Saturday, June 23, 2007

When science bloggers bite back against defamation claims

From Ben Goldacre: Stifling Debate - When Bloggers Bite Back

"I like short stories with happy endings. Last week we saw how the mightily eminent pharmacologist Professor David Colquhoun (FRS) was having his witty and informative “Improbable Science” quackbusting blog quietly banished from the UCL servers.

He had questioned claims made by a herbal medicine practitioner called Dr Ann Walker over, for example, the “blood cleansing” properties of red clover pills (also a “cleanser of the lymphatic system”, apparently) and criticised her for making public statements about the benefits of vitamin supplements in an academic journal, without disclosing her role as spokesperson forthe Health Supplements Information Service, a lobby group for the multibillion-pound supplement pills industry. Walker complained.

Well, in fact her husband complained. Of defamation. Directly to the provost. He also complained of breach of copyright (Colquhoun quoted part of a website he was writing about), breach of data protection requirements, and issued various requests to UCL under the Freedom of Information Act. He also demanded that a paper was circulated to all UCL council members concerning Colquhoun’s misuse of IT resources, and possibly office space and secretarial facilities...

Colquhoun’s brief move away from UCL produced a gratifying avalanche of letters to the provost in defence of robust criticism, and after this - and necessary expensive legal consultations - it was announced on Wednesday that Colquhoun’s blog is to be de-excommunicated.

But amusingly, in these democratic times, there are inevitable consequences of trying to silence a blogger - especially when you make a hash of it - and a mass of activity has now grown into what is cheerfully being described as “a festival of Ann Walker”. As the Sciencepunk blog gleefully points out, Ann Walker’s claims are now more famous than ever..."

Read the whole piece. It's very nicely done.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Schools warn of abuse risk from IT database

Schools warn of abuse risk from IT database

The Guardian are sensibly highlighting a letter from Ross Anderson (FIPR), Becky Hogge (ORG), Terri Dowty (ARCH), Simon Davies (Privacy International) and Jonathan Shephard (Independent Schools Council). I hope Ross and co. don't mind me quoting them in full here. It is incredibly important that their views on ContactPoint aka the Children's Index database get the widest possible exposure.

"In the coming weeks, parliament will be asked to pass regulations which will allow at least 330,000 users access to detailed and sensitive information on 11 million children, with no evidence that the system proposed can be secured.

Unless the system - called ContactPoint - is secure, the result will be that sensitive information will fall into the hands of potential abusers of children and traders of information. As the proposals stand, the dangers of user-abuse and hacking have not been quantified. The problems of a potentially leaky system must be solved before the plan gets any further. Once contracts are placed with IT firms, commercial confidentiality will come into play and the public won't know how adequate the system is until the stories of misuse and abuse appear.

The government acknowledges the risks by instituting protocols to "shield" details of celebrity and vulnerable children. But all children are potentially vulnerable to misuse of information, and the potential for this is enormous. Evidence presented last year to the management board of the Leeds NHS Trust showed that in one month the 14,000 staff logged 70,000 incidents of inappropriate access. On the basis of these figures, misuse of ContactPoint could run to 1,650,000 incidents a month. Is this going to protect children?

Before it's too late, we ask the government to reconsider this hugely expensive and intrusive scheme. It would not have helped Victoria ClimbiƩ, and it will put far more children at risk."

WIPO Broadcast Treaty Dead

Ian seems a mite pleased that the proposed WIPO broadcasting treaty appears to have bitten the dust at least for the time being.

"Jamie Love reported earlier this evening that WIPO is finally set to kill the Broadcasting Treaty. Now IPWatch has confirmed the last rites will be read tomorrow morning at the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights.

After a decade of negotiations, civil society and developing world WIPO members have finally managed to squash this assault on access to knowledge. Break open the Genevoise sparkling wine!"

I somehow doubt we've heard the last of it though. There are too many vested commercial interests in pursuing it to imagine it is completely and irretrievably dead.

Update from Jamie Love: "What is interesting is the role of Michael Keplinger, who was put in the top WIPO copyright job by the United States. Keplinger is pushing for Rome type rights, for broadcasters and webcasters. He is not following the current US government line, but his own pro-rights-for-investment views, which are contrary to US legal traditions.

An interesting question is this. Will the broadcasting industry be best served by rent-seeking related rights regimes, like those pushed by Keplinger, Jukka Liedes, the EC and Japan, or by the less regulated and more free platform that is emerging on the Internet? The tech sector sector seems to think the traditional broadcasters are short sighted, and are missing the strategies and platforms that create the most value. Can WIPO find a way to actually think about this sector in a new way? Maybe WIPO should start hiring a few people that are more geeky, and actually know something about the new information technologies. "

Thursday, June 21, 2007

French government ban blackberry use by officials

Fearing spying by the US, the French government have reportedly banned the use of BlackBerrys by officials.

"Le Monde newspaper, which broke the story, described BlackBerry withdrawal among those who have given them up. "We feel that we are wasting huge amounts of time, having to relearn how to work in the old way," the daily quoted a ministry office director as saying.

E-mails sent from "Le BlackBerry" pass through servers in the United States and Britain, and France fears that makes the system vulnerable to snooping by the U.S. National Security Agency, Le Monde reported. The company that makes BlackBerrys, however, denies such spying is possible."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Microsoft attempt to weaken evoting law in NY State

According to Bo Lipari, Executive Director New Yorkers for Verified Voting, Microsoft have been secretly working with e-voting vendors, lobbyists and friendly New York politicians to slip some provisions into New York State's election laws which would undermine the current requirement relating to the disclosure of source code.

"The 800 pound gorilla of software development has moved forcefully into New York State, supported by voting machine vendors using Microsoft Windows in their touch screen voting machines and other systems. Over the last two months Microsoft and a cadre of high paid lobbyists have been working a full-court press in Albany in an attempt to bring about a serious weakening of New York State election law. This back door effort by private corporations to weaken public protections is about to bear fruit.

On Thursday, June 14, I recieved a copy of proposed changes to New York State Election Law drafted by Microsoft attorneys that has been circulating among the Legislature. These changes would gut the source code escrow and review provisions provided in our current law, which were fought for and won by election integrity activists around the state and adopted by the Legislature in June 2005. In an earlier blog I wrote about Microsoft's unwillingness to comply with New York State's escrow and review requirements. Now the software giant has gone a step further, not just saying “we won't comply with your law” but actively trying to change state law to serve their corporate interests. Microsoft's attorneys drafted an amendment which would add a paragraph to Section 1-104 of NYS Election Law defining “election-dedicated voting system technology”. Microsoft’s proposed change to state law would effectively render our current requirements for escrow and the ability for independent review of source code in the event of disputes completely meaningless - and with it the protections the public fought so hard for."

Microsoft don't really have a lot to gain by getting entangled with evoting vendors, so this is presumably an effort to close off any back door access to their own source code.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Tufte, truth and beauty

I'm not exactly a regular reader of the Stanford Alumni Association magazine. Hardly surprising since I've never been to Stanford. But the beauty of rss (which we ignore at our peril) and newsreaders is that you sometimes happen upon articles in places you wouldn't otherwise think of visiting. This time, courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily (in turn recommended to me many moons ago by John) I've discovered a gem of an article about communications and design guru, Edward Tufte.

I've been a big fan of Tufte for a long time because he's been the giant in passionately advocating and teaching the communicating of technical and scientific data in a clear accessible manner. I talk a lot in my (very soon to be released book) about understanding what technology can and almost more importantly cannot do. In the 1990s Tufte wrote an essay which endeared him to a generation of geeks on the Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, ostensibly pointing out the restrictive thinking engendered by people relying totally on Powerpoint when preparing presentations. Too often people making decisions to deploy computer technologies in education, through a complete lack of understanding of the real utility and architectural restrictions of the technologies, use those amazing tools in inappropriate and sometimes debilitating ways.

As someone who has been using computers on an industrial scale in education for years, I spend way too much time and can often sound like a complete luddite in attempting to explain what the computer will do badly - to people insisting on doing again what has been repeatedly proved to fail. To the notion, for example, that every course should have a computing element associated with it, I always ask why? Which invariably triggers an amazed 'what planet is this guy from' type expression in response. Yet it is somewhat analogous to Bruce Schneier's note about lions, leopards and hyenas - all requiring a different security response. Different courses and contexts require different technological responses. A lack of understanding of the architectural constraints and possibilities in education has been one of my pet hates in my day job for a long time. Tufte articulated my frustrations, using Powerpoint as his case study, better than I could ever have done and it's nice to see the Stanford Alumni article singing his praises and telling us a bit about the man himself.

Update: My circuitous route to the Tufte article could have been cut short, if only I'd read John's blog first this morning.

Update 2: Also via Arts and Letters Daily, the New York mag. describes Tufte as The Minister of Information

Prophetic Justice

Bruce Schneier has pointed to a fascinating article, Prophetic Justice, in Athlantic Monthly from October 2006.

"At the age of twenty-two, Hamid Hayat appeared to be adrift on two continents. He slacked, by turns, in his hometown of Lodi, California, and in his family’s home country, Pakistan. Having lived for roughly equal amounts of time in each, he seemed without direction in either. But on June 5, 2005, the young American offered up alarming evidence of personal initiative: after hours of questioning at the FBI’s Sacramento office, he confessed that he had attended a terrorist training camp in Pakistan and returned to the United States to wage jihad. In quick succession came his arrest, a packed press conference, and his indictment—and suddenly, it was all over but the trial.

Hayat’s case presented a peculiar challenge for the prosecution, which needed to show not just that he had trained in Pakistan and concealed doing so, but that he had intended to commit terrorism. Yet the only direct proof of any of this was Hayat’s videotaped confession, which was as irresolute as his life. The slender, deferential young man repeatedly contradicted himself. He parroted the answers that agents suggested. And the details of any terrorist plan were scant and fuzzy.

The government said that its direct evidence was limited because it had intercepted Hayat so early in the process. “This is not a case where a building has been blown up, and, you know, the forensic investigators go in, they go looking through the rubble looking for clues,” one prosecutor, David Deitch, told jurors. “This isn’t that kind of case. This is a charge that allows the FBI to prevent acts of violence like that.” Would Americans, he asked, want any less...

Hayat was convicted as much for what he might do as for what he had done. Closing arguments usually provide dramatic recountings of a crime. The prosecutor David Deitch suggested crimes that Hayat could commit, from spraying a crowd with an AK-47 to wearing a backpack full of explosives into a crowded shopping mall.

In the wake of 9/11, many Americans will accept, if not applaud, this approach. For us, terrorism possesses unrivaled destructive power, both in the scale of damage it inflicts and the fear and vulnerability it creates. After all, if stopping inner-city or gang violence were as important to us as thwarting terrorism, we could start preemptive prosecutions of young men, based on their race, their familiarity with firearms, and their possession of music that glorifies or encourages violence. This preventive approach, Cote said, means that “just as there are people in prison who never committed the crime, this may also happen. Not this particular case, I’m saying, but future cases.” He argued that it was “absolutely” better to run the risk of convicting an innocent man than to let a guilty one go. “Too many lives are changed” by terrorism, he said. “So shall one man pay to save fifty? It’s not a debatable question.”

I left his house and started back to Sacramento, passing the grounds of Folsom State Prison along the way. In the aggregate, at least, Cote’s instinct seemed to offer an appealing surety. Only when I was back on the highway did I see its practical flaw: prosecuting and imprisoning one innocent man would do nothing, in fact, to save the fifty at risk."