The blogger and the (cookie) jar

For a while now, I’ve been unable to post comments at * blogs. Even anonymous comments, in blogs that allow them. Alas, when writing a comment and clicking the ‘Submit’ button, the page was just reloaded, and no trace of my comment was left behind. Weird is an understatement. Puzzled as I was, now I have discovered the reason: unlike * blogs, to post a comment, any kind of comment, at blogger, you have to allow third party cookies! Yep, to comment you must open yourself to the possibility of “anonymous” surveillance (even more than what you are already exposed for just using the internet). Luckily, there’s an easy fix (if you’re a Firefox user, that is): install the Cookie Monster addon. Then disable third party cookies globally (Edit -> Preferences -> Privacy), and go submit a comment. It’ll reload the page, but the addon icon in FF’s bottom bar will tell you that the page tried to set a third party cookie. Allow it to do this always. This way, you disable third party cookies by default, while still allowing it for those sites that require it, viz. blogger. And presto, problem solved!

Addendum: I think this only happens when the comment form shows up after the “original” post, like so, and not when the comments are written in a separate page, like so. Blogger is weird…

Welcome to fascism

If there were times when I questioned the usefulness of twitter, believe me, they’re long gone. First I got this video of yet another interview with Assange. It’s overall very interesting, but here’s the real nice bit: “Facebook is the most appalling spy machine that has ever been invented” (1:50 minute mark on the video).

Besides Facebook, he talks about his extradition case, Wikileaks’ relationship with mainstream press (viz. The Guardian and the NYT), but the most interesting bit is the final one: when he’s asked what is his greatest enemy, he replies “ignorance”. For in his view, peoples don’t like wars, so the only way to go to war, is to “fool the people” into going to war. I think he just revealed the true seed behind Wikileaks.

Moving a bit back to Facebook, also via twitter comes this pearl: Facebook’s form to law enforcement. In my most humble opinion, if this shows anything, it is that to Facebook at least, handling data to the authorities is no longer (if it ever has been) an exceptional event; rather, it has become commonplace, a routine task if you will. Adding the fact that this kind of disclosures do not add any value to Facebook’s shareholders, it is then an annoyance that has to be dealt with, preferably with the minimum amount of hassle. And thus Facebook becomes “the most appalling spy machine that has ever been invented”.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention today’s main news piece: the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. I’d have much preferred to see him brought to justice and tried according to the rule of law, but then again, he is a (US-)trained Mujahideen, who probably doesn’t really fit the “come peacefully” type. But all that notwithstanding, given all the cheerful and sometimes outright extatic reaction to the death of a human being, one cannot stop and wonder: have we (and US people in particular) become that which we set out to fight against in the first place?

EDIT TO ADD: not even on purpose, Facebook deletes “We’re all Osama Bin Laden page”. I do not wish to moralize on merits or lack thereof of such page (which I have not seen), but just think about the fate of all the data related to it (e.g. the identities of all those who “liked” it). Chilling thought!

Facebook explained

Free transcription of part of the talk:

[...] give a rat a lever that dispenses food pallet every time and he’ll get one when he’s hungry. But if you give one that only sometimes dispenses that food pallet, he’ll just hit until he runs out of steam because he’s not sure of what the trick is and he thinks he’s gonna get it if he keeps banging on that lever.

To see how this applies to facebook, replace the lever with you posting some bit of hitherto private information on facebook, and the food pallet with the jolt of feedback you (sometimes) get as a result of what you have posted. Scary thought, isn’t it?

EDIT: I corrected a number typos I did when transcribing…

Three new apps

First, we start with Google Sharing. Its stated purpose is to diminish the amount of information Google collects about you, while at the same being completely transparent to the end user. It achieves this using a Firefox addon the redirects google searches to a special proxy, that will modify it so as to hide its origin, before sending it back to google. When used with SSL, this ensures that not even the proxy can violate the user’s privacy, because the request is encrypted from Google’s server to the end user’s computer. More information can be found on the homepage and the FAQ, which is very clearly written, even to the non-geek user.

The second app, is the smplayer. I was an avid vlc user, but this “frontend” to mplayer seems (thus far at least) to throw vlc into a distant second place. It has nice features, and one in particular, that is totally awesome: it can automatically download subtitles for you! In a matter of seconds. Awesome.

Last, but surely not least the third app: for those you who, like the author, used Windows and Winamp, and then Linux and XMMS, and thought the latter had been cast into an inescapable oblivion, here’s audacious! Not much to say, better go see for yourself. I, for one, have found my new favourite audio player!


Paranoid tip of the week: ScroogleSSL

Scroogle is a sort of “web-wrapper” of Google. It essentially acts as an interface, that performs ordinary google searches while (literally) detaching the client executing the search from google’s prying eyes. To make this even better, it allows (unlike google) for searches to be done with https, and not only plain http (accessing will just redirect you to the normal unencrypted google page). And now for the fun part: how to add SSL enabled Scroogle to Firefox search bar. First download the “Add to Search Bar” Firefox extension, then restart Firefox and go to the SSL Scroogle page, right click on the search form, and select “Add to Search Bar”. Select a name for the new search engine, and you’re done!

Privacy: Don’t be evil

Virtually every single time I’ve mentioned online privacy related concerns to anyone—even computer engineers—the reaction I get is similar: a shrug, followed by comments like: “yeah right, like that’s ever going to be a problem…”.

I don’t think this is because people stopped valuing their privacy. Rather, most people don’t seem to realize the extent of the lack of privacy they experiment when going online. This is hardly surprising: after all, in the comfort (and privacy!) of your homes, using a computer is not an experience likely to be perceived as privacy threatening—in fact, it may well happen the opposite, because you’re not interacting with actual people, but sitting comfortably behind a screen. This must be the reason, I’m led to surmise, why so many people on Facebook will happily provide their personal details—i.e. accept an invitation to befriend—pretty much anyone else, including a green plastic frog. The meagre and dwindling online privacy we have now is perceived to be higher than that which we enjoy in our “away from keyboard” lives.

But it gets better—or rather, worse—than that. How? When the bulk of your online activities, be those web browsing, email, calender schedule, and even DNS queries(!) are all done by the same corporation, viz. Google. And I know that for instance in the case of Google Public DNS, they state that “In the permanent logs, we don’t keep personally identifiable information or IP information.”. But if they wanted to do that (say, they got a subpoena from law enforcement), they could do that. That’s a fact. And history shows us, time and time again, that whenever power can be abused, it will be abused. But it gets even worse.

How? Well, everything I mentioned so far about Google, are all potential problems. Right? Well, that potential came a lot closer to reality when Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, uttered these words:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place

Now think for a second: it’s Google’s CEO who said that! If that does not wake us up against the danger of anything remotely resembling online privacy disappearing into oblivion, then I don’t know what will.

Oh by the way, a couple of years ago, some folks over CNET did this little experiment: they used the Google search engine to search about Schmidt himself; the results of said search having pissed the hell out of him. By his own twisted logic, he was doing a lot of things he shouldn’t be doing…

So what is the average computer user suppose to make out of this? The interview in The Register, where the quote comes from, ends like this:

CNBC asks Schmidt: “People are treating Google like their most trusted friend. Should they be?” But he answers by scoffing at those who don’t trust Google at all.
Not that you’d expect anything less. As always, Schmidt’s holier-than-thou attitude is wonderfully amusing. Except that it’s not.

The way I see it, he’s acting a whole lot like a drug dealer: he knows better than to use the stuff he sells. Continuing with the analogy for a little bit, when CNET forced his own drug onto him, he exacted revenge on them. But what are those of us that don’t head a multi billion dollar company supposed to do, when that same drug is so overwhelmingly forced upon us? That is a question still left open.

Some things are just too good…

… to go unnoticed. And the following comment, posted in this Slashdot thread, is surely one of them:

The Bush administration has shit all over the Constitution and this country. They have committed treason.

That’s not what scares me (or any other onlooker from Europe or the rest of the world).

What scares us is that you shitheads let them get away with it. You almost impeached a president for lying about a blowjob, but you don’t take down an administration that is actively dismantling everything your ancestors fought and died for.

The thread deals about an article where this idiot says he wants 1984 in the good old US of A.

Personally, what scares me the most is that when I read this, I though of a lecture given by Stallman, where he says something like this: “Americans have the bad habit of instead of solving their problems, they focus more on imposing the same problems onto the rest of the world”. He said this referring to copyright laws, but it’d be naive (to put it mildly) to think they’ll stop there…

Google reader

A quick search in this blog will suffice to convince you of thoughts regarding Google: I don’t trust it, so I use it on what could be called a “need to use base”. Which is to say, I use to search, and little more. Now earlier today, when I was reading the chapter 3 of The End of Control (I’m a bit late, yes I know, I have other things to do besides developing roots facing a pc screen), I came across Google RSS Reader. I’ve tried to use RSS readers before, namely the one in Thunderbird, but I did not like it. I went to take a look to Google’s RSS contraption, liked the look and feel (opposed to what happened with Thunderbird, an otherwise very good email client), and decided to give it a try. And I liked it. So Google gets a record of what blogs I read? Yeah, that’s true, but if I publish a list of the books I read (and was thinking of doing just that), that public info just the same. To be accurate, I must say that this is not exactly true: if I made a list of what books I read, the information despite publicly available, it’s still just text until someone goes there and reads it to see what is it about. Google most likely stores that information in a format much more suited to analysis. Wonder if that has implications with what ends up being advertised in Gmail… oh well, at least I’m aware of it, unlike a disturbingly high percentage of Americans.

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You’ve been Scroogled, have a nice day!

Cory Doctorow has written a piece on what would happen if Google… well, stopped not being evil. The short essay describes a hypothetical association between Google and Department of Homeland Security, a recent security US security agency. Although I’ve not finished reading it, the think the most amazed me was, how plausible the described scenario is. I’m not saying it is (or it is not) true. I’m saying that unlike some other dystopian scenarios, this one, despite being an extreme one, looks surprisingly plausible.

WHAT IF GOOGLE WERE EVIL? Cory Doctorow imagines the worst

“Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him.” —Cardinal Richelieu

“We don’t know enough about you.” —Google CEO Eric Schmidt

I might further edit this post after I finish reading the essay…

EDIT: I am now writing a couple of days after the initial post. I’ve finished reading it, and while I did not actually enjoyed the end (seemed a little far fetched, reminded me of the ending of Brave New World…) the essay itself is a joy to read. I wonder what Google guys must have thought of this… I mean, I’ve never worked at Google (though I did apply once…), but from I’ve read, it appears that most of the guys of work there, enjoys their work very much. For instance, quoting Peter Norvig, here’s what he says about his own job (he is currently Director of Reseach at Google):

Note to recruiters: Please don’t offer me a job. I already have the best job in the world at the best company in the world. Note to engineers and researchers: see why you should apply to help.

And this “working enthusiasm”, lacking a better description, appears to be pervasive at Google. So how can an IT company with such devoted workers come so close to ending privacy worldwide? This is not an easy question, but I think that this may be similar to judging the nature of scientific developments: it depends not only on the developments per se, but also on the use that they are given.The scientific development in discussion here is a great search engine, one whose greatness is only surpassed by the enormous abuse possibilities (as so many science and technological wonders before it). I think they new this for a while back, and that may have been one of the reasons for their world famous motto: “Don’t be evil”. But they already caved to Chinese censorship laws, and with the US becoming a more police state as each day goes by, one can only become wary of possibilities… Reminds me of a quote by Reagan that I previously posted:

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free

A final note to say that subcontracting intelligence gathering to the private sector, something referred to in the essay, is not fiction; it is a proposed measure by the US government (will post link to it when I find it).

A good one from slashdot

This is one of the articles in Slashdot today:

The BBC has a nice high-level overview of some technologies for surveillance developed in the US and the UK. ‘The US and UK governments are developing increasingly sophisticated gadgets to keep individuals under their surveillance. When it comes to technology, the US is determined to stay ahead of the game …

And this is one of the comments:



This reminds me of my youth in Poland.

(Score:5, Interesting)

by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 16, @09:19PM (#20630867)

I grew up in Poland in the 1960s and 1970s. This is the sort of shit we dealt with each day.

The Communists claimed to have devices that could read minds to determine one’s intentions. Now, we didn’t know if this was true or not. But seeing as many of us wanted to live another day, or at the very least not get tortured, we assumed they did.

It seems that the citizenry of the UK and the US are now in a very similar position….

Funny how the tables can turn in such little time… makes one wary of what freedoms can you really take for granted these days…

NSA does it again…

You know you’re chronically paranoid when in the effort to achieve something, you end up taking such extreme measures that eventually start to hinder the initial objective. And it appears this state of affairs has been reached in the US. Long story short, the NSA is so desperately trying to be able to spy the whole world, that they started bugging for automatic surveillance mechanism in telephone switches. The problem is that this kind of mechanism makes possible (or at least easier) for anyone with the proper resources (terrorists, Russians, … China?) to gain access to the information passing through those switches. Which ultimately fires back in what U.S. security (and privacy) are concerned. Hooray for uncle Sam!

Last, I reproduce one of the first comments on that Slashdot page:

I remember a quote from Reagan: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

My oh my has that come true. Sadly from the leader of his own party. Something needs to be done?

An eclectic post

Eclectic is a fancy new word I first saw used in the alternative designation of Perl: Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister. What it means in the case of Perl is irrelevant, but eclectic per se means derived from multiple sources. As this post contains a lot of unrelated things, well you should be seeing the association by now…

The first thing is a small video by a Canadian Law professor, that puts “Canadian Piracy in Perspective“. Although in my much modest opinion, it does a better job at putting the right perspective on the US legal effort against “piracy” (term used in a very broad sense). But better see for yourself:

Moving on to a different but related subject, here’s a rather long but good talk about DRM, namely on how it got smuggled into the legal system. To wet your appetite, here’s the opening quote:

Otto von Bismarck quipped, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” I’ve seen sausages made. I’ve seen laws made. Both processes are pleasant in comparison to the way anti-copying technology agreements are made.

This probably deserved a link in my anti-DRM page (see blogroll), but as I am in practice cut off from that machine, I’ll dump it here.

Last, but surely not least, another link on why privacy matters, and just to what extent it was been thwarted today. Some things are specific to the US, but it is troubling nonetheless…

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The role of privacy

Technology has made it possible to spy on the masses on an unprecedented scale. After WTC bombings, several programs (within the US) were created that did exactly that: massive surveillance, even without requiring judicial warrants. Reporting this were several reputable sources, such as the The New York Times, among others. A short list is provided in page 3 (printed page 1) of the pdf document you can download here. And this is far from being limited only to the US.

In this state of things, what is the reaction of the ‘average joe’?

Well, among the people I know (and apparently also among americans) the so called ‘nothing to hide’ argument appears to be very popular. There are several versions of this argument, but it usually reduces to something like this: “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?” Another fairly popular ‘reaction’ is to label all those who favour privacy and things like the widespread use of strong cryptography as ‘naive’ at best, or ‘terrorists’ at worst.

I have very well known and strong opinions against this, and today I stumbled in a Bruce Schneier‘s article that shows that so does he. I strongly recommend the reading of both the article and the pdf, both rather small, but above all the article. It will not sunk you in tech jargon, and it exposes very clearly the point. And the point is the complete falsehood the “premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong” (and hence if you did nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide). It is not. “Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect”. The remainder of the article explains why. Next I quote the most illustrative phrase (IMHO) of the whole article:

Cardinal Richelieu understood the value of surveillance when he famously said, “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.”

Happy reading :-)