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November 27 2012

U.S. Senate to consider long overdue reforms on electronic privacy

In 2010, electronic privacy needed digital due process. In 2012, it’s worth defending your vanishing rights online.

This week, there’s an important issue before Washington that affects everyone who sends email, stores files in Dropbox or sends private messages on social media. In January, O’Reilly Media went dark in opposition to anti-piracy bills. Personally, I believe our right to digital due process for government to access private electronic are just as important.

Why? Here’s the context for my interest. The silver lining in the way former CIA Director David Petraeus’ affair was discovered may be its effect on the national debate around email and electronic privacy, and our rights in a surveillance state. The courts and Congress have failed to fully address the constitutionality of warrantless wiretapping of cellphones and the location of “persons of interest.” Phones themselves, however, are a red herring. What’s at stake is the Fourth Amendment in the 21st century, with respect to the personal user data that telecommunications and technology firms hold that government is requesting without digital due process.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider an update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the landmark 1986 legislation that governs the protections citizens have when they communicate using the Internet or cellphones. (It’s the small item on the bottom of this meeting page.)

If you somehow missed the uproar online last week, the tech policy world went a bit nutty when CNET’s Declan McCullagh broke a story about Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) rewriting the text of his ECPA amendment.

By the end of the day, Senator Leahy said he would not support that proposal, but what the draft reflected is pressure from law enforcement and federal regulatory agencies to not only keep warrantless access open but to enshrine it in law.

Today, Senator Leahy’s office posted a manager’s amendment and summary of changes for the committee’s consideration.

“The manager’s amendment is vastly improved, as compared to the controversial one last week,” said Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology and the director of its Project on Freedom, Security & Technology, in a phone interview.

“We support the manager’s amendment, and will support the bill,” he said. “It will establish a clear, consistent standard for law enforcement access to content. It will require a warrant going forward. This is a huge improvement over current law and will bring ECPA into the modern age.”

In a post on the amendment at, Nojeim reiterated CDT’s support. “It will protect consumer privacy, remove the uncertainty law enforcement currently faces, and foster the growth of U.S. cloud computing companies, which will be able to promise their clients that the information they store in cloud will be as secure against government access as information stored locally,” he wrote.

Verify, then trust

This week, the senators on the Judiciary Committee are likely to continue be under some pressure to suggest changes to this amendment that would weaken the protections in it. The manager’s amendment already contains some concessions to law enforcement, with respect to extending the time periods after which the federal government must notify an individual that government has obtained electronic communications, or that a service provider must wait to inform that individual that those records have been obtained.

There’s also clarity that the search warrant requirement in this amendment does not apply to federal anti-terrorism laws, specifically the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

“We believe that they’ve kept the central protection in the manager’s amendment, that law enforcement must obtain a warrant to read private communications or digital content, such as documents stored in the cloud,” said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU, in a phone interview. “That’s a huge privacy win, and we’re glad to see that that’s stayed in.”

Senator Leahy’s statement, however, does leave room for debate:

“I welcome the upcoming Senate Judiciary Committee debate on updating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to better protect Americans’ digital privacy rights. Today, this critical privacy law is significantly outdated and out-paced by rapid changes in technology and the changing mission of our law enforcement agencies.

“When I led the effort to write the ECPA more than 25 years ago, no one could have imagined that emails would be stored electronically for years or envisioned the many new threats to privacy in cyberspace. That is why I am working to update this law to reflect the realities of our time and to better protect privacy in the digital age. I join the many privacy advocates, technology leaders, legal scholars and other stakeholders who support reforming ECPA to improve privacy rights in cyberspace. I hope that all members of the Committee will join me in supporting the effort in Congress to update this law to protect Americans’ privacy.”

The other side of the issue is represented by a diverse coalition of digital rights advocates that spans traditional ideological labels. Notably, Americans for Tax Reform and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agreed that electronic privacy deserves a bipartisan upgrade.

The coalition is urging people to go to to tell their senators to support warrants for personal electronic communication.

I think they’re on the right side of history.

September 22 2011

Strata Week: Crowdsourcing and gaming spur a scientific breakthrough

Here are a few of the data stories that caught my attention this week.

Crowdsourcing and gaming helps in the fight against HIV

Foldit gamePlayers of the online protein-folding game have solved a scientific problem in three weeks' time that has stumped researchers for more than a decade. Scientists have been trying to figure out the structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus, but failing to do so, turned the information over to players, challenging them to see if they could produce an accurate model.

"We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed," Dr. Firas Khatib of the University of Washington Department of Biochemistry told Science Daily. And indeed, it did.

The goal was to work out the three-dimensional structure of different proteins. Players, most of whom were not trained scientists, competed with one another and were scored based on the stability of what they built. But they could also work together on solving the various puzzles. And, in this case, by playing, the gamers generated models that were good enough for the researchers to determine the enzyme's actual structure. This included elements that could be targeted by drugs that could take on the enzyme.

Twitter open sources Storm and acquires Julpan

As Twitter indicated it would do last month, the company has open sourced Storm, its Hadoop-like, real-time data processing tool. Storm was developed by Backtype, which Twitter acquired earlier this year, and Twitter engineer Nathan Marz, formerly the lead engineer at Backtype, made the open source release official at the Strange Loop developer conference. Along with the code, there's extensive documentation of the project, as well as other resources Marz lists on a Hacker News thread about the project.

The open sourcing of Storm wasn't the only data news from Twitter this week. The company has also acquired Julpan, a New York City-based startup that analyzes real-time data collected from the social web.

The acquisition is the latest in a series of moves by Twitter to build out its own analytics capabilities — moves that include the acquisition of BackType — to analyze the more than 200 million Tweets that are now posted per day.

Julpan is headed by former Google data scientist Ori Allon. Allon built "Orion," a search algorithm that became a key part of Google's search relevancy efforts when the company acquired the rights to it in 2006. Allon left Google in 2010 to found Julpan.

The politics of search

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights yesterday — a hearing that GigaOm's Stacey Higginbotham said demonstrated a "fundamental conflict of cultures" between Silicon Valley and Washington DC.

The purpose of the Senate hearing is to investigate Google's search practices and to ascertain whether or not Google's dominance over search and search advertising warrants an anti-trust response from the government. As Senator Patrick Leahy put it, the hearings are meant to see whether "Google is in a position to determine who will succeed and fail on the Internet." Many of the questions from the senators involved how Google handles search ranking. Senator Mike Lee accused the company of cooking search results, an accusation that Schmidt denied.

"First, we built search for users, not websites," Schmidt testified. "And no matter what we do, there will always be some websites unhappy with where they rank. Search is subjective, and there's no 'correct' set of search results. Our scientific process is designed to provide the answers that consumers will find most useful."

GigaOm's Higginbotham describes what she sees as a clash of cultures between the Senators and Google — and between politics and algorithms — thusly:

Schmidt, like any computer scientist, tried to argue that the algorithms do what they are supposed to do. From a computer science view, if an algorithm is fair, then changing to protect a certain class of those affected by it makes it fundamentally unfair to others (something Congress routinely does with exceptions and carve outs when it's making legislation). In fact, the biggest elephant in the room was a clash of cultures between the Silicon Valley culture of the free market — and using technology to create a better consumer experience — and Washington D.C.'s inherent cynicism and pandering to constituents.

Strata Conference in New York

O'Reilly's Strata Conference has been going on this week in New York City, with Strata Jumpstart and Strata Summit kicking off the week.

Video and speaker slides from earlier in the week are available online, and you can watch streaming video from the rest of the week's events.

Got data news?

Feel free to email me.


March 22 2009

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