May 30, 2024

Twittering for the Marines

The Marines recently issued an order banning social network sites (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.). The Pentagon is reviewing this sort of thing across all services. This follows on the heels of a restrictive NFL policy along the same lines. Slashdot has a nice thread, where among other things, we learn that some military personnel will contract with off-base ISPs for private Internet connections.

There are really two separate security issues to be discussed here. First, there’s the issue that military personnel might inadvertently leak information that could be used by their adversaries. This is what the NFL is worried about. The Marines order makes no mention of such leaks, and they would already be covered by rules and regulations, never mind continuing education (see, e.g., loose lips sink ships). Instead, our discussion will focus on the issue explicitly raised in the order: social networks as a vector for attackers to get at our military personnel.

For starters, there are other tools and techniques that can be used to protect people from visiting malicious web sites. There are black-list services, such as Google’s Safe Browsing, built into any recent version of Firefox. There are also better browser architectures, like Google’s Chrome, that isolate one part of the browser from another. The military could easily require the use of a specific web browser. The military could go one step further and provide sacrificial virtual machines, perhaps running on remote hosts and shared by something like VNC, to allow personnel to surf the public Internet. A solution like this seems infinitely preferable to forcing personnel to use third-party ISPs on personal computers, where vulnerable machines may well be compromised, yet go unnoticed by military sysadms. (Or worse, the ISP could itself be compromised, giving a huge amount of intel to the enemy; contrast this with the military, with its own networks and its own crypto, which presumably is designed to leak far less intel to a local eavesdropper.)

Even better, the virtual machine / remote display technique allows the military sysadm to keep all kinds of forensic data. Users’ external network behavior creates a fantastic honeynet for capturing malicious payloads. If your personnel are being attacked, you want to have the evidence in hand to sort out who the attacker is and why you’re being attacked. That helps you block future attacks and formulate any counter-measures you might take. You could do this just as well for email programs as web browsing. Might not work so well for games, but otherwise it’s a pretty powerful technique. (And, oh by the way, we’re talking about the military here, so personnel privacy isn’t as big a concern as it might be in other settings.)

It’s also important to consider the benefits of social networking. Military personnel are not machines. They’re people with spouses, children, and friends back home. Facebook is a remarkably efficient way to keep in touch with large numbers of friends without investing large amounts of time — ideal for the Marine, back from patrol, to get a nice chuckle when winding down before heading off to sleep.

In short, it’s problematic to ban social networking on “official” machines, which only pushes personnel to use these things on “unofficial” machines with “unofficial” ISPs, where you’re less likely to detect attacks and it’s harder to respond to them. Bring them in-house, in a controlled way, where you can better manage security issues and have happier personnel.

The future of high school yearbooks

The Dallas Morning News recently ran a piece about how kids these days aren’t interested in buying physical, printed yearbooks. (Hat tip to my high school’s journalism teacher, who linked to it from our journalism alumni Facebook group.) Why spend $60 on a dead-trees yearbook when you can get everything you need on Facebook? My 20th high school reunion is coming up this fall, and I was the “head” photographer for my high school’s yearbook and newspaper, so this is a topic near and dear to my heart.

Let’s break down everything that a yearbook actually is and then think about how these features can and cannot be replicated in the digital world. A yearbook has:

  • higher-than-normal photographic quality (yearbook photographers hopefully own better camera equipment and know how to use their gear properly)
  • editors who do all kinds of useful things (sending photographers to events they want covered, selecting the best pictures for publication, captioning them, and indexing the people in them)
  • a physical artifact that people can pass around to their friends to mark up and personalize, and which will still be around years later

If you get rid of the physical yearbook, you’ve got all kinds of issues. Permanence is the big one. There’s nothing that my high school can do to delete my yearbook after it’s been published. Conversely, if high schools host their yearbooks on school-owned equipment, then they can and will fail over time. (Yes, I know you could run a crawler and make a copy, but I wouldn’t trust a typical high school’s IT department to build a site that will be around decades later.) To pick one example, my high school’s web site, when it first went online, had a nice alumni registry. Within a few years, it unceremoniously went away without warning.

Okay, what about Facebook? At this point, almost a third of my graduating class is on Facebook, and I’m sure the numbers are much higher for more recent classes. Some of my classmates are digging up old pictures, posting them, and tagging each other. With social networking as part of the yearbook process from the start, you can get some serious traction in replacing physical yearbooks. Yearbook editors and photography staff can still cover events, select good pictures, caption them, and index them. The social networking aspect covers some of the personalization and markup that we got by writing in each others’ yearbooks. That’s fun, but please somebody convince me that Facebook will be here ten or twenty years from now. Any business that doesn’t make money will eventually go out of business, and Facebook is no exception.

Aside from the permanence issue, is anything else lost by going to a Web 2.0 social networking non-printed yearbook? Censorship-happy high schools (and we all know what a problem that can be) will never allow a social network site that they control to have students’ genuine expressions of their distaste for all the things that rebellious youth like to complain about. Never mind that the school has a responsibility to maintain some measure of student privacy. Consequently, no high school would endorse the use of a social network that they couldn’t control and censor. I’m sure several of the people who wrote in my yearbook could have gotten in trouble if the things they wrote there were to have been raised before the school administration, yet those comments are the best part of my yearbook. Nothing takes you back quite as much as off-color commentary.

One significant lever that high school yearbooks have, which commercial publications like newspapers generally lack, is that they’re non-profit. If the yearbook financially breaks even, they’re doing a good job. (And, in the digital universe, the costs are perhaps lower. I personally shot hundreds of rolls of black&white film, processed them, and printed them, and we had many more photographers on our staff. My high school paid for all the film, paper, and photo-chemistry that we used. Now they just need computers, although those aren’t exactly cheap, either.) So what if they don’t print so many physical yearbooks? Sure, the yearbook staff can do a short, vanity press run, so they can enter competitions and maybe win something, but otherwise they can put out a PDF or pickle the bowdlerized social network’s contents down to a DVD-ROM and call it a day. That hopefully creates enough permanence. What about uncensored commentary? That’s probably going to have to happen outside of the yearbook context. Any high school student can sign up for a webmail account and keep all their email for years to come. (Unlike Facebook, the webmail companies seem to be making money.) Similarly, the ubiquity of digital point-and-shoot cameras ensures that students will have uncensored, personal, off-color memories.

[Sidebar: There’s a reality show on TV called “High School Reunion.” Last year, they reunited some people from my school’s class of 1987. I was in the class of 1989. Prior to the show airing, I was contacted by one of the producers, wanting to use some of my photographs in the show. She sent me a waiver that basically had me indemnifying them for their use of my work; of course, they weren’t offering to pay me anything. Really? No thanks. One of the interesting questions was whether my photos were even “my property” to which I could even give them permission to use. There were no contracts of any kind when I signed up to work on the yearbook. You could argue that the school retains an interest in the pictures, never mind the original subjects from whom we never got model releases. Our final contract said, in effect, that I represented that I took the pictures and had no problem with them using them, but I made no claims as to ownership, and they indemnified me against any issues that might arise.

Question for the legal minds here: I have three binders full of negatives from my high school years. I could well invest a week of my time, borrow a good scanner, and get the whole collection online and post it online, either on my own web site or on Facebook. Should I? Am I opening myself to legal liability?]

Government Data and the Invisible Hand

David Robinson, Harlan Yu, Bill Zeller, and I have a new paper about how to use infotech to make government more transparent. We make specific suggestions, some of them counter-intuitive, about how to make this happen. The final version of our paper will appear in the Fall issue of the Yale Journal of Law and Technology. The best way to summarize it is to quote the introduction:

If the next Presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet-enabled government transparency, it should follow a counter-intuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens. Today, government bodies consider their own websites to be a higher priority than technical infrastructures that open up their data for others to use. We argue that this understanding is a mistake. It would be preferable for government to understand providing reusable data, rather than providing websites, as the core of its online publishing responsibility.

In the current Presidential cycle, all three candidates have indicated that they think the federal government could make better use of the Internet. Barack Obama’s platform explicitly endorses “making government data available online in universally accessible formats.” Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, remarked that she wants to see much more government information online. John McCain, although expressing excitement about the Internet, has allowed that he would like to delegate the issue, possible to a vice-president.

But the situation to which these candidates are responding – the wide gap between the exciting uses of Internet technology by private parties, on the one hand, and the government’s lagging technical infrastructure on the other – is not new. The federal government has shown itself consistently unable to keep pace with the fast-evolving power of the Internet.

In order for public data to benefit from the same innovation and dynamism that characterize private parties’ use of the Internet, the federal government must reimagine its role as an information provider. Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, it should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that “exposes” the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data. The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.

Our approach follows the engineering principle of separating data from interaction, which is commonly used in constructing websites. Government must provide data, but we argue that websites that provide interactive access for the public can best be built by private parties. This approach is especially important given recent advances in interaction, which go far beyond merely offering data for viewing, to offer services such as advanced search, automated content analysis, cross-indexing with other data sources, and data visualization tools. These tools are promising but it is far from obvious how best to combine them to maximize the public value of government data. Given this uncertainty, the best policy is not to hope government will choose the one best way, but to rely on private parties with their vibrant marketplace of engineering ideas to discover what works.

To read more, see our preprint on SSRN.

Second Life Welcomes Bank Regulators

Linden Lab, the company that runs the popular virtual world Second Life, announced Tuesday that all in-world “banks” must now be registered with real-world banking regulators:

As of January 22, 2008, it will be prohibited to offer interest or any direct return on an investment (whether in L$ or other currency) from any object, such as an ATM, located in Second Life, without proof of an applicable government registration statement or financial institution charter. We’re implementing this policy after reviewing Resident complaints, banking activities, and the law, and we’re doing it to protect our Residents and the integrity of our economy.

This is a significant step. Thus far Second Life, like other virtual worlds, has tried to avoid entanglement with heavyweight real-world regulatory agencies. Now they are welcoming banking regulation. The reason is simple: unregulated “banks” were out of control.

Since the collapse of Ginko Financial in August 2007, Linden Lab has received complaints about several in-world “banks” defaulting on their promises. These banks often promise unusually high rates of L$ return, reaching 20, 40, or even 60 percent annualized.

Usually, we don’t step in the middle of Resident-to-Resident conduct – letting Residents decide how to act, live, or play in Second Life.

But these “banks” have brought unique and substantial risks to Second Life, and we feel it’s our duty to step in. Offering unsustainably high interest rates, they are in most cases doomed to collapse – leaving upset “depositors” with nothing to show for their investments. As these activities grow, they become more likely to lead to destabilization of the virtual economy. At least as important, the legal and regulatory framework of these non-chartered, unregistered banks is unclear, i.e., what their duties are when they offer “interest” or “investments.”

This was inevitable, given the ever-growing connections between the virtual economy of Second Life and the real-world economy. In-world Linden Dollars are exchangeable for real-world dollars, so financial crime in Second Life can make you rich in the real world. Linden doesn’t have the processes in place to license “banks” or investigate problems. Nor does it have the enforcement muscle to put bad guys in jail.

Expect this trend to continue. As virtual world “games” are played for higher and higher stakes, the regulatory power of national governments will look more and more necessary.

Scoble/Facebook Incident: It's Not About Data Ownership

Last week Facebook canceled, and then reinstated, Robert Scoble’s account because he was using an automated script to export information about his Facebook friends to another service. The incident triggered a vigorous debate about who was in the right. Should Scoble be allowed to export this data from Facebook in the way he did? Should Facebook be allowed to control how the data is presented and used? What about the interests of Scoble’s friends?

An interesting meme kept popping up in this debate: the idea that somebody owns the data. Kara Swisher says the data belong to Scoble:

Thus, [Facebook] has zero interest in allowing people to escape easily if they want to, even though THE INFORMATION ON FACEBOOK IS THEIRS AND NOT FACEBOOK’S.

Sorry for the caps, but I wanted to be as clear as I could: All that information on Facebook is Robert Scoble’s. So, he should–even if he agreed to give away his rights to move it to use the service in the first place (he had no other choice if he wanted to join)–be allowed to move it wherever he wants.

Nick Carr disagrees, saying the data belong to Scoble’s friends:

Now, if you happen to be one of those “friends,” would you think of your name, email address, and birthday as being “Scoble’s data” or as being “my data.” If you’re smart, you’ll think of it as being “my data,” and you’ll be very nervous about the ability of someone to easily suck it out of Facebook’s database and move it into another database without your knowledge or permission. After all, if someone has your name, email address, and birthday, they pretty much have your identity – not just your online identity, but your real-world identity.

Scott Karp asks whether “Facebook actually own your data because you agreed to that ownership in the Terms of Service.” And Louis Gray titles his post “The Data Ownership Wars Are Heating Up”.

Where did we get this idea that facts about the world must be owned by somebody? Stop and consider that question for a minute, and you’ll see that ownership is a lousy way to think about this issue. In fact, much of the confusion we see stems from the unexamined assumption that the facts in question are owned.

It’s worth noting, too, that even today’s expansive intellectual property regimes don’t apply to the data at issue here. Facts aren’t copyrightable; there’s no trade secret here; and this information is outside the subject matter of patents and trademarks.

Once we give up the idea that the fact of Robert Scoble’s friendship with (say) Lee Aase, or the fact that that friendship has been memorialized on Facebook, has to be somebody’s exclusive property, we can see things more clearly. Scoble and Aase both have an interest in the facts of their Facebook-friendship and their real friendship (if any). Facebook has an interest in how its computer systems are used, but Scoble and Aase also have an interest in being able to access Facebook’s systems. Even you and I have an interest here, though probably not so strong as the others, in knowing whether Scoble and Aase are Facebook-friends.

How can all of these interests best be balanced in principle? What rights do Scoble, Aase, and Facebook have under existing law? What should public policy says about data access? All of these are difficult questions whose answers we should debate. Declaring these facts to be property doesn’t resolve the debate – all it does is rule out solutions that might turn out to be the best.