Tag Archives: freedom

Aaron Swartz and freedom of information

I had a passing knowledge of Aaron but did not know too much about him beyond his involvement in Reddit. It’s very sad nonetheless to hear of his passing this weekend past. At his own hand shows perhaps a despair he may have had as a result of his legal issues.

Aaron’s story will ring true with many of us on the internet. Many who perceive the all to heavy hand of governments, commercial entities and others who put pride, greed and money above basic human rights. Aaron wanted to make sure that information was shared with everyone, not just those who could afford it. As a result, he was victimised by a US government seemingly hell bent on keeping information shuttered in a carefully selected box, information that should be available to all.

Others thought ( and do think ) the same as Aaron, and the cacophony of voices that have graced the internet since his passing, are proof that he was, and is not alone. John Atkinson wrote the following:

Aaron Swartz is what I wish I was. I am a bright technologist, but I’ve never built anything of note. I have strong opinions about how to improve this world, but I’ve never acted to bring them to pass. I have thoughts every day that I would share with the world, but I allow my fears to convince me to keep them to myself. If I were able to stop being afraid of what the world would think of me, I could see myself making every decision that Aaron made that ultimately led to his untimely death. This upsets me immensely. I am upset that we have a justice system that would persecute me the way it did Aaron. I am upset that I have spent 27 years of my life having made no discernible difference to the world around me. Most of all I am upset that Aaron’s work here is done when there is so much more he could have accomplished.

All too often, we are goaded into a corner by our fears. Notwithstanding responsibility for our actions, we have a voice, and we need to use it.

VP8 vs H264

Apparently the MPEG-LA forum, which manages a pool of patents relating to H.264, thinks that any implementation of video will be encompassed by one or more patents from its patent pool. Not only does this reek of megalomania, but it also shows just how far gone the US patent system had gone down hill. It also shows how monopolistic the MPEG-LA forum is.

Nero has come out fighting detailing a host of issues with MPEG-LA and it’s practices. Google has released the VP8 codec as an open source, royalty-free competitor to H.264 ( as part of the new WebM initiative ) and if it gains traction in it’s Youtube system, then many may flock to Google’s banner. Firefox and Opera have support for WebM in their latest test browsers and Microsoft has indicated they will support playback in IE 9 if suitable software is installed on the machine.

The question to ask is just how real is MEPG-LA’s threats against VP8. I think we’ll see a battle royal in the next few months, with the money-printing MPEG-LA trying to hold on to their little corner of gold.

Privacy and freedom: World Gone Mad Part 1

Last week, a story broke in the US concerning invasion of privacy and has become a huge talking point globally. The Lower Merion School District provided Apple Mac laptops to students ( no private machines were allowed ) and installed remote control software on these, allowing the school to remotely activate web-cams in an apparent attempt to curb theft.

Unfortunately it appears that these web-cams have been used for a little more than that, as students with perfectly legal laptops indicated that their web-cams seemed to operate at times when not expected ( check many of the comments in this link ).

One of the students, Blake Robbins, and his parents, have filed a civil rights lawsuit against the school district accusing the school of turning on the web-cam in his computer while it was inside their Penn Valley home, which they allege violated wire-tap laws and his right to privacy. The suit, which seeks class-action status, alleges that Harriton vice principal Lindy Matsko on Nov. 11 cited a laptop photo in telling Blake that the school thought he was engaging in improper behaviour. He and his family have told reporters that an official mistook a piece of candy for a pill and thought he was selling drugs.

Of course the school district is claiming innocence … But things have got a lot more murky with some detailed investigation by Stryde Hax, a security consultant. Some of his findings:

  1. Mike Perbix is listed as a Network Tech at LMSD. Mr. Perbix has a large on-line web forum footprint as well as a personal blog, and a lot of his posts, attributed to his role at Lower Merion, provide insight into the tools, methods, and capabilities deployed against students at LMSD. Of the three network techs employed at LMSD, Mr. Perbix appears to have been the mastermind behind a massive, highly effective digital panopticon.
  2. In a promotional web-cast, Mike Perbix identifies himself as a high school network tech, and then speaks at length about using the track-and-monitor features of LanRev to take remote pictures through a high school laptop web-cam. A note of particular pride is evident in his voice when he talks about finding a way outside of LANRev to enable “curtain mode”, a special remote administration mode that makes remote control of a laptop invisible to the victim.
  3. Perbix discusses methods for remotely resetting the firmware lockout used to prevent jail-breaking of student laptops. A jailbreak would have allowed students to monitor their own web-cam to determine if administrators were truly taking pictures or if, as the school administration claimed, the blinking web-cams were just “a glitch.”
  4. In a September 2009 post that may come to haunt this investigation, Perbix posted a scripting method for remote enable/disable of the iSight camera in the laptops. This post makes a lot more sense when Perbix puts it in context on an admin newsgroup, in a post which makes it clear that his script allows for the camera to appear shut down to user applications such as Photo Booth but still function via remote administration

There’s even more information coming from the students themselves:

  1. Possession of a monitored Macbook was required for classes
  2. Possession of an unmonitored personal computer was forbidden and would be confiscated
  3. Disabling the camera was impossible
  4. Jail-breaking a school laptop in order to secure it or monitor it against intrusion was an offence which merited expulsion

So there are a few questions to ask here:

  1. was the school district aware of the potential for misuse of this system and the abilities?
  2. did the school district know about Perbix’s delusions of grandeur?
  3. if not, how could they be so stupid as to not inform of the students of this monitoring system?

No matter the outcome, this appears to be a simple case of invasion of privacy. Under no circumstances should anyone be allowed to remote view a machine without the user’s consent no matter whether that equipment is the user’s or not.

Perhaps it’s a matter of bravery on the school district’s part as anti-terrorist laws in the USA have increasingly encroached on citizens’ personal freedoms and civil liberties. If the government can do it, why shouldn’t we?

Australia and the net filter

The Australian government have gone public with their China-style Internet filter which includes the following measures:

  1. mandatory ISP-level filtering of Refused-Classification-rated content
  2. a grants program to encourage introduction of optional filtering by ISPs, to block additional content requested by households
  3. an expansion of an existing cyber-security program run by the government to improve education and awareness of on-line safety

Apparently this is all in the quest for protecting families and children – while in itself a worthy cause, this particular implementation is broken in a number of ways:

  1. there are already suitable applications for parents to employ for content filtering as well many on-line search engines have filtering of results as an option ( and even standard in certain cases )
  2. this won’t stop people from accessing blocked content ( read VPNs and proxies amongst other methods )
  3. this program could mislead parents into a false sense of security that this is all they would need
  4. who is going to manage the massive changes required on a daily basis to keep the filter up-to-date

All in all I think this is a misguided attempt at control of comms by an increasingly socialist-orientated government. Others like the UK and USA are showing similar trends and this is surely not healthy for the constitution-enshrined privacy and freedom that these governments would normally provide their people.

Freedom and copyright

A statement by John Sullivan from the FSF in the US has just been posted and sheds a lot of light on the ongoing RIAA lawsuits which the RIAA themselves said they would be dropping earlier this year. What is interesting about the article is the continued view that music, art and software, and the subsequent freedom of sharing these, are endangered by the actions of Big Business in the US, and the obviousness that this is purely a matter of greed. The fact that the generators of music get next to nothing for their labour, is a stinging indictment of the music industry in the US. And to top it off, you have a number of US senators in bed with these guys – are they so eager to sell their souls?

The social ramifications of this are huge – the public at large in the US are being told that it is bad to share. Anything. Imagine going next door to your neighbour, asking for a cup of sugar and the both of you are locked up because you shared. Extreme? Yes but that’s what the RIAA are aiming at – complete domination of what you can and can’t do.