Archives for the month of: March, 2014

Most people have never heard of a man named Aaron Swartz. Many of them have probably heard of Reddit (which he co-founded), which is one of the largest message boards and communities on the internet today. What happened to him is a travesty that many more people should be aware of.

In January 2011, Swartz was arrested by MIT police for systematically downloading articles and academic journals from the repository called JSTOR. Swartz planned to gather the articles and publish them in an open, free database that would be open for anyone to view and use. Federal prosecutors charged him with thirteen criminal charges, which carried a cumulative maximum penalty of $1 million in fines plus 35 years in a federal penitentiary. Swartz’s attorney accused the Department of Justice of lying, seizing evidence without a warrant and withholding evidence. Unfortunately, the trial dragged on for more than two years. On the evening of January 11, 2013, Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment. Swartz was hopeless, convinced that he was doomed to lose the trial.

Why did the government feel it necessary to prosecute Swartz? He was trying to gather and distribute data from academic journals that were free to begin with (free as long as you were connected to MIT’s WiFi network). How is it that the government was charging him with theft? Theft from whom? They accused him of hacking. Do they even know what hacking is? Did the prosecutors have the faintest idea of the crimes that they were charging Swartz with?

Aaron Swartz was many things. A programmer, entrepreneur, activist, organizer, writer, and contributor to many things that benefited the world immensely. He created RSS, Reddit, and helped organize and create Creative Commons, among other things far too numerous to list here. One thing that he was not was a criminal. Our copywrite laws are severely broken, and they need to be fixed. Fast. Problem is, the people tasked with fixing the broken system we have, are the same people that created the broken system to begin with.

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Code Academy, Casper Diamond is my Facebook name

What do I consider private? In short, metadata and content that is associated with me that I do not publish. Content is easy to define and understand. What you are reading is content. Metadata, on the otherhand, has a more nebulous and confusing definiton.  Metadata is data that gives specificity to other data. Say, for instance, you place a phone call to someone. The audio of that phone call is the content. The length and GPS location of the call, the identities of those engaged in the call, the IMEI and SIM identification numbers of the phones connected to the call… THAT is metadata. The government wants us to believe that it’s dragnet, mass surveillance is only collecting metadata. ‘It’s only metadata’, senator Diane Feinstein and president Barack Obama said last year. Assuming that is true (it’s not, there is evidence that proves that the government is collecting much more than just metadata), that is tremendously scary. Metadata can be tremendously revealing if analyzed. There are so many reasons to have a problem with this, more than I can list in just a few paragraphs.

Whenever I engage in conversations with people about the government’s mass collection of our data, the stock response is ‘but I don’t have anything to hide’. So? That doesn’t mean anything. Whether or not you have anything to hide is entirely irrelevant. It’s whether or not the government thinks you have something to hide, and with the Executive’s overly broad interpretation of section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, everyone is a suspect in the War on Terror. Everyone. You, me, grandma. Whether or not you have anything to hide, you are suspect, and that is a tremendously dangerous interpretation of the law. Of course, the government also collects the data that Facebook and Twitter collect. Problem with that is, when I post something or log into Facebook, I am giving Facebook consent to use that information. Not the government. Not the companies that Facebook then sells that data to.

We are on a slippery slope. Our data is not safe. Not from the government. Not from private corporations. Encryption won’t help. Not at all. Our data is collected, stored, and sold on the daily, and I don’t think there is anything that we can do to slow or stop it. 

To be honest, I do not use social networking services. Not Facebook, nor Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest, Google+, VK, Tumblr, Baidu, or any of that other crap. It’s not for me. I do not feel comfortable publishing my life on a page that can be accessed by everyone in the world that has internet access (especially the government). In my eyes, it is just a tool to make money. You provide these companies with your data (ie. your life), who then mine and analyze it. Then, they subsequently sell all of that information to the highest bidder. It doesn’t always work out very well for everyone involved. Mark ‘Zuckyzuck’ Zuckerberg has made billions of dollars doing this. Unfortunately, I’m in the minority. Everyone I know uses social networking of some shape and form. They looooooooove to have public conversations with their friends about things that (probably) should be discussed in private. When I tell them about the objectively unethical business practices of these shady companies, they shrug and call me a tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist. ‘I don’t have anything to hide’, they respond. Of course you don’t. In that case, you should defecate with the bathroom door open. What? I thought you didn’t have anything to hide? Isn’t that essentially what Facebook is doing? Tracking your IP address as as you go through the internet, even if you’re not logged in? You never consented to that.

Most of my friends use Twitter and Instagram. Twitter is a service in which every single one of your posts has to include less than 140 characters of text. Instagram is not a cannabis delivery service (get it? Instagram?). Rather, it is a service that encourages users to post terrible photos with hideous filters applied to them. Neither of these ever appealed to me. I can see why they appeal to others, but to me, they’re a waste of time. Why would I want to look at the awful pictures my friends have taken with their phones?

Even if I don’t use services like Twitter and Instagram, they have their uses. In a political sense, I can see how they can be so important. Protestors in Turkey, Ukraine, Venezuela, Russia and Egypt have used Twitter because it allows them to communicate and organize in a fashion not possible even 10 years ago. In 2008, when Islamic fundamentalists left more than 100 dead in attacks in Mumbai? Twitter was there. In 2009, when the Iranian government began spraying the protestors with acid from helicopters? People on Twitter managed to get their message out. It’s ubiquitous. When important stuff goes down, people take to the internet to document and discuss it.

Oppressive governments must be quaking in their boots.