4 tech/geek events from yesterday

Yesterday was a busy day in the tech/geek world.

  1. Edward Snowden got a twitter account yesterday.  His profile includes “I used to work for the government. Now I work for the public.” As I write this he has just under a million followers.  At least he has a sense of humour – the only twitter account he follows is the NSA.
  2. Tesla announced the long awaited Model X SUV, complete with falcon wing doors and a “bioweapon defense mode” button on the air filtration system.
  3. Google announced new updated phones, the release of their new Marshmallow OS, and a few other things.
  4. And on the dark side, Volkswagen announced they are recalling the 11 million vehicles affected by the dieselgate emissions testing software scandal – although not details of what they are going to do or how it will affect performance. Speaking of the dark side, perhaps there was some hidden meaning in the 2011 “the force” VW commercial?

Cross-posted from Slaw

More Guidance from CRTC on CASL – it’s still a mess

The CRTC recently published a document with some guidance on implied consent under CASL.

The parts about “Can I send CEMs to an email address I find online?”, “How can I prove I have consent?”, and “What records should I be keeping?” show how difficult, if not impossible, it is to comply with CASL in practice.

CASL and its interpretation is so granular and so nuanced that the average business doesn’t stand a chance of getting it consistently right.   The email address publication relevance issue, for example, is so fraught with risk that it isn’t worth tempting fate with in most instances.   And the level of proof and record keeping that is expected is simply impractical.

In my view CASL does the opposite of what it says it is supposed to do:

3. The purpose of this Act is to promote the efficiency and adaptability of the Canadian economy by regulating commercial conduct that discourages the use of electronic means to carry out commercial activities, because that conduct

(a) impairs the availability, reliability, efficiency and optimal use of electronic means to carry out commercial activities;

(b) imposes additional costs on businesses and consumers; …

The compliance costs in terms of dollars, time, and exposure to penalties are simply far too high, and it actually impedes “efficiency and optimal use of electronic means to carry out commercial activities”.

Cross-posted to Slaw

Privacy Panic Cycle

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has released their analysis of how privacy advocates trigger waves of public fear about new technologies in a recurring “privacy panic cycle.”

The report is an interesting read and makes some valid points.  In general, people fear new things more so than things we are familiar with.  Like the person who doesn’t fly much being nervous about the flight when statistically the most dangerous part of the journey is the drive to the airport.

While a privacy panic for emerging tech is indeed common, we can’t summarily dismiss that panic as having no basis.  The key is to look at it from a principled basis, and compare the risks to existing technology.

New tech may very well have privacy issues that need to be looked at objectively, and should be designed into the tech (called privacy by design).

Even if the privacy fears are overblown, purveyors of the technology need to understand the panic and find a way to deflate the concerns.

Cross-posted to Slaw

Does Copyright apply to Chicken Sandwiches or Cheerleading Uniforms?

Lately the news has been too full of weighty stuff like elections, the Ashley Madison hack, stock markets, and the Chinese economy.

So today’s post is a bit lighter.

Courts in the United States have recently decided whether copyright applies to chicken sandwiches and to cheerleading uniforms.  They decided that it applies to one – but not to the other.

If you guessed  it doesn’t apply to the chicken sandwich, you got it right.  In the US Court of Appeals the parties were fighting over rights to a sandwich consisting of a fried chicken breast topped with lettuce, tomato, cheese and garlic mayonnaise on a bun.  The judge said that the “district court properly determined that a chicken sandwich is not eligible for copyright protection”.  And that “A recipe—or any instructions—listing the combination of chicken, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and mayonnaise on a bun to create a sandwich is quite plainly not a copyrightable work,”

In a 2 to 1 decision, the US Court of Appeals decided that copyright protection does apply to cheerleading uniforms.  The difference between the majority and the dissent hinged on what the purpose of cheerleading uniforms is.  The majority decided that the design was decorative, not functional.  The dissenting judge however felt that the function of the uniform was to identify a cheerleader as a cheerleader, and thus the design forms part of that function.

Cross-posted to Slaw


Alphabet – Google restructure – how does it affect us?

The Google re-org announced Monday has the tech press in a huge buzz.  Lots of virtual ink has been spent explaining and analyzing the change.  Essentially, Google created a parent company called Alphabet, left the core business in Google, and created sister companies to Google that will operate some of its other projects, such as the self driving car and smart medical sensing contact lenses.

This change has some sound logic behind it from a business perspective.   There are also interesting side stories, such as how their choice of abc.xyz as a domain for the new company has dramatically increased the sales of .xyz domain names, and perhaps helped end the dominance of the .com TLD.

So what does it mean for the average person?  Not much in the short term. It does, however, mean that they will continue with their “moonshot” programs that could in the long term bring us self driving cars, drone delivery systems, and medical innovations around aging.

It also means that Android will continue to evolve and innovate, and provide some healthy competition to Apple and Microsoft.

Cross-posted to Slaw.

Friday is System Administrator Appreciation Day

Friday July 31 is the 16th annual SysAdmin Day.  A day to show our appreciation to the IT professionals who keep our computers, networks and apps working.  For those of us who push the tech envelope a bit beyond a typical office setup, our thanks for not rolling their eyes every time we ask them for something new and different.  And our thanks for using us as the test platform for new stuff.

In the interest of using your SysAdmin’s time most effectively, take a look at this amusing list.

Cross-posted to Slaw

Crypto backdoors are a horrible idea

From time to time various law enforcement and government types whine that encryption is a bad thing because it allows criminals to hide from authorities.  That is usually followed by a call for security backdoors that allow government authorities to get around the security measures.

That’s a really bad idea – or as Cory Doctorow puts it in a post entitled Once Again: Crypto backdoors are an insane, dangerous idea: “Among cryptographers, the idea that you can make cryptosystems with deliberate weaknesses intended to allow third parties to bypass them is universally considered Just Plain Stupid.”

They build in a vulnerability to exploit – there are enough problems keeping things secure already.  And the thought that government authorities can be trusted to use that backdoor only for the “right” purposes, and to keep the backdoor out of the hands of others is wishful thinking.

Cross-posted to Slaw

Chatting in Secret

The Intercept has an article entitled Chatting in Secret While We’re All Being Watched that’s a good read for anyone interested in how to keep communications private.  It was written by Micah Lee, who works with Glenn Greenwald to ensure their communications with Edward Snowden are private.

Even if you don’t want to read the detailed technical instructions on how to go about it, at least read the first part of the article that explains at a high level how communications can be intercepted, and the steps needed to stop that risk.

Communicating in secret is not easy.  It takes effort to set it up, and it’s easy to slip up along the way.  As is usually the case in any kind of security – physical or electronic – its about raising the difficulty level for someone to breach the security.  The more efforts someone might take to try to intercept your communications, the more work it takes to keep it secret.  For example, you raise the sophistication level of the thief who might burglarize your house as you increase security – from locking your doors, to deadbolts, to break resistant glass, to alarms, etc.  It doesn’t take much extra security to make the thief go to another house, but it may take a lot more if a thief wants something specific in your house .

Edward Snowden’s communications, for example, require very diligent efforts, given the resources that various authorities might use to intercept those communications.

For the record, I think Snowden should be given a medal and a ticker tape parade, not jail time.  I recommend watching Citizenfour, the documentary about Snowden that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Oscars.  Also to read security expert Bruce Schneier’s book Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World.  Another book to put this into context in Canada (based on my read of the introduction – I haven’t made it farther than that yet) is Law, Privacy and Surveillance in Canada in the Post-Snowden Era, edited by Michael Geist.

I challenge anyone to watch/read those and not be creeped out.

Cross-posted to Slaw

When “use” is not trademark “use”

Law sometimes hinges on subtle distinctions that are not obvious, and can lead to surprising results.  The meaning of the word “use” for trademark purposes, for example.

A key principle of trademark law is that a business must actually “use” its trademark to keep its trademark registration alive, or to enforce its trademark rights against others.

But the legal concept of “use” for trademark purposes is narrower than most would suspect, and can result in a surprising loss of trademark rights for a business.

For example, a trademark on the side of a building, or on a business card, or on letterhead is not “use”.

A couple of recent cases in the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal remind us of this.

It is common to register a corporate name as a trademark.  That’s fine if it is actually used as a trademark – but mere use as a corporate name is not enough to amount to trademark use.

Similarly, mere use of the trademark within an email or other text is not enough if it looks like the rest of the text.  It must somehow  look different than the rest of the text.

For example, if your company name is Abcd Widgets Inc, and your trademark is ABCD, the use of Abcd Widgets Inc. is not use of the trademark.  ABCD must be used independently.  And in text, using abcd is not use, but using ABCD may be, as it looks different than the surrounding text (unless, of course, the rest is in all caps as well.)

Cross posted to Slaw

Will self-driving cars spontaneously reboot?

A common rebuke to self-driving cars are thoughts about cars behaving like computers – like freezing or rebooting while driving. Those make amusing sound bytes or twitter comments, but there is a grain of truth to it. Self driving technology has come a long way, but while computers and software can follow programmed instructions, and can learn over time, humans are still better at many things.

An article in the New York Times entitled Why Robots Will Always Need Us does a good job of putting this in context, in part by the experience of aircraft.

Author Nicholas Carr points out that:

Pilots, physicians and other professionals routinely navigate unexpected dangers with great aplomb but little credit. Even in our daily routines, we perform feats of perception and skill that lie beyond the capacity of the sharpest computers. … Computers are wonderful at following instructions, but they’re terrible at improvisation. Their talents end at the limits of their programming.


In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration noted that overreliance on automation has become a major factor in air disasters and urged airlines to give pilots more opportunities to fly manually.

That’s not to say that we should smugly dismiss automation or technology. Lawyers, for example, who dismiss the ability of software to replace certain things we do are in for a rude awakening.

In general, computer code is never bug free, is never perfect, and is not able to do certain things. (You can say the same for us humans, though.) For example, the aircraft industry spends huge amounts of time and money testing the software that operates aircraft. On the other hand, the types of things computers can do well are increasing, and will increase over time. At some point there may be breakthroughs that make computers more reliable and better at the things us humans are more adept at. But we are not there yet.

Cross-posted to Slaw