Holy Cyber

A reaction to the recent hacking of the French Euromillions website and also asking whether hacktivism actually is efficient or necessary.

On the 28th of October 2012, the French EuroMillions website was successfully hacked and replaced by passages from the Koran condemning gambling. One would then safely conclude the hackers to be Islamists.

The following message appeared: “Oh you believers. Wine, games of chance, statues all augur impurity and are the work of the devil.”
A certain group called Moroccan Ghosts claimed to be responsible for what some believe to be cyber vandalism.

Obviously, I do not particularly appreciate being told that I will end up in hell or that I’m adhering to the work of the devil. I’ve never played the lottery, but I might want to one day and I have a few friends who play regularly. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and has the right to express them. However, I personally think it is my right to not be made to feel like Satan for legally taking my chances at becoming a millionaire.

I’d have the capabilities – mixed with a vengeful personality and a lot less sense - that I probably would have already hacked their twitter or Facebook account and bombarded it with a message asking each one of their followers to join me down to the pub around the corner for a wild night of booze. Fortunately, I don’t have any of the three requirements to achieve it.

Nevertheless, it makes me wonder whether there is a hacking war between religious enthusiasts and…well the rest of us. It’s already known that the infamous hacktivist group Anonymous has a vendetta against religious groups and has been active regarding its war on religion.

Suffice to remember their self-proclaimed war on Christianity and other religious movements. The arrest of some of its leaders, who ironically now work with the FBI to put down hackers, didn’t seem to put a stop to it either.

I always thought I wasn’t against hacking. It only takes me to go back to Anonymous’ hacking of the Ugandan government website, after the country’s much publicised repressive stance against its lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual (LGTB), to remember why I thought so. I considered it an act of courage and did not necessarily stop to think about those who, for their own reasons, approved this stance and might have felt offended by Anonymous’ actions. Just like I felt offended by Moroccan Ghosts for blaming my potential need to play the lottery.

Uganda is another country with different cultures and beliefs. If you have to believe in the liberty to have one’s own opinion, then I guess I fell in the double standard category. Now, while I totally agree with Anonymous’ message on that matter and think it (the message) admirable, I’m starting to question the way through which it was transmitted. Did it really make a sustainable impact towards change or towards LGBT rights in Uganda? I really don’t think so.

Same stuff with Moroccan Ghosts, www.euromillions.fr hasn’t been properly restored, but it redirects you directly to La Francaise des Jeux website on which you can play the lottery all you want. So what were the tangible effects of their actions? If not to annoy some people and make some of us turn to the anti-hackers side.

Moroccan Ghosts have already threaten to hack other gambling sites around the world, thus making other poor souls feel like Belial when they attempt at winning the jackpot.

Some have concluded that hacking could be considered a legitimate form of protest. I don’t really know what form of protest could be considered illegitimate; you can’t really put a barometer on legitimacy. However, I don’t think it is a useful or efficient one. I might argue that it is not necessary either. On the same note, just as there are no tangible consequences to their actions, maybe they shouldn’t be any tangible punishment either.

Although I haven’t reached the point where I would go out and campaign for the arrest of all hackers, I can say today that I don’t agree with the fact that I might say or do something one day and someone, who doesn’t feel the same way, feels he/she has the right to take over my website and shut down what I’m saying. This feels a lot like another form of censorship to me – and it took the hacking of a lottery site to make me realise that.


Tamara Nyakabasa Kinja is ORGZine editor and likes to tweet (https://twitter.com/Kikintello) about books, women's rights, fitness and African politics.

Image: John Keogh CC BY-NC

Survival Instincts

Wendy Grossman tells us the real divide Sandy provoked in New York City was of a digital matter: those who can work remotely and those who can’t. She explores the extent to which the internet has made the City more resilient.

The biggest divide in New York this week, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy has been, as a friend pointed out, between the people who had to worry about getting to work and the people who didn't. Reuters summed this up pretty well. Slightly differently, The Atlantic had it as three New Yorks: one underwater, one dark and dry, and one close to normal. The stories I've read since by people living in "dark and dry" emerging into the light at around 40th street bear out just how profound the difference is between the powerless and the empowered - in the electrical sense.

This is not strictly speaking about rich and poor (although the Reuters piece linked above makes the point that the city is more economically divided than it has been in some time); the Lower Manhattan area known as Tribeca, for example, is home to plenty of wealthy people - and was flooded. Instead, my friend's more profound divide is about whether you do the kind of work that requires physical presence. Freelance writers, highly paid software engineers, financial services personnel, and a load of other people can work remotely. If your main office is a magazine or a large high-technology company like, say, Google, whose New York building is at 15th and 8th, as long as you have failover systems in place so that your network and data centres keep operating, your staff can work from wherever they can find power and Internet access. Even small companies and start-ups can keep going if their systems are built on or can failover to the right technology.

One of my favourite New York retailers, J&R(they sell everything from music to computers from a series of stores in lower Manhattan, not far from last year's Occupy Wall Street site), perfectly demonstrated this digital divide. The web site noted Thursday that its shops, located in "dark and dry", are all closed, but the web site is taking orders as normal.

Plumbers, doormen, shop owners, restaurateurs, and fire fighters, on the other hand, have to be physically present - and they are vital in keeping the other group functioning. So in one sense the internet has made cities much more resilient, and in another it hasn't made a damn bit of difference.

The internet was still very young when people began worrying about the potential for a "digital divide". Concerns surfaced early about the prospects for digital exclusion of vulnerable groups such as the elderly and, the cognitively impaired, as well as those in rural areas poorly served by the telecommunications infrastructure and the poor. And these are the groups that, in the UK, efforts at digital engagement are intended to help.

Yet the more significant difference may not be who *is* online - after all, why should anyone be forced online who doesn't want to go? - but who can *work* online. Like traveling with only carry-on luggage, it makes for a more flexible life that can be altered to suit conditions. If your physical presence is not required, today you avoided long lines and fights at gas stations, traffic jams approaching the bridges and tunnels, waits for buses, and long trudges from the last open subway station to your actual destination.

This is not the place to argue about climate change. A single storm is one data point in a pattern that is measured in timespans longer than those of individual human lives.

Nonetheless, it's interesting to note that this storm may be the catalyst the US needed to stop dragging its feet. As Business Week indicates, the status quo is bad for business, and the people making this point are the insurance companies, not scientists who can be accused of supporting the consensus in the interests of retaining their grant money (something that's been said to me recently by people who normally view a scientific consensus as worth taking seriously).

There was a brief flurry of argument this week on Dave Farber's list about whether the internet was designed to survive a bomb outage or not. I thought this had been made clear by contemporary historians long ago: that while the immediate impetus was to make it easy for people to share files and information, DARPA's goal was very much also to build resilient networks. And, given that New York City is a telecommunications hub it's clear we've done pretty well with this idea, especially after the events of September 11, 2001 forced network operators to rethink their plans for coping with emergencies.

It seems clear that the next stage will be to do better at coming up with better strategies for making cities more resilient. Ultimately, the cause of climate change doesn't matter: if there are more and more "freak" weather patterns resulting on more and more extreme storms and natural disasters, then it's only common sense to try to plan for them: disaster recovery for municipalities rather than businesses. The world's reinsurance companies - the companies that eventually bear the brunt of the costs - are going to insist on it.


Wendy M. Grossman’s web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series.

Image: CC BY-NC Barry Yanowitz

Washing Dirty Linen at Home

Paola Ycaza explains why regardless of what anyone thinks of Julian Assange, the official version fed to us by the Ecuadorian government is questionable. She dives into the facts showing that by granting Assange asylum, the Ecuadorian government probably has its own agenda.

Julian Assange’s arguable “sin” was to publish U.S. military and diplomatic documents on the website he launched in 2006 — WikiLeaks. The other sin is probably to continue to avoid trial for rape and sexual assault charges. Since then, Assange has been called everything from “high-tech terrorist” and “enemy of State” to “journalist” and “rapist” to “hero”. Whether he tried to escape the law by fleeing from Sweden, or he disrespected certain degrees of confidence and trust that nations rely on —jeopardising national security — or he acted in the name of transparency — Julian Assange is probably not in jail today because of a little Latin American country that decided to protect him.

The truth is this character is today thought by some to be a symbol of transparency worldwide. His actions arguably showed rejection towards censorship and secrecy, but also an invite to avoid them through digital activism. Yet, Assange’s well-known saviour — the Ecuadorian government, which granted him asylum last July — does not appreciate transparency as Julian theoretically does.

Actually, Ecuador is not in the best shape transparency-wise at the moment. The International Press Institute (IPI) has recently stated in an in-situ report that “Ecuador is in the midst of a press freedom crisis”. Therefore, it is important to know with details all the facts that happened inside the Ecuadorian borders before and while the asylum was taking place.

After an op-ed published in El Universo on the 6th of February last year written by the paper’s editor, the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa took legal proceedings against the three owners and the editor of the largest newspaper of the country. In the column NO a las mentiras(“NO More Lies”), Emilio Palacio questioned an army raid to rescue the President from striking policemen in September 2010. The four men were each sentenced to three years in prison and fined a total of $30m (£18m). Additionally, a $10m (£6m) fine was hit on the newspaper by the court.

In addition to the case El Universo, seventeen radio stations have been shut down this year for transgressing regulations, but the government denies these cases were politically motivated. There is no doubt that at the moment Ecuadorian journalists and media—which are constantly called as “prensa corrupta”, meaning “corrupted press”, by the regime—are subject to face repressive conditions if they report critically about government policies and actions. As stated by the political analyst Mario Vargas Llosa, these facts warn Ecuadorian journalists that any criticism to the government might subject them to reprisals.

Another important fact to highlight regarding this—censorial—Latin American government is the charges of terrorism and boycotts that Pablo Guerrero and other twelve Ecuadorians faced in 2010. These charges are related to the striking policemen in September 2010, when Guerrero went to a public TV station to give his opinion on the reform of the Pubic Service Law—the reform for which policemen were striking. After being threatened, he feared criminal prosecution and punishment for alleged attempted coup. Accordingly, he left Ecuador and requested international protection. He received the decree of political exile in the Czech Republic in 2011. Once in this country he stated: “there are many people fleeing my country, where there are several lawsuits against terrorism and boycotts, but are actually opponents of the regime.”

If this is the indoor situation in Ecuador regarding the press and censorship, why is it that outside its territory the Ecuadorian government acts differently? Is this some kind of country advertising? Or maybe is it an interesting foreign policy strategy? It seems pretty obvious that granting asylum to Julian Assange is a desperate effort to restore the government’s image as a ferocious censor of the press, but does somebody out there actually buy it?

Not really. Worldwide, there is a strong tendency in favour of El Universo and its braveness in facing the censorial government. Above all, there is a tendency in favour of free press. Two weeks ago the Ecuadorian journalist and former editor Emilio Palacio was awarded in Cadiz with the International Prize ‘World Columnist’, given by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. Also, last week Columbia University honoured the Ecuadorian Newspaper El Universo with a Maria Ross Cabot Award for its defence of freedom of the press. This type of recognitions demonstrates an indisputable support of other newspapers and journalists and a general claim for free press.

It seems that, to the Ecuadorian government, the feeling of controlling and silencing a “corrupted” press is its very symbol of victory. However, to them what Assange did does not qualify as “corrupted”; on the contrary, Assange’s actions should be applauded and this is why it has decided to offer him protection in its Embassy in London.

With this said, it is easy to state that if Assange had acted “against” Ecuador in the way he allegedly proceeded with other countries like the United States, he would probably be also prosecuted by the Ecuadorian government, as tolerance is not one of the virtues that characterise this regime. In fact, Assange’s profile is rather similar to the Ecuadorian journalists that are frequently questioned and silenced by the regime.

The Ecuadorian government has tried to “wash its dirty linen at home” — not in public — by acting repressively inside its borders, and open-minded to the eyes of the rest of the world. Nevertheless, this contradiction has not allowed the international community to be misled… Plus the “corrupted” media leaking...


Paola Ycaza (https://twitter.com/paolaycaza) is a journalist and monthly columnist at El Universo. She actively campaigns for Freedom of the Press, especially in Ecuador.

Image: CC BY-NC-SA Nocklebeast

Lie to me

Present at the Parliament and Internet conference, Wendy Grossman explains the reactions after the tone of the discussion revolving around cybersecurity was set following Andy Smith’s, PSTSA Security Manager, Cabinet Office suggestion to lie online to protect against identity theft.

I thought her head was going to explode.

The discussion that kicked off this week's Parliament and Internet conference revolved around cybersecurity and trust online, harmlessly at first. Then Helen Goodman (Labour - Bishop Auckland), the shadow minister for Culture, Media, and Sport, raised a question: what was Nominet doing to get rid of anonymity online? Simon McCalla, Nominet's CTO, had some answers: primarily, they're constantly trying to improve the accuracy and reliability of the Whois database, but it's only a very small criminal element that engage in false domain name registration. Like that.

A few minutes later, Andy Smith, PSTSA Security Manager, Cabinet Office, in answer to a question about why the government was joining the Open Identity Exchange (as part of the Identity Assurance Programme) advised those assembled to protect themselves online by lying. Don't give your real name, date of birth, and other information that can be used to perpetrate identity theft.

Like I say, bang! Goodman was horrified. I was sitting near enough to feel the splat.

It's the way of now that the comment was immediately tweeted, picked up by the BBC reporter in the room, published as a story, retweeted, Slashdotted, tweeted some more, and finally boomeranged back to be recontextualized from the podium. Given a reporter with a cellphone and multiple daily newspaper editions, George Osborne's contretemps in first class would still have reached the public eye the same day 15 years ago. This bit of flashback couldn't have happened even five years ago.

For the record, I think it's clear that Smith gave good security advice, and that the headline - the greater source of concern - ought to be that Goodman, an MP apparently frequently contacted by constituents complaining about anonymous cyberbullying, doesn't quite grasp that this is a nuanced issue with multiple trade-offs. (Or, possibly, how often the cyberbully is actually someone you know.) Dates of birth, mother's maiden names, the names of first pets…these are all things that real-life friends and old schoolmates may well know, and lying about the answers is a perfectly sensible precaution given that there is no often choice about giving the real answers for more sensitive purposes, like interacting with government, medical, and financial services. It is not illegal to fake or refuse to disclose these things, and while Facebook has a real names policy it's enforced with so little rigor that it has a roster of fake accounts the size of Egypt.

Although: the Earl of Erroll might be a bit busy today changing the fake birth date - April 1, 1900 - he cheerfully told us and Radio 4 he uses throughout; one can only hope that he doesn't use his real mother's maiden name, since that, as Tom Scott pointed out later, is in Erroll's Wikipedia entry. Since my real birth date is also in *my* Wikipedia entry and who knows what I've said where, I routinely give false answers to standardized security questions. What's the alternative? Giving potentially thousands of people the answers that will unlock your bank account? On social networking sites it's not enough for you to be taciturn; your birth date may be easily outed by well-meaning friends writing on your wall. None of this is - or should be - illegal.

It turns out that it's still pretty difficult to explain to some people how the Internet works or why . Nominet can work as hard as it likes on verifying its own Whois database, but it is powerless over the many UK citizens and businesses that choose to register under .com, .net, and other gTLDs and country codes. Making a law to enjoin British residents and companies from registering domains outside of .uk…well, how on earth would you enforce that? And then there's the whole problem of trying to check, say, registrations in Chinese characters. Computers can't read Chinese? Well, no, not really, no matter what Google Translate might lead you to believe.

Anonymity on the Net has been under fire for a long, long time. Twenty years ago, the main source of complaints was AOL, whose million-CD marketing program made it easy for anyone to get a throwaway email address for 24 hours or so until the system locked you out for providing an invalid credit card number. Then came Hotmail, and you didn't even need that. Then, as now, there are good and bad reasons for being anonymous. For every nasty troll who uses the cloak to hide there are many whistleblowers and people in private pain who need its protection.

Smith's advice only sounds outrageous if, like Goodman, you think there's a valid comparison between Nominet's registration activity and the function of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (and if you think the domain name system is the answer to ensuring a traceable online identity). And therein lies the theme of the day: the 200-odd Parliamentarians, consultants, analysts, government, and company representatives assembled repeatedly wanted incompatible things in conflicting ways. The morning speakers wanted better security, stronger online identities, and the resources to fight cybercrime; the afternoon folks were all into education and getting kids to hack and explore so they learn to build things and understand things and maybe have jobs someday, to their own benefit and that of the rest of the country. Paul Bernal has a good summary.


Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series.

Image: CC BY-NC University of Maryland Press Releases

Block-bursting My Eardrums

Ruth Coustick blogs about her nightmare experience with her local Blockbuster's repetitive horror movie-like music, how she tried to understand the reasoning behind it and was confronted with licensing laws.

I recently moved to the London area and this has changed a number of my usual habits; I used to be a cinema-fiend, going to see anything and everything. Now, the expense of southern cinema tickets, compared to the independent cinemas of Wales with which I was familiar, has reduced me to being a heavy Blockbuster-user. I have developed a comfortable pattern of bi-weekly borrowing, bemoaning the fact that even the rental places in the metropolis are worse than the independent cult-collecting ones I once knew. They don't even have Leon = judgement. I could survive these cultural limitations, through watching weird children's films from their only well-stocked section. However, my visits have one major flaw which pushes my customer experience from disappointment to despair as I dash around the store desperate to leave: the terror-inducing music.


It is always the same three tracks, played on a repetitive loop. There are no words, there are just disconcerting sounds. One is like something from a horror film. It is a creepy, wordless noise that I always believed must be from a film track or an advert for Left4Dead. Until now.


On one trip to Blockbuster as I stood at the front of the queue, wincing, I finally caved in to curiosity and asked the cashier:

"Why do you always play this song?"

The look on her face suggested that she had always hoped someone would bring up this very point. She explained that Blockbuster don't own a music license and so can only play music of their own composition. Which, it turns out, was not much, and not well. Another woman behind the counter, hearing the discussion and unaware of these facts was quick to provide a solution,

"I'm in a band! I could write some music for us to play!", but even this creative enthusiasm was met with the wall of law.

"Nope. We have to play Blockbuster's music, it's the only thing allowed."

I said that I had always thought it must be a horror film soundtrack and cashier had a similar assessment.

"Actually after having done so many shifts here I have nightmares with this music playing in the background."

I looked at them both with true horror in my eyes. Was there no escape from this legal chaos? I wished them good night, after offering my sincere condolences to their plight.


As I walked away, with my dvds and ice-cream, I felt that there must be something I could do about it. I decided to write to Blockbuster, with a polite email, explaining the situation and asking some simple questions:

-Who composed these pieces?

-How long has this been going on?

-Is it the same tracks across the country?

-Are there any plans to change the situation?

-Would you consider allowing other Blockbuster employees to compose their own pieces as replacements?


I tried to explain the moral and audio damage to their employees and customers too. As I have received no response I begin to wonder if perhaps I am not being taking seriously.


I then did a bit of research to understand the situation. The current law states that if you want to play music in public you need a license from PRS for Music (Performing Rights Society Ltd.). Playing music in a shop counts as a public performance. PRS state:

"If you play music in your business or want to include it in your product you need clearance to do so from the owners of that music. PRS for Music and MCPS represent the owners and can get you the clearances you need."


In fairness to them they have a very extensive FAQ list and a step by step process. They make the system seem very easy and straightforward. The tariffs even include measurements on how many square feet are enjoying the music. For my local Blockbuster, it looks like it might be around £500, but I haven't got a metre stick to measure the place out.


However, although searches for music licenses took me to PRS, their site told me I might need PPL too. I was confused, as acronyms upset me, but I checked it out and they explained:

"PPL collects and distributes money on behalf of record companies and performers. PRS for Music collects and distributes money on behalf of songwriters, composers and publishers."


Well. That explains the difference, but the language about why you should get a license is the same. Some further research on another site explains that, "If recorded music is being played in any public space through any kind of device to an audience, your institution will need to have both the PPL and PRS licences"

So that's a yes to both licenses, at least for Blockbuster just playing the radio. Putting the two license fees together it's then just over £600. This doesn't seem a huge amount of money for a large business...... oh wait. They filed for bankruptcy in the US. Although as some small-business holders are frustrated by the process you would think one license would be simpler. In fact due to some of the confusion, such as who is being charged or paid and why, there has been a move to make some changes to license collecting services, in order to improve transparency and to create a single market for Intellectual Property across the EU by the European Commission.


It was interesting that my second cashier had no idea about the licenses situation, perhaps just accepting that this was all the music Blockbuster had, they do 'videos' afterall. However, her suggestion of writing the music herself is a very interesting one. If Blockbuster are already composing their own music, why not use employee pieces? Presumably someone at head-office would have to sanction the music. It does seem a good way of encouraging enterprise among the staff. They could even run competitions to compose better pieces.


After all my research and a pleading email to Blockbuster I don't really mind how they do it: pay the licenses (like everyone else) or encourage staff talent: I just want to hear something new!


Ruth Coustick works at Open Rights Group and likes to talk/blog in various places about books, feminism and human rights.

Image: CC BY-NC Thomas Hawk

Richard O'Dwyer's Extradition Case

Julia O’Dwyer explains her son’s, Richard O’Dwyer, case and the reasons behind the demand of his extradition by the US and why these might be considered as unfair

Sheffield University student Richard O’Dwyer, accused of copyright infringement, is awaiting his appeal to the High Court against the decision of the Judge in the lower (magistrates) court to allow his extradition to go ahead. The appeal is scheduled for the 4th and 5th December at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. We will be appealing on a number of issues, but the main one of relevance is on the Judge’s decision regarding the extradition offence.

In order to proceed with an extradition the alleged conduct must be a crime punishable with more than 12 months in prison in both countries. Despite the Judge saying at the October and November hearings last year that we had a good strong legal argument supporting this, an opinion shared by the prosecution Barrister, it was decided otherwise.

Richard’s case was relying on the TV-Links case, which argued that “linking” to content was not a crime. After seeking an IP expert on the matter, it is intended to reinforce further these arguments at appeal.

However, US prosecutors are known among UK extradition lawyers to be the most aggressive in the world and will frequently try to exercise exorbitant jurisdictional claims to try and prosecute people, often on the most flimsy of connections with the US. In Richard’s case they have mentioned in the media, though not in legal documents, that they can claim jurisdiction over .com and .net domain names through some notion that all traffic to these domains goes via the US. They claim conspiracy has occurred if someone has any kind of contact with a person in the US via text, e-mail, Skype, internet forums or similar.

In some other cases the US have claimed jurisdiction if servers are located in the US, as in the extradition cases recently of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan accused of terrorism for running a website in the UK whose servers were at some point in Connecticut, but in Richard’s case no US servers were involved. They have no consistent rationale or case law. Actually, nor does the UK. In another appeal case Sir Scott Baker who conducted a review into extradition ruled that a case should be tried at the physical location of the conduct.

It appears that they format the issue to suit themselves even down to the actual “crime”. The law they are trying to use in Richard’s case relates to material items such as fake designer goods, pirated DVD’s, etc. They are using the wrong law, as there are no material goods that have been copied or stolen in this case. Furthermore, they also claim the “victims” are in the US. Victims considered to be big corporate such as Motions Picture Association of America (MPAA).

They claim that the witnesses are in the US and therefore that it makes sense to have a trial there. They have given immunity to two people who been affirmed to have had contact with Richard via e-mail or a website forum, people who he did not know. One did some tech work on the site for him and the other moderated a few random links. Richard has never met either of them.

Historically aside from the recent decision on the hacker Gary Mckinnon's extradition, nearly all extraditions to the US, even of UK citizens who have never set foot in that country, have gone ahead, whereas not one American has ever been extradited to the UK for a crime committed from the US. Also the UK has never ever requested the extradition of an American in those circumstances!

The Home Secretary Theresa May has announced that the government will in due course make some changes to the extradition treaty, the main one of relevance being the introduction of the Forum Amendment. Meaning that where an accused has committed all or a significant amount of the alleged conduct in the UK, then the courts will be able to decide whether they should be tried in the UK. This is a major breakthrough and is what the campaigners for extradition reform have been fighting for years.

This would apply in Richard's case, but as the law has not yet been changed and a timescale has not been set, this is not likely to benefit Richard. The government does have the power to choose to apply it to Richard if they wish to. However, following Gary McKinnon’s case, the chances for that to happen are slim.

Hence we must plan for the worst just in case. The law is heavily stacked in favour of extradition. Thanks to the online campaign, mainly via Twitter, Jimmy Wales’ petition is close to 250k signatures accompanied by supporting comments. Also, a supporter has set up a fighting fund to try and raise some funds to help us in the US. On the other hand, Theresa May has so far ignored this, her hands are tied by the current law stating that she can only block an extradition for specific reasons, none of which apply in Richard’s case.

The Public support for Richard and myself has been tremendous, as well as the huge online support coming from many other groups campaigning for digital rights such as the Open Rights Group, Demand Progress, Electronic Freedom Foundation, the Pirate Party and Cory Doctorow to name a few. Support has also come from people involved in both Film and Music industries as well as MP's and public figures.

The level of support from such a diverse group has been truly overwhelming and very much appreciated. It has kept us going through these frightening times. Obviously, we are hoping that Richard will not be extradited and that his appeal to the High Court will be a success. However, we must be realistic as the law is heavily stacked in favour of extradition and we have very little options to fight this - after all we are not fighting any alleged crime, we are fighting the current extradition law. As such we must plan for the worst whilst hoping that it does not happen.

In the meantime I will continue with others to campaign for extradition reforms and as equally important to fight for legislative protection of UK citizens against similar actions being brought over activities on the internet who have never set foot in the US.


Julia O’Dwyer is the mother of Richard O’Dwyer and has been campaigning for her son via her blog to fight his extradition to the US.

Image: CC BY The National Guard

Finding the Gorilla

Wendy Grossman explores how perception and modes of thinking vary across animals, humans, and computers, and comes to the conclusion that although computers are getting more smart, they aren’t getting more human.

"A really smart machine will think like an animal," predicted Temple Grandin at last weekend's Singularity Summit. To an animal, she argued, a human on a horse often looks like a very different category of object than a human walking. That seems true; and yet animals also live in a sensory-driven world entirely unlike that of machines.

A day later, Melanie Mitchell, a professor of computer science at Portland State University, argued that analogies are key, she said, to human intelligence, producing landmark insights like comparing a brain to a computer (von Neumann) or evolutionary competition to economic competition (Darwin). This is true, although that initial analogy is often insufficient and may even be entirely wrong. A really significant change in our understanding of the human brain came with research by psychologists like Elizabeth Loftus showing that where computers retain data exactly as it was (barring mechanical corruption), humans improve, embellish, forget, modify, and partially lose stored memories; our memories are malleable and unreliable in the extreme. (For a worked example, see The Good Wife, season 1, episode 6.)
Yet Mitchell is obviously right when she says that much of our humour is based on analogies. It's a staple of modern comedy, for example, for a character to respond on a subject as if it were another subject (chocolate as if it were sex, a pencil dropping on Earth as if it were sex, and so on). Especially incongruous moments: when IBM supercomputer Watson asks for the category "Chicks dig me" during a round of Jeopardy! played between Watson and two human champions, it's funny because we know that as a machine a) Watson doesn't really understand what it's saying, and b) Watson is pretty much the polar opposite of the kind of thing that "chicks" are generally imagined to "dig".

"You are going to need my kind of mind on some of these Singularity projects," said Grandin, meaning visual thinkers, rather than the mathematical and verbal thinkers who "have taken over". She went on to contend that visual thinkers are better able to see details and relate them to each other. Her example: the emergency generators at Fukushima were located below the level of a plaque 30 feet up on the seawall warning that flood water could rise that high. When she talks - passionately - about installing mechanical overrides in the artificial general intelligences that Singularitarians hope will be built one day soon, she seems to be channelling Peter G. Neumann, who talks often about the computer industry's penchant for repeating the security mistakes of decades past.

An interesting sideline about the date of the Singularity: Oxford's Stuart Armstrong has studied these date predictions and concluded pretty much that, in the famed words of William Goldman, no one knows anything. Based on his study of 257 predictions collected by the Singularity Institute and published on its Web site, he concluded that most theories about these predictions are wrong. The dates chosen typically do not correlate with the age or expertise of the predictor or the date of the prediction. I find this fascinating: there's something like an 80% consensus that the Singularity will happen in five to 100 years.

Grandin's discussion of visual thinkers made me wonder whether they would be better or worse at spotting the famed invisible gorilla than most people. Spoiler alert: if you're not familiar with this psychological test, go now and watch the clip before proceeding. You want to say better - after all, spotting visual detail is what visual thinkers excel at - but what if the demands of counting passes is more all-consuming for them than for other types of thinkers? The psychologist Daniel Kahneman, participating by video link, talked about other kinds of bias but not this one. Would visual thinkers be more or less likely to engage in the common human pastime of believing we know something based on too little data and then ignoring new data?

This is, of course, the opposite of today's Bayesian systems, which make a guess and then refine it as more data arrives: almost the exact opposite of the humans Kahneman describes. So many of the developments we're seeing now rely on crunching masses of data (often characterized as "big", but often not really all that big) to find subtle patterns that humans never spot. Linda Avey, founder of the personal genome profiling service 23andMe and John Wilbanks are both trying to provide services that will allow individuals to take control of and understand their personal medical data. Avey in particular seems poised to link in somehow to the data generated by seekers in the several-year-old self-quantified movement.

This approach is so far yielding some impressive results. Peter Norvig, the director of research at Google, recounted both the company's work on recognizing cats and its work on building Google Translate. The latter's patchy quality seems more understandable when you learn that it was built by matching documents issued in multiple languages against each other and building up statistical probabilities. The former seems more like magic, although Slate points out that the computers did not necessarily pick out the same patterns humans would.

Well, why should they? Do I pick out the patterns they're interested in? The story continues…


Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

Image: CC BY-SA Saad Faruque

Ada Lovelace Day: A Celebration

Milena Popova explains the history and significance of Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of women in STEM, and shows the importance of this day for digital rights.

Back in April this year, the Guardian published its “Open 20” - a list of twenty “fighters for internet freedom”. As with any such list, the opportunities for criticism and disagreement are endless. What struck me in particular, though, is that not only does the list contain just four women but one of them is Ada Lovelace. As illustrious and pioneering a woman as the Countess of Lovelace was, she died in 1852, over a hundred years before anything that can be legitimately seen as a progenitor of the internet, and thus can hardly be described as a fighter for internet freedom. You know we’re struggling to showcase female participation in a field when we have to scrape the barrel for examples from before the field even existed.

Ada Lovelace’s name, however, lives on in an effort to address the issue of lack of female participation in science and technology. Ada Lovelace Day, now in its fourth year, is an international celebration of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). It originates from a recognition of the importance of successful role models who can inspire more and more girls to take up a career in these traditionally male-dominated fields. On Ada Lovelace Day, which this year is October 16th, bloggers around the world - from Kiribati to American Samoa - write about women in STEM whom they admire, who have inspired them, who have blazed a trail for us to follow.

Having participated in Ada Lovelace Day for the last two years, I love the wide variety of women people choose to write about. Yes, a lot write about the Countess herself, who was, among other things, the first computer programmer. Quite a few celebrate their mothers, daughters, or female teachers - because the best inspiration is that which is personal and closest to us. Scientists and technologists from all fields feature among the blogs, as does Valentina Tereshokova - the first woman in space.

The shocking lack of imagination from the Guardian notwithstanding, there are actually quite a few women in the digital rights and internet freedom space, who could do with greater recognition of their contributions. Digital rights is an area where knowing and understanding the technology is just the beginning. It’s where tech meets people, society and legislation, and to be great at digital rights you have to have a grasp of all four. A couple of years ago Cory Doctorow wrote about Cindy Cohn, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Legal Director, who is a great example of this.

Journalist, author and freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke is another case in point. As a journalist, information is her livelihood and the currency she deals in. With information being increasingly digitised, we are rapidly finding ourselves in an “information war” in which technology gives people unprecedented powers to hold the state to account while states are desperately trying to claw back some of that power as well as extend their capability to keep tabs on and control their citizens. The balance of power between the state and the individual is shifting, and that’s the precarious frontline that Heather finds herself on.

ORG’s very own former Executive Directors Suw Charman-Anderson (who is also the driving force behind Ada Lovelace Day) and Becky Hogge; BoingBoing editor and technology and science communicator Xeni Jardin; researcher, writer and one of the public faces of the Chaos Computer Club Constanze Kurz; German open government campaigner and Pirate Party member Anke Domscheit-Berg: these are just some of the great women currently active in digital rights whose achievements I would like to celebrate this Ada Lovelace Day. Who are your digital rights heroines?


Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She is also a member of ORG's board and continues to write for the ORGzine in a personal capacity. She tweets as @elmyra

Image: CC-BY-SA Helen Harrop

Building a Digital Library

How close are we to fully digitised libraries? Director at Caper, Rachel Coldicutt and her partner scanned their entire book collection to find out.

This article was originally posted on The Literary Platform a site showcasing projects experimenting with literature and technology.

My partner, Matt, and I own quite a lot of books. As two English graduates who have worked in publishing, we’ve both spent the last two decades stockpiling knowledge by way of paperbacks. There are stacks of books we’ve worked on, books we’ve read, books we want to read and books that might be useful one day, and in the years we’ve lived together these stacks have grown to occupy most of the first-floor of our flat.

I started my career as a lexicographer and reference editor, and I’ve spent most of the last 15 years using massive archives – like Encyclopaedia Britannica or the V&A Collections – to do interesting digital things. Having spent most of my working life organising information, my home life is, quite naturally, a morass of disorganised confusion. For a long time, that was fine, because I knew where everything was. I never needed to make a list and had near instant recall over a wide range of subjects.

But then, I started to get older.

I started to find I couldn’t remember exactly which books I had read, let alone what was in them, and that the random queries I was used to sending out to the recesses of my mind were taking longer and longer to come back. I was also becoming frustrated that the physical objects I owned weren’t, somehow, digitally available and persistent: that I couldn’t look at a book that was sitting on a shelf at home when I was online or on my phone in the same way that I could listen to a piece of music I owned, wherever I was in the world. Also, more practically, I was growing fed up of never being able to find anything.

I’ve recently started looking into scanning my books so that I can read them wherever I am. There’s a brilliant community over at DIY Book Scanner working together to find the best ways of turning physical books into digital files. An open-source community, they’ve made hundreds of physical machines that execute the process of scanning and cleaning the pages in slightly different ways, with some models being able to handle up to 1200 pages an hour.

But first of all you have to make the scanner. And then you have to scan every page of every book you own. So although this was a completely free model, it seemed like a fairly ambitious place to start.

In order to ease myself in, I started to make a searchable index of my cookery books. The aim was to have an at-a-glance guide to which books used which ingredients and techniques, without having to open each one in turn and search through the index.

But most indexes are a mess. Even within the same publishing house, there is unlikely to be a standard taxonomy for recipe indexes. I started with half-a-dozen Italian books, and was quickly up against a war of authenticity which meant that – if I was going to get anywhere – I needed to compile my own taxonomy, including standard variants. Ribollita can become ‘Nona’s Favourite Soup’, a courgette can be a zucchini, pasta can be organised by shape or not organised at all, and there was no agreement on whether beans referred to greens ones or to pulses. I managed to do about six during my Christmas holiday, and then I had to stop. It was taking far too long.

I started to look into simpler ways of cataloguing our books and wanted to see what I could do with metadata, in lieu of having access to actual content. As an already keen user of Library Thing, I wanted to get my Library Thing profile to mirror the actual collection of books on my shelves – hoping this might at some point make it easier for me to replicate my physical collection in a digital format.

I started by very unscientifically asking people I knew on Twitter what they used, and those who used anything all appeared to use Delicious Library. If you want to live a really quantified life, Delicious can help you catalogue your board games, your electronic devices and even your clothes and jewellery, which might be handy if you’re moving to another country or making a comprehensive insurance inventory. I decided, for the time being, to stick just to the books.

The Delicious book catalogue connects each record to an existing authority file – most commonly the one held by Amazon. It costs $35 for a multi-use license, which you download as local application to a number of devices, allowing you to identify each book by scanning the barcode. If you quite enjoy the self-service checkout at Sainsbury’s, you can quite quickly add accurate edition details about the majority of your books.

As well as keeping a local version of the catalogue, which can be organised into as multiple internal categories (or ‘shelves’), you can also export it as XML, XSLT or CSV, or into an MLA-standard Bibliography for citations. If you wanted, you could also use it as a way of finding the value of your books, keeping track of what you’ve lent to whom, and buying and selling similar on Amazon.

I was mostly interested in exporting it to LibraryThing and having an accessible list of all the books I owned that I could look at remotely. I wanted to be able to stand in a bookshop and quickly refer to a list that showed me which Persephone novels or PG Wodehouse novels I owned without worrying about buying a duplicate. Meanwhile, we were also going to categorise every book we owned onto physical shelves, so that we could immediately reach for a thing and know where it was – something I hadn’t been able to do at home for nearly a decade.

What did we find?

We found about 30 books that don’t belong to us, about 10 duplicates (if you were wondering how many times can one person ready “Americana” by Don DeLillo and not remember it’s the same book, the answer is “three”), and a further 150 or so that we don’t want or need, which we then sold to a second-hand bookshop for the princely sum of £25.

That left 1,062 others, which are now – in the real world – distributed across five bookcases and separated into sixteen categories. Fourteen of these are organised by alphabetical order of author, with the other two (music and craft) organised by sub-category, as that made things easier to find.

We were able to barcode scan and organise all of the books with two people working fairly consistently over a single day. The next day, I went through Delicious and organised the books we had scanned into ‘shelves’, roughly equating to the categories we shelved the real books into.

We didn’t have a very hard-and-fast system for classifying physical books. We started the day having quite a few ridiculous conversations that I wouldn’t want many people to over hear – “Should we subdivide the feminist books by ideology?”, “What about the Greeks?”, “Does sheet music go with books about music?” Because physical books have to be put away, we needed to decide. The aim of the day was to put everything on a shelf, in a reasonable order, and that’s pretty much what happened.

It was a different story when I catalogued the books in Delicious. Categorising things on a screen feels much more of a commitment than organising them in the real world. Multiple tags increase the opportunity for ambiguity, but while an unclassified digital record is still searchable, an unclassified physical book is just lost. So only 1,048 of the 1,062 physical books have made it into digital categories – and while I’ve used the physical categories almost daily ever since, I’ve not had good reason to look at the digital ones again.

The digital categories have allowed me to take an overview of the kind of books we have. In reality, it was neither surprising nor very illuminating. 39% are straightforward Fiction; Crime and Thrillers represent an additional 6.9% and Poetry and Drama another 14%. This leaves 41% non-fiction books scattered over 13 categories. Of these the largest are Theory and Essays, Cookery, Music, and History and Culture.

I also have possibly thousands of recipes that are written on bits of paper, torn out of magazines or photocopied from books. I’ve been trying to sort these out for years. This hasn’t helped – although from blogging about the process, I now know from a friend that I could RDF scan these using Evernote, which would probably start to help with my original recipe index project.
It’s now two months since we did this, and I’ve discovered the following:

It’s quite easy to keep books in order on shelves, and quite satisfying to add new ones to the existing system.

It’s much more difficult to remember to scan new books. We need a library-style system of labels or red dots on the spines to indicate which books we have and haven’t scanned and which we have or haven’t virtually shelved. While Matt was very patient about scanning all of the books the first time, I’m not sure our relationship will survive the professionalisation of our bookshelves to quite that extent.

I haven’t included ebooks anywhere.

The most useful output is the LibraryThing profile. I set up a new profile for our joint library. While I haven’t tagged this or put it into categories, it’s completely searchable and accessible to me wherever I have Internet access. Not only will this make buying Matt’s Christmas presents easier, it’s also the best antidote I’ve found to my constantly receding memory. Although I’ve only checked it about half a dozen times, each time has been incredibly useful – it’s either provided the answer to a nagging question, or stopped me from buying something I already own.

I have about 300 books in my personal LibraryThing profile. Even though this is less than a third of our total joint library, I’m still (as an individual) the LibraryThing member who has the most books in common with us as a couple.

But mostly, I’m still hoping the longer-term benefit will be that I’ll one day be able to replicate all of these books digitally. In the meantime, I have an almost-perfect digital record of all the books that we had in our house on one Saturday in August 2012.


Image: CC-BY-NC-SA youreyes

The Doors of Probability

Mike Lynch, Autonomy founder, made his name by understanding Thomas Bayes and inverse probability. Wendy Grossman explains what a 1700s mathematician has to do with modern search engines and how Lynch was influenced by him.

Mike Lynch has long been the most interesting UK technology entrepreneur. In 2000, he became Britain's first software billionaire. In 2011 he sold his company, Autonomy, to Hewlett-Packard for $10 billion. A few months ago, Hewlett-Packard let him escape back into the wild of Cambridge. We've been waiting ever since for hints of what he'll do next; on Monday, he showed up at NESTA to talk about his adventures with Wired UK editor David Rowan.

Lynch made his name and his company by understanding that the rule formulated in 1750 by the English vicar and mathematician Thomas Bayes could be applied to getting machines to understand unstructured data. These days, Bayes is an accepted part of the field of statistics, but for a couple of centuries anyone who embraced his ideas would have been unwise to admit it. That began to change in the 1980s, when people began to realize the value of his ideas.

"The work [Bayes] did offered a bridge between two worlds," Lynch said on Monday: the post-Renaissance world of science, and the subjective reality of our daily lives. "It leads to some very strange ideas about the world and what meaning is."

As Sharon Bertsch McGrayne explains in The Theory That Would Not Die, Bayes was offering a solution to the inverse probability problem. You have a pile of encrypted code, or a crashed airplane, or a search query: all of these are effects; your problem is to find the most likely cause. (Yes, I know: to us the search query is the cause and the page of search results if the effect; but consider it from the computer's point of view.) Bayes' idea was to start with a 50/50 random guess and refine it as more data changes the probabilities in one direction or another. When you type "turkey" into a search engine it can't distinguish between the country and the bird; when you add "recipe" you increase the probability that the right answer is instructions on how to cook one.

Note, however, that search engines work on structured data: tags, text content, keywords, and metadata all going into building an index they can run over to find the hits. What Lynch is talking about is the stuff that humans can understand - raw emails, instant messages, video, audio - that until now has stymied the smartest computers.

Most of us don't really like to think in probabilities. We assume every night that the sun will rise in the morning; we call a mug a mug and not "a round display of light and shadow with a hole in it" in case it's really a doughnut. We also don't go into much detail in making most decisions, no matter how much we justify them afterwards with reasoned explanations. Even decisions that are in fact probabilistic - such as those of the electronic line-calling device Hawk-Eye used in tennis and cricket - we prefer to display as though they were infallible. We could, as Cardiff professor Harry Collins argued, take the opportunity to educate people about probability: the on-screen virtual reality animation could include an estimate of the margin for error, or the probability that the system is right (much the way IBM did in displaying Watson's winning Jeopardy answers). But apparently it's more entertaining - and sparks fewer arguments from the players - to pretend there is no fuzz in the answer.

Lynch believes we are just at the beginning of the next phase of computing, in which extracting meaning from all this unstructured data will bring about profound change.

"We're into understanding analogue," he said. "Fitting computers to use instead of us to them." In addition, like a lot of the papers and books on algorithms I've been reading recently, he believes we're moving away from the scientific tradition of understanding a process to get an outcome and into taking huge amounts of data about outcomes and from it extracting valid answers. In medicine, for example, that would mean changing from the doctor who examines a patient, asks questions, and tries to understand the cause of what's wrong with them in the interests of suggesting a cure. Instead, why not a black box that says, "Do these things" if the outcome means a cured patient? "Many people think it's heresy, but if the treatment makes the patient better..."

At the beginning, Lynch said, the Autonomy founders thought the company could be worth £2 to £3 million. "That was our idea of massive back then."

Now, with his old Autonomy team, he is looking to invest in new technology companies. The goal, he said, is to find new companies built on fundamental technology whose founders are hungry and strongly believe that they are right - but are still able to listen and learn. The business must scale, requiring little or no human effort to service increased sales. With that recipe he hopes to find the germs of truly large companies - not the put in £10 million sell out at £80 million strategy he sees as most common, but multi-billion pound companies. The key is finding that fundamental technology, something where it's possible to pick a winner.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series

Image: CC-BY-SA 2.0 Flickr: Bak0I0

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Schmidt Happens

Wendy M. Grossman responds to "loopy" statements made by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt in regards to censorship and encryption.

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