I just was reading up on Stealth Surfer (via Engadget) and it looks like a pretty cool device, but it still has a ways to go. It’s a USB device that aims to protect your privacy by not leaving browser trails on your computer.
stealthsurfer.gifAs you can see from the picture to the left, it is only for Windows and includes a copy of Netscape 7.0. Why Netscape 7.0? Because they wanted to use a dead browser instead of Mozilla. The browser has been configured to store cookies, cache, etc. on the USB drive to prevent people from finding out what you’ve been looking at. It’s also configured with as its homepage, which in the documentation has a lot of porn links that are absent from the live site.
stealthsurfer.jpgThe problem is that it appears to be of no help against network monitors, which is a far greater threat to privacy than cookies and cache files. What they should do is team up with someone like Anonymizer to provide anonymous surfing. This would protect their users from both hardware and network forensics.
Another concern I would have with one of these devices is the number of writes that a flash memory device can take. For casual file transfer it shouldn’t be a problem, but a browser using this as a temp directory involves a lot more writes. I forget how many hundred thousand writes flash memory is rated for, but I can imagine this hitting that limit.
Then again, if you’re using something like this to cover your trail, you shouldn’t get too attached anyway. After all, you may have to rectally conceal it to keep people from knowing that you’ve been searching for world domination.
Also, would it kill them to include Enigmail on there? Make it easy for people to secure their email as well as their web surfing. Still, this is a neat idea and I hope to see more “theme” USB drives like it.

Why isn’t Election Day a national holiday?

It seems like it should be fairly straight forward. Celebrating Election Day with a national holiday is fundamental to celebrating democracy. As it stands, the law establishing federal holidays has been amended several times to create new holidays. Why do we celebrate our independence, our presidents and our flag, but not our democracy?
Election Day falls on the first tuesday after the first monday in November, basically the tuesday from November 2nd through the 9th. This is actually a pretty crowded time for holidays, Veteran’s Day is November 11th and Thanksgiving is usually 16 days after election day. What I would like to see happen is moving Veteran’s Day to Election Day, to celebrate the men and women who protect our democracy as well as the central tenet of that democracy.
By giving people the day off we would be making it easier for people who have less free time between work and family life to contribute to democracy. We would also be sending a national message that choosing our government is important enough to take some time off.
I’m certainly not the first person to have this idea, but its time has come. The Atlantic covered this in a story in 1998. Still, we install democracies all over the world, yet we have one of the lowest voter turnouts in the world.
Of course there are still some questions to answer. Do you have the party annually or bi-annually, when congress is elected? The Atlantic article suggests that Election Day be moved to a Saturday, but I don’t like that because it doesn’t have the same celebration for Democracy that creating a holiday does. And by combining it with Veteran’s Day, there’s not a net increase in holidays, which means no additional cost to taxpayers.
If you think that this is something worth doing, please spread the word. Spread it on your weblog, spread it to your friends and family and coworkers. Spread it to your government. I think this is an idea whose time has come.
On a related note, something I personally will be doing is having an Election Day party, where entry will hinge on having an “I voted” sticker. I can think of few better reasons to have a party than to celebrate democracy.
[Update: Eric posted some more information including information on Bill S.726 which aims to do just what this post suggests.
Goodspeed Update is also looking at this, which will hopefully encourage Ann Arborites to contact Senator Stabenow.]

The (poor) state of copyright activism

I just read The state of copyright activism by Siva Vaidhyanathan and am impressed with the points made. It goes over well trodden ground, talking about how copyright has been eroded over the past 30 years. It talks about the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Public Knowledge and what they are doing for us. It also covers recent events like Eldred vs. Ashcroft.

What makes this paper unique is that I’ve never seen one that argues for the public to take the fight up. Many of us who are interested in taking back our rights are some of the most wired people on the planet. Why haven’t we been able to take our message to the streets where people will understand just how far censorship is going?

What we are missing are two things: a leader to organize the fight and a coherent movement to rally around. The Dean campaign had Joe Trippi managing a swarm of volunteers and creating an army from the ground up. We need a Joe Trippi to define our copyfight, to create something that people can say “I support the copyfight” on their bumper-stickers or their lawns or to their coworkers.

Why don’t we have a DeanLink that connects people interested in taking back the commons? Why don’t we have a DeanSpace that lets anyone create a copyfight group? Where’s our Meetup? The EFF one isn’t that well attended. Where’s our manifesto? How can we have a revolution if we don’t have a manifesto? It just wouldn’t be proper!

In his paper, Siva Vaidhyanathan outlines four things that seem essential to the copyfight:

  • The principle of fair use — at its base a legal defense against an accusation of copyright infringement.
  • The principle that after the “first sale” of a copyrighted item, the buyer could do whatever she wants with the item — such as making a hat, or a broach, or a pterodactyl — save publicly performing the work or distributing unauthorized copies of it for sale. The first sale doctrine is what makes the lending library possible.
  • The concept that copyright protected specific expression of ideas, but not the ideas themselves. This is the least understood but perhaps most important tenet of copyright. You can’t copyright a fact or an idea.
  • The promise that copyright would only last — as the Constitution demands — “for limited times,” thus constantly replenishing the public domain.

The copyfight is about something that should be easy to understand, but usually isn’t. Lawyers and legalese scare people away from protecting what is ours: our culture. Up until now our culture has been held hostage by copyright, and any child understands what it means when you take their favorite book away from them. How is taking the Grey Album away from the public any different?

Individual shots in this fight have already been fired. DeCSS. Eldred vs. Ashcroft. Dimitry Skylorov. But the people who benefit from owning our culture have shot back. The DMCA. State level Super-DMCA legislations. Digital Rights Management.

We have a number of groups that have both the wherewithal and the respect to get this going. The EFF already has their action center, why not give an identity to the people who already take action? Instead of being a place that I send my money and tells me what good things it does, why not help me organize an EFF house party?

We already have people like Lawrence Lessig and John Walker telling us that the Internet doesn’t ensure freedom. We have to fight for it. So who’s going to step up to the plate and lead the thousands (or even millions) of people to take back our culture?

[Update: Copyfight proclaims that activists for copyright reform are Copyfighters]

Stupid Liberals

I was reading Why Republicans Should Love Larry Lessig in the Wall Street Journal Review and it got me thinking. I can’t stand the way liberals jump on every chance to bash Lawrence Lessig and the Creative Commons. They just love the idea that all of the work that the People produce will be tied up in some fat cat government program that my tax dollars pay for. The last thing the democrats want to do is give power back to the people, whom they inherently distrust (just look at gun control).
Not only that, but he advocates Open Source software! Democrats hate this because it’s free (no pork barrel politics!) but it also reduces Big Government. In Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace Lessig argues that Open Source code prevents the government from forcing the People to run software that they don’t want to. That software could track you, your family, your guns – just the kind of software Big Government would love to force onto your desktop.
Just look at how the Clinton administration tried to force the Clipper chip on Americans. The democrats don’t trust the people’s money or privacy, so they wanted to be able to watch everything. People who know the Bill of Rights knew that Big Government went too far with that, and that’s why it isn’t around today.
And don’t get me started on security. You know those liberals can’t wait for a cyber-terrorist attack on America, they love any attack on America! That’s why they get Windows installed everywhere, because they know Open Source software is more secure.
Of course, the liberal media doesn’t want you to know about this because they’re so invested in it too. So let’s start a letter writing campaign to get the media to expose the threats of these liberal copyright laws like the DMCA (signed in by the Clinton administration, of course!) and copyright extension American culture!
Update: YHBT. YL. HAND.


The Dallas Observer carries a story about Michael Bills, who was working for the TSA. He was fired after a year working there because they just found out that he had a marijuana arrest and was a child molester.

So what’s the big deal? Well the way they found out about his pot past (after a year of work) was by reading about it on his application, which he truthfully listed the arrest on. I’m not quite sure how they found out that he was a sex offender but they failed to notice that the child molester was Michael Douglas Bills, not the Michael Shane Bills who worked for the TSA.

So a federal agency was dumb, it wouldn’t be the first time. Again, what’s the big deal? Well the TSA is trying to get into data mining with the CAPPS II program. It hopes to catch terrorists by looking at various bits of information from the commercial sector as well as government records.

The problem with these data mining programs is that they don’t work. From Bruce Schnier’s How We Are Fighting the War on Terrorism / IDs and the illusion of security:

But any such system will create a third, and very dangerous, category: evildoers who don’t fit the profile. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Washington-area sniper John Allen Muhammed and many of the Sept. 11 terrorists had no previous links to terrorism. The Unabomber taught mathematics at UC Berkeley. The Palestinians have demonstrated that they can recruit suicide bombers with no previous record of anti-Israeli activities. Even the Sept. 11 hijackers went out of their way to establish a normal-looking profile; frequent-flier numbers, a history of first-class travel and so on. Evildoers can also engage in identity theft, and steal the identity — and profile — of an honest person. Profiling can result in less security by giving certain people an easy way to skirt security.

There’s another, even more dangerous, failure mode for these systems: honest people who fit the evildoer profile. Because evildoers are so rare, almost everyone who fits the profile will turn out to be a false alarm. This not only wastes investigative resources that might be better spent elsewhere, but it causes grave harm to those innocents who fit the profile. Whether it’s something as simple as “driving while black” or “flying while Arab,” or something more complicated such as taking scuba lessons or protesting the Bush administration, profiling harms society because it causes us all to live in fear…not from the evildoers, but from the police.

There simply isn’t enough data to build a good terrorist model. Let’s take two recent American terrorists: John Allen Muhammad and Timothy McVeigh. What did their records have in common before they acted? The only common data point between the two is that they both served in the military. If we had a system that could spot these two men, it would also falsely identify every single male who served in the US Military.

That of course assumes that the data is properly mined and analyzed. But let’s go back to the initial story, where we find out that the TSA sucks at analyzing data. Where does that leave us?

Some might say finding an evil-doer among regular people is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. I say that since there’s no way to tell the bad from the good it’s closer to finding a specific needle in a needlestack. Is that really worth giving up our privacy for an illusion of security?

Democratic Caucus

Like 46,000 other people in Michigan, I voted in the Democratic Caucus online. Or did I? According to Wired News, the Internet voting system used was similar to the one ditched by the Pentagon for being insecure. So how do we audit the Internet vote? Let’s say hypothetically that there was found to be some sort of collusion between the Michigan Democratic Party and a candidate. How would they prove that there wasn’t any modification of votes online? How do you do a recount?
On the other hand, it was pretty damn easy to vote. I just used the username and password that they snailmailed to me and selected my candidate. The site was responsive on Saturday, which I assume was their heaviest traffic period. The only confusion that I heard was people who didn’t realize that they had to pre-register to vote online. Anything that makes it easier to participate in democracy can’t be all bad, IMHO.

Linkdump: 2004-02-07

The Creativity Machine

There’s an amazing article about a neural network on By introducing noise into neural networks, Imagination Engines, Inc has been able to get their neural networks to invent new things. For example, the networks (called the Creativity Machine) have designed substances harder than diamonds and the Oral-B CrossAction toothbrush. From the article:

“His first patent was for a Device for the Autonomous Generation of Useful Information,” the official name of the Creativity Machine, Miller said. “His second patent was for the Self-Training Neural Network Object. Patent Number Two was invented by Patent Number One. Think about that. Patent Number Two was invented by Patent Number One!”

This is pretty cool stuff, I can’t wait to see what problems this tackles next.