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Default Internet Filtering — The Road to Complacency

It seems we have bounced from one consultation on a threat to the internet to another. The UK government is now consulting on the idea to introduce an opt-out ‘internet filter’ for certain types of content.

I have absolutely no problem with empowering parents/guardians and internet subscribers in general to control their own internet connections. Providing inexpensive and free tools, combined with education on how to use them (and what they can and cannot do) is something I would wholeheartedly support.

However, performing filtering at the network level, using the tyranny of the default to effectively impose certain decisions on parents is not just a dangerous precedent to set. It is also extremely likely to be technically ineffective, and therefore will create a false sense of security for parents and guardians. A false sense of security does not protect children.

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Balancing the Risks of the Communications Data Bill

Like many of my generation, I have grown up expecting the rich benefits, and accepting the unique risks, an open and free internet presents.

I do not pretend that this medium for open exchange does not, at times, facilitate truly terrible things. I do not deny that the lives and security of millions of people are, at times, put at risk by this platform.

Behind the Black Boxes

I seek to urge balance — balance between the competing demands of liberty and security. A balance of the risk of crime that is faciliated by free communications with installing tools and technology that could so easily be abused by those charged with protecting our safety.

The UK government, like many others at this point in time, is planning to introduce widespread surveillance of internet communications, in the form of the Communications Data Bill.

They will collect the ‘communications data᾿, the metadata of with whom we communicate, through traditional channels like email, but also through any number of third-party services. This will require them to employ deep packet inspection on all our internet traffic to extract the data that they would, under the Bill, be lawfully allowed to store.

But:

  • Who will make the ‘black boxes᾿ that will be doing all the collecting?
  • If the ‘black boxes᾿ are necessarily hunting through the whole communication for the communications metadata, how can we be sure that content will not also be collected?
  • Who will have access to these machines?
  • Are their access controls going to be subject to penetration testing by well-respected security researchers, so we can be confident that our data will remain under the control of the designated officials?
  • How do we know that the boxes have not been, and will not be, altered to do more than their original lawful task?

Our Patterns are Private

… unless there is good reason to suspect us of committing an offence.

One of the things that troubles me greatly is the proposal of storing the address of every website we visit. We are promised that the addresses of individual pages will not form part of this data, but nevertheless, an extraordinary amount of information can be inferred from a list of websites that an individual has visited.

Sensitive political information, medical details we have a right not to disclose, valuable commercial intelligence…

The more data that is accumulated, the more an abusive or corrupt agent can infer, and the more damage they could do. The information about where we go online also has a very high commercial value (as many internet companies are already well aware), making the likelihood of illicit commercial exploitation of this government-held data by rogue officials vastly higher.1

Unless there is reason to believe we have done something wrong, we have a right to withhold this information.

We should resist routine collection and storage of this information where there is no suspicion of wrongdoing.

The Balance of Power

Protecting citizens against risks to their safety is obviously a priority, and clearly a huge challenge. Many people devote their lives to doing so, and many people have made significant sacrifices in pursuit of security. I deeply respect these people, and the need for this work.

We must, however, limit the power we entrust to those who protect us. There will always be some who are liable to corruption, and some intent on harming us whilst purporting to do the opposite.

We have to balance the risk posed by ‘others᾿ — criminals, terrorists, rogue states, with the risk posed by those inside the system who may exploit us with it.

Unfortunately, the abuse of power is made much more efficient where technology is involved.

The wide, sweeping powers of surveillance that the Bill mandates afford dangerous levels of power that are all too easily turned against us. We might trust this government and the software they put on the black boxes that watch all our traffic. What about the next one, and the software they load onto these machines? What if a group much less trustworthy are able to seize these powers in the future? What if the collection and storage technology itself is fundamentally insecure?

It is much easier to resist these overbroad powers now, than to try and re-balance rights and risks later.

Think

I ask that if you do nothing else, spend a little time thinking about these balances of power, and balances of risk.

If, like me, you read between the lines of the Bill and find these balances troublingly one-sided, then write to your MP and write about this issue. Make your voice heard.

Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.

— Thomas Jefferson.

1: The UK᾿s recent huge press scandal has highlighted the issue of corrupt law enforcement officials giving privileged access and preferential treatment to private media companies. It is naïve to believe that this risk will not present itself again. The best way to protect against this kind of corruption and exploitation is to limit the collection of and access to our private data.

Nginx, Linux sendfile(), and Problem Solving

Engine room, by Maggie Stephens

In “A Tale of Stale Content”, on the Van Patten Media blog, I take a somewhat philosophical look at IT problem solving, told through the story of an intensely frustrating issue with Nginx serving up stale content in virtualised environments. Apparently, the sendfile on; setting in Nginx will cause it to deliver old versions of files you have since updated on disk.

Sometimes a problem comes up that is just weird. It seems completely illogical. But these computery things are supposed to be nothing but logic, right?

When we eventually arrive at the solution, after many hours of hair loss and bad language, we are reminded of the sheer complexity of these systems. Our assumptions about how something at a higher level should behave are entirely dependent on the premise that the lower levels are all doing exactly as expected too.

It’s humbling, in a slightly odd technical sense. We all need to be humbled sometimes.

Read the full post over on the Van Patten Media blog.

Image is “Engine room”, by Maggie Stephens (Pot Noodle) on Flickr. Licensed under CC-BY.

Remembering Steve Jobs

I know that this will be just one of many tributes. There are so many things that could be said about Steve and his innumerable contributions to the world in which we live. I’ll leave it to the many other fitting tributes to express everything Steve has done for the world.

I just want to share two things that have inspired me most about Steve.

Two things that, it is not an exaggeration to say, have helped me through some difficult times. Two things that gave me focus where I had none — that played a vital role in helping me bring myself to where I am now. These aren’t direct quotes, but messages that I have derived from things he said, and things he did.

1. Being different isn’t just OK, it can be your greatest asset.

2. Listen to yourself. That inner voice knows you better than you do. Trust it.

Thank you for everything. You will be remembered.

Initial Thoughts on the Windows 8 Developer Preview

Windows 8 'Headlines', showing RSS feed headlines for my blog

I was interested to take a look at the new publicly-available developer preview of Windows 8 that was released today. I have a few (poorly organised and still unrefined) initial thoughts.

After an initial hiccup running the developer preview in VMware, I switched over to a machine with VirtualBox and got up and running. The installation process was impressively speedy, even under the virtualised conditions, and asked few questions. A good start.

Initially, it is a little disconcerting not to have the desktop right in front of you after logging in, but I suspect that with a little retraining, the new ‘Start’ screen might prove a more convenient starting interface. The Windows Phone-style ‘tiles’ interface is genuinely innovative (praise I rarely would find myself directing at Microsoft) and seems to work in a fairly intuitive way.

I should mention at this point that my virtual machine setup and ‘traditional’ hardware combination mean that only a mouse and keyboard were available, making it impossible for me to evaluate the touch features of the OS (and making some of the ‘Metro’ apps and UI a little difficult to use). This is, of course, a limitation of my configuration, but it also raises an important point — if this new Metro UI will be the default even for computers with no touch capabilities, the whole thing needs to be smooth, optimised and not at all frustrating for this category of users too. It doesn’t feel this way yet — having to perform awkward drag gestures with a mouse isn’t a good experience at all. The viability of having a single operating system, with shared UI concepts, on very different types of computing devices is something that is yet to be proven.

Internet Explorer 10's 'Metro' interface, showing this website

These issues aside, I find myself quite impressed at how well the combination of the new ‘Metro’ apps themselves work alongside the traditional desktop. The disparity between the two types of apps was something I thought might make the system feel clunky and ‘part-baked’, but I find myself likening it to the Mission Control view in Mac OS X Lion — the Metro apps are like your Lion apps in Full-Screen Mode, and you still have access to the traditional desktop over to the left. In short, I actually think it works.

There are certainly some minor oddities at this stage — and obviously this is far from a finished, polished product. But there is promise in this hybrid-UI design that I hadn’t expected to find. I certainly need to spend a bit more than a short hour playing with the system before I’ll really understand what I think of its potential.

The biggest challenge will be how well a single operating system will work on very different types of computing devices — and indeed whether the hardware and software on the new generation of Windows tablet devices will be up to the task.

Techniques for Instagram

I am a of the iPhone app and web service Instagram. You can take great photos with the iPhone 4, but Instagram encourages making art from iPhone photography in a really interesting and fun way. I am by no means a professional photographer, but I do enjoy playing around with what can be achieved with the iPhone’s camera.

More recently, I have found myself using Instagram in a few unconventional ways to get some interesting results.

Using Instagram as a Post-Production Digital Zoom

Bullock

While the iPhone 4 camera in many ways can be very competitive with many dedicated point and shoot cameras, one notable feature it lacks is an optical zoom. There’s a digital zoom — but I see little point in using it. Digital zoom merely degrades the quality of the photo you are taking — and you lose that quality permanently. If you want to crop the photo to have the effect of digital zoom, you can do that after taking the photo without losing any data.

And that’s what I have found myself doing quite a bit — I will take a photograph of something in the distance using the iPhone’s default Camera app, then enter Instagram, choose the new photo to bring into the app from the Camera Roll, and use the zoom and pan feature to ‘crop’ the Instagram version of the shot. I end up with the original, unfiltered photo in case I want to come back with that, and the cropped and filtered ‘arty’ version in Instagram.

Grazing sheep

Combining iPhone 4 HDR Photography with Instagram

The iPhone 4’s High Dynamic Range (HDR) feature, introduced shortly after the debut of the device, allows you to capture more of scenes with significant contrast between the lightest and darkest areas of an image. The iPhone’s HDR takes two photos in quick succession — one underexposed, one overexposed — and combines them together.

The results, frankly, are mixed, but there are many occasions where the iPhone 4᾿s HDR works really well to bring the colour of the sky out where it would otherwise be ‘blown out’.

Unfortunately, you can’t use the HDR feature within Instagram’s capture interface, so, again, I find myself using the iPhone’s default camera app to take the source photo, then importing into Instagram later. The result is that you can combine the HDR shot with the filters and other enhancements in Instagram for an even better end result.

Through the trees

Conclusion

These two techniques I have developed might be quite obvious to many people — and could even be described as a bit fiddly, with having to exit and enter different apps. I have found them, however, a really good way to make even more out of a fantastic free app.

If you want to follow my images on Instagram, my username there is peteru.

Thoughts on Ubuntu’s Unity

Just yesterday, the 14th major release of the Ubuntu operating system was released into the world. One of the biggest new things in the Natty Narwhal release is the new Unity interface — which will be the default interface for the OS. I wanted to take a moment to record my initial thoughts on this new interface direction. This is not, then, a particularly in-depth or scientific analysis, but just a few thoughts on the new interface design that I wanted to share.

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Twitter Protected Account Limitations

Picture of megaphone

I like the fact that since the very early days, Twitter has offered you the ability to make your account ‘protected’. What this means is that unlike the default setting, your tweets are not publicly visible. Only people who are following you can see them, and any new followers you get after you protect your account have to be approved by you.

It is a great way to use Twitter if you don’t necessarily feel comfortable sharing a lot if you know you are sharing it with the world. That’s why I like it, anyway.

However, there are some sacrificies you have to make when having a protected account — and at times it is not awfully clear what these are. Here are a list of some of the protected account restrictions you might come across, but might not be aware of.

  • If you send a tweet @ someone who is not following you, they cannot see that tweet. So if you do have a protected account and are trying to enter a competition with a business where their account is not following you, for example, or speak to anyone who is not already following you, that is why they aren’t responding to you!
  • Other people cannot retweet you (using the ‘official’ retweet mechanism). It is possible for others to use other ‘quote’ style manual retweets, but not the native retweet functionality. Trying to retweet anyone who is protected will throw an error message.
  • Your tweets are protected, but the list of those who you follow and the list of who follows you is still public. There is no way to make those lists private. This is something to bear in mind.
  • Another privacy point to remember is that if your account is protected, but you are conversing with someone whose account is public, their side of the conversation will be public (unless you converse via Direct Message).
  • It can be more difficult to meet new interesting people on Twitter if your account is protected. There are those on the service who won’t spend much time deciding whether to follow you if you are protected.

For some of these reasons, I now also have a public account, @PeterUpfold, which announces new blog posts here and also I use to make conversation with people who aren’t following my main, protected account, @strategyoracle.

This post is up-to-date as of 2010-12-11. Twitter can, and does, change its features and functionality iteratively. If you’re looking at this post at a later date, some of these restrictions may have changed!

‘Megaphone’ image is soundsky, by seungmina on sxc.hu. Licensing information for that image.

Three Years of Mac

My 13-inch white MacBook on the day it arrived

This month marks three years since I purchased my white MacBook, my first Mac computer. Other than the AppleCare coverage stopping (good job they just replaced my battery, yay!), this represents quite a milestone in my technological life.

I have always had a passion for playing with anything and everything when it comes to technology. I am not satisifed merely to find a technology solution, I am excited and highly motivated to seek out the best solution that meets the specification in the best way and then to understand it and know everything about it.

My interest in the Mac was born from this insatiable desire to understand everything. The Mac was, little over three and a half years ago, much a mystery. Having explored the Windows and Linux worlds extensively, the Mac was the last place in desktop computing that I really hadn’t looked into in great detail.

Over the last three years, I have found that my investment in the Mac has proved worthwhile. Mac OS X has ended up being my primary platform for desktop computing. While I still spend time working in the Windows and Linux worlds and enjoy discovering and learning about the new things happening there, the Mac has been a big focus for me in recent years.

So I ask myself — objectively, why has the Mac become my primary desktop platform?

  • Mac OS X is a Unix operating system. This has a number of advantages, but it mainly means rock-solid reliability (in theory at least) and a decent way to interact with the machine via the command line.
  • It is elegant and put together with passion and care. Some bits of software, especially third-party driver and hardware support software for other platforms, aren’t. They are hacked together at the last minute and at low budget, just to work. Almost everything that ships with the Mac and a lot of third-party stuff for it is just done in this fundamentally different way of building stuff you would be proud to show off.
  • It ‘just works’. Often dismissed as hyperbole, this marketing phrase more often than not is true on the Mac. There are notable exceptions and a few annoying things that you don’t get with generic PC hardware as well, but most of the time, you plug something in, or switch something on for the first time and it just does what it is supposed to.
  • Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. Apple don’t make cheap computers. But neither do I think they make overpriced ones. You pay a premium price for an Apple computer, but you get a fair return for that price in terms of the quality of the product. Again, it comes back to the point about passion — Apple will not ship something that they are not entirely happy with, so what you get is something that meets their high standards.

Having said all that, I am still very interested in using everything and anything. While the Mac may be where my primary focus is on the desktop for now and the forseeable future, I am still very much interested in what is going on in the Linux desktop and Windows worlds and you can be sure I’ll continue playing with all sorts of technology in the future.

Here’s to the next three years of Mac — and perhaps beyond!

Twitter vs IM from my (Introverted) Perspective

Twitter logo

I want to discuss something that has been on my mind for quite some time. I haven’t really discussed this before, at all, on the internet or maybe even in real life.

The internet has allowed us to communicate in brand new ways using innovative new media. It seems that in a very short time, the number of ways that I can choose to communicate with someone has shot up exponentially.

One of these new-fangled ways of communicating is Twitter (for the uninitiated, go read Wikipedia).

I find Twitter to be a very useful social tool for communication, conversation and keeping up with people. In contrast, I find traditional instant messaging (IM, such as AIM, MSN, XMPP/Jabber and the like) burdensome and difficult to use on a consistent basis.

My dislike of the traditional IM most likely stems from my introverted personality. Hopefully in this post I will explain exactly why and why Twitter is better.

Note that this is purely my opinion for what works for me. Everyone is different, which means that what might be true for me may not be for someone else, even with a similar personality. These are my personal views on Twitter vs IM.

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