a free copy of the book. Thanks! Hint to other publishers: I’m more likely to read and review your books if you do this too.)