Law

Law and legislation

Big Government vs Big Corp – which is worse?

A programmer has been banned from Google for life.

This appears to be kind of like those Kafka-esque errors that big government sometimes make [1] (and which reinforce the arguments against the “if you’re not doing anything wrong you don’t need privacy” position), with the added factor that there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it.

I suppose an individual programmer could bring civil suit against Google (and its undoubtedly huge population of lawyers) citing material damages for being forbidden from participating in the Google/Play/app store, but I wouldn’t be too sanguine about his chances of succeeding …

 

[1] – since the foreign workers program seems to be being used primarily to bring in workers for the oil and gas sector right now, do you think it would help if she offered to mount a production of “Grease”?

Cyberbullying, anonymity, and censorship

Michael Den Tandt’s recent column in the Vancouver Sun is rather a melange, and deserves to have a number of points addressed separately.

First, it is true that the behaviours the “cyberbullying” bill address, those of spreading malicious and false information widely, generally using anonymous or misleading identities, do sound suspiciously close to those behaviours in which politicians engage themselves.  It might be ironic if the politicians got charged under the act.

Secondly, whether bill C-13 is just a thinly veiled re-introduction of the reviled C-30 is an open question.  (As one who works with forensic linguistics, I’d tend to side with those who say that the changes in the bill are primarily cosmetic: minimal changes intended to address the most vociferous objections, without seriously modifying the underlying intent.)

However, Den Tandt closes with an insistence that we need to address the issue of online anonymity.  Removing anonymity from the net has both good points and bad, and it may be that the evil consequences would outweigh the benefits.  (I would have thought that a journalist would have been aware of the importance of anonymous sources of reporting.)

More importantly, this appeal for the banning of anonymity betrays an ignorance of the inherent nature of networked communitcation.  The Internet, and related technologies, have so great an influence on our lives that it is important to know what can, and can’t, be done with it.

The Internet is not a telephone company, where the central office installs all the wires and knows at least where (and therefore likely who) a call came from.  The net is based on technology whish is designed, from the ground up, in such a way that anyone, with any device, can connect to the nearest available source, and have the network, automatically, pass information to or from the relevant person or site.

The fundamental technology that connects the Internet, the Web, social media, and pretty much everything else that is seen as “digital” these days, is not a simple lookup table at a central office.  It is a complex interrelationship of prototcols, servers, and programs that are built to allow anyone to communicate with anyone, without needing to prove your identity or authorization.  Therefore, nobody has the ability to prevent any communication.

There are, currently, a number of proposals to “require” all communications to be identified, or all users to have an identity, or prevent anyone without an authenticated identity from using the Internet.  Any such proposals will ultimately fail, since they ignore the inherent foundational nature of the net.  People can voluntarily participate in such programs–but those people probably wouldn’t have engaged in cyberbullying in any case.

John Gilmore, one of the people who built the basics of the Internet, famously stated that “the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”  This fact allows those under oppressive regimes to communicate with the rest of the world–but it also means that pornography and hate speech can’t be prevented.  The price of reasonable commuincations is constant vigilance and taking the time to build awareness.  A wish for a technical or legal shortcut that will be a magic pill and “fix” everything is doomed to fail.

YASCCL (Yet Another Stupid Computer Crime Law)

Over the years I have seen numerous attempts at addressing the serious problems in computer crime with new laws.  Well-intentioned, I know, but all too many of these attempts are flawed.  The latest is from Nova Scotia:

Bill 61
Commentary

“The definition of cyberbullying, in this particular bill, includes “any electronic communication” that ”ought reasonably be expected” to “humiliate” another person, or harm their “emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation.””

Well, all I can say is that everyone in this forum better be really careful what they say about anybody else.

(Oh, $#!+.  Did I just impugn the reputation of the Nova Scotia legislature?)

Why BC holds the record for “World’s Weirdest Politicians”

Whenever political pundits get together, they all start the competition for “our politicians are more corrupt/venal/just plain weird than yours.”  Whenever anyone from BC enters the fray, everyone else concedes.

Herewith our latest saga.

The ruling “Today’s BC Liberal Party” is finding itself polling behind the NDP.  (Do not let the word “liberal” in the party name fool you.  Whereas pretty much every other liberal party would be centre-left, the BC Liberals are, politically, somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun.)  The liberals are runing attack ads stating that, twelve years ago, the leader of the NDP backdated a memo.

(No, I’m not making this up.)

The Liberals have just released another version of the same attack ad, this time using a snippet of footage from the recent leaders debate.  Trouble is, the media consortium that ran the debate has copyright on the video of the debate, and all parties agreed that none of the material would be used for political purposes.

The Liberals, called on their use of the video, have refused to take it down.

(How old do you have to be to understand the meaning of “copyright infringement?”)

(I am eagerly awaiting the next installment of this story.  I assume the lawyers paid for by Today’s BC Liberals [or possibly by public money: that’s happened before] will argue the provisions of “fair use,” and claim that the attack ads are commentary, or even educational …)

S. Korea Cyber Attack Crashes Navigation Devices. Time to fuzz your GPS?

South Korea suffered a major cyber attack yesterday. The origin of the attack seems to be China at the moment, but that is far from being definite.

I happened to be in one of the (several) cyber security operation centers, by pure coincidence. I had a chance to see events unravel in real time. Several banks have been hit (including the very large shinhan bank) and a few broadcasting channels.

The damage is hard to assess, since it’s now in everyone’s advantage to blame the cyber attack on anything from a system crash to the coffee machine running out of capsules. Budget and political moves will dominate most of the data that will be released in the next few days.
It’s clear, however, that the damage substantial. I reached out to a few friends in technical positions at various MSPs and most had a sleepless night. They’ve been hit hard.

The most interesting part of this incident, in my opinion, was a report on car GPS crashing while the attack was taking place. I haven’t seen a news report about that yet, and I couldn’t personally verify it (as I mentioned, I was stationary at the time, watching the frantic cyber-security team getting a handle on a difficult situation) but this is making rounds in security forums and a couple of friends confirmed to me that their car navigation system crashed and had to be restarted, at the exact time the attack was taking place.

The most likely explanation is that the broadcasting companies, who send TPEG data to the GPS devices (almost every car in Korea has a GPS device, almost all get real-time updates via TPEG), had sent malformed data which caused the devices to crash. This data could have been just a result of a domino effect from the networks crashing, or it could have been a very sophisticated proof-of-concept by the attacker to see if they can create a distruption. Traffic in Seoul is bad even on a normal day; without GPS devices it can be a nightmare.

Which brings up an interesting point about fuzzing network devices. TPEG fuzzers have been available for a while now (beSTORM has a TPEG module, and you can easily write your own TPEG fuzzer). The difficult part is getting the GPS device to communicate with the fuzzing generator; this is something the GPS developer can do (but probably won’t) but it is also possible for a government entity to do the necessary configuration to make that happen, given the proper resources or simply by forcing the vendors to cooperate.

The choice of the attacker to bring down the broadcasting networks might be deliberate: other than knocking TV and radio off the air (an obvious advantage in a pre-attack strike) the broadcasting networks control many devices who rely on their data. Forcing them to send malformed data to crash a variety of devices can have interesting implications. If I was a little more naive, I would predict that this will push governments around the world to focus more on fuzzing to discover these kind of vulnerabilities before they see their adversaries exploit them. But in the world we live in, they will instead throw around the phrase “APT” and buy more “APT detection products” (an oximoron if I’ve ever heard one). Thank god for APT, the greatest job saving invention since bloodletting.

An detailed analysis of the attack here:
http://training.nshc.net/KOR/Document/virus/20130321_320CyberTerrorIncidentResponseReportbyRedAlert(EN).pdf

Apple Now “Owns” the Page Turn

A blog posting at the New York Times:

“Yes, that’s right. Apple now owns the page turn. You know, as when you
turn a page with your hand. An “interface” that has been around for
hundreds of years in physical form. I swear I’ve seen similar
animation in Disney or Warner Brothers cartoons.  (This is where
readers are probably checking the URL of this article to make sure
it’s The New York Times and not The Onion.)”

Yet more proof that the US patent system, and possibly the whole concept of intellectual property law, is well and truly insane.

What’s even funnier is that, when I read the New York Times blog page that carries this story, I noticed that NYT may be in grave danger of having their pants sued off by Apple (which is, after all, a much larger and more litigious corporation).  At least two of the animated graphical ads on the page feature a little character that rolls down a corner of the ad, inviting you to “Click to see more.”  If you click or even mouseover the ad, then the little figure “turns a page” to let you see the rest of the ad.

(This interface appears to be a standard for either the NYT or Google Ads, since refreshing the page a few times gave me the same display for two different auto manufacturers and, somewhat ironically, for Microsoft.)

(In discussing this with Gloria, she mentioned an online magazine based in Australia which uses a graphical page turning interface for the electronic version of the magazine.  Prior art?  Or are they in danger of getting sued by Apple as well?)

Border (relative) difficulties

I have experienced all kinds of difficulties travelling down to the US to teach.

It used to be a lot easier, in the old days.
Border agent: “Business or pleasure?”
Me: “Business.”
BA: “What are you doing?”
Me: “Teaching.”
BA: “OK.”
Then The-Conservative-Government-Before-The-New-Harperite-Government-Of-Canada decided, in it’s infinite wisdom, to bring in something called the North American Free Trade Agreement, which had provisions to make it “easier” to trade and travel.  Now it’s a royal pain.

(I’ve travelled and taught elsewhere, of course.  Some places I’ve had to get visas.  Nigeria was a nusiance.  Australia was a $20 charge, online, no problem at all.  Last time I taught in Ireland it was “Business or pleasure?”  “Business.”  “Welcome to Ireland!”  Last time I taught in Norway there wasn’t even anyone at the immigration desk.)

Occasionally Americans have complained that they have had troubles coming to work in Canada.  So far I have never heard anything like what I’ve had to go
through.

At the moment I’ve been dealing with American lawyers again.  This has generally been OK, since I usually don’t have to travel for that.  However, this time the other side wants to depose me.  (I suspect they are just doing this for the nusiance value.  As usuall, I’m not doing this as an “expert” witness, just as the only guy who still has the materials.)  So, the origianl plan was for me to fly down to California, spend a day with the lawyers on one side “prepping” me, and spend an hour or two with the other side for the deposition.  They’d have to pay for my fare and travel expenses, as well as my time during prep.

During the call I mentioned that, since he was a lawyer, and presumably had access to other lawyers in their firm who knew something about immigration, they should check on that point, and see if they wanted/needed to do anything about a visa for me.  He didn’t think it was an issue.  I said that, according to the official rules he was right, but that I had seen plenty of cases where the border agents interpretted the rules in idiosyncratic ways, and maybe he should just check.

Today the plan has entirely changed.  At least three lawyers (possibly more), from at least two firms (and possibly more) are flying up from California, renting a boardroom here in Vancouver, renting a court reporter, and staying at least two days (more likely three) to do the prep and deposition.  With all the extra associated costs.  (And all this on behalf of a company that has very stringent travel cost policies: I had to sign off on them for the original contract.)

I think I’ve proved the point: it’s *way* harder to go to the US than to Canada.

Budget and the chain of evidence

Go Public, a consumer advocacy show on CBC, has produced a show on Budget Rent-A-Car overcharging customers for minor repairs.

This rang a bell with me.

In May of 2009, I rented a car from Budget, in order to travel to give a seminar.  Having had troubles with various car rental companies before, I did my own “walk around” and made sure I got a copy of the damage report before I left.  There were two marks on the driver’s door (a small dent, and a scratch), but the Budget employee refused to make two marks in that spot of the form: he said that the one tick covered both.

When I turned in the car, I was told that the tick was only good for the one scratch, and that I would be charged $400 for the dent.  I was also told that, since I had rented the car using my American Express card, I was automatically covered, by American Express, for minor damage, so I should get them to pay for it.

Since I was neither interested in paying myself, nor in assisting in defrauding Amex, I referred to the earlier statement by the employee who had checked the car.  (I had a witness to his statement, as well.)

Thus started a months-long series of phone calls from Budget.  They kept trying to get me to agree to pay the extra $400, and get Amex to reimburse me.  I wasn’t interested.

The phone calls finally stopped when, on one call, I informed the caller (by now identifying himself as someone in the provincial head office for Budget) that I had kept the copy of the original damage report form.  The caller told me that it clearly stated that there was a scratch on the door.  When I asked him how he interpreted the tick mark as a scratch, rather than a dent, he said that the word “scratch” was written on the form.

Well, of course, it hadn’t been written on the form originally.  I guess the caller must have been reasonable high up in the corporate food chain, because he knew what that meant.  I had the original, and it proved that they had messed with their copy.  That breaks the chain of evidence: they had no case at all.

(I still have a scan of that form.  Just in case …)