Street View is here

Thank you, oh Google God, for giving us our Street View. We have been waiting for your bounty and you’ve delivered.

Om Tat Sat Paravastu. This is a Hindu prayer that, back in my boarding school days, we were required to say before every meal. On the rare occasion that there was a special spread of good stuff, the boys would say the prayer with some real feeling before jumping in.

And Street View has a spread of good stuff.

Like many others, first thing to look at was our house. No laundry; grass cut; nothing special. Check. Next, the office. Nothing to embarrass me. Check. Onto the goodies. So many things to look at, so little time. A good one is Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, one of the best holiday places ever.

The Street View of our house has our car prominently featured. Zooming in, I couldn’t make out the numbers on the licence plate. So I “drove” through the Mount Vic tunnel. The angle for looking at licence plates is perfect. But, true to their word, it isn’t possible to make out the licence plates.

Indeed, Google has handled the privacy angle really well. They seem to have learned from previous experiences of privacy concerns with Street View in other countries.

Google got the basics right, such as blurring faces and providing an easy tool for people to report inappropriate images. For good measure, they also got an endorsement from the Privacy Commissioner. And the media help set expectations by quoting John Edwards as saying, “under New Zealand law, people did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy while in public.”

The enormity of photographing an entire country and making it freely available is staggering. Stuff on this scale, and that too with enormous public good benefits, is associated with governments, not ten year old companies.

So I thought the kids would be blown away. Nah, they were disappointed that the images weren’t real-time. God, are you listening?

December 2, 2008 at 10:25 pm 7 comments

Showing us a better way

The UK Government’s competition Show Us a Better Way is living up to its name. The competition is run by the Power of Information Taskforce.

The page About This Competition describes it eloquently:

“The government produces masses of information on what is happening around the UK. Information on crime, on health, on education. However, this information is often hidden away in obscure publications or odd corners of websites. Data tucked away like this isn’t of use to the ultimate owner of that information YOU.”

Refreshingly, the government goes on to say, “We’re confident that you’ll have more and better ideas than we ever will.

The Guardian newspaper, which has been campaigning for freeing up government data since 2006, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the competition. With a decent prize pool of £80,000, there has been plenty of interest with over 450 people entering the contest.

In addition to five ideas that need further work and four prototypes that are already running, the judges have announced the five ideas that will be built:
• Can I Recycle It? : recycling information based on post code
• UK Cycling : planning cycling routes
• Catchment Areas : boundaries of school catchment areas
• Location of Postboxes : nearest one to wherever you are
• LooFinder : a mobile texting or website for the nearest public toilet

The first of these, Can I Recycle It, was the overall winner.

A US-equivalent competition, Apps for Democracy, run by the District of Columbia has pulled in 47 submissions over the 30 days it ran.

Clearly, the idea has international appeal for governments. For New Zealand, there are some key messages:

1. While there are already some very good examples of government agencies freeing up their data, such as Statistics NZ’s, Making More Information Freely Available, doing more can unleash much greater creativity. People will themselves work out what problems to solve, where the opportunities are, and ways to add social and/or economic value.

2. The five ideas that emerged winners are all based on geospatial data. Perhaps this reflects the attractiveness of visualisation and the growing popularity of Google Maps. Geospatial data should therefore get priority attention.

3. Governments aren’t typically associated with competitions and cash prizes but, handled right, they could potentially be a viable way to stimulate interest. And, it’s a great way for people to know what data (including formats) the government already makes available.

4. However, even the success of Show Us a Better Way doesn’t imply that all the underlying issues have been resolved. For example, about the time the winners were announced, the Ordinance Survey (which owns all of UK’s mapping data) sent a reminder that its data was free for non-commercial use only. Worse, it ruled out letting people use its data with Google Maps due to licensing issues. This may stall all the five winning ideas. It’s a reminder that licensing, copyright, and pricing all need to be addressed before data is truly free.

5. Also, there is a need to figure out what ‘free’ actually is. Is it the UK-style freely available or the US-style free of cost?

6. This is also a reminder of the non-rival nature of data and information, i.e. one person’s use doesn’t stop others from also using the same data and information for the same or different purpose. Freeing up data can therefore have a multiplier effect since the marginal benefit of providing an extra unit is the sum of the marginal benefits received by each of the individual users.

To go back to the beginning, the Power of Information review highlighted how “The cost-benefit calculations that historically underpinned what information is collected, who can use it, and how it is paid for are rapidly becoming outdated.”

And that raises some opportunities and challenges that New Zealand needs to seize.

[Original post at http://blog.e.govt.nz/index.php/2008/11/17/showing-us-a-better-way/]

November 17, 2008 at 10:18 pm 1 comment

UK: Raising the breach barrier, again

When HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) lost personal information of nearly half the UK population, I called it “mind boggling”. I also thought that it would be the last time I’d write about data breaches. What could top that?

Never underestimate the Brits. They’ve now pushed the bar even higher.

All it took was a flash drive found in the car park of a pub, The Orbital. It had user names and the hashed passwords of Government Gateway accounts, which provides centralised authentication to important online services such as tax returns. Worse, the flash drive had the source code, security software, and a step-by-step guide to how the Government Gateway works. And, the fact that it belonged to Daniel Harrington, an IT analyst at Atos Origin, the company which manages the Government Gateway.

The flash drive was lost about two weeks ago. Daniel must have just started to believe that his prayers had been answered with the flash drive forever lost. No such luck. Tellingly, it was turned into a newspaper (The Mail on Sunday) rather than given back to the government.

The point isn’t that the flash drive was lost. What was all that data doing on it in the first place? The Prime Minister is pointing the finger at Atos Origin which is fingering Daniel for breaching operating procedures. Really? Sounds exactly like Chancellor Alistair Darling pointing to a junior official in the HMRC case. It really shouldn’t be so easy to evade accountability.

Why was the flash drive unencrypted? The passwords were encrypted but, throw enough resources at it, and it shouldn’t be that hard to break. It’s impossible to say how many copies of the flash drive may be in circulation.

Some will use this to question the UK’s plan for a National Identity Card. Others will again proclaim the death of passwords. Yet others will cry that it’s the tip of the iceberg- who knows how many other unreported breaches of this magnitude are happening around the world? I’m sure at least a few will wonder what if it had been biometric templates.

Me, I mourn the blows to trust in government and online services all over the world. And the frightening reality that past lessons are simply being ignored, taking us ever closer to a tipping point.

November 3, 2008 at 11:17 pm 1 comment

The next best thing to the next best thing

From the perspective of a person keen to see identity federation the norm, a single federation protocol is the best thing. That allows a focus on the real challenges of federation- the business and process challenges. It relegates arcane discussions about SAML and WS-Federation to the few people who really want to talk about the nuts and bolts.

In reality, that’s probably unachievable. If nothing else, that was the biggest lesson from the ODF vs. OOXML saga.

The next best thing is true interoperability between protocols with standard products supporting multiple protocols out of the box. This doesn’t take away all the costs, complexity, and risks but is still an acceptable outcome.

The next best thing to the next best thing is a major vendor promising to move towards the next best thing. To that end, Microsoft’s announcement that the beta version of Geneva will not only support SAML 2.0 as a token format but also as a single sign-on protocol is very welcome. Geneva is Microsoft’s future identity platform, replacing ADFS (Active Directory Federation Services).

Specifically, Geneva will support the SAML 2.0 Lite/Web SSO profile. Happily enough, it will also support the US Government’s GSA profile which seems to be an attractive offering for US Government agencies.

So, come 2010 or whatever the usual announcement-to-real world deployment cycle takes, deployers of federation can increasingly focus on benefiting from identity portability rather than the underlying technical challenges.

Cool.

October 30, 2008 at 12:11 am Leave a comment

How much do you earn?

Looking at India becoming the sixth nation to launch a rocket to the moon got me thinking at a more global level. Such as, how would people in different countries respond if they’re asked “how much do you earn?”

In New Zealand, the answer is quite likely a flippant “not enough” or “I can get more in Australia.”

Salaries of chief executives and some other top execs can often be deduced. But, you won’t get an answer from the tax authorities if you ask. Secrecy is enshrined in law and is a key plank for voluntary tax compliance.

Ask a person in India and the answer is quite likely to be “officially or actually?” The ‘parallel economy’ is huge and cash is king.

Ask a person in Scandinavia and it’s no secret. In fact, in Sweden, Finland and Norway it’s public information. Published by the government for anyone who wants to have a look.

Magnus Graner of Sweden’s Justice Ministry says, “If it’s what you want to do, you can see what your brother-in-law made, your neighbour made. Not everybody does it, although we joke about it and say, ‘Have you checked on your future in-laws?’ No one in my family has done it — I don’t think.”

Perhaps it’s no wonder marriage is dying in Scandinavia. Also, divorce settlements are probably based on facts, not wild conjectures of what the other partner is or is not making!

October 22, 2008 at 11:09 pm 1 comment

Anonymous, an Internet meme

On the Internet, Anonymous has become a badge, a group, an idea. It’s all a bit nebulous really. It could quickly just fizzle out. On the other hand, it might just be the start of something new, something big, an emergent phenomenon.

Let’s start with meme. According to Wikipedia, a meme is an “idea or behaviour that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation.” Examples of memes include ideas, theories, practices, fashions, habits, etc. The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 that has caught on as “a convenient way of discussing a piece of thought copied from person to person.”

Next, Internet memes. Again, according to Wikipedia, an Internet meme is “used to describe a catchphrase or concept that spreads quickly from person to person via the Internet.” There is a very interesting timeline of Internet memes that has some of the great viral distractions that the Internet has spawned. Have a look but be warned that it can hook you for hours. Like George Bush and Google. Or, the Star Wars political commercial.

Most people are familiar with the use of anonymous as a default name for a person on the Internet whose identity is unknown. Post a comment without identifying yourself and it’s likely to be accredited to anonymous.

But then anonymous began emerging as Anonymous, a sort of an in-joke. Many people think it originated from the site 4chan, an image-based bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images anonymously. Definitely not for the faint-hearted. Almost anything is acceptable. That’s led to a clique with their own language, norms, jokes, values… culture?

In turn, that’s led to a movement on the Internet, perhaps one that can be best described as an Internet meme.

In an often-quoted article in the Baltimore City Paper called Serious Business, “anons” are linked with repeated attacks on the Church of Scientology, called Project Chanology, “a battle that pits an anarchic, leaderless group of mostly young and tech-savvy activists organized through online forums and chat rooms against a religion formed in the 1950s whose adherents believe a science-fiction writer laid down the course to world salvation.”

Their words are ominous, “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”

Anonymous has been linked with more attacks. Such as a DDoS attack on the SSOH (Support Online Hip Hop) website; even the attack on Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s personal Yahoo! Mail email account.

Anonymous has now become a movement, a moniker for a wide range of leader-less groups, from fringe elements on a path of reckless destruction to activists united in a sort of superconsciousness.

It could amount to nothing, a passing ripple in Internet history. Or, it could also become something far more potent, such as a rallying cry for the anti-establishment, a new breed of cyber-vigilantes.

In many ways, Anonymous is the child of the Internet. Do we get the children we deserve?

September 25, 2008 at 11:59 pm Leave a comment

Esther Dyson on privacy

With so much happening around the world- the financial markets, politics, rugby (Union and League) – it seems terribly mundane to be writing about identity and privacy issues. C’est la vie!

It’s interesting to see that a leading magazine such as Scientific American focus on The Future of Privacy as the theme for its September issue. Another sign of privacy becoming a mainstream issue.

There seems to be a lot of interesting articles but the one that I picked first was How Loss of Privacy May Mean Loss of Security. Besides the title, what drew me was that the author is Esther Dyson. What’s so special about her? Lots of stuff that you can Google but the one fascinating fact is that, for the Personal Genome Project, she and nine other people will post their full genome sequences and accompanying health information online.

She remarked that “I was recently in the market for health insurance. I asked my insurance broker if he would like a copy of my genome, and he politely declined.”

Undoubtedly a person who’s going to have some radical views about privacy…and the article has some gems.

For example, perhaps linked to the above, her view is that “the coming flood of medical and genetic information is likely to change the very nature of health insurance.” She doesn’t see this as requiring a privacy trade-off. Instead, she believes the problem is making cheap and plentiful health insurance available balanced by “mandating subsidies paid by society to provide affordable insurance to those whose high health risks would otherwise make their insurance premiums or treatment prohibitively expensive.”

Hmmm…so how is cheap and plentiful health insurance actually going to be made available in the first place?

She asks the question “What is the best way to limit government power?” The answer seems hard to swallow, “Not so much by rules that protect the privacy of individuals, which the government may decline to observe or enforce, but by rules that limit the privacy of the government and of government officials.”

Another suggestion seems better, “We should be able to monitor what the government does with our personal data and to audit (through representatives) the processes for managing the data and keeping them secure.”

On information privacy in general, while not new, she puts it elegantly, “Much of the privacy that people took for granted in the past was a by-product of friction in finding and assembling information. That friction is mostly gone.”

She goes on to say that, “Rather than attempting to define privacy for all, society should give individuals the tools to control the use and spread of their data.” Disappointingly, the tools she praises are the very limited access controls that Facebook and Flickr provide.

If that’s the best tools we’re going to get, I think we’ve got a long, long way to go before loss of privacy isn’t a mainstream issue any longer!

September 17, 2008 at 11:01 pm Leave a comment

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