posted 23 days ago on techdirt
If you've paid attention to anything tangentially related to technology news over the past couple of weeks, you're probably familiar with "bendgate", the feverish reaction to the realization that Apple's newest iPhone 6 Plus includes the feature of a bending case if you accidentally sit on it or something. As an Android loyalist, these reports have been an endless source of entertainment thus far, but even that has now been trumped by Apple's reaction to the issue. Apparently the company has decided that the best response to a technology news organization's reporting on the bendy Apple phones is to threaten to freeze that publication out of future bendy phones and likely-bendy Apple events. Computer Bilde, a German site, put up a video showing the new iPhone bending and reporting on it. That's when they received a call from a local Apple guy. The German PR department of the company reacts in a disturbing way: Instead of answering the questions about why the iPhone 6 Plus is so sensitive, a manager called COMPUTER BILD and told us, that COMPUTER BILD will not get any testing devices and no invites to official events any more. How very Apple of them. It apparently is time to remind Apple that it makes products. It is not the corporate embodiment of Judge Smails threatening to keep honest reporters out of its country club. This idea that journalists who report to the public about very real issues with Apple products should no longer get access to reporting on Apple products is a strategy doomed to failure. Once the word is out that only favorable reports on Apple products are allowed, then nobody is going to trust the reports any longer. That means less sales, since people won't trust the information on the products they'll be receiving. And it won't even stop the independent reviews, any way. Computer Bilde made the point nicely in an open letter to Tim Cook. Dear Mr. Cook: Is this really how your company wants to deal with media that provide your customers with profound tests of your products? Do you really think that a withdrawal of Apple’s love and affection could have an intimidating effect on us? Luckily we do not have to rely on devices that Apple provides us with. Luckily, a lot of readers are willing to pay money for our magazine to keep us independent. So we are able to buy devices to do our tests anyway. Even devices of manufacturers that seem to fear COMPUTER BILD’s independent judgement. Even if we are quite dismayed about Apple’s reaction, we won’t give up our principles: We will continue our incorruptible tests that have the same high reputation in the german media-landscape as Apple has for its products. So far. We congratulate you to your fine new generation of iPhones, even if one of them has a minor weakness with its casing. But we are deeply disappointed about the lack of respect of your company. Nice attempt at strong-arming the press, Apple. Too bad it will accomplish nothing except to build distrust of your brand. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 23 days ago on techdirt
Techdirt has written before about so-called "fat finger" errors in the world of finance, where traders mistype and end up buying or selling huge quantities of stocks, often causing major losses to their employers. The London Evening Standard has a new fat finger story, but one with a couple of interesting twists: Share trades worth more than the size of Sweden’s economy had to be cancelled in Tokyo today after what is believed to be the biggest “fat finger” error on record. It is thought to be the most extreme example of a trader in financial markets inputting hopelessly wrong figures while working under intense pressure. The identity of the trader is not yet known. Orders for shares in 42 major Japanese companies, including household names such as Toyota, Honda, Canon and Sony, totalling 67.78 trillion yen (£381 billion [$600 billion]), were overturned, according to the Japan Securities Dealers Association. Naturally, the most striking feature of this particular fat finger is its size: $600 billion, bigger than Sweden's economy ($552 billion). The second unusual aspect is that this error cancelled sales by mistake, rather than make them. That was fortunate for the company concerned, since it probably limited the damage caused. But even more than for the cases we've written about in the past, the fact that a single trader was able to make a mistake on this extraordinary scale, and that the system did not block or even query it in any way, suggests that the trading software is appallingly designed and the management dangerously lax. The fear has to be that, without robust systems in place to stop such actions, one day a fat finger might not simply cause a company to lose a big chunk of money, but take out an entire country's economy -- or even trigger the meltdown of the world's financial system. Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 23 days ago on techdirt
A few months back, we wrote about the ridiculous story in which Duke University, ostensibly a higher-learning establishment, sued the John Wayne Estate, claiming that its "Duke Bourbon" product might somehow confuse brown-liquor drinkers into thinking that the school produced the product. This, despite the logo for Duke Bourbon including an image of John Wayne and nobody ever defaulting to thinking that a university was going to start making and marketing its own liquor. And now, with the John Wayne Estate suing for a declaratory judgment, the California court in which the claim was brought has essentially punted on the issue by using a procedural evaluation over jurisdiction. The judge applied what's known as the “effects test," which measures whether a defendant acted in a way that was wrongful and expressly aimed at affecting California and whether harm was likely to be suffered in the state. Here, Judge Carter says that Duke was aware of John Wayne Enterprises's presence in the state, but that there was no showing how Duke purposefully directed its conduct at California by filing an opposition to trademarks in Virginia. The judge added that other than one Nebraska case, "there is no basis for JWE’s contention that a defendant’s actions to protect its intellectual property rights in an administrative proceeding constitute the type of harm contemplated under the 'effects test.'" The decision may technically make sense, but damn if it wouldn't be nice for the judge to instead have spent a half an hour laughing directly in the face of Duke University's lawyers before lighting all of their paperwork on fire instead. The entire attempt to block the trademark of a bourbon by the university borders on insane. That this crap will have to go back into a different court before eventually being tossed out is too bad. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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The space race to get people to the moon and other destinations in our solar system has pretty much stalled. But a few billionaires and some really passionate hobbyists are trying to build rockets that will get people off our planet (with wildly varying success). Suborbital flights are difficult, but they're not really enough to get some serious space exploration going again. Still, we gotta start somewhere, right? Here are just a few projects that could get people into outer space on the cheap. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to build a spacecraft that can take a human passenger to an altitude of about 60 miles up. It takes two rocket scientists. Plus, a lot of crowdfunding and volunteers to get Copenhagen Suborbitals into a DIY space race on a shoestring budget. [url] Mars One may be a one-way suicide mission to Mars, but the project is still making an investment in getting its life support systems to work. Paragon Space Development Corp will design the life support systems, but Paragon's previous experience includes Biosphere 2. Uh, maybe work out the bugs in a totally enclosed system on Earth before making the jump to Mars? [url] Elon Musk is aiming to get a Mars settlement going as an insurance policy for the human race. Musk also estimates that it would take at least a million settlers to make a viable Mars colony, and even with that many people, each person's productivity would have to be incredibly high. [url] If you'd like to read more awesome and interesting stuff, check out this unrelated (but not entirely random!) Techdirt post via StumbleUpon.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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More law enforcement officials are coming forward to express their dismay at Apple's and Google's decision to encrypt cellphones by default. And the hysteria seems to be getting worse. As was recently covered, FBI director James Comey stated that no one was above the law, while failing to realize there's actually no law preventing Apple or Google from doing this. The chief of the Chicago police went even further: “Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile,” said John J. Escalante, chief of detectives for Chicago’s police department. “The average pedophile at this point is probably thinking, I’ve got to get an Apple phone.” Now, Washington DC's police chief, Cathy Lanier (who we've praised previously for her implementation and enforcement of a tough [on cops] citizen recording policy) is echoing Escalante's ridiculous statement. “This is a very bad idea,” said Cathy Lanier, chief of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, in an interview. Smartphone communication is “going to be the preferred method of the pedophile and the criminal. We are going to lose a lot of investigative opportunities.” First off, law enforcement rarely ever encounters encryption. These facts are borne out by the US Courts' annual statistics on warrant requests. That they'll encounter it more often from now on has nothing to do with the scary stories they've been telling to justify their collective freakout. Those criminals didn't use it, for the most part. And if they did, it was circumvented nearly 100% of the time. Second, implying that pedophiles are suddenly going to start buying iPhones/Androids is a non-starter. Plenty of encryption options already exist and most pedophiles and criminals already own cellphones. Police have captured plenty of criminals and pedophiles without cracking encryption. See "first off" above. Third, and this is where the irony sets in, Lanier's department is a big fan of encryption. From 2011: D.C. police became one of the latest departments to adopt the practice [encrypting police radio communications] this fall. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said recently that a group of burglars who police believe were following radio communications on their smartphones pulled off more than a dozen crimes before ultimately being arrested and that drug dealers fled a laundromat after a sergeant used his radio to call in other officers — suggesting that they, too, might have been listening in. "Whereas listeners used to be tied to stationary scanners, new technology has allowed people — and especially criminals — to listen to police communications on a smartphone from anywhere," Lanier testified at a D.C. Council committee hearing this month. "When a potential criminal can evade capture and learn, 'There's an app for that,' it's time to change our practices." Journalist wondered what sort of impact this decision would have on public safety, if only certain individuals were allowed to hear as-it-happens discussions of dangerous events. All the cops could think about was the ones that got away. Now the encryption's on the other end and the police are using both the public safety argument and counting their escaped criminals before they've actually escaped justice. I guess encryption only works for the government. All others need not apply. Lanier's statement -- combined with the DCPD's encrypted transmissions -- means she only wants to encrypt the communications of the department's "pedophiles and criminals." Now, going back to James Comey complaining about Apple and Google being above the law. Nothing that exists can legally prevent them from providing this encryption to their customers… at least for now. Surfing high on a wave of hysteria, former FBI Counsel Andrew Weissman has arrived to push for exactly that: new laws. “They have created a system that is a free-for-all for criminals,” said Weissmann, a law professor at New York University. “It’s the wrong balancing act. Having court-ordered access to telephones is essential to thwart criminal acts and terrorist acts.” Weissmann said there was little the Justice Department could do to stop the emerging policies. The companies are permitted to have encryption systems. The only way to ensure law enforcement access is for Congress to pass legislation, he said. The answer to a move prompted by the exposure of government overreach is… more government overreach. Weissman's horrendous idea will find some sympathetic ears in Congress, but not nearly as many as it would have found a few years ago. Any legislation prompted by law enforcement officials' iPedophile hallucinations will be decidedly terrible and loaded with negative side effects and collateral damage. And let's not forget that, since the beginning of criminal activity, there have always been panics about new technology placing ne'er-do-wells ahead of pursuing flatfoots. Here's one from 1922, pointed out by the ACLU's Chris Soghoian: Here's a text version: The automobile is a swift and powerful vehicle of recent development, which has multiplied by quantity production and taken possession of our highways in battalions, until the slower, animal-drawn vehicles, with their easily noted individuality, are rare. Constructed as covered vehicles to standard form in immense quantities, and with a capacity for speed rivaling express trains, they furnish for successful commission of crime a disguising means of silent approach and swift escape unknown in the history of the world before their advent. The question of their police control and reasonable search on highways or other public places is a serious question. The baffling extent to which they are successfully utilised to facilitate commission of crime of all degrees, from those against morality, chastity, and decency to robbery, rape, burglary, and murder, is a matter of common knowledge. Upon that problem a condition and not a theory confronts proper administration of our criminal laws. Law enforcement techno-panic. Dating all the way back to the "silent approach" of a 1920's-era internal combustion engine. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Earlier this year, we noted a somewhat ridiculous and cynical attempt by some German newspapers to demand payment from Google for sending them traffic via Google News -- and not just a little bit, but 11% of gross worldwide revenue on any search that showed one of their snippets. There were a few issues that we noted here: first, anyone not wanting to appear in Google News can quite easily opt-out. Second, Google News in Germany doesn't show any ads. Third, those very same newspapers were using Google's own tools to appear higher in search, suggesting that they certainly believed they were getting value out of being in Google's index. While German regulators rejected this request from the news publication industry group VG Media, Google has now decided to remove all news snippets from VG Media publications. It will still display results from those publications, but only in pure link/title format. Google claims it's doing this to "remove [the] legal risks" from ongoing legal action from VG Media, but it seems equally likely that this will also decrease the traffic to those publishers' websites. As we've discussed in the past, years back under similar circumstances in Belgium, Google simply removed the complaining publications from its index, only to have those publications freak out and beg to be let back in, exposing the hypocrisy of those publishers, insisting that what Google was doing was somehow unfair. Indeed, almost immediately, VG Media shot back that this is a form of "blackmail." According to David Meyer at GigaOm: "Google is discriminating in that they do not show snippets and thumbnails for publishers that made a claim, but they still show snippets and thumbnails from other publishers," he said. "They're trying to [apply] economic pressure." So... showing the snippets without payment is unfair and infringing. And, not showing the snippets is unfair and blackmail. Someone want to explain how any of this makes any sense other than that it's just petty corporate jealousy that Google has made a lot of money and those publishers want some of it for nothing? VG Media's spokesperson seems to honestly think that there's some sort of moral requirement for Google to both pay for and show snippets. Again from Meyer: The spokesman said VG Media was still in talks with the regulator about the case, and would add a complaint about this latest move. But how does this move harm consumers? I asked him. “Because they won’t have quality content in the future” if Google doesn’t pay for the snippets it uses, he claimed. But surely Google actually helps publishers by sending traffic their way — do the publishers really believe that anyone sees a sentence-or-two-long snippet in Google News and then goes “Eh, that’s enough, I don’t need to click through”? It's difficult to see how this is anything other than "We failed to develop our own business model, so the company that did ought to just give us money."Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 23 days ago on techdirt
Earlier this week, we wrote about the easy summary judgment issued against Grooveshark, in which the actions of the company's founders completely doomed the company in the ruling. As we noted, there were some interesting legal arguments for an operation like Grooveshark, but they were all completely undermined by the founders' actions. Jon Healey, over at the LA Times has a good take on all of this noting that the silver lining in all of this is that, at the very least, nothing in this ruling screws up the DMCA safe harbors. There were legitimate concerns -- as with many such cases -- that a court would get somewhat blinded by the "but piracy!" claims and twist things around to rule in a way that would screw up the DMCA safe harbors. However, by having founders whose activity was damning in its own right, the court didn't even have to get into a discussion of the DMCA at all. It wasn't even an issue. ...from the standpoint of other tech companies, at least the pain is going to be confined to Grooveshark and its founders, not to other companies that operate online platforms. Griesa's ruling is just the latest reminder that such companies can't hope to be protected by the DMCA if their own staff infringes. This was a very serious concern. As law professor Eric Goldman has pointed out repeatedly, there's real copyright law and file sharing copyright law, and the two aren't always related. Basically, because what many companies are doing feels wrong to some judges, they'll often twist and contort the law to call what's happening illegal, even if a straightforward reading of the statute would suggest otherwise. See the Supreme Court's ruling in the Aereo case as just one example. And there was a real risk here that the same sort of thing would happen. If Grooveshark's founders and employees were uploading a ton of music themselves, there was a fairly legitimate argument that the same sort of DMCA safe harbors that protect YouTube would also protect Grooveshark. But there was certainly a difference in feel. Many people just instinctively felt that Grooveshark's activities must be bad, without understanding the full legal arguments behind them. So, in some ways, while it's going to hurt Grooveshark's founders financially (big time) in this case, the fact that they were so over the top in their activities might actually be a good thing for the law. And, it might have some carry over benefits as well. If Grooveshark had prevailed, and the DMCA safe harbors held that the company was not directly liable for infringement done by its users, it would become Exhibit A from the legacy recording industry for why the DMCA safe harbors would need to be gutted by the upcoming attempt at copyright reform. So, in some ways, it appears that the ruling this week might actually be innovators and the DMCA safe harbors dodging a bullet.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 24 days ago on techdirt
So, by now you've heard about the various hacked and leaked photos of various celebrities, often in varying states of undress. You knew that legal action was going to follow, but... did anyone actually expect Google would be the initial target? Lawyer to the stars Marty Singer has sent a very angry, but legally shaky letter to Google, claiming the company is facing a $100 million (or more) lawsuit in failing to remove the photos. There are some oddities here. First, Singer fails to name anyone he's actually representing, just generally referring to representing "over a dozen" of the victims. From there, Singer sort of implies copyright violations, but doesn't fully go there, perhaps because it's likely that the women in question don't hold the copyright on many of the photos. In at least one case -- involving photos of Kate Upton -- it's been widely reported that Google only removed about half of the links sent in a DMCA notice from Upton's boyfriend, baseball star Justin Verlander, leading to quite reasonable speculation that Google is properly complying with the DMCA in only taking down photos where it's clear there's a legitimate copyright claim. Singer's threat letter is all over the place, partially arguing copyright infringement, partially arguing failure to follow the DMCA safe harbors and partially arguing straight up morality concerning blocking links to the images or videos containing the images. Let's be clear: it's quite reasonable for those who were victims here to be upset and seek to do something about it, but it's bizarre to pin the blame on Google, which is merely the search engine that is helping to index what other people have done. Furthermore, while it may seem appealing to ask Google to make a pure moral judgment on whether or not it's "right" for these photos to be accessible, it has no legal obligation to do so, outside of the copyright question -- and Google has a pretty good history of showing that its copyright lawyers are very quick at taking down content that they truly deem infringing. Frankly, this threat seems like a lot more bluster than legal certainty. It wouldn't surprise me to see a lawsuit eventually result -- Singer likes being in the limelight -- but it's difficult to see on what legitimate legal basis a lawsuit would be filed. It's possible that Google may have missed a legitimate copyright-covered image from a takedown, but given its rather sophisticated handling of DMCA takedown notices, it seems unlikely that Google made many mistakes on this one. This just seems like a "Steve Dallas lawsuit" in which you go through all the options of who you can sue, and then just go after the big company because it's the one that has the money. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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There were reports a few weeks ago that the European Commission has reopened its antitrust investigation into Google. The main issue is how Google promotes certain (usually internal) results in so-called "answer boxes" in a way that may hurt other sites. We've been skeptical of the idea of European bureaucrats deciding what Google's search results should look like, but earlier this year, it appeared that a settlement had been reached in which Google would point to competitors' results in some cases. Against this backdrop, a few organizations, led by Yelp and TripAdvisor have created a somewhat fascinating site and tool called Focus On The User -- a play on Google's own core philosophy of "focus on the user and all else will follow." The site makes a very compelling argument that when Google is returning opinions (i.e., ratings) rather than factual answers, that it could do a much better job than just pointing to results from Google+. That is, if you do a search on "best restaurants in San Francisco" Google will show you results as rated by Google+ user reviews. The Focus on the User site shows that rather than just relying on Google's own data, users would benefit greatly if Google used its own search algorithm to pull in results from reviews elsewhere. In short, where you might see a box up top with seven to ten reviews (all linking to Google pages), Yelp and TripAdvisor are arguing that if you just used Google's "organic" search algorithm to find the most relevant review pages, consumers get a much better experience. And they have a fair amount of data to back that up, showing a greater number of clicks in such a box (which you can test yourself via the site). As noted above, the results are compelling. Using Google's own algorithm to rank all possible reviews seems like a pretty smart way of doing things, and likely to give better results than just using Google's (much more limited) database of reviews. But here's the thing: while I completely agree that this is how Google should offer up reviews in response to "opinion" type questions, I still am troubled by the idea that this should be dictated by government bureaucrats. Frankly, I'm kind of surprised this isn't the way Google operates, and it's a bit disappointing that the company doesn't just jump on this as a solution voluntarily, rather than dragging it out and having the bureaucrats force it upon them. So while the site is fascinating, and the case is compelling, it still has this problem of getting into a very touchy territory where we're expecting government's to design the results of search engines. It seems like Yelp, TripAdvisor and others can make the case to Google and the public directly that this is a better way to do things, rather than having the government try to order Google to use it.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Blackout rules in sports: they're really stupid. Sure, perhaps there was some semblance of logic at one time behind the theory that if the stadium seats weren't filled, a team would pull a game off of television to encourage attendance, but the point is that in the age of massive television deals that are so much more important for a team or league's revenue compared with stadium sales, such that some teams try to fake their way into televising games, finding excuses to keep games off of the money-machine that is television is just plain silly. What you may not know is that the leagues have had a federal partner in blacking out games for quite a while in the FCC. While the NFL is really the only league left that is bothering with blackout rules, they've now lost that partner as the FCC has unanimously voted to repeal its support for sports blackouts. Today, the Federal Communications Commission voted 5-0 to repeal the sports blackout rule. Currently, the NFL will not allow broadcasters in a team’s home market to air games that have not sold out. This unfriendly practice is a matter of private contract between the league and the broadcasters, restricting what a sports fan can watch in the process. The FCC’s sports blackout rule prevented cable systems from carrying those games, as well. Although the repeal of the sports blackout rule is no guarantee that cable viewers will be able to see blacked-out games, now the NFL will have to arrange for blackouts solely through private contracting. The rule applies to any sports league, but only the NFL currently blacks-out games on local broadcast. This, believe it or not, is an important step. Not because it represents any dramatic shift in televising games in and of itself, but because it's the beginning of the lift on blackout restrictions in general. Television blackouts due to attendance are the low-hanging fruit when it comes to blackouts in general, but if this starts building momentum such that the growing masses of cable-cutters can finally get local sports games with their internet packages somewhere down the road, it's a big deal. Because, as I've argued before, the only dam holding back an overflowing river of cable-cutters is professional and college sports. Take that away and the river runs wild. This FCC vote, by the way, comes at the behest of a petition from Public Knowledge. The vote follows a petition Public Knowledge filed with its allies that argued the FCC should end this archaic rule as an unnecessary intervention in the marketplace on behalf of the NFL, one of the most powerful sports leagues in the world. The following statement can be attributed to John Bergmayer, Senior Staff Attorney at Public Knowledge: “We’re pleased that our petition, the voices of sports fans and TV viewers, and the evidence has persuaded the FCC to act on the public’s behalf. Private parties should not be able to use government regulations as an excuse to limit fans’ access to their local teams." To be clear, local broadcasts can still be blacked out by the NFL, but that won't last much longer. Already there are rumblings from the NFL that indicate they realize that their product is far better consumed on television, and that fantasy football is pushing a larger consumption of multiple games throughout a day, rather than driving dedicated fans to a single stadium for the day. Good on the FCC for getting this right, even though they probably should have made this move a few decades ago.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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With all the insane intellectual property court rulings we see 'round these parts, it's helpful to highlight when the courts manage to get things right. Trademark, in particular, is a source of frustration, given how often we see court rulings that err on the side of protectionism rather than liberal use of language. One Illinois court recently got things right in dismissing a suit against Coca-Cola over its Coke Zero drink, which was brought by Blue Spring Water, makers of a water product called Naturally Zero. U.S. District Judge John Lee said that the “Naturally Zero” label straightaway conveys to consumers that the product is without calories or additives, and therefore not suggestive enough to supply a trademark that is inherently distinctive for a beverage label. It's a distinction too often lost in trademark discussions: terms that are purely descriptive are not protected by trademark law. And it's easy to understand why. If I decide to buck the potato chip trend and make chips out of carrots, calling my product "Carrot Chips", that term isn't protected by trademark in the same way it would be if my product was called "Dark Helmet's Disgusto-Snack Of Gross." In addition to problems with the product name itself, there were also issues with Blue Spring Water's rather haphazard approach to its own product. It was later stated that even if the trademark was protectable, the Canadian company had abandoned the mark back in 2004 after failing to reintroduce the “Naturally Zero’ products onto the marketplace. The company had only produced about 500,000 bottles of the “Naturally Zero” water. In 2010 when Blue Spring began using the ‘Naturally Zero” label again, Coca-Cola had already introduced several “Zero” products onto the market including Coke Zero and Sprite Zero with trademarks. So nice try, silly water company. You're no match for a caffeinated powerhouse. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Paper airplanes have advanced quite a bit -- with added motors and smartphone controls or fancy new folding techniques that can be found all over the internet. Paper airplanes can become an incredibly complex hobby if you really have the motivation to take them to the next level. If you have the free time, try out some of these paper airplane projects. A paper airplane has flown 82 miles, launched from a helium balloon at a altitude of over 96,000 feet. We previously noted a paper airplane launched from 89,000 feet in 2010. [url] If you want to make a paper airplane fly "forever" indoors, you need a chair and a hair dryer and the patience to throw a paper airplane dozens of times until you get it just right. This video demonstrates the phenomenon of dynamic soaring which is used by birds and glider pilots to gain some energy under the right conditions. [url] There's a robot made from Lego that folds and "throws" a paper airplane. This is cool, but it might be cooler to see a robot arm try to beat the human throwing record of a paper airplane (226 feet, 10 inches). [url] If you'd like to read more awesome and interesting stuff, check out this unrelated (but not entirely random!) Techdirt post via StumbleUpon.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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A year ago, Techdirt wrote about a new unit set up by the City of London Police to tackle crimes involving intellectual monopolies. Since then, there have been a flood of posts about its increasingly disproportionate actions, including seizing domain names, shutting down websites, inserting ads on websites, and arresting someone for running an anti-censorship proxy. This makes a PCPro interview with the head of that unit, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Andy Fyfe, particularly valuable, since it helps shed a little light on the unit's mindset. It's well-worth reading the whole thing, but here's a key section: I'm very interested in having a debate in the media about how much policing of the internet people want. At the moment, there’s almost no regulation and no policing of the internet and that means members of the public -- such as you and I -- when we're trying to use it for shopping or to do internet shopping, actually don’t have anyone looking out for our interests to make sure that the people we’re dealing with at the other end of the line are legitimate or reasonable or looking after our data properly. In the end, that might mean that the internet becomes completely ungovernable, and that no one can dare operate on it at all, no one can dare do their shopping or banking on it. DCI Fyfe seems to be talking about a different Internet from the one most of us use, which is not just subject to regulations, but to multiple regulations because of the way overlapping jurisdictions are involved. Indeed, because of this, the Internet arguably has far more policing than the physical world. Moreover, in terms of "looking out for our interests," the Internet is unique in that its users are able to do that for themselves using online rating systems, reviews left on websites and general comments on social networks. Word about dodgy online operators gets out incredibly quickly, so in this respect, we are probably far safer online than in the physical world where such mechanisms are rarely available. However, it is true that there is a threat to online shopping and banking, but not the one DCI Fyfe is probably thinking about. Buying and selling goods, or transferring money online, is relatively safe thanks to strong encryption that is now routinely available for such operations. Or rather, it was relatively safe until spy agencies like the NSA and GCHQ decided to undermine the entire basis of these activities for their own purely selfish ends, and disregarding the collateral damage they would cause to general users of the Internet. Despite the harm caused by such actions, DCI Fyfe thinks a time may come when the government will want to interfere even more: That time might come, but it's how much interference the public will tolerate, because clearly a lot of people believe there should be no state interference at all on the internet, but that leads to lawlessness and anarchy. The growing crusade of DCI Fyfe's unit against online sites purely on the say-so of the copyright industry shows that he doesn't really care what "a lot of people" think about state interference. And when it comes to "anarchy and lawlessness," acting without court orders seems to fit that bill rather well. Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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We already discussed Eric Holder's absolute failure on issues related to the press and media, but a great article by Tim Wu in the New Yorker details how Holder's legacy is littered with him totally failing the digital world through a combination of ignorance, neglect and simply poor decision-making. Wu points to the prosecutions of both Chelsea Manning and Aaron Swartz as examples, noting Holder's awful response when asked about the Swartz prosecution: Holder himself did not run that prosecution, and cannot be blamed directly for it. But, in the aftermath of Swartz’s suicide, he was presented with an opportunity to step back and examine what had happened. He might have taken a careful look at how the Justice Department was enforcing the underlying law, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which, as I and others have argued, is among the worst and most dangerous sections of United States federal law. If he had, he might have noticed that the Swartz prosecution wasn’t the first of its kind and wouldn’t be the last, and pushed for better enforcement guidelines for federal prosecutors. Holder did not take that path—the kind of reflection, notably, that he would demand of the Ferguson police department. Instead, he blandly defended his prosecutors, and even testified before the Senate that prosecuting Swartz was “a good use of prosecutorial discretion.” In that moment, he lost a good deal of the tech community’s goodwill and respect. On the question of Ed Snowden and surveillance, Wu notes that Holder failed to uphold the Constitution in blocking the abuses, but rather appears to have signed off on them. Holder didn’t initiate the bulk collection of phone or e-mail records; nor did he run the N.S.A. But Holder, as the Administration’s top lawyer for half a dozen years, nonetheless bears responsibility for these gross and repeated violations of Constitutional principles. It is ultimately the Justice Department’s duty to stand up for the Constitution when other parts of government want to abandon it, and this Holder failed to do. There's more in the article as well, but the key point seems to be that Holder just seemed fundamentally unconcerned about digital rights, and that's a problem in an increasingly digital world: Mainly, in the end, Holder seems to have not truly grasped that our rights matter online as well as offline. He never appeared sensitive to the idea that having our e-mails read by the government can be as intrusive and as unpleasant as having government agents rifle through our desks. Whatever the reason, and even if his commitment to civil rights did not waver, his disregard for digital rights was blatant and painful for those who looked to and hoped for an Obama Administration that would become the much promised “tech Presidency.” The fact that the rumored "leading" choice to replace Holder is current Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the former top litigator for both the MPAA and RIAA -- who handled the lawsuits against Grokster, YouTube and Jammie Thomas, among others, doesn't exactly bode well that Holder's successor will be much of a champion of digital rights either. There are, however, some other choices on the table apparently, and it would be nice if future attorneys general actually recognized the importance of digital rights as well.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 24 days ago on techdirt
The EFF has put together a rather astounding bit of investigative reporting, digging into a program called "ComputerCOP" that is apparently handed out (in locally branded versions) by various law enforcement agencies -- generally local police, but also the US Marshals -- claiming to be software to "protect your children" on the computer. What the EFF investigation actually found is that the software is little more than spyware with weak to non-existent security that likely makes kids and your computer a lot less safe. Aren't you glad your tax dollars are being spent on it? The way ComputerCOP works is neither safe nor secure. It isn’t particularly effective either, except for generating positive PR for the law enforcement agencies distributing it. As security software goes, we observed a product with a keystroke-capturing function, also called a “keylogger,” that could place a family’s personal information at extreme risk by transmitting what a user types over the Internet to third-party servers without encryption. That means many versions of ComputerCOP leave children (and their parents, guests, friends, and anyone using the affected computer) exposed to the same predators, identity thieves, and bullies that police claim the software protects against. Furthermore, by providing a free keylogging program—especially one that operates without even the most basic security safeguards—law enforcement agencies are passing around what amounts to a spying tool that could easily be abused by people who want to snoop on spouses, roommates, or co-workers. The software is ancient -- dating back about 15 years -- and it doesn't look like it's improved much over the years. Even the interface looks outdated. And it doesn't appear much actual thought has been put into the product and whether or not it does anything to actually keep people safe. Instead, from all appearances, it sounds like the organization behind it is just looking to figure out ways to get taxpayer money from law enforcement, promising "cybersecurity" when it's actually making things worse. The more innocuous, but still pointless part of the tool is the "search" feature: The tool allows the user to review recent images and videos downloaded to the computer, but it will also scan the hard drive looking for documents containing phrases in ComputerCOP’s dictionary of thousand of keywords related to drugs, sex, gangs, and hate groups. While that feature may sound impressive, in practice the software is unreliable. On some computer systems, it produces a giant haystack of false positives, including flagging items as innocuous as raw computer code. On other systems, it will only produce a handful of results while typing keywords such as "drugs" into Finder or File Explorer will turn up a far larger number of hits. While the marketing materials claim that this software will allow you to view what web pages your child visits, that's only true if the child is using Internet Explorer or Safari. The image search will potentially turn up tens of thousands of hits because it can't distinguish between images children have downloaded and the huge collection of icons and images that are typically part of the software on your computer. Sophisticated software, this is not. Then there's the keylogger/spyware bit. ComputerCOP’s KeyAlert keylogging program does require installation and, if the user isn’t careful, it will collect keystrokes from all users of the computer, not just children. When running on a Windows machine, the software stores full key logs unencrypted on the user’s hard drive. When running on a Mac, the software encrypts these key logs on the user's hard drive, but these can be decrypted with the underlying software's default password. On both Windows and Mac computers, parents can also set ComputerCOP up to email them whenever chosen keywords are typed. When that happens, the software transmits the key logs, unencrypted, to a third-party server, which then sends the email. KeyAlert is in included in the "deluxe," "premium," and "presentation" versions of the software. The lack of encryption is somewhat astounding in this day and age: Security experts universally agree that a user should never store passwords and banking details or other sensitive details unprotected on one’s hard drive, but that’s exactly what ComputerCOP does by placing everything someone types in a folder. The email alert system further weakens protections by logging into a third-party commercial server. When a child with ComputerCOP installed on their laptop connects to public Wi-Fi, any sexual predator, identity thief, or bully with freely available packet-sniffing software can grab those key logs right out of the air. Incredibly, when EFF approached the maker of ComputerCOP, the guy behind it, Stephen DelGiorno tried to deny any problems: “ComputerCOP software doesn’t give sexual predator [sic] or identity thieves more access to children’s computers, as our .key logger [sic] works with the existing email and Internet access services that computer user has already engaged,” he wrote via email. He further said that ComputerCOP would update the software's licensing agreement to say "that no personal information is obtained nor stored by ComputerCOP." As the EFF notes, this is both unacceptable and "fairly nonsensical." EFF tested the software and found, of course, that it's quite easy to snatch passwords via the software. The company appears to have some other difficulties with the truth as well: In February, DelGiorno told EFF the keystroke-logging feature was a recent addition to the software and that most of the units he’s sold did not include the feature. That doesn’t seem to jibe with ComputerCOP’s online footprint. Archive.org’s WayBack Machine shows that keystroke capture was advertised on ComputerCOP.com as far back as 2001. Although some versions of ComputerCOP do not have the keylogger function, scores of press releases and regional news articles from across the country discuss the software’s ability to capture a child’s conversations. Also, this: In investigating ComputerCOP, we also discovered misleading marketing material, including a letter of endorsement purportedly from the U.S. Department of Treasury, which has now issued a fraud alert over the document. ComputerCOP further claims an apparently nonexistent endorsement by the American Civil Liberties Union and an expired endorsement from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. You can see the Treasury Department fraud alert here, in which it states: "A falsified letter from the Treasury Executive Office for Asset Forfeiture is being circulated indicating that the Treasury approves or endorses this product: it does not." It also includes a link to a sample letter, which uses multiple fonts (which is common among faked letters). In fact, EFF got DelGiorno to admit to changing an original letter, saying he "recreated the letterhead to make it more presentable" and highlighted certain text. He claims that there was an original letter from 2001 (the date on the letter getting passed around has the date removed), but the Treasury Department has issued the fraud report and says it's unable to find the original document that ComputerCOP claims was sent. There are some other dubious issues related to the software and getting police departments to buy it (often with federal grants). Here's one example from the county where I grew up: Since 2007, Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco’s office in New York, where ComputerCOP is based, has bought 43,000 copies of the software—a fact trumpeted in DeMarco’s reelection campaign materials. ComputerCOP’s parent company directly donated to DeMarco’s campaign at least nine times over the same period. As EFF notes, ComputerCOP specifically promotes the tool as an "election and fundraising tool" telling politicians and law enforcement folks that handing it out will make them look good and even sending out camera crews "to record an introduction video with the head of the department." The whole thing is incredibly sketchy. It's fairly ridiculous that at the same time that law enforcement folks are ridiculously claiming that encryption "harms" children, so many are actively out there spending taxpayer money on, and then distributing, an app that actively puts children (and everyone else) at risk while pretending to be done in the name of safety. If you happen to have a computer where ComputerCOP was installed, the EFF has handy details on removing it.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 24 days ago on techdirt
For years now, we've been talking about TV watchers cutting the cord and preferring to go internet-only. There are a variety of reasons for this, such as the price of cable TV these days, which keeps rising at a rapid pace, and also the simple fact that the internet provides a much better value for many people. But it turns out it's not just the viewing pubic that is cutting the cord. A bunch of smaller/regional cable companies are dropping TV from their offerings as well -- and the reasons are similar: the cost to offer TV channels keeps going up and up, and focusing on just internet service is a better deal all around. In some cases, cable companies are simply dropping expensive channels, and in other cases, they're giving up on TV altogether. From the WSJ: The latest is Suddenlink Communications, an operator that serves about one million customers, which says it plans to drop Viacom Inc.'s TV channels, including Nickelodeon and MTV, at midnight Tuesday. Suddenlink says it has already signed long-term contracts with other channels to fill the Viacom channels' slots. [....] After seven years of selling customers cable-TV services, BTC Broadband got out of that business late last year and now provides just broadband and phone services. The Oklahoma company, which had been serving about 420 TV subscribers, decided it simply couldn't afford to keep paying rising fees to carry a basic lineup of channels including ESPN, TNT and MTV. The article notes that companies offering cable TV to about 5 million current customers probably will no longer be offering such video services, almost entirely due to cost. Those companies are finding that it's just a better deal for them to focus on offering internet services as well. We've been arguing for years that the TV business is unsustainable, but the big media companies still see it as a last beacon of hope as other parts of their business have been chipped away. Because of that, they're increasingly relying on it (hence the rapidly increasing fees). But it's unsustainable, in large part because the internet undermines the whole thing. While we don't hear it that much any more, a decade ago, the talk of the industry was the vaunted "triple play" offering: "voice, video and data." Some analysts would add in a fourth item of "wireless" to make a "grand slam" (mixing up their baseball metaphors). But as we've been saying for a decade, that was always misleading: "voice and video" are data. You don't need "voice, video and data." You just need "data." Wireless is just a way to deliver the data. But the internet enables all of those things. The greater access that can be offered at greater speeds, unencumbered, the less specialized services for "voice and video" matter. The traditional phone business is already on the way out. Video is next. These small players leaving the video business are just an early warning shot, just like the cord cutters. It's all data. But this is also why the net neutrality fight is so important -- and why the big players like Comcast (while pretending otherwise) are so desperate to control things and block true net neutrality. The longer the big old media companies can keep the highly inefficient system of cable TV alive, the more money it can squeeze out of it -- and there's a LOT of money being squeezed. It won't die any time soon, but it will die off. That's just the natural progression of things when you realize that it's all just data, and a pipe that is optimized just to "deliver data" is always going to win out in the end.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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We recently wrote about the hearing of Cecilia Malmström, likely to be the next trade commissioner for the European Union. On the same day, Günther Oettinger, the candidate for the post responsible for "digital economy and society," was also quizzed by members of the European Parliament. His replies were mostly pretty staid -- previously, he was the energy commissioner, and seemed more at home among gas and oil pipes than the series of tubes that go to make up the Internet -- but one comment has drawn much criticism, as the Guardian reports here: Former EU energy commissioner Günther Oettinger, 61, is used to accusations that he is more digitally naïve than digitally native by now. But at a hearing in front of the European parliament, the EU’s next commissioner designate for digital economy and society raised some serious questions about his suitability. During a three-hour grilling by MEPs in Brussels, Oettinger said it would not be his job to protect stars "stupid enough to take a nude photo of themselves and put it online” -- seemingly unaware that the recent leak of celebrities’ nude photographs had come about as a result of a targeted hacking attack. Julia Reda, the Pirate Party's representative in the European Parliament, wrote a fiery post pointing out why that comment was so wrong: Let's recap the incident he's referring to: Recently, private photos of female celebrities were published against their will. Far from what Oettinger is suggesting, they didn't "put the photos online". The most likely sources of the photos were cloud-based phone backups. The women might not even have been aware of the backups' existence, since they are created automatically in the background on many phones. It appears that attackers were able to break their encryption due to security failures, like a service allowing an unlimited number of different passwords to be tried out in rapid succession or granting access after posing "security questions" with guessable or obtainable answers. One of the victims was underage when the published photos were taken. If you manage to look beyond the tabloid celebrity/sex angle, the statement is unbelievable: The person applying to be in charge of shoring up trust in the internet so that Europeans do more business online just victim-blamed people whose personal data was accessed and spread without authorization. He placed the moral blame for that crime squarely on the victims rather than the perpetrators. Although that incident caught people's attention, there were plenty of other things to be worried about in Oettinger's replies. Aside from an evident lack of familiarity with the digital world -- something that can be rectified, one hopes, given time and good advisers -- there were indications that he is likely to see the Internet through an industrial prism, with its users little more than passive consumers of products sold by online businesses. Here, for example, is Euractiv's translation of his reply to a question about the major reform of copyright in the EU, which is one of the key tasks facing him if he is appointed: "I stand for reliable protection of copyright," Oettinger said. "We must adequately protect the creator, so these creators will still exist tomorrow. On the other hand, users in the digital world are interested in gaining access to all cultural products." This requires finding a delicate balance, Oettinger said. "I will commit to working on a draft law, finding a balance for European copyright law in the context of the digital world," the Commissioner designate said. Pretty generic stuff, with no hint that Internet users might themselves be creators of materials that they are happy to share, without needing to worry about "protection." That suggests Oettinger's idea of "balance" is likely to be skewed heavily in favor of the copyright industry. In other words, a rare opportunity to move on the debate about copyright in the digital world by looking at things from a fresh viewpoint, and trying out some new ideas, has almost certainly been squandered. Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 25 days ago on techdirt
When the US finally set up some "rules" for its extrajudicial killing-via-drones (after years of no rules at all, which allowed the CIA to "acquire a taste for killing people with drones"), one of the "rules" was that drone bombs wouldn't be used unless there was a "near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured." As President Obama noted, this was "the highest standard we can set" to avoid civilian casualties via drones. This high standard upset some bloodthirsty hawks like Rep. Mike Rogers, who saw things like actually trying to prevent civilian casualties as unnecessary "red tape." And, in fact, soon after the rules were in place, the Obama administration itself started realizing that it didn't really like the restrictions it put on itself. So it's just going to ignore them. Last week, we wrote about how the administration has been redefining pretty much everything to justify the attacks on Syria, including what is meant by "civilian." However, even with that new definition, they've run into some very obvious problems: namely that there's increasing evidence that (despite repeated denials) the bombings did, in fact, kill civilians. No problem, apparently, for the Obama administration, which has now decided that the very rules it set up in the past to avoid killing civilians with drones... no longer matter. Basically, it looks like the Obama administration just added a big fat asterisk to the "near-certainty" standard for civilian deaths, whereby those rules can be ignored... because the Obama administration says "this is different." At the same time, however, Hayden said that a much-publicized White House policy that President Obama announced last year barring U.S. drone strikes unless there is a “near certainty” there will be no civilian casualties — "the highest standard we can meet," he said at the time — does not cover the current U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. The “near certainty” standard was intended to apply “only when we take direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities,’ as we noted at the time,” Hayden said in an email. “That description — outside areas of active hostilities — simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.” It's not much of a rule when you can exempt it based on... deciding to exempt it.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 25 days ago on techdirt
Steven Aftergood at the FAS (Federation of American Scientists) Secrecy Blog came across this interesting redaction of mundane information while perusing the "Studies in Intelligence" journals recently released by the CIA. In an article [pdf link] touting the purchase of a product that would forever change the world of the CIA's in-house video production department, the actual purchase price has been redacted. If you can't read/see the picture, it says: We bought our first Commodore Amiga in 1987, for less than [REDACTED] including software. Twenty-seven years later, this dollar amount still can only be speculated on. (Aftergood prices it out with Wikipedia's help.) It couldn't have been much, though. The preceding paragraph states: We did not have a big budget, so we were tempted to buy the system with petty cash. Does the CIA actually believe some sort of irreparable rift in the National Security Complex might occur if this dollar amount from three decades ago (unadjusted for inflation) was made public? Probably not. Aftergood theorizes that it's a blanket exemption used to redact more sensitive dollar amounts and this innocent cost just became collateral damage during the rush to declassify several dozen documents in response to an FOIA lawsuit court order. CIA seems to have adopted a declassification rule dictating that all of its expenditures, no matter how trivial, shall be withheld from disclosure, except in extraordinary cases (or the occasional mistake). The Agency might go on to argue that such a rule actually facilitates disclosure by expediting the declassification review process. That’s because instead of needing to pause to consider the potential ramifications of any individual spending disclosure, the Agency can proceed more quickly by simply withholding all such figures. So, there's the excuse for over-redaction, even if it isn't much of one. Aftergood points out that efforts have been made to scale back overbroad classification and redactions since 1997, but little if anything has come of those attempts -- part of the reason why so many FOIA requests end in lawsuits. Also of note: the author's adoration of the new technology leads to the innocent Amiga being used for evil. We are experimenting with photo enhancement and colorization of black-and-white photography. Future Executive Summaries will include "Turnerized" ground photos. While this CIA doc is good for a few laughs at the agency's overprotective tendencies, it must be noted that these documents stem from former CIA agent Jeffrey Scudder's FOIA request -- a request that ended his career and saw his house raided by the FBI, which seized every electronic device it came across. The CIA destroyed the life of a 19-year employee who had served the agency in Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq in order to withhold things like a three-decade-old computer purchase. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 25 days ago on techdirt
Five years ago, Techdirt reported that a request to the UK government to provide a copyright exception for mashups was rejected. Since then, we've been reporting on the UK's very slow progress in updating its copyright laws by bringing in various changes and exceptions. An article in the Daily Telegraph points out that there is a big problem with the new exception for parody, caricature or pastiche (found via @copyrightgirl): Under a new exception to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998, which comes into force on Wednesday, people will be allowed to re-use copyright material "for the purposes of parody, caricature or pastiche" without having to ask permission of the original author first. There is an important caveat. If a parodist is taken to court, it will be up to a judge to decide whether the disputed parody is sufficiently funny. A document from the UK government explains (pdf): In broad terms, parody imitates a work for humorous or satirical effect, commenting on the original work, its subject, author, style, or some other target. Leaving aside the fact that judges tend to be somewhat advanced in years, and are therefore likely to have a very different idea from young creative artists of what "funny" means, there is also the point that this narrow definition excludes a huge class of mashups that aren't even intended to be funny, just creative. As Mike pointed out recently in his article on Kutiman, it's all too easy for this brilliant use of elements taken from elsewhere to be seen as "infringing." The fact that the UK's exceptions do not permit such kinds of originality shows how much its new copyright is still stuck in the past. Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 25 days ago on techdirt
We've often discussed the complete farce that airport security has become since 9/11. Security theater that appears to be a performance art piece on how dumb government can get isn't something we should be looking to export, but it seems like many countries throughout the planet have incorporated many of the reactionary tactics you can find in the States. Take, for instance, the story about how a guy in Australia who accidentally walked in the wrong direction while paying too much attention to his iPad shut down a terminal and delayed flights for an hour. On Saturday morning, a man got off a plane at Sydney Airport in Australia and was so enchanted by the fascinating content on his iPad that he walked into a domestic terminal without bothering to go through security. This event was captured on CCTV and unnerved officials so much that they evacuated passengers. Flights were delayed for around an hour. One also wonders about security at Sydney Airport. Australia is currently under high alert after its prime minister, Tony Abbott, declared that a terrorist attack on his country was "likely," even though his security services hadn't discovered any "particular plots." Terrorism is an issue that should be taken seriously, but if the civilized world is going to simply give up so much sense as to let a guy accidentally walking the wrong direction to essentially shut down an airport for an hour, then we might as well just admit defeat in our own minds. I see people pulling this oblivious move on my city's streets every damn day. It's annoying, sure, but it's fairly easy to determine that these people aren't going to be blowing up any buildings any time soon. Well, maybe after they beat that Candy Crush level, but certainly not before. In the meantime, it's been over a decade, so we can all just calm down a bit when it comes to pretending to do airport security? Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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As we've noted, the EU Data Protection Regulation has seen some of the fiercest lobbying in the history of the European Union. That's because key US Internet companies are worried that stricter controls on taking personal data out of the EU might adversely affect their business models, which are largely based on using that data quite freely. The human rights organization Access has been following this closely, and has made several freedom of information requests to both the US and EU authorities in an attempt to find out who exactly has been trying to weaken the Regulation and how. A recent Access blog post revealed that as well as many heavily-redacted documents, one interesting email was provided in its entirety: The email is between staff working at the [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] of the [US] Department of Commerce. The email makes reference to the drafting of one of the lobby documents the Obama administration produced to influence the outcome of the data protection reform package (read EDRi’s analysis on the paper here). This is one of the many documents which likely contributed to a diluting of the Data Protection Regulation even before the proposal had been made public. The email indicates that Commissioner Malmström and/or her cabinet had been sharing information with the U.S. Mission in the E.U., including appropriate times to publish the lobby document, information about internal politics within the Commission, and concerns about how the proposal for a Data Protection Directive could conflict with E.U. and U.S. Law Enforcement interests. That's pretty shocking since, if true, it means that one of the most important departments of the European Commission, headed by the senior politician Cecilia Malmström, was actively working to weaken the proposed Regulation. According to Access: For many who have been following the E.U. privacy reform debate closely, this trans-Atlantic cooperation was an open secret. However, until now, it has not been possible to demonstrate DG [Directorate-General] Home's maneuvers. Beyond the implications for the Data Protection Reform, the contents of the acquired document give cause for concern about Ms. Malmström’s suitability for leading EU negotiations with the USA on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), given that she has recently been chosen E.U. Commissioner-designate for Trade. That last comment refers to the fact that Malmström, the current head of the department involved, DG Home, and thus with ultimate responsibility for her staff's actions, has been proposed as the new EU commissioner for trade, who would therefore take over the negotiation of TAFTA/TTIP from Karel De Gucht. Naturally, the possibility that her department was colluding with the US side to undermine data protection in the EU would not inspire confidence in her for this new role. As part of her appointment process as trade commissioner, Malmström was questioned by Members of the European Parliament during a three-hour session on Monday. As well as being asked about key issues like corporate sovereignty -- she said that she won't take it out of CETA, but doesn't exclude the possibility of removing ISDS from TTIP -- she was also challenged on the allegations from Access, and replied as follow: I have read those allegations; I totally reject them. I have always defended the European data protection proposals internally and externally. These are based on misconception or on lies and I think I have shown to this Parliament and other committees that I can negotiate with the United States tough agreements, where we stand up for European values, and I will certainly continue to do so. So I totally reject false allegations based on alleged leaked emails. I have always stood up for this formally, publicly and in all informal discussions. Access has now replied to her statements (pdf), pointing out: You have systematically refused to comment on "these allegations" from "a leaked email". The document in question, referenced as "JN 656", is neither an allegation nor a leak. It was legally acquired by Access on July 14, 2014, through a freedom of information request. Access then went on: The clear implication of your statement is that the email in question is not genuine. We therefore demand an immediate clarification: Are you accusing Access or the US Department of Commerce of having falsified a document? Although it seems likely that Malmström will be confirmed as the new trade commissioner, it also looks like this story will rumble on for a while yet. How it will end is anyone's guess. Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+ Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Blue Spike LLC is a patent litigation factory. At one point, it filed over 45 cases in two weeks. It has sued a who's who of technology companies, ranging from giants to startups, Adobe to Zeitera. Blue Spike claims not to be a troll, but any legitimate business it has pales in comparison to its patent litigation. It says it owns a "revolutionary technology" it refers to as "signal abstracting." On close inspection, however, its patents1 turn out to be nothing more than a nebulous wish list. Blue Spike's massive litigation campaign is a perfect example of how vague and abstract software patents tax innovation. The basic idea behind Blue Spike's patents is creating a digital fingerprint (which the patents refer to as an "abstract") of a file that allows it to be compared to other files (e.g. comparing audio files to see if they are the same song). In very general terms, the patents describe creating a "reference generator," an "object locator," a "feature selector," a "comparing device," and a "recorder." You will be amazed to learn that these five elements "may be implemented with software." That task, however, is left for the reader. Even worse, Blue Spike has refused to define the key term in its patents: "abstract." In a recent filing, it wrote that even though the term "abstract" is "a central component to each of the patents," a single definition of this term is "impossible to achieve." This is a remarkable admission. How are defendants (or the public, for that matter) supposed to know if they infringe a patent when the central claim term is impossible to define? This is a perfect illustration of a major problem with software patents: vague and abstract claim language that fails to inform the public about patent scope. Admitting that the key claim term in your patent is "impossible" to define is probably not a great litigation strategy. And the defendants in some of Blue Spike's cases have already protested that this means the patents are invalid. The defendants should win this argument (especially since a recent Supreme Court decision tightened the standards applied to vague and ambiguous patents). Though regardless of whether the defendants prevail, Blue Spike's litigation campaign has already imposed massive costs. Blue Spike's patents illustrate another major problem with software patents: vague descriptions of the "invention" that provide no practical help for someone trying to build a useful implementation. This is why many software engineers hold patents in low regard. As one programmer told This American Life, even his own patents were little more than "mumbo jumbo, which nobody understands, and which makes no sense from an engineering standpoint." You can judge for yourself, but we contend that Blue Spike's patents consist similarly of little more than legalese and hand waving. Real products take hard work. A commercially successful product like the Shazam app (one of Blue Spike's many targets) is likely to consist of tens of thousands lines of code. Actually writing and debugging that code can require months of effort from dozens of engineers (not to mention the fundraising, marketing, and other tasks that go into making a real-world product successful). In contrast, it's easy to suggest that someone create a "comparison device" that "may be implemented with software." Last month, we selected a bizarre patent to illustrate that the Patent Office conducts a cursory review of applications. In contrast, this month's winner is not so unusual. In fact, Blue Spike's patents are typical of the kind of software patent that we see in litigation. That such a low-quality patent family could fuel over 100 cases is a stark illustration of the problem with software patents. Dishonorable mentions: US 8,838,476 Systems and methods to provide information and connect people for real time communications (a patent on presenting an advertisement at the outset of a "telephonic connection") US 8,838,479 System and method for enabling an advertisement to follow the user to additional web pages (Lots of patentese that says put an ad in a frame and keep the frame constant as the rest of the page changes. Awesome.) US 8,818,932 Method and apparatus for creating a predictive model (this patent claims to apply the "scientific method" to "the problem of predicting and preventing violence against U.S. and friendly forces" and includes hopelessly vague claim language such as "verifying causal links" and "utilizing the social models to … predict future behavior") Reposted from the Electronic Frontier Foundation Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 25 days ago on techdirt
We've covered plenty of strange and interesting input devices, and usually, the aim of these things is to simplify and make it faster to input information into our technological gadgets. Sometimes, though, you can only simplify a user interface so much, and it's still really, really complicated. Designers can "make things as simple as possible, but not simpler" -- and here are just a few examples of some interfaces that enable an amazing amount of input choices. The Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog is not your average joystick, and it's not cheap, either. This game controller is not for button-mashers. It has thousands upon thousands of possible inputs for the most complex flight simulators, and it will definitely take some time to learn how to use. [url] The Ableton Push makes digital music seemingly easy to create on a keyboard that has all kinds of hardware UI features. It looks like the 80s game Simon on steroids, and it literally demonstrates what it means to have a lot of bells and whistles. [url] Formula One steering wheels are a bit more complicated than your typical sedan's instrument panel. Ferrari test driver Marc Gene briefly explains the various buttons and knobs on his personalized steering wheel, and it looks like it could be a bit of a distraction while driving at high speeds. [url] If you'd like to read more awesome and interesting stuff, check out this unrelated (but not entirely random!) Techdirt post via StumbleUpon.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 25 days ago on techdirt
The FBI's Next Generation Identification (NGI) database has been discussed here several times, thanks to its "expeditious" blend of criminal and non-criminal data, its postponed-forever Privacy Impact Assessment the agency has been promising since 2008, the limited, four-state rollout of facial recognition software with a 20% error rate, and its peculiar exclusion of DOJ/law enforcement employees from its lifelong criminal database monitoring. It appears the FBI isn't satisfied with the wealth of biometric information it already has access to. It's grabbed everything external it can possibly get (faces, distinctive marks, fingerprints, civil/criminal records, voice recordings, iris scans [coming soon!]). Now, it's coming for what's inside you. The FBI is preparing to accelerate the collection of DNA profiles for the government's massive new biometric identification database. Developers of portable DNA analysis machines have been invited to a Nov. 13 presentation to learn about the bureau's vision for incorporating their technology into the FBI's new database. So-called rapid DNA systems can draw up a profile in about 90 minutes. DNA has been an integral part of criminal investigations for a number of years now and there's no question it has played an important role both in securing convictions and exonerating the falsely accused. But what the FBI is proposing is adding input from lab-in-a-box setups that return pass/fail DNA matches in a relative instant. Rapid DNA analysis can be performed by cops in less than two hours, rather than by technicians at a scientific lab over several days. The benefit for law enforcement is that an officer can run a cheek swab on the spot or while an arrestee is in temporary custody. If there is a database match, they can then move to lock up the suspect immediately. What used to take days in a secure, sterile lab now can apparently be accomplished in the "field" in a couple of hours. All technological improvements aside, this would appear to be a much less reliable method. Field drug testing kits have been available for years -- which utilize nothing more complex than chemical reactions -- and they've been shown to be far more unreliable than those utilizing them would have you believe. The same can most certainly be said about portable or on-site units wholly divorced from the normal constraints of a lab setting. The government (so far) realizes this. That's why DNA obtained and analyzed by these units aren't included in the national DNA database. Only results from accredited public-sector laboratories are accepted. The companies manufacturing these devices are obviously interested in seeing this law changed. In the meantime, they've pushed for states to create their own DNA databases. The FBI would like to see this changed as well, going so far as to issue a statement that is mostly wishful thinking. FBI officials say their program does not impact any laws currently governing the operation of CODIS. Rapid DNA techniques in booking stations, “will simply expedite the analysis and submission of lawfully obtained samples to the state and national DNA databases,” [Ann] Todd, the FBI spokeswoman, said. Except that it would impact laws governing CODIS… as they are today. A legislative tweak is needed to allow DNA processed by a portable machine to be entered into the FBI's systems, bureau officials acknowledge. Again, the FBI places efficiency above everything else. "Tweaking" the law to include portable devices would "expedite" the filling of the FBI's biometric database. Faster is better, even if the analysis method isn't as reliable as that performed by accredited labs. False positives/negatives are just the acceptable collateral damage of "combating crime and protecting the United States." There's a huge backlog of untested DNA waiting for CODIS-qualified lab analysis. Offloading some of the work to private labs or portable devices sounds like a great way ease that congestion, but it actually could create more problems. If the government believes that only its chosen labs are capable of producing solid analysis, fixes like those suggested by three California Congressional reps would ask law enforcement (including the FBI) to decide which evidence goes the Gold Standard labs and what gets passed along to the lesser, unproven venues. When presented with this set of options, law enforcement may prioritize cases badly, routing "time-sensitive" evidence through unproven but quicker analysis while sending out anything that can "wait" to the government's labs. Basically, without an across-the-board certification of all methods (with rigid testing and re-testing to ensure quality) as being equal, there's a good chance collected DNA will be treated just as prejudicially as the suspects themselves. And, if the expansion of CODIS inputs isn't handled with rigorous oversight, the chances of the guilty going free and the innocent being imprisoned increases. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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