Sunday, April 13, 2014

Privacy Concerns make a Comeback

From 1800 to the 1920s, the word “privacy” appeared in publications at a fairly constant but low frequency. Then the rate of citation increased somewhat between 1920 and 1960 followed by a very steep rise (except for mild dip in the early 1980s) through the year 2000.

I gleaned this information using the Google Ngram viewer at:

The way it works is explained nicely at:

Basically, the Google search engine explores its book data base for any word or phrase you enter and creates a graph which displays the relative frequency of that word in its huge books database over the time period you choose. According to Wikipedia:

“The word-search database was created by Google Labs, based originally on 5.2 million books, published between 1500 and 2008, containing 500 billion words in American English, British English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, and Chinese. “

For example, language researchers have used Ngram to study trends in “mood” words (like exhilarated/apathetic, cheerful/depressed, etc.) and have evidence that American English has become more emotional in the last 50 years.

If you’d like to play with Ngram, you can also examine how the usage of the words: “kindergarten” and “nursery school” were replaced by “child care’” over the last half-century as well as many other examples at:

So, other than the Ngram data, what evidence do I have to make the claim, “Privacy makes a Comeback” ? Unfortunately, the other evidence is weak; it’s anecdotal but since it’s based on personal experience, it’s very convincing --- to me. Based on the reactions of students at SUNY Plattsburgh from the 1990s to pretty much the present, I have observed the issue of privacy wax and wane but the underlying trend is that there has been a growing unconcern amongst our youth about privacy. They are neither happy nor unhappy about the assault on privacy from both the government and the corpocracy; they are merely apathetic.

But, to balance youth’s apathy, I think there’s a growing concern amongst the next generation --- the Millennials. I see more and more articles and books written by them that decry the loss of privacy. A specific example is the book by Julia Angwin, “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance”. (Now there’s a title that almost eliminates the need to read the book!). A short version can be found in the article in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times March 3, 2014 edition, “Has Privacy Become a Luxury Good?” by Angwin. (

She begins the essay with a nice hook, “Last year, I spent more than $22oo and countless hours trying to protect my privacy.” Angwin goes on to describe how corporations and governments are invading her privacy as well as yours and mine: Google tailors its ads to content of the text in your emails. British Intelligence collected Yahoo video webcam chats of millions of users not even suspected of any illegal activities --- unsurprisingly, many were sexually explicit. Facebook allows/sells marketers access to your status updates unless you take steps to change the default from ‘Public’ to, say, ‘Friends’. Even seemingly innocuous news websites auction off your personal data before the page loads...the better to target their ads to you, my dear. And, if you’re still not convinced, just type, “creepy or useful” into your favorite search engine.

All of this is to say that it does appear that privacy is being taken more seriously by the general public and, no surprise, there is a level of secrecy practiced by those who would exploit our privacy. What’s the difference between “secrecy’ and “privacy”? The best example I’ve run across is this: “It’s no secret as to what we do when we go into a bathroom, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want privacy.”

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Net Neutrality: New Developments

At a recent meeting of the Fellows of the Institute for Ethics and Public Life at SUNY, I was gently chided by a member who pointed out that my last column discussing Net Neutrality missed an important part of the issue. It was pointed out to me that little users (like you and me) were at the mercy of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in more ways than I had discussed. For example, if an individual has a web site then, without Net Neutrality, they would be last in line to get their message out and worse, they could even get timed out and cut off during the process of a long slow download of information. But why should the little guy get the same consideration as the big boys? Because it was the aggregate of little guys who paid for the design and development of the Internet in the first place.

In the early 1990s, Senator Al Gore wrote, “How can government ensure that the nascent Internet will permit everyone to be able to compete with everyone else for the opportunity to provide any service to all willing customers? Next, how can we ensure that this new marketplace reaches the entire nation? And then how can we ensure that it fulfills the enormous promise of education, economic growth and job creation?”

While it is certainly true that Al Gore did not invent the Internet and never claimed that he did (as many detractors like to claim), he most certainly was the driving force behind its funding and eventual creation. Our present Internet evolved from the ARPAnet (funded by the Department of Defense and available only to the DOD and its many contractors). Gore envisioned that it should be made available to everyone as it was ultimately funded by us, the taxpayers.

When reading about the pros and cons of Net Neutrality, it’s useful to be aware of the following definitions:

End Users: People like you and me who log on to the Internet to work or play.

Backbone Networks: The companies, organizations and entities that operate big fiber networks that crisscross the world.

Broadband Providers: Companies that provide data services to homes, businesses and individuals, such as Verizon or Comcast.

Edge Providers: Providers of Internet services that include, well, just about every website and app maker on the planet. Google's YouTube, Amazon, and Apple's iTunes are all large edge providers. (Also called Content Providers)

And, for a quick refresher on the issue of Net Neutrality see:

In more recent developments, the FCC Chair, proposed that the agency, instead of redefining broadband carriers as a telecommunications service and thus under the regulation of the FCC in the same way the telephone carriers are, the agency would instead attempt to regulate anti-competitive behavior on a "case-by-case basis."

To some, this seems to be a dodgy attempt to avoid making the hard decisions necessary to insure net neutrality. This resolve will be tested by the recent Netflix deal with Comcast: Netflix is a “content provider”, the content in this case being movies and TV shows. Comcast is the largest Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the US.. And the deal is that Netflix has paid Comcast an undisclosed sum to insure that its content is delivered smoothly and expeditiously to its customers. To advocates, this is a violent violation of Net Neutrality especially since Comcast agreed to abide by it until 2018 in its acquisition of NBC Universal, another large media content provider.

To further complicate the situation, Comcast wants to acquire Time-Warner Cable. In other words, the second and first largest cable companies would merge into a corporation with unprecedented power over the most powerful media information network ever created. And if you’re still not overwhelmed, consider this: Google’s response is to provide very high speed optical fiber to selected cities in what appears to be an attempt to start a move up the ISP food chain. If Google succeeds, Comcast will have a formidable competitor. And more competition is a good thing for us consumers.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Net Neutrality

You may have seen the recent cartoon on the Editorial page of the PR (01/23/14) depicting a tank in the process of demolishing a wall; the tank is labelled, “AT&T, VERIZON, COMCAST”, the wall is labelled, “NET NEUTRALITY” and the caption is, “So much for a free Internet...”. Your reaction might well have been “What the heck is Net Neutrality and what exactly is the problem?”.

Simply put, the concept of network neutrality is that: all users of the Internet should be treated fairly and equally --- this includes end users like you and me as well as giant Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like AT&T, VERIZON, and COMCAST. Until Jan 14,2014, it was assumed that the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) would regulate the ISPs in much the same way they regulate the phone company providers (e.g Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc). However, one of these providers (Verizon) contested this regulation in 2011 suggesting instead a tiered Internet service whereby a user could pay more to get better, faster Internet service. On the other side of the fence, “Neutrality proponents claim that telecommunications companies seek to impose a tiered service model in order to control the pipeline and thereby remove competition, create artificial scarcity, and oblige subscribers to buy their otherwise uncompetitive services.” ( In fact, Comcast was accused of a violation of net neutrality in 2012 when it was discovered that it was favoring delivery of its own video streaming service over competitors such as Netflix and Hulu. Interestingly, both sides claim that their model promotes innovation which will stimulate the economy.

This issue has been working its way through the court system and now the DC Circuit court has ruled the FCC “cannot subject companies that provide Internet service to the same type of regulation that the agency imposes on phone companies...because Internet service was not a telecommunications service – like telephone or telegraph– but an information service, a classification that limits the F.C.C.’s authority.” ( “The Nuts and Bolts of Network Neutrality”,, 01/14/2014 ). So, due to a fine legal distinction between a “utility’ and an “information service”, the FCC’s authority to regulate certain media has apparently been hamstrung.

The basic issue, as I see it,is how to balance authority and responsibility between private and public enterprise. If we use history as a guide, we see that the development of the railroad and the telegraph technologies in the US were a joint venture between government and private companies. Is this still a valid economic model for telecommunications? Should the flow of information be developed and regulated like the flow of electric power? If the answer is yes, then information, whether it’s delivered over a wire or through the air, seems to be a utility. and should be regulated as such.

While I can sympathize with the concept of a tiered service (I am used to paying more for better service on airlines and the like), I hope both sides can come to agree that information leads to knowledge, knowledge is power,, and similarly to electrical power, the flow of information should be regulated by a public utility.

Fortunately, the situation is not hopeless. There seem to be three options for untangling this mess. One would be for the US government to nationalize all telecommunications services

much like France and Germany did almost 20 years ago; it would then be the responsibility of an agency like the FCC to administer and regulate such service in a manner responsible to its citizens and not to corporations. Clearly, given the current political climate, the odds of this happening are very close to nil. Second would be for the FCC to appeal to a higher court for a better ruling. Third would be for the FCC to redefine Internet services as a public utility which would require them to be more active in their regulation. If the third alternative comes to pass, the Net Neutrality advocates will have won and the provider corporations will be looking for new and better ways to increase their services..

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Technology and Mischief 01/12/2014

In the old days (pre-1980), if you invested in a quality camera like a single lens reflex, the only things you bought after that were film and various accessories like camera bags and additional lenses. And, unless you dropped it from a moving car, you didn’t buy another camera for the rest of your life. Today many of us own several digital cameras, lured by the astonishing progress in the technical specifications: more megapixels which generally means higher resolution photos, more sensitive light sensors which means clearer, crisper pictures, built in telephoto lenses (up to 60x at this writing), shorter lag times between shots and smaller in size and weight --- not to mention less and less expensive giving us more bang for the buck.

Also changed is the way we take our pictures. When we had to carry rolls of fairly expensive film to record our adventures, we very carefully took one, two or at most three shots of a scene in the hope that one would turn out well. After a trip to the drugstore who sent them off to a photo lab, we waited impatiently for two weeks to get our prints and slides and negatives back before embarking on the last stage of sticking them into a photo album or carousel or shoebox to be retrieved once or twice per year at various family gatherings. Nowadays,with digital cameras that take multiple pics per second I can take 10 to 15 snaps and be quite certain one of them will be good --- blissfully unaware of all the time I will spend later on my computer winnowing them down to the one or two best shots. After that arduous process I can upload them to an online photo service and post them on their or a multitude of other free websites inviting whomever I wish to view them. If I feel a bit old school, I have prints or a photobook made.

So which is better: the old or the new photographic experience? As Tevye says in “Fiddler on the Roof” regarding the question, “Why do we have traditions”: “I’ll tell you. I don’t know.” But I do love the fact that my photo editor allows me to enhance my photos. I can crop, lighten, darken the contrast or shadows, straighten the image if it’s off kilter,retouch, take out redeye as well as apply several dozen colorizing “effects”. It also allows me to make albums and sort them into order by date taken, name, or size. It’s truly amazing how much time I can spend doing this. On the down side, photo editors can be used mischievously to alter reality.

Today technology is used by kids and others with childish minds to make mischief --- from hard-core cyber-bullying and phishing scams to trolling. A troll is a trouble-maker who joins a web discussion whose only aim is to destroy or disrupt the comity of the conversation. The standard modus operandi is to make a controversial statement that is sure to polarize the members --- usually something bordering on sexist or racist. Then the troll lights up a cigar, sits back and watches, only joining in with responses that will fan the flames. Your first thought might be, “This guy needs to get a life”, but sadly, it is a way of life to trolls.

When I was a kid (in a time long ago and far away) we used technology to perform mischief also.. Of course, the technology was rather primitive --- it was called a telephone. Me and a buddy would call a local store and ask, “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” (the brand name of a pipe tobacco that came in a small can). When the proprietor answered in the affirmative, we’d respond, “Well. let him out --- he doesn’t like it in there!” It was hilarious at the time. You had to be there.

All these examples are just to say that it may not be technology alone that is the root cause of mischief, it’s a human flaw that most of us outgrow. But it sure does enhance the quality and quantity of mischief that can be done.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Controversy

Folks who hope that technology will save us from the problems we have created for ourselves (e.g. Climate Change) should take a closer look at the current website controversy. As you must know by now, the rollout of the Affordable Health Care Act (aka ObamaCare) has been rife with technical problems. Users have experienced long wait times, they are getting inaccurate information and even the insurance companies are having difficulty getting information about who has signed up as well as incorrect information. In short, people are annoyed, confused and, consequently, unhappy. Most Republicans and many Democrats are criticizing the operation of the website and the President is taking heat. However, I’m pretty sure that by the time you read this some of the technical problems will have been solved.

But how and why did this mess occur? When Google rolls out a new application, while it is not perfect, there is a general acceptance of its adequate performance and this, coupled to a trust that bugs will be identified and fixed on a timely basis causes very few ripples. Sometimes Google issues a “Beta” version that invites sophisticated users to try it out and report bugs before the actual application is released. This is a useful accepted practice in software development that will generally improve the product. So why did the US government not follow this path? Many pundits have proposed answers to this question.

Some think that anything the government attempts is doomed to be inefficient as well as costly while others quote the old saw, "To err is human; to really foul things up requires a computer." But like most complex problems there are no easy answers. Private corporations like Google have fewer accountability regulations restraining them than does the US government. When I worked for the US Navy we had a saying to the effect, “when you award the contract to the lowest bidder, what kind of results do you expect?”. While this is an overgeneralization and is unfair, it is true that choosing the lowest bidder requires less work because you will not have to justify the choice as much as you would the higher bidder. So even though the government outsources the product to a private firm to implement, not only are these restrictions passed down from the government to the subcontractor (and to sub-subcontractor etc), the communication and accountability necessarily becomes diluted and this can only cause problems. To make matters worse, the main contractor, CGI Federal has a past history of bungling at least 20 other government IT contracts: (

To make matters even worse, although CGI was awarded the contract in Dec 2011, the government did not give them the specifications for the project until this spring causing a hurry-up implementation that would almost surely be buggy. The programming process is similar to building a house for a client who keeps changing their mind about everything from how many rooms and their locations to the type of faucets in the bath. In other words, in addition to driving the contractor crazy, he will be unable to estimation the completion date because the specifications keep changing.

For an excellent graphic description of the problems encountered at, go to: but be forewarned that the reference to the other main contractor, QSSI, is based in Columbia, MD, a suburb of Washington, DC and not in the country of Columbia.

In the meantime, what can be done to mitigate the debacle? Unfortunately not much unless someone slips a large patience pill into the national water supply. And we don’t have a national water supply.

A rule of thumb for software engineers is that once the code (software) reaches a certain size, it is no longer useful to make correction patches to it because they usually cause more new problems than they fix. If this is the case, it’s time to do a full rewrite and if the project has reached this tipping point, expect a loud and bumpy ride.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Negative Aspects to Internet Technology

In this column, I play the role of curmudgeon, grousing about certain aspects of the Internet but, like many other irascible critics, offering no solutions.

Across from my September eighth column was an AP story, “Samsung unveils new Smartwatch.  and I’m beginning to notice TV commercials for it.  The  main purpose of the smartwatch seems to be to alert the user to incoming messages on their smartphone.  I had read about this new tech marvel earlier but this particular article got me to thinking about the need for such a device costing 300 dollars. Does the world really need a device to tell them to go to another device to read a message from another human being? Do we need a smartwatch to connect to our smartphone which we can use to program our TV just to we can mitigate our boredom?  How about this as an alternative: Send a check for 300 bucks to Doctors Without Borders and either wait until you see your friend to talk with them or, if you’re not that patient,  wait until you get out of the meeting to consult your missed calls.

Franz Kafka has said that most of our problems stem from laziness and impatience and perhaps Karl Marx got one thing right when he claimed, “The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.”

We seem to have forgotten that the root of the term “ technology” is from the greek “techne” which translates roughly to “craftsmanship” and because craft is usually the practical application of an art, it is much to be admired. Certainly the Samsung corporation is crafty but that’s a whole ‘nother use of the word.

It’s a reasonable premise to argue that the Internet has had the most powerful effect on global societies than any other single technology. And it’s even more reasonable to claim that it’s been particularly effective  on our youth.  Beeban Kidron, a British filmmaker, was interviewed by Tim Adams  of the Guardian which resulted in the article, “We need to talk about teenagers and the internet”.

The article starts off with a bang. "What is the best thing about the internet?" Kidron wondered. One of the boys, a 15-year-old called Ryan, answered her without hesitation. "Porn," he said. She goes on to point out the dehumanizing aspects of this easy access to pornography and the interesting conclusion that most of the boys are aware of this. The porn fix is not only addictive, it leaves the boys unfulfilled, somewhat depressed and most importantly, still ignorant of the human condition and their place in society.  "I've ruined the sense of love," one of the boys tells Kidron.   

Girls are affected as well.   Kidron interviews a young woman who tells her how attached she is to her BlackBerry and when a gang of boys takes it from her how she allowed herself to be sexually assaulted in order to get it back. These children are not special needs or “kids with an issue”, Kidron goes on --- this subculture is pervasive. She is speaking about her native country, England, but it’s not too difficult to extrapolate this depressing trend to any society that has reached a certain technological level.

On the other hand, I  recently read in my Sigma Xi newsletter the headline:

Technology transforms sewer water into electricity” which describes how engineers have developed a system to generate electricity using the microbes from sewage water. It appears to be about as efficient as solar technology with the added benefit that it also cleans the water. I don’t go so far as to think to myself, “What a Wonderful World!!!”, but I do see that while being a curmudgeon can be fun, it’s not a useful way to view this complex, amazing universe of ours. I believe that you can choose to be happy or you can choose to be unhappy and the world is ready to back you up 100%.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Neuroscience and the new assault on Privacy

Recently, I came across a Reuters article ( with the headline: “U.S. scientist operates colleague's brain from across campus” which, as you may suspect, piqued my interest. All sorts of wonderful and horrible fantasies were triggered ranging from professors being able to lecture to their classes without preparation to students taking exams for each other. However, after actually reading the content which began with the claim that they had achieved the first “mind-meld” , I found a much more mundane but still potentially exciting scenario.

Scientist A ,wearing a cap with electrodes, was sending his brain’s electrical signals to a colleague on the the other end of campus. His colleague, scientist B, wearing a similar cap, received the signals directed to the left motor cortex which controls right hand movement. When A  imagined moving his right hand to press a space bar on on his keyboard, B involuntarily moved his right index finger in response. While this hardly qualifies as a bona fide Star Trek mind-meld, the scientists are hopeful that this technology when fully developed could be used productively using the example that  “it might one day be harnessed to allow an airline pilot on the ground help someone land a plane whose own pilot is incapacitated.”
As I previously mentioned, this aroused my interest and further research led to an interesting destination on the web where one can view a two-part video hosted by Alan Alda (Hawkeye himself).  Actually Alda’s presentation is excellent, combining thoughtful interview and analysis on a well- constructed PBS video: ( with just a soup├žon of mischei
The premise of this video is a mock trial of an attempted robbery and shooting that raises questions about the law, neuroscience and privacy. As the trial progresses, Alda breaks in to examine a new technique in neuroscience that raises privacy issues particularly in the law profession.
. As background, we first learn about the technology that makes all of this possible: the fmri (and no, it’s not the stock symbol for a new form of government-backed mortgages) --- it stands for “functional mri” and and if you’ve had an mri you may already know that it’s “magnetic resonance imaging” and doesn’t hurt at all (unless you’re claustrophobic like me). The “functional” part comes in because the fmri can show the locations in the brain that are working hard and researchers are mapping the brain to match up a unique function with its precise  location. For example, the fusiform face area location of the brain has the job or function of recognizing and categorizing faces. If a person suffers brain damage in that specific area, they will have difficulty recognizing faces. And most importantly for this discussion, if this fusiform area lights up (shows activity as evidenced by more blood flow) during an  fmri, then we can reasonably surmise the subject is in the face recognition mode.This is one school of thought in current neuroscience ---  the other important school is that while functional areas exist, they are not so centralized and actually several locations may collaborate. ( In either case, the scientist’s goal is to correlate active physical parts of the brain with human behavior and great progress is being made.
Using the above as the backstory, the video proceeds to raise the following questions:
The process of eyewitness identification is murky at best; the jury must decide whether prosecutor or defense attorney makes the better case. Suppose frmi technology could examine the relevant brain area to determine what the witness actually saw? What if it could decide whether the witness or the defendant was lying? What if it could detect which members of the jury were showing racial bias?  And even if a person, say the defendant, voluntarily submitted to the frmi procedure, what about the fifth amendment to the Constitution which protects a witness from testifying against themselves?

All interesting and provocative questions, and if neuroscience technology evolves to the point where we literally can read another’s mind, what are the implications for society? Will it destroy it, will we pass more regulations to protect privacy, or will  we learn to live in a fishbowl?

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