Posts tagged ‘Gmail’


When it comes to mass surveillance, forget speciïŹcity

26.06.2014

Be careful what you say on social media in Britain.
   English law permits mass surveillance of the big social media platforms, according to Charles Farr, the director-general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, in a statement published last week responding to a case brought by Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Bytes for All, and five other national civil liberties’ organizations.
   While communications between British residents can only be monitored pursuant to a specific warrant, those that qualify as ‘external communications’ can be monitored under a general one, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
   Since most social networks are US-based, they qualify as external.
   â€˜British residents are being deprived of the essential safeguards that would otherwise be applied to their communications—simply because they are using services that are based outside the UK,’ says Privacy International.
   â€˜Such an approach suggests that GCHQ believes it is entitled to indiscriminately intercept all communications in and out of the UK.’
   One Conservative MP, David Davis, accuses ‘the agencies and the Home Office’ of hoodwinking the Commons, although Farr says the matter was expressly raised in the House of Lords, according to The Guardian.
   It was evident in 2000 that there was an international element to electronic communications. After all, telexes had been with us for decades, and emails were mainstream in the 1990s.
   None of this would have been brought to light without the revelations from Edward Snowden and the subsequent legal challenge at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, on the grounds that ‘The absence of [a legal framework under which surveillance of citizens takes place] appears to be in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights, Article 8, which provides the right to privacy and personal communications, and Article 10, which provides the right to freedom of expression.’
   If the decision of the Tribunal falls on the side of the civil liberties’ groups, then that could be useful to similar groups here. We’ve already seen the Court of Appeal find the arguments of the Attorney-General more compelling than those of Kim Dotcom and others when it comes to balancing search warrants and the right against unreasonable search and seizure in the Bill of Rights Act 1990. While not directly related, pragmatism outweighed specificity, and it’s not a step, I imagine, that proponents of the Act would feel at ease with.
   When it comes to foreign powers exerting influence on our agencies here, especially with indictments that were so grand for what is, at its core, a civil copyright case, one would have expected specificity would be a requirement. I also would have expected such agencies to have the legal experts who would have used very tight language in an international case against a foreign national.
   The worrying trend with both scenarios is that things are taking place against citizens as though they were a matter of course, not subject to state agencies taking great care and being aware of individual human rights.
   As communications are global today, then the frameworks need to start from the point of the view of the individual and protections afforded to one.
   Here, s. 21 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990 should protect citizens when it comes to reasonable expectations of privacy, and cases tend to start from the interest of the person, who must be informed of the search or surveillance.
   The distinction between domestic and ‘external’ has not existed for years: all our websites, for instance, have been hosted abroad since we went online in the 1990s. Anyone who has used Gmail, Hotmail, Zoho and its rivals would be using external communications. Yet I do not know of anyone who would have consented to surveillance without grounds for suspicion, and laws need to balance the external requirement—where threats are perceived to come from—with the expectation of privacy individuals have on everyday communications.
   The Search and Surveillance Act 2012 is tempered perhaps by the tort of privacy and some precedent, but it’s the new Government Communications Security Bureau Amendment Act 2013 that generates similar worries to those in Britain, because specificity has gone out the window.
   We already have had an Attorney-General claim wrongly during the bill’s second reading, ‘As I say, this bill does not represent an extension of powers but a clarification,’ when even a casual comparison between the 2003 act and the new one suggests a marked increase of powers. The Prime Minister has suggested similarly in saying that it was incorrect that the ‘GCSB will be able to wholesale spy on New Zealanders.’
   The requirement for the GCSB’s monitoring of foreign intelligence has been removed in s. 8B, and any intelligence it gathers in the performance of the section is not subject to the protections afforded to New Zealanders under s. 14. Under s. 15A (1), the ‘interception warrants’ can apply to a class of people, covering all communications sent to or from abroad. These warrants can be very general, no threat to national security is required, thus eroding the expectation of privacy that New Zealanders have.
   The process through which the bill went through Parliament was disgraceful. Dame Anne Salmond noted:

During the public debate on the GCSB bill, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Dr. Rodney Harrison QC spoke out about its constitutional implications, while I addressed its implications for democratic rights and freedoms in New Zealand.
   In reply, the Attorney-General made ad hominem attacks on Harrison, me, Sir Geoffrey and other critics of the legislation during the debate on the GCSB bill, under Parliamentary privilege, and without answering the concerns that had been raised.
   These attacks on independent agencies and offices, and on individuals suggest a campaign of intimidation, aimed at deterring all those who oppose the erosion of human rights in New Zealand from speaking out, and making them afraid to ‘put their heads above the parapet’.

   If we think our laws could protect us against the sort of mass surveillance that is legal in Britain, then we are kidding ourselves. By my reading, interception warrants can take place under the flimsiest of reasons, almost in a desperate attempt to catch up with these other jurisdictions, rather than considering New Zealand values and what our country stands for.
   If Britain is successful at amending the scope of RIPA 2000, then that would be a useful first step in redressing the balance, acknowledging that communication is global, and that citizens should have their privacy respected.
   One hopes such action inspires New Zealanders to follow the path of Privacy International and others in questioning our government’s expanded surveillance powers over us. Those who are already leading the charge, I take my hat off to you.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in globalization, internet, New Zealand, politics, technology, UK, USA | 1 Comment »


History has already shown us the better way, so why ape an outmoded market leader?

05.02.2012

A friend had his Gmail hacked, and, much like an Atlantic article I read in the print edition a few months ago, the hackers deleted his entire mailbox. Google says these hacks only happen a few thousand times daily.
   I’m concerned for him because he has to deal with the Google forums, and we all know how unhelpful and obstructive they can be.
   I’ve never trusted Gmail, or any web-based email system, “on the cloud”. I’ve always kept POP3 archives and the worst thing that might happen is that some of the older CDs and DVDs might be less reliable. But this event actually brings to mind something else that has concerned me about my method: the email client.
   I’ve used Eudora since the 1990s. I started with v. 1.2, and for years, my standard client was 4.3. I happily paid for a licence to get the pro version, and used 4.3 till it no longer worked with the settings on our server. That meant I stayed with one email client from 1999 to 2008. I was then forced to upgrade to 7.1, and I have used that since.
   Qualcomm no longer makes Eudora, and for the last half-decade or so, there have been various “Eudorized” versions of Mozilla Thunderbird. That won’t fly with me, because my demand is actually very simple, but it is going completely unmet: I want an email program that has a vertically tiled inbox and outbox. For the majority of my working life, I have used this method as a to-do list of sorts, and I can see at a glance who I have to deal with.
   The sad thing is that the three-window interface has become a standard for email programs, but this does not work for me. I don’t want an email program that syncs with calendars or creates automatic Dropbox links. I just want one that works, where I can have filters and multiple accounts, and where I can have inbox and outbox side by side. This should be, I thought, a relatively simple request, especially as Eudora was, at one point, considerably more popular than it is today.

Eudora window
Above: Eudora 7.1, with an inbox on the left and an outbox on the right. Does anyone else make an email program that does this?

This is the story of many industries, where inferior norms become the standard. As I typed this, Preston Tucker came to mind: a pioneer who created a safe, fast and aerodynamic car with fuel injection, decades before Detroit could manage the same. But the big players won out and Tucker died a broken man. Americans, and indeed the rest of the world, made do with the same old junk till they were forced to innovate and use ideas that Tucker wanted to mainstream in the 1950s. Similarly, I laugh when people talk about the novelty of hybrids, when you consider how prevalent dual-fuel natural gas–petrol cars were in New Zealand 30 years ago.
   In the tech world, I happily used—and still use—WordPerfect. Why? It works. And it still works considerably better than its competition. Even a 20-year-old version will blow modern word processors away in terms of sheer functionality and ease of use, assuming you could install it. The latest versions are buggier because of the small user base and the absence of Unicode compatibility. But I persevere with it because, at the end of the day, these programs are tools, and I get my work done far more quickly with WordPerfect. I might be the one person on the planet who does not know how to use Word.
   I can’t get my head around Word. With WordPerfect, if I set margins and font, it stays that way till I tell it otherwise. Word and its later competitors have a habit of needing styles set, and try to be too clever for their own good. It might tab paragraphs automatically—even when you don’t want it to. It might change margins and fonts on me because it can. And Word’s footnote and endnote creation is still light years behind what WordPerfect could do in 1991.
   But Word is the standard because Microsoft gave it away in the 1990s. When OpenOffice and Libre Office came out, it aped the standard, right down to the crazy way it handled styles. Why? By all means, create versions which would ease the transition, but if you’re to adopt any method, why not start with the best? Word, for years, had WordPerfect transitional settings, to steal customers from the market leader. Before Word became a freebie, friends who I converted to WordPerfect were still thanking me profusely for making their lives easier. It would seem logical for these open-source programs to go with a better underlying technology.
   I have subbed with Word, and regularly do, because most of our team write using it. By the end of the piece I will have noticed the original writer adopt three styles, because Word has done it that way. My editing will have caused another three or more stylistic changes. It is a mess by the time I save it, with my only solace being that no member of the public ever sees it in that state.
   When I open a Word file in WordPerfect, which is what I have to do now with the DOCX format, I see all the superfiuous code (through Reveal Codes—for Dreamweaver users, it’s not unlike HTML source) and it answers precisely why the program lacks any logic. Styles upon styles upon styles. Even Dreamweaver users who have ever had to deal with a Word-created HTML file post-Word 2000 know exactly what I mean. Word is an ineficient program, in every respect of the adjective.

WordPerfect window
Above: This is about as simple a document as you can get and the first I found with public information: one set only in Courier, 14 pt. WordPerfect shows that Word, on which the document was originally prepared, has still inserted Times New Roman font-change codes on every blank line—for no reason whatsoever. This is one of the reasons I dislike Microsoft Word. Had the document been prepared on WordPerfect, every incidence of the Times New Roman code would not have been present.

   I don’t know much about programming, but it seems, from every article I have read about these open suites, the new programs are playing the anti-Tucker game, mostly unconsciously, since the developers I have met are usually generous idealists. Let’s stick with this less productive, less logical method of word processing, because that is where the market is. But with fonts and more complex layouts now what people need, I would have thought that the methods employed by old computerized typesetting machines—which used codes similar to WordPerfect—would have been a more logical start for a word processing program.
   This isn’t an ad for WordPerfect. I simply ask for utility and logic. It doesn’t have to have WordPerfect code. It just needs to be a word processor that does what I tell it to do. Set font, stays in that font. Set margins, stays with those margins. Is this too big an ask? Wouldn’t this save time, which is the whole idea of technology? Why should we become slaves to software, when we created it to be our slave?
   Email clients, then, I find, follow much the same pattern. When I chose Eudora, I have a vague recollection that the New Zealand competitor, Pegasus, was structured in much the same way. The tiled inbox and outbox was a norm, and it worked. People rejoiced.
   Then, Microsoft decided it would adopt the present three-window standard in Outlook, and it gave away Outlook. I resisted it from the get-go: who wants to click just to see their outbox? Isn’t that an extra step? Why can’t I see my lists of emails at a glance? For someone who gets several hundred messages a day, I need to see more than ten. I would rather see 25 or more. And my outbox would have action items, things I had promised people I would do. So I stuck with Eudora.
   It’s not about being in Luddite position. It is going back to basics and saying: what would improve people’s workflow? Forcing them to click to see something or just showing it? (Twitter UI designers, take note.) Is the three-window convention the best way to use that on-screen real estate?
   It seems that Thunderbird, the open-source rival, again missed an opportunity by using an inferior convention as its base. By all means, ape Outlook, to ease a transition. But give the public—you are, after all, on the 11th version now—a chance to move the windows as we see fit. Computers are powerful enough now so it must be possible. It was in the 1990s.
   Let those who love the three-window convention stick with it, but let the rest of us move those windows to our heart’s content, and make life as easy as possible.
   The aim, therefore, is to gather as much success in the next decade before these programs become obsolete, by which time I should either have (a) hired extra folks to take care of these tasks exclusively or (b) pushed for these features in the open-source programmes.

Therefore, making leaps ahead is a good thing, but will people do it? This is always the gamble with predicting future needs: will we go so far that we still miss the boat? We fired but the missile landed in front of her bow.
   But I’m not even talking about creating something that doesn’t exist yet. I’m talking about existing methods, things that have been around for ages, waiting to be rediscovered. Resizing and detaching windows is a standard feature in so many programs. All it takes is being able to grab this stuff from history—a lesson that could well apply to organization memory as well. History has already told us, when the playing field was level, which methods were superior, and what people opted for when confronted with having to spend their own money on software. Before their giveaway periods, the choices were never Word or Outlook.
   The open-source movement, in my opinion, has a wonderful opportunity ahead of it for creating a new round of office efficiency.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in business, design, internet, leadership, technology, typography | 9 Comments »