TR Editors' blog

Seven Must-Read Stories (Week Ending October 24, 2014)

Another chance to catch the most interesting, and important, articles from the previous week on MIT Technology Review.

MIT Technology Review 24/10/2014

  1. Isaac Asimov Asks, “How Do People Get New Ideas?”
    Published for the first time: a 1959 essay by Isaac Asimov on creativity.
  2. Does Lockheed Martin Really Have a Breakthrough Fusion Machine?
    Lockheed Martin says it will have a small fusion reactor prototype in five years but offers no data.
  3. Technology and Inequality
    The disparity between the rich and everyone else is larger than ever in the United States and increasing in much of Europe. Why?
  4. Why Solar Is Much More Costly Than Wind or Hydro
    A new report from the E.U. estimates the true economic cost of different forms of energy production.
  5. The Quest to Put More Reality in Virtual Reality
    The inventor of Second Life has spent 15 years chasing the dream of living in virtual space. Can his new company finally give virtual worlds mass-market appeal?
  6. A Physical Key to Your Google Account
    Google says using a small USB stick to vouch for your identity is more secure than either a password or conventional two-factor authentication.
  7. Q&A with Futurist Martine Rothblatt
    If computers think for themselves, should they have human rights?

Recommended from Around the Web (Week Ending October 24, 2014)

A roundup of the most interesting stories from other sites, collected by the staff at MIT Technology Review.

MIT TR Editors 23/10/2014

In Conversation: Marc Andreessen
This Q&A with early Web pioneer turned vocal venture capitalist Marc Andreessen gives a sense for his provocative, if sometimes glib, thinking on technology.
Tom Simonite, San Francisco bureau chief

Gamergate: The Internet Is the Toughest Game in Town—if You're Playing as a Woman
Charlie Brooker on the horror that is Gamergate.
Will Knight, news and analysis editor

To Siri, With Love
A touching story about an autistic boy’s relationship with Apple’s personal assistant.
—Will Knight

Machine-Learning Maestro Michael Jordan on the Delusions of Big Data and Other Huge Engineering Efforts
In a Q&A with Lee Gomes, a technologist delivers a good old-fashioned debunking of several ideas in computing.
Brian Bergstein, deputy editor

Beware, Playing Lots of Chess Will Shrink Your Brain!
Sometimes, a little brain shrinkage may be a good thing.
Nanette Byrnes, senior editor, Business Reports

Weekly Innovation: An Umbrella for the Modern Age
Really, how long did it take to figure this out? At least we have a new umbrella for our imminent New England winter.
—J. Juniper Friedman, associate Web producer

Meet Facebook's Mr. Nice
A new Facebook feature that lets you know when you've hurt someone's feelings aims to cut cyberbullying by teens on the social network.
—Tom Simonite

The Slide Rule: A Computing Device That Put a Man on the Moon
A tribute to a nearly defunct totem of nerdliness.
—Linda Lowenthal, copy chief

China's Massive iCloud Hack Is So Obvious It May Be a Message to Apple
Motherboard notes that the nature of the attack suggests whoever did it doesn't seem to care who catches them.
Mike Orcutt, research editor

After JPMorgan Chase Breach, Push to Close Wall St. Security Gaps
The very ominous cyber-attacks at major banks may reflect inadequate controls over vendors they do business with, the New York Times reports.
David Talbot, chief correspondent

'Dating' vs. 'Married': How Text Messages Change Over Time
Neat analysis of a couple's texting patterns as their relationship evolves.
Rachel Metz, senior editor, mobile

Escape from Microsoft Word
Why does Word drive writers insane? "Because its Platonic model—like all Platonic models—is magnificent in its inner coherence but mostly irrelevant to the real world."
—Linda Lowenthal

Open Surveillance

Cryptography could keep electronic investigations under control.

Bryan Ford 21/10/2014


Bryan Ford

Democracy rests on the principle that legal processes must be open and public. Laws are created through open deliberation; anyone can read or challenge them; and in enforcing them the government must get a warrant before searching a person’s private property. For our increasingly electronic society to remain democratic, this principle of open process must follow us into cyberspace. Unfortunately, it appears to have been lost in translation.

The National Security Agency, formed after World War II to spy on wartime adversaries, has clung to military-grade secrecy while turning its signals–intelligence weapons on us and our allies. While nominally still a “foreign intelligence” agency, the NSA has become a de facto law enforcement agency by collecting bulk surveillance data within the United States and feeding the data to law enforcement agencies. Other agencies also have secret-surveillance fever. The FBI secretly uses warrantless subpoenas to obtain bulk cell-tower records affecting hundreds of thousands of users at once, whether investigating bank robberies or harmless urban pranks. Police spy on entire neighborhoods with fake cellular base stations known as “StingRays” and have deliberately obfuscated warrants to conceal their use of the technology.

All this secrecy harms our democracy. But effective surveillance does not require total secrecy. It can follow an openness principle: any surveillance process that collects or handles bulk data or metadata about people who are not specifically targeted by a warrant must be subject to public review and should use strong encryption to safeguard the privacy of the innocent. To gain access to unencrypted surveillance data, law enforcement agencies must identify people whose actions justify closer investigation and then demonstrate probable cause. The details of an investigation need not be public, but the data collection process should be—what was collected, from whom, and how it was decrypted. This is no different from the way the police traditionally use an open process to obtain physical search warrants without publicly revealing details of their investigation.

Technology that my colleague Joan Feigenbaum and I and our research group have developed could allow law enforcement officials to enact this approach without hampering their work. In fact, it could even enhance it. Modern cryptography could let agencies surgically extract warrant-authorized data about people of interest while guarding the privacy of innocent users. In the case of bank robbers known as the High Country Bandits, the FBI intercepted cell-tower records of 150,000 people to find one criminal who had carried a cell phone to three robbery sites. Using our encrypted search system, the FBI could have found the bandit’s number without obtaining data on about 149,999 innocent bystanders.

It’s better to risk that a few criminals will be slightly better informed than to risk the privacy and trust of everyone.

Bryan Ford is an associate professor of computer science at Yale University.

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