Swartz vs Snowden OR Resist Restrictions that Seem Arbitrary or Capricious

MIT released its report on Aaron Swartz (.pdf) this morning. It is interesting to read about the amount of energy and concerted effort around Swartz, in contrast to Edward Snowden. Swartz’ prosecution and MIT’s “neutrality” to that effort seem sad when taken in the context of President Obama’s comment on June 27th where he said “No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker.”

In the report the authors pose questions to the MIT community, including: “How can MIT draw lessons for its hacker culture from this experience?” The answer includes:

MIT celebrates hacker culture. Our admissions tours and first-year orientation salute a culture of creative disobedience where students are encouraged to explore secret corners of the campus, commit good-spirited acts of vandalism within informal but broadly— although not fully—understood rules, and resist restrictions that seem arbitrary or capricious. We attract students who are driven not just to be creative, but also to explore in ways that test boundaries and challenge positions of power.

This raises the question of whether the MIT community is sufficiently aware of what the hacker culture is meant to be about, of the risks inherent in crossing lines as part of hacking, and the roles of faculty, staff and administration in responding to what might or might not be a hack.

Yet in the computer context, unlike as in the physical world, “unauthorized access”—ill defined as it may be—can be grounds for a major federal felony prosecution. For Swartz the end result was calamitous. The entire episode may create a chilling effect for those students contemplating exploits that may push the bounds of their and society’s knowledge, but will also take them to places where conventional rules say they are not supposed to be—“coloring outside the lines” so to speak, punishable by criminal records rather than mere forfeiture of crayons. [emphasis added]

I can’t help but think of the recently exposed removal of President Obama’s promise to “Protect Whistleblowers” from Change.gov. Which read:

Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance.

Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process. [emphasis added]

Later, in the answer to the above question, the MIT report asks “Are we misleading students and community members by advertising one kind of community and enforcing rules more appropriate to a different kind of community?”

This seems to be the question not just for the MIT community, but for all Americans.

Steve Jobs on Loyalty

This isn’t exactly Steve Jobs on loyalty, but rather comments from Joshua Michael Stern, director of the new Steve Jobs film JOBS:

“… I think that he was loyal to his vision and he was loyal to the one thing he wanted to bring to the world … I think he was loyal to what he was trying to achieve. If you were loyal to that too then he loved you and if you didn’t then you didn’t understand him.”

I think this comes from feeling that Steve Jobs’ execution toward his vision for how things could and should be was the greatest single contribution he can make to society. If you are following a vision of similar grandeur, you can not see another way to behave that would make the world a better place.

When you see only one vision for how you can help the world, you must have people around you who support this. Otherwise, those people are blocking a better world. When the vision is big enough, there is no room for half-hearted allegiance or simple cooperation. It is ride or die.


I’ve greatly enjoyed Alan Krueger’s “Land of Hope and Dreams: Rock and Roll, Economics and Rebuilding the Middle Class” speech given at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past June.

In the speech, Krueger compares the economics of the music industry to what is happening in the U.S. economy as a whole. It puts the major shift in the average cost of concert tickets right next to changes in the US income distribution.

It features details from a clever study (.pdf) that measured the impact of luck in combination with merit on the success of artists in a system for downloading music. It also puts forth proposals from President Obama’s economic agenda for addressing the dangerous consequences of a winner-take-all economy.

I’m an avid concert-goer and watched ticket prices climb in the late 90s and 2000s. Later I ran a Dave Matthews Band fan website where we were so regularly bombarded by requests to run advertisements from scalpers we had to take a stand.

Not surprisingly, my favorite portion of the speech focuses on the concept of fairness:

If artists charge too much for their tickets, they risk losing their appeal. In this sense, the market for rock ‘n roll music is different from the market for commodities, or stocks and bonds.

Considerations of fair treatment exert pressure on how much musicians can charge, even superstars.

Along these lines, one of my favorite performers, Tom Petty, once said, “I don’t see how carving out the best seats and charging a lot more for them has anything to do with rock & roll.”

This is a major reason why there is a market for scalped tickets.
But many artists have been reluctant to raise prices to what the market will bear for fear of garnering a reputation of gouging their fans.

They also protest when tickets sell for a higher price on the secondary market, and often try to prevent the secondary market entirely. And it is considered scandalous when performers sell tickets on the secondary market themselves.

This behavior can only be explained in light of fairness considerations. Singers want to be viewed as treating their fans fairly, rather than charging them what supply and demand dictate.

Indeed, you can think of market demand as depending on the perception of fairness.

Read The Economist’s digest of the speech or Download the text of the speech (.pdf)


I'm on Your Roadz, Scanning Your License Plates

For a long time, I’ve imagined what it would be like if you could see information about other drivers around you in real-time. For example, if you are driving down the freeway you would see a red arrow over cars that are known to have been involved in bad driving practices.

This information would be presented in a heads-up-display. You could dive into information on any car to see what its previous behavior had been, such as cutting off other drivers, reckless speeding or other stuff that would cause any reasonable person to be upset on the road.

The data would be sourced from normal people.  If someone dangerously cut you off and flipped you the finger for good measure, you could simply type in the license plate, the make of the car and this would be added to a public database. The location and time of the incident would be stored, along with your own reputation of identity. This would make the “colored arrows” over the cars more valuable to other drivers, and hopefully reduce the risk of getting in an accident or otherwise entangled with a Ne’er-do-well.

There are a lot of problems to sort out, such as how do you ensure people are not trolling each other, mis-reporting driver behavior? What if a car is shared, and one driver “ruins” the license plate of a car for all users. What if the system is used to screen for other things, such as entry into a gated community? How can the license plate and car make and model be collected safely by someone who is driving a vehicle and witnesses something wrong. And most importantly, what are the privacy implications of creating such a vast database?

Some of these questions have easier answers than others. Two things seem clear to me now:

  1. It is simply a matter of time before such a public database and the accompanying software to populate it exist.
  2. We are quickly entering a time where if you own and regularly use the same car, you are giving up the privacy of your real-time location and possibly that of your family.

The reason I write this now, is because the ACLU recently published a study (pdf) (overview) on the growing use of police cameras and how the information is being collected and used by government authorities to circumvent the need to get warrants on GPS trackers.

If law enforcement is using automatic license plate readers, and we have russian drivers almost universally using dashboard cams, we are very close to civilian use of automated readers. And the use case I describe above will become a reality.

The user experience probably won’t jump directly to HUD, however a push notification to your smartphone that a car ahead is dangerous seems a fairly trivial feature. All that’s missing is the software.

How do you protect the privacy of your movement when you commonly need to travel the intermediary and custom pathway that automobiles provide? It would be great if you could travel by car and avoid revealing your location to mass surveillance by getting getting rides with strangers you can trust. Such a system does not exist today, but it could be created to counter concerns described above.

If you wanted to start today, you might have some success with ride share services like Zipcar. But those require registration and some level of identity validation. It seems like Lyft, the citizen cab company might be a better value and deliver more privacy. But even that requires Facebook connect, and thus full real name and photo exposure to the driver and company itself.

Update 3/20/14: Los Angelas police argue “All [license plate] data is investigatory.” See EFF’s “Los Angeles cops Argue All Cars in LA are Under Investigation.”