Archive for "technology"
A typical hackathon consists of coders convening for an intensive weekend of writing software, explained Brooklyn Law School professor Jonathan Askin as he opened the BLIP Clinic Legal Hackathon on Sunday, April 15th. The few lawyers who go to coding hackathons do nothing more than observe, as they don’t have a clear role to play. But this event, organized by students in the clinic, was the first of its kind. The day revolved around bringing a hacking ethos to the law, and about figuring out how lawyers can participate in that ethos. Most importantly, it was about building projects that would endure long after the event was over — just like any coding hackathon.
In his keynote speech, law professor, activist, and inventor of the term “net neutrality” Tim Wu explained how many profound technological innovations historically came about as a result of ignoring conventional wisdom and law, and stretching the limits of what was thought to be possible at the time – i.e. hacking. For example, Alexander Graham Bell “was not a great electrician,” said Wu. Bell was a teacher of the deaf who understood sound well. He believed you could carry voice over a wire, but the popular sentiment of the time said that it was impossible to use electricity to carry sound. Despite his poor understanding of electricity, or perhaps because of it, he was able to ignore naysayers and create the telephone.
Another example came out of the film industry. In the early days of film, the American film industry was dominated by the Edison Trust. “Under the rules of the Trust, the ideal length of a film was 10 minutes, and plots had to be simple and not controversial,” said Wu. “One film had a burglary and the Trust decided never to have a crime in a film again.” Hollywood as we know it today was built by Lower East Side immigrants, including William Fox of Fox Entertainment. Wanting to make feature films like the French were making, these ‘hackers’ moved west in order to avoid copyright and Trust rules.
Moving further down the timeline of innovation, Wu highlighted the example of modern cable television. “Cable TV companies started out as small local operations,” he said. “People in rural, mountainous Pennsylvania could not receive broadcast television, so they put up towers and got the signals. The broadcasters tried to sue them out of business.” But as time went on and the broadcasting industry became deregulated, cable TV flourished. “In the ultimate revenge,” said Wu, “Comcast just bought NBC.”
“Many inventions started with humble outsiders who broke the law (or were oblivious to it),” Wu explained. “Why do we get inventions from unlikely sources? Because it’s tough to think about what you’re not thinking about. Few things cloud the mind as much as bundles of cash.” Finally, in a statement that captured the tone of the day, Wu remarked: “The most powerful motivation for innovation is fun.”
Hacking our Government
With 57% of the eligible population voting in the last presidential election, less than 30% voting in the last NYC mayoral election, and a powerful lobbying system in place, many might debate whether we truly have a government of the people, by the people, for the people. The Hackathon’s message was consistent: we live in an Information Age. The Internet and social networking have made communication easier than ever. Lawyers and coders should be able to work together to exploit this ease of communication and to create a more democratic government.
It will take courage and ingenuity. Professor Askin emphasized that for lawyers and law students, the process requires realizing we live in a “why not” world. In the tech world, lawyers must evolve from being “yeah but lawyers” to being enablers of innovation. Today, many areas of the law remain unchanged by the Internet revolution, presenting an opportunity for young lawyers to wade into muddy waters and find ways to drive progress.
In a panel examining the recent demise of SOPA and PIPA, two proposed bills that would have drastically affected the way intellectual property rights are enforced online, panelists questioned how the Internet should respond in the face of controversial legislation. Some viewed this legislative battle as a traditional clash of moneyed interests, with the content industry on one side and the technology industry on the other. But the massive backlash from web users and content creators also played a significant role in shelving the bills. The challenge going forward, the panelists said, is enabling web users to have their say in legislation. Tech attorney and BLS alumnus Amyt Eckstein, ’01, noted that this is important now because the lobbyists currently influencing Congress are paid by the traditional content industry, not by web users and individual content creators. It is also important for the future, panelists warned, because Congress will certainly consider legislation similar to SOPA and PIPA again. In such future legislative battles, legislators may be able to co-opt the Internet industry, making it even more necessary for web users and content creators to be mobilized.
So how do we mobilize the citizens of the Internet? This question was addressed in a panel on “Government 2.0.” John Bergmayer, Senior Staff Attorney at Public Knowledge, noted that some members of Congress are already starting to use technology to engage with the public at large. The 2008 Obama campaign effectively harnessed social networking to generate awareness and get people to vote, said Benjamin Kallos of New Roosevelt. Obama’s 2012 campaign will rely on the Internet even more. Similarly, the anti-bullying movement has used the media’s interest in bullying to generate large public support and to influence the direction of anti-bullying legislation. Jed Alpert of Mobile Commons pointed to this as representative of “a move towards crowdsourced policy-making.”
Digital platforms that allow the public to actively participate in the creation of legislation would strengthen such a movement, said Bergmayer. Such platforms have a natural user base in the most tech-oriented junior members of Congress, who could promote their use in D.C. While it is unlikely that statutory language itself will be crowdsourced in the near future, said Matt Wood of Free Press, what matters most is having a loud voice in the political process. Art Chang of the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee and Tipping Point Partners noted that if we can use technology to reach out to enough people and to aggregate their voices in a way that resonates with the elected officials who represent them, we can influence the entire political process.
In his keynote speech, “From e-Gov to WeGov,” Andrew Rasiej, founder of TechPresident and chairman of the New York Tech Meetup, argued that technology has a fundamental role to play in fixing our broken political system that goes beyond making the public’s voice louder. He argued for the need to use technology to build WeGov – a government that not only listens to its constituents and takes their viewpoints into account when framing legislation – but actively partners with the public in improving the entire governmental process. Such a government would need to be highly transparent and must make data about what it does and how it does it publicly available. “Technology is getting robust enough that people are building tools better than any government agency could,” said Rasiej. Large amounts of publicly-available government data, coupled with the public’s ability to build effective government tools, would help ensure both a more democratic and more efficient government. Rasiej ultimately envisions a democracy based not on money or the influence of lobbyists, but on the ability of people to connect to each other and to oversee and build a better government together. The technological capabilities are there. Now, he argued, it’s up to us.
Hacking the Law
After the two keynotes, participants broke into separate workshops to “hack” new versions of laws and policies for the digital world.
A surprise guest, incoming BLS dean Nick Allard, gave an impromptu speech at lunch that described his vision for the twenty-first century law school, and suggested that events like the Hackathon indicate that the school is on the right path in that regard.
The day closed in Subotnick, with presentations from attendees about ideas they had worked on. These included a few proposals for the Hack the Act competition, which encouraged people to submit new proposals for intellectual property legislation. Finally, in a brief “secular benediction,” Tumblr General Counsel (and former Head of Global Public and Government Affairs for Google) Andrew McLaughlin exhorted the crowd to find new ways of doing good through law.
The “Hack the Act” contest continued for a week after the event. Winners were competing for a lunch with Bloomberg executives.
The BLIP Clinic livestreamed the event, and video from almost every part of the day is available here.
Disclosure: Julie Adler and Warren Allen, ’12, both edited this article and also played significant roles in producing the Hackathon.
Alexander Gross, ’06, is working late nights and weekends at a startup that could become an alternative legal career. At his second job, he works on business development for Pearescope, an app that lets you know if any of your Facebook friends — or their friends — are nearby. The app is currently available for iPad, iPhone, and the iPod Touch.
The goal of the app is to help people make connections. “When people attend an event, and log into the Pearescope app they essentially share their living Rolodex, which is Facebook, then if there are any mutual friends nearby, the app will in real time facilitate an introduction.” Pearescope has been present at networking events, including a night with Fulbright Scholars at the UN, at a media agency sponsored scotch tasting, a local BNI meeting, and, recently, at a BLS SBA event.
“Event planners are now asking us to come. They see how the technology can help the event. It helps us promote the app and it enhances their event, too,” says Gross.
The idea for Pearescope came to Whit Schrader in 2006, while studying in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar. He kept meeting friends of friends, but he felt that he was meeting people inefficiently. Technology could improve the process. In 2008, Whit incorporated Schrader Labs while he was working on a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Vanderbilt University, in Tennessee. Schrader soon dropped out of the degree program, filed provisional patents in 2009, and has patents pending as of 2010.
The company is undergoing furious and constant development that focuses on simplicity and security. Eventually, the company hopes to add numerous other features, but for now, it is focusing on providing simple networking technology that works.
Pearescope will launch the app at a new conference for startups here in New York City called New York Tech Day. “This will be the first trade show to implement a new networking technology in real time,” says Gross.
Gross got involved with the company through networking of his own. A fraternity brother introduced him to Pearescope and Gross loved the idea.
Is Pearescope imitating Facebook’s launch strategy? Not really, but the company does plan to launch on college campuses across the United States this August. The back end of the app is designed to withstand exponential increases of users. Of course, as more people use Pearescope, users will shrink the search radius, because otherwise the app would deliver too many hits. On a college campus, users might search only their immediate area for friends and friends of friends.
As the company’s name suggests, the app is not designed to be on all the time, “although it could be on all the time for the eager networker, such as myself,” says Gross. Instead, it’s designed for people who go to an event to meet other people. Once there, they can turn it on and starting making friends. Once they leave, they can turn it off. It lets the user resemble a submarine (with a periscope) in that the user will only be visible when they choose to be visible.
Gross is of course very excited by the latest valuations of social networking companies. Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion in cash and shares (but some of these tech companies are sitting on cash mountains: Facebook has several billion dollars in cash on hand and may earn $1 billion per year). Some pundits say that Pinterest could sell for more.
Gross is focusing on the basics, talking to event planners, trade show operators, bar owners, and anyone else who could see value from the app. He hopes that users find serendipitous value in it too. “You could be on a bus and going home and you might see that your friends or friends of friends are in a bar, so you’d drop off the bus early and go there,” he says.
Pearescope will be at Brooklyn Law School again this weekend as a sponsor of a networking competition at the BLIP Clinic’s Legal Hackathon. See you there.
The software and services that we use online are specifically designed to leave us at risk of security threats unless we change the default options. That was the message of privacy and security researcher Christopher Soghoian’s speech, “Evil Defaults: Why the software and services we use are intentionally designed to violate our privacy,” on March 1 in the Student Lounge.
Defaults are not exclusive to software. High school cafeterias across the nation are experimenting with changing defaults. Soghoian said that one cafeteria simply moved the pizza up so that students had to reach for it, and placed salads at eye level. The results: higher consumption of salads. A quick Google search shows dozens of similar experiments nationwide.
Software companies are doing the same thing, just without the good motives. “There’s a saying that if you’re using something for free, you are the product,” Soghoian said. He means that your privacy and data are the price you pay for something like Facebook or Gmail. “Facebook earns less than $5 per user per year from the data they sell. They could offer a premium alternative for $10, but they don’t.” The privacy invasion is a default for which there is no alternative.
But there are also more subtle default choices – ones which users can avoid. Soghoian said that many users even in the United States do not know that packet data over Wi-Fi in not encrypted. Hackers using packet sniffers can intercept user names and passwords in order to hijack accounts. There’s a very simple alternative: HTTPS (encrypted or secure HTTP). When you are accessing a service protected by HTTPS encryption, a lock icon appears in your browser. But “few users notice the lock icon when it’s there, and even fewer notice the lack of the lock icon,” Soghoian said.
For many years, Google’s Gmail service relegated HTTPS to the thirteenth option in a settings screen that most users ignored. In late 2009, a group of security experts led by Soghoian petitioned Google to change the default (see Encrypt the Cloud, Security Luminaries Tell Google, June 16, 2009). Google changed the default to HTTPS on Jan. 12, 2010. When Google did the same for its search engine in October of 2011, the marketers complained that they were being deprived of your search data (see Google SSL Default, Goodbye Query Referrer Data).
It is also possible to use HTTPS on Microsoft’s Hotmail e-mail service, but enabling HTTPS takes six steps.
Why would these companies do this? After all, it’s not in their interest for users to be afraid of identity theft as a result of using their service.
One reason may be because the government is asking them to. Valerie Caproni, General Counsel for the FBI, said in Congressional testimony that weak security helps the government catch criminals. “Criminals tend to be somewhat lazy, and a lot of times, they will resort to what is easy … [as] long as we have a solution that will get us the bulk of our targets, the bulk of criminals, the bulk of terrorists, the bulk of spies, we will be ahead of the game. We can’t have … to design individualized solutions as though they were a very sophisticated target who was self-encrypting and putting a very difficult encryption algorithm on for every target we confront because not every target is using such sophisticated communications.”
Third parties are watching you
Another reason companies do this is because it helps their own affiliates. First parties, Soghoian said, are the websites we all visit, such as the BBC, New York Times, and Reddit. Third parties are companies like Google’s Doubleclick, Microsoft’s Atlas, and independent companies such as Bluekai, all of which collect user data from first party websites and sell it.
Microsoft’s conflict of interest became clear shortly before the release of Internet Explorer 8. The original design for IE8 had sophisticated anti-tracking technologies turned on by default. The browser would accept cookies from first parties and block those from third parties. This default setting made sense to the programmers. It upset Microsoft’s advertising department, who complained directly to CEO Steve Ballmer. As a result, users can turn on IE8′s privacy options, but the browser turns off the option every time it’s shut down, so the user has to reselect it each time they start the application.
Soghoian had a more complex story to tell about Google. In 1999, computer usability student Alma Whitten co-wrote a paper called Why Johnny Can’t Encrypt: A Usability Evaluation of PGP 5.0. The paper called for higher standards of usability in security software. Today, Alma Whitten is Google’s Director of Privacy for Product and Engineering. When Google recently announced that it would back a “Do Not Track” initiative, Whitten might have made the announcement for Google. But she didn’t. Instead, it was Google’s senior vice president of advertising, Susan Wojcicki, who made the announcement — and it’s likely that it was Wojcicki, not Whitten, who made the decision.
In companies like Microsoft and Google, defaults are set by divisions that need to make money, such as advertising — not by programmers or privacy experts.
In the software industry, Soghoian said, “dark patterns” are interfaces that are optimized to trick people—the same way that casinos in Las Vegas are designed so that you get lost, lose track of time, and keep on gambling. They’re optimized for the benefit of the business, not the customers.
Risks grow as hacking gets easier
The risks of using unsecured networks are growing, Soghoian warned. A tool released a few years ago makes it easy to hijack Facebook and Twitter accounts over unsecured Wi-Fi connections (see Firesheep addon allows the clueless to hack Facebook, Twitter over Wi-Fi). Owning and using the tool is likely illegal, but that won’t stop hackers. The Firesheep tool makes it easier to do the hacking, and when the hacking gets easier, it’s likely to also become more prevalent.
In the question and answer after his speech, Soghoian added that although a similar tool does not yet exist for hacking smartphone services, it’s likely only a matter of time.
Why Private Browsing Modes Do Not Deliver Real Privacy by Christopher Soghoian.
Freedom In the Cloud: Software Freedom, Privacy, and Security for Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing, the speech by Eben Moglen at NYU that inspired Diaspora, the open source alternative to Facebook.