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Did the Boston bombs change anything?

2579569295_892d332f5f_zOne interesting aspect of our privacy is photography and filming in public places. If you show up in a public place, then any individual can take a picture of you. There’s nothing you can do about it, you just have to accept it. And you ARE being photographed almost all the time. If not on tourists’ snapshots and home videos, then on surveillance cameras operated by the authorities.

There seem to be a war between these two groups of photographers, especially in US after 9/11. Ordinary people who take snapshots of fine buildings have noticed this. Photography is often considered suspicious activity and many innocent tourists have been treated like suspect terrorists. Security guru Bruce Schneier has pointed out several times that the authorities watch far too much TV. They try to fight movie-plot threats rather than real terrorism. The war against photography is a good example. TV needs visual elements so the villains often goes on a photo trip before the strike. No pictures are however found when investigating real terrorism. Simply because they are not needed. To fly a jumbo into a skyscraper you need a map, not a photo of the building taken from ground level. But the authorities are desperately seeking ways to show that they are doing something, so photography becomes a convenient target.

What brings this to mind right now is the Boston bombs. There is said to be around 600 surveillance cameras in the area. FBI also had the suspected bomber’s face on file and was able to run automated face recognition against the surveillance footage. But that wasn’t enough, so they turned to the public and asked for photos and videos shot by ordinary citizens. The former enemy suddenly became a friend when FBI didn’t have enough footage themselves.

The request turned out to be successful. Submitted amateur footage is reported to have been crucial in identifying the bombers. This proved that photography in public places contributes to security rather than poses a threat.

I wonder when we reach the point where FBI doesn’t have to ask for these photos? More and more people upload their shots to social media sites. Chances are that the Tsarnaev brothers already are published by many ordinary citizens on their private walls, Flickr-accounts etc. Time and position metadata makes these shots suitable for face recognition scans. Privacy settings are of course an obstacle, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the US authorities demanded full access to such photos bypassing the security settings. An even scarier scenario, what if FBI gets legal access to all shots that smartphones upload automatically? The shots from my mobile camera land on SkyDrive. Personally I don’t like the idea of participating in an intelligence network with global reach but operated by a national agency.

Will this case change anything? I would like to see the Boston incident as an eye-opener that contributes to a less hostile attitude against photographing citizens. But that is probably naive. The war against photography will most likely go on just like before, at least until the next case where FBI need some help. And we may be heading towards a world where the authorities doesn’t ask kindly for these shots, but grab what they want from the net. Let’s hope that the legislators and privacy advocates manage to maintain a balance between privacy and terrorism hysteria.

Micke

Image by R/DV/RS @ Flickr

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How should we deal with defamation and hate speech on the net? – Poll

Everybody probably agree that the net has developed a discussion culture very different from what we are used to in real life. The used adjectives vary form inspiring, free and unrestricted to crazy, sick and shocking. The (apparent) anonymity when discussing on-line leads to more open and frank opinions, which is both good and bad. It becomes especially bad when it turns into libel and hate speech. What do you think about this? Read on and let us know in the poll below. We do have laws to protect us against defamation. But the police still has a very varying ability to deal with crimes on the net. And the global nature of Internet makes investigations harder. Most cases are international, at least here in Europe where we to a large extent rely on US-based services. This is in the headlines right now here in Finland because of a recent case. The original coverage is in Finnish so I will give you a short summary in English. A journalist named Sari Helin blogged about equal rights for sexual minorities, and how children are very natural and doesn’t react anyway if a friend has two mothers, for example. This is a sensitive topic and, hardly surprising, she got a lot of negative feedback. Part of the feedback was clear defamation. Calling her a whore, among other nasty things. She considered it for a while and finally decided to report the case to the police, mainly because of Facebook comments. This is where the really interesting part begins. Recently the prosecutor released the decision about the case. They simply decided to drop it and not even try to investigate. The reason? Facebook is in US and it would be too much work contacting the authorities over there for this rather small crime. A separately interviewed police officer also stated that many of the requests that are sent abroad remain unanswered, probably for the same reason. This reflects the situation in Finland, but I guess there are a lot of other countries where the same could have happened. Is this OK? The resourcing argument is understandable. The authorities have plenty of more severe crimes to deal with. But accepting this means that law and reality drift even further apart. Something is illegal but everybody knows you will get away with the crime. That’s not good. Should we increase resourcing and work hard to make international investigations smoother? That’s really the only way to make the current laws enforceable. The other possible path is to alter our mindset about Internet discussions. If I write something pro-gay on the net, I know there’s a lot of people who dislike it and think bad things about me. Does it really change anything if some of these people write down their thoughts and comment on my writings? No, not really. But most people still feel insulted in cases like this. I think we slowly are getting used to the different discussion climate on the net. We realize that some kinds of writing will get negative feedback. We are prepared for that and can ignore libel without factual content. We value feedback from reputable persons, and anonymous submissions naturally have less significance. Pure emotional venting without factual content can just be ignored and is more shameful for the writer than for the object. Well, we are still far from that mindset, even if we are moving towards it. But which way should we go? Should we work hard to enforce the current law and prosecute anonymous defamers? Or should we adopt our mindset to the new discussion culture? The world is never black & white and there will naturally be development on both these fronts. But in which direction would you steer the development if you could decide? Now you have to pick the one you think is more important.   [polldaddy poll=8293148]   Looking forward to see what you think. The poll will be open for a while and is closed when we have enough data.   Safe surfing, Micke  

Sep 8, 2014
BY Micke
Connecting people

Why is social media called antisocial?

You have all seen the pictures circulating on the net. A bunch of people all tapping at their smartphones and paying no attention to the world around them. With the title: ANTISOCIAL. And you have probably also seen this is real life. Sometimes a friend just seems to be more interested in the phone than in you. And maybe it has been the other way around sometime? ;) Most of these people are probably using social media. I do agree that it is rude to ignore persons who are physically present and pay more attention to the phone. Especially if you are alone with someone. And yes, that behavior seems antisocial from other’s point of view. But the funny thing is really that social media and our mobile devices form the most social system invented so far. Think about it. You can be in contact with people everywhere in the world. You can send and receive messages instantly and follow what others do right now. You can share your own feelings spontaneously. You can have a pure peer-to-peer exchange of thoughts not curated by any outsiders. You can select to communicate with a single person or a larger group. You are not limited to written text, you can use pictures and video as well. The real point here is that those “antisocial” types aren’t just tapping their phones, they are communicating with real people. Our traditional definition for the word social was formed before we had Internet. People associate it with personal face-to-face contact and are slow to update their mindsets. Or to be precise, we already have a younger generation who have grown up with the net and social media services. Their definition is up to date, but many of us older persons still see the net as less social or not social at all. Let’s all agree to never call someone who is concentrating on the phone antisocial. But the word rude may be justified. Let’s also agree to not be rude against others by ignoring them in favor of the phone. It’s of course OK to check the phone now and then at the party, but always prioritize people who are present and want to talk to you. And why not take it one step further? Turn off the phone and try to be without it for a couple of hours. Can you do it? Next time you go out for dinner with someone is a good time for that experiment. You may be less social on the net for a while, but your company will see you as much more social.   Safe surfing, Micke   PS. If you must be able to take urgent calls and can’t turn off the phone, at least turn off the data connection. That will mute the social media apps.  

Aug 21, 2014
BY Micke
alice

1,2 billion passwords stolen, but does it affect me?

You have heard the news. Russian hackers have managed to collect a pile of no less than 1,2 billion stolen user IDs and passwords from approximately 420 000 different sites. That’s a lot of passwords and your own could very well be among them. But what’s really going on here? Why is this a risk for me and what should I do? Read on, let’s try to open this up a bit. First of all. There are intrusions in web systems every day and passwords get stolen. Stolen passwords are traded on the underground market and misused for many different purposes. This is nothing new. The real news here is just the size of the issue. The Russian hacker gang has used powerful scripts to harvest the Internet for vulnerable systems and automatically hacked them, ending up with this exceptionally large number of stolen passwords. But it is still good that people write and talk about this, it’s an excellent reminder of why your personal passwords habits are important. Let’s first walk you through how it can go wrong for an ordinary Internet user. Let’s call her Alice. Alice signs up for a mail account at Google. She’s lucky, alice@gmail.com is free. She’s aware of the basic requirements for good passwords and selects one with upper- and lowercase letters, digits and some special characters. Alice is quite active on the net and uses Facebook as well as many smaller sites and discussion forums. Many of them accepts alice@gmail.com as the user ID. And it’s very logical to also use the same password, it sort of belongs together with that mail address and who wants to remember many passwords? Now the evil hackers enter the scene and starts scanning the net for weak systems. Gmail is protected properly and withstands the attacks. But many smaller organizations have sites maintained on a hobby basis, and lack the skills and resources to really harden the site. One of these sites belongs to a football club where Alice is active. The hackers get access to this site’s user database and downloads it all. Now they know the password for alice@gmail.com on that site. Big deal, you might think. The hackers know what games Alice will play in, no real harm done. But wait, that’s not all. It’s obvious that alice@gmail.com is a Gmail user, so the hackers try her password on gmail.com. Bingo. They have her email, as well as all other data she keeps on the Google sites. They also scan through a large number of other popular internet sites, including Facebook. Bingo again. Now the hackers have Alice’s Facebook account and probably a couple of other sites too. Now the hackers starts to use their catch. They can harvest Alice’s accounts for information, mail conversations, other’s contact info and e-mails, documents, credit card numbers, you name it. They can also use her accounts and identity to send spam or do imposter scams, just to list some examples. So what’s the moral of the story? Alice used a good password but it didn’t protect her in this case. Her error was to reuse the password on many sites. The big sites usually have at least a decent level of security. But if you use the same password on many sites, its level of protection is the same as the weakest site where it has been used. That’s why reusing your main mail password, especially on small shady sites, is a huge no-no. But it is really inconvenient to use multiple strong passwords, you might be thinking right now. Well, that’s not really the case. You can have multiple passwords if you are systematic and use the right tools. Make up a system where there is a constant part in every password. This part should be strong and contain upper- and lowercase characters, digits and special characters. Then add a shorter variable part for every site. This will keep the passwords different and still be fairly easy to remember. Still worried about your memory? Don’t worry, we have a handy tool for you. The password manager F-Secure Key. But what about the initial question? Does this attack by the Russian hackers affect me? What should I do? We don’t know who’s affected as we don’t know (at the time of writing) which sites have been affected. But the number of stolen passwords is big so there is a real risk that you are among them. Anyway, if you recognize yourself in the story about Alice, then it is a good idea to start changing your passwords right away. You might not be among the victims of these Russian hackers, but you will for sure be a victim sooner or later. Secure your digital identities before it happens! If you on the other hand already have a good system with different passwords on all your sites, then there’s no reason to panic. It’s probably not worth the effort to start changing them all before we know which systems were affected. But if the list of these 420 000 sites becomes public, and you are a user of any of these sites, then it’s important to change your password on that site.   Safe surfing, Micke  

Aug 7, 2014
BY Micke