Category Archives: Technology

RFID and Privacy

Yesterday morning I was sent an article written by Michigan House Representative Paul Opsommer regarding the Department of Homeland Security’s push to implement Enhanced Drivers’ Licenses:

The Department of Homeland Security is coming to Detroit to push their new “Enhanced Drivers License” (EDL) program on Tuesday as a way to make Michigan licenses compliant with the federal Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). If you don’t pay to enhance your license, you’ll need a passport in order to continue going across the Canadian and Mexican borders in June (you’ll still need a passport to fly).

Opsommer argues that it would make better sense to lower the price of a passport instead of trying to graft the purpose of a passport on to a drivers’ license. Then, he gets to the heart of the DHS proposal:

Instead, they’re offering to “enhance” our license by having a security interview, paying more, and then getting a wireless RFID chip in your license. While the first two requirements seem reasonable, if the part about the wireless RFID chip has you scratching your head, you’re not the only one. We already wisely don’t issue licenses to illegal aliens, but with the enhanced license you have to be able to not just prove your citizenship, but prove it via a wireless chip. Everyone who applies will have a new unique federal ID number assigned to them in addition to their current Social Security Number. The wireless chip then carries that new number, which can be wirelessly scanned by common readers up to 30 feet away, even while it’s still in your wallet.

In theory this will get you through the border faster, but then you are left with an unencrypted chip in your license for the other 12 hours a day you carry it.

He says the following about the privacy implications:

There is currently nothing in the law prohibiting the government from using this to track people away from the border, and also nothing in the law that would prohibit banks, hospitals, hotels, or others from linking you with the number and using it for their own marketing purposes or selling it.

Technically, this technology never tracks people, it only tracks the license. The assumption is that the license is being carried by the license holder when out in public, thereby being a good proxy for tracking the person. However, wallets and purses can be left at home, lost, or stolen, at which point the assumption breaks down.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the RFID-chipped license will be carried by the owner 99% of time. This is the equivalent of forgetting one’s license three or four times a year, which is not uncommon for most of the folks I know.  In cases where identity verification is considered critical, such as at a border crossing, a 99% accuracy rate isn’t good enough.  Therefore, the system isn’t designed to operate by reading the license alone:

Enhanced drivers licenses will make it quicker and easier to cross the border back into the United States because they will contain

  • a vicinity Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip that will signal a computer to pull up your biographic and biometric data for the CBP Officer as you pull up to the border, and
  • a Machine Readable Zone (MRZ) or barcode that the CBP officer can read electronically if RFID isn’t available.

If the system is working as designed, it will accurately identify the person carrying the chip only when a person (or computer) can compare the features of the holder with the features on file. In any other case, the identity of the holder cannot be known for sure. That, however, doesn’t prevent someone from relying on the assumption that a license is always carried by the license holder and not another person.

This is an important point to make before addressing Opsommer’s argument about a “more secure” form of RFID license. In his comment above, Opsommer uses the word unencrypted to imply “less secure”. This is not the case. To fulfill the identification role specified by DHS, the government reader would need to be able to decrypt the encrypted value returned by the chip with no other information. This requires the use of an encryption algorithm that produces a unique encrypted number for each unencrypted number submitted to it.

The tracking opportunity is the same in either case. People are running around with unique RFID signatures that can be read from up to 30 feet away. The first piece of information a would-be tracker would get is the RFID signature. Once the signature is encountered, the tracker can start gathering information about the holder of the RFID-chipped license.  The interesting thing to consider here is that a third-party tracker piggy-backing on the DHS-sponsored license system would not need to match the ID number to a pre-established identity, meaning the encrypted value is just as useful for third-party tracking as the unencrypted value.

Imagine that a supermarket chain wanted to track its customers using the RFID signature of a drivers’ license.  They set up a scanner to read in the area where a patron would stand to interact with the checker and read the license every time payment was accepted.  It would be possible to track a patrons buying habits by linking the data saved from the register to the RFID signature.  In the case a club card was used, the drivers’ license would be linked back to the name on that.  If a check or credit card was used to pay, that financial information could then be linked to the RFID signature.  The store would now have an entire identity built around the unique signature that has nothing to do with the DHS database.

Taking this hypothetical to the next level, imagine that a diverse array of businesses such as banks, hospitals, hotels, casinos, restaurants, and bookstores began employing similar tracking techniques.  Each would build an identity around the unique signature of the chip.  The bank would know one’s financial habits.  The hospital would know one’s health problems.  The hotel would know when one visited.  The casino would know when one gambled.  The restaurant would know what one ate.  The bookstore would know what one read.  And the supermarket from before would know what one bought.

At that point, there would be an opportunity for an information clearinghouse to buy tracking data keyed to the unique RFID signature from different sources and build an amazingly detailed profile of the license holder/carrier.  The clearinghouse would know everything from their name, telephone number, and address to the fact that they bought a box of 24 donuts on Tuesday despite having diabetes.

In the extreme, it would be possible for the government itself to leverage the work of the clearinghouse by purchasing the data and crossing it with the DHS database.  This scenario is both technically possible and consistent with previous DHS behavior.  Encryption would make no difference in this case because DHS can already decrypt the RFID signature.  Imagine what the government could do with all that information about how a citizen lives his life?

Remember that this detailed profile grew out of exposure to a single unique signature.  The businesses doing the tracking started knowing nothing about the person other than the unique number emitted by their RFID-chipped license.  The only measure of safety encrypting the number provides is that the RFID tag could not be used to query the DHS database.  Of course, since one’s name would be revealed in one of many transactions, even this layer of protection is transitory since the DHS database would contain both name and ID number.

Back to Rep. Opsommer’s article, he laments the situation by saying the following:

[A]t the very least they need to offer enhanced licenses in two varieties, one that has RFID and one that doesn’t, and then let taxpayers decide which they want to choose. DHS has instead chosen a take it or leave it approach that bullies taxpayers with fiscal coercion and a one-size-fits-all policy that doesn’t allow Michigan to use more secure forms of RFID or to skip the chips altogether. Since an EDL will also technically be a limited passport, how the biometric data on the computer system gets shared with the governments of Canada and Mexico is also important.

I would submit to Representative Opsommer that encryption simply doesn’t matter.  Any RFID license that can be read without the holder’s consent is a threat to privacy.  Metallic sleeves and other devices that shield the license are not good enough, since they can be lost or forgotten.  The Ontario government has found a good solution to this problem, though.  They are looking at an Enhanced Drivers’ License that can be read only when someone holds it a certain way:

Seattle-based RFID chip manufacturer Impinj Inc. has demonstrated a prototype vicinity RFID card with a switch.

The design activates the RFID chip when someone places their finger on the corner of the card.

A mechanical switch – with moving parts – would be too frail, says Kerry Krause, vice-president of marketing at Impinj. So they took a different approach.

“With our technology, all you have to do is touch it,” he says. “The tag is only readable when a person is holding the driver’s licence and pinching it in the right spot. Your fingers are completing a circuit and turning it on.”

Such a license offers true privacy, as the person holding it has to take an explicit action for it to be read.  Anything short of this is simply a privacy violation waiting to happen.

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Update – 4/22 @ 1:35 PDT – Thanks to Jeff Molby in the comments for pointing out that the government leveraging privately-collected tracking data is already happening.  Post updated with this information.

Update – 4/22 @ 6:21 PDT – Commenter “Encryption could matter” mentioned the use of push-button technology.  I’ve found info on this and it has been added.

» Read more

Government and Cyber-Security

News came out this week of a deeply troubling new bill from Sens. Jay Rockerfeller (D – WV) and Olympia Snowe (R – ME):

The Cybersecurity Act of 2009 introduced in the Senate would allow the president to shut down private Internet networks. The legislation also calls for the government to have the authority to demand security data from private networks without regard to any provision of law, regulation, rule or policy restricting such access.

According to the bill’s language, the president would have broad authority to designate various private networks as a “critical infrastructure system or network” and, with no other review, “may declare a cyber-security emergency and order the limitation or shutdown of Internet traffic to and from” the designated the private-sector system or network.

The 51-page bill does not define what private sector networks would be considered critical to the nation’s security, but the Center for Democracy and Technology fears it could include communications networks in addition to the more traditional security concerns over the financial and transportation networks and the electrical grid.

Maybe it’s not so bad. I mean, this could only be used in regards to our “critical security infrastructure” in a “state of emergency”, right? Yes, but (from Legal Insurrection):

The standards in the Act as to what constitutes an emergency, and what the President can do with the information, are unacceptably vague.

This is as bad as it looks. Once a president, whether it be Obama or a successor, wants to invoke these powers, a suitable emergency will be found. Any bets on what the first one will be? Obama is already using Chicago mob-like tactics to keep control over the banking system.

Actually, it’s worse. Not only does the bill grant the president dictatorial powers over the cyber-infrastructure of this nation, it weakens the security of that infrastructure:

The bill would also impose mandates for designated private networks and systems, including standardized security software, testing, licensing and certification of cyber-security professionals.

“Requiring firms to get government approval for new software would hamper innovation and would have a negative effect on security,” Nojeim said. “If everyone builds to the same standard and the bad guys know those standards it makes it easier for the bad guys.”

Maybe they won’t have to create an emergency. If they make the entire critical infrastructure open to the same exploit, a real one will come along in due time.

Also, notice our old friends licensing and certification. These practices are inherently slow and stifle innovation. To get a government-issued cyber-security license, one would have to toe the government line on what good security practices are. Cyber-security, though, is an ever-changing field, with the good guys and the bad guys locked in an eternal game of cat and mouse. Threats evolve in hours and days, while licensing can take weeks and months.

What happens in this new world of licensed and regulated security professionals when a self-taught hacker or college kid is playing around with some software and finds and exploit? Will it still be taken seriously, or will it be ignored because the discoverer doesn’t have the necessary license?

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, this bill assumes that the government is never a security threat. The US Government has already shown itself to be a threat to the security of private individuals with its insatiable need to snoop. Anyone remember warrantless wiretaps? Telco immunity for snooping on behalf of Washington? The PATRIOT Act? Carnivore?

For those who think that those were all abuses of past administrations, and that we now have a better man in power, think again. Obama and crew are currently negotiating the highly abusive Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. ACTA, as it’s called, obligates the US Government to conduct searches for pirated music and movies with no warrants or probable cause and criminalize the infringement of copyright.

By crafting this agreement, the Obama Administration is granting to the Presidency the power to snoop on any citizens’ computer at any time simply to prevent people from copying music and movies. While this might seem almost farcical, it opens up the argument that if the “crime” of piracy of digital files requires such sweeping interventions, then so must more serious threats to national security.

It gets worse, though, because we have another slippery slope of government that will intersect this. At a point in the future, using the justification of cyber-security, the US Government will mandate that all citizens run government-approved security software. The Rockerfeller-Snowe Cyber-Security bill is the first step towards this, requiring approved security software on “critical infrastructure”. Soon enough, though, some congressman will realize that the attacks on our critical infrastructure are coming from virus-infected PCs and that the government must do something about this. Then, it will be a crime to run a machine that is not secured in a government-approved fashion.

At that point, the government will be securing itself while compromising the security of each of its citizens. The private lives of each person who installs the government-approved solution will be open to the inspection of looky-loos and busybodies in the bowels of the leviathan. Those who choose not to, or worse, choose to secure their systems against the government, will face reprisal and even arrest for endangering the cyber-security of the nation.

Cyber-criminals are smart, decentralized, innovative, and agile. Our cyber-security must continually match or exceed this. Our cyber-security, as a nation, a society, and as individuals, is too important to entrust to the government.

The RNC’s New RFP to Fix Their “Series of Tubes”

Here’s a copy of the RFP the Republican National Committee just released for a redesign of their website. It’s obvious to this political web developer that GOP leadership still has absolutely no clue about this newfangled thang called the Internets.

Dale Franks writes:

Surely this is all some sort of elaborate joke. Perhaps on Monday the RNC will tell us that they were just having us on. Then, once we’ve all had a good laugh, they’ll release the real RFP.

Because whatever this document is, it’s not an RFP. At best, this is some sort of marketing-related statement of intent. It’s nothing more than a series of barely-related bullet points that say:

  • We want a cool web site.
  • We want neat external applications to run on it.
  • Flash is fun.
  • We want it to be easy to use, ’cause we ain’t got us much of that compooter learnin’.
  • Make it pretty.
  • We have data. We’d like to use it.

This the new, high-tech-savvy GOP? This is the kind of in-depth attention to leveraging technology that the refurbished, Michel Steele RNC has planned?

Erik Erickson didn’t hold back words, either.

Friends, either the RNC has no freakin’ clue what the hell it is doing or else all the rumors about certain consultants having an inside track at RNC contracts is true.

Why? Because there is no way any competent person would put together an RFP like this. It’s crap. It is not legitimate. It is unprofessional. It is illusory.

Either they don’t know what they are doing, or they’ve already picked their consultant and are going through the motions. If it is the former, well, the RNC is screwed. If it is the latter, Michael Steele’s claims about bidding out work was B.S.

Whether the RNC hasn’t a clue about technical issues (as Franks suggests) or their motivations are indeed more sinister (as Erickson suggests), I’m sure the Democrats aren’t quaking in their boots at the moment.  Quaking with laughter, perhaps.

UPDATE: On a somewhat related note, ThinkProgress is reporting that RNC chairman Michael Steele has taken down his blog because he’s “been ‘getting ripped apart‘ by conservative commenters on his blog.”

NSA Spied on US Journalists — And You!

Here’s a chilling interview of former NSA analyst Russell Tice conducted by Keith Olbermann. While I’m not the biggest Olbermann fan in the world, he asked some important questions about how far the NSA went during the Bush administration. It’s a chilling interview. Hopefully restraining the NSA to 4th Amendment boundaries will be a priority for the Obama administration.

And while we are talking about privacy, we also need to keep the government out of the panties of our 13-year-old daughters and our private health records, too.

Open Thread – The Emergency Alert System

On my way to work today, my XM radio blared the ever-familiar “This is only a test” emergency alert system. As I tried to switch to a station other than Rawdog Comedy (where a good comedy bit was playing), I realized that this discordant tone was across the entire spectrum. And I was annoyed.

Is the purpose of this system, and this test, really to disseminate critical information during a national emergency? Or is it more necessarily to make us feel good?

After all, as wikipedia reports, the only time it’s been activated in the last 10 years has been accidental, but it wasn’t activated on 9/11:

  • On September 11, 2001, “. . . the EAS was not activated nationally or regionally in New York or Washington during the terrorist attacks on the nation.” Richard Rudman, then chairman of the EAS National Advisory Committee explained that near immediate coverage in the national media meant that the media itself provided the warning or alert of what had happened and what might happen as quickly as the information could be distributed. “Some events really do serve as their own alerts and warnings. With the immediate live media coverage, the need for an EAS warning was lessened.” 34 PEP stations were kept on high alert for use if the President had decided to order an Emergency Action Notification. “PEP is really a last-ditch effort to get a message out if the president cannot get to the media.”
  • On February 1, 2005 someone inadvertently activated an EAS message over radio and television stations in Connecticut telling residents to evacuate the state immediately. Officials at the Office of Emergency Management announced that the activation and broadcast of the Emergency Alert System was in error due to possibly the wrong button being pressed. “State police said they received no calls related to the erroneous alert.”
  • On June 26, 2007, the EAS in Illinois was activated at 7:35AM CDT and issued an Emergency Action Notification Message for the United States. This was followed by dead air and then WGN-AM (720) radio (the station designated to simulcast the alert message) being played on almost every television and radio station in the Chicago area and throughout much of Illinois. The accidental EAN activation was caused when a government contractor installing a new satellite receiver as part of a new national delivery path incorrectly left the receiver connected and wired to the state EOC’s EAS transmitter before final closed circuit testing of the new delivery path had been completed.
  • On June 10, 2008, ABC Wichita, KS affiliate KAKE broadcast an EAS test during the last few minutes of the 2008 NBA Finals.

So what do you think? Is the Emergency Alert System a critical piece of infrastructure helping to enhance our national security or personal safety? Or is it a feel-good waste of time, money, and technology that simply provides a false sense that government is taking care of us?

Change Libertarians Can Believe In?

There’s no secret that most of the Obama Administration agenda is at odds with the Lockean rights of life, liberty, and property at almost every turn. Obama’s views on freedom are more along the lines of FDR’s so-called “Four Freedoms”. As disturbing as this agenda is, I thought it would be important to identify policies which actually do promote liberty based on the more traditional Lockean model.

These agenda items are the only ones I can at this point say I am comfortable with. There are probably more items I could support but without knowing the details of many of Obama’s policies, I’m hesitant to do so (mostly due to his reliance on doublespeak, i.e. redefining welfare as tax cuts). The two most promising policies I have found so far are in the areas of civil rights and ethics.

Civil Rights:

Eliminate Sentencing Disparities Between Crack and Powder-Based Cocaine

Expand the use of drug courts for first-time non-violent drug offenders

Equal Rights for LGBT couples

Repeal the Defense of Marriage Act

Repeal “Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell”

Ethics:

A More Open and Transparent Federal Government (complete with searchable internet databases)

“Sunlight Before Signing” – Five days for the general public to review “non-emergency”* legislation before bills are signed into law.

The Transparency and Integrity in Earmarks Act – A law which would name names of legislators and the earmarks they request, require written justification for the earmark, and require 72 hours for the full senate to review and approve the earmark.

Make all White House Regulatory Communications Public and Release Presidential Records

Protect Whistleblowers

Eliminate Inefficient Government Programs and Slash Earmarks**

Libertarians, myself included, may be disappointed that these libertarian friendly policies do not go nearly far enough. Having said that, I do believe we should encourage these changes even if they are mere baby steps in the right direction.
» Read more

FedGov Can’t Even Plan A DTV Switch Given 2 Years!

Oh, this is rich:

West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the new chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, introduced legislation that would postpone the digital transition by almost four months. “I firmly believe that our nation is not yet ready to make this transition,” Mr. Rockefeller said in a statement.

Congress began seriously considering delaying the county’s transition to digital television — now set for Feb. 17 — after the Commerce Department reported last week that it was running short on funds for a government coupon program to defray costs for consumers who will lose their TV signals after the switch.

How long have they been advertising this switch? How long have they had to plan, to forecast expected cost, and to put enough money in the budget to get these coupons out the door?

And they can’t do it. Yeah, these are the yokels I want in charge of my family’s healthcare!

Microsoft Attacked By EU For Same Practices That Apple/Linux Use

Back in the day, antitrust regulators decided that including a browser with an operating system was an unfair competitive measure. But to this day, they’ve only ever enforced this against Microsoft, and the EU is still pushing:

European antitrust regulators have told Microsoft Corp. that the company’s practice of including its Internet browser with its popular Windows operating system violates European competition law, Microsoft said Friday.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant (MSFT) said that it’s been presented with a statement of objections informing it that related remedies put in place by U.S. courts when Microsoft settled an antitrust case in this country in 2002 are not adequate for Europe, though a “final determination” hasn’t been made on the matter.

I’ve never really used Apple’s computers much, but I’m pretty sure you can’t buy an Apple PC without Safari pre-installed. I’ve installed a number of Linux distributions (Red Hat, Debian, ubuntu, and even a 50MB distro called DamnSmallLinux), and every single one of them has been bundled with a browser. Microsoft has argued that a browser is a critical part of an operating system, and thus — even though it sucks — it makes perfect sense for them to distribute IE with Windows.

In fact, it’s so pervasive, that I’ve never seen an OS that comes without a browser pre-installed. Is the EU going to go after each of OS distributors next? I didn’t think so.

Hat Tip: QandO

Quote Of The Day

Over at Reason: Hit & Run, Nick Gillespie on the regulation of the internet:

One trend that’s making a comeback with the Obama ascendancy is the need for smart folks not to regulate the Net per se, but to, you know, come up with better rules that will help make sure that everything that’s so super-duper about cyberspace stays that way

A classic argument for regulation is when something in the structure of the market leads to negative consequences. In the case of the internet, that’s not a valid argument*, because the internet is extremely dynamic, quite popular, and constantly meeting new needs of its users.

So what’s the argument for regulating the Internet? “If we don’t regulate now, it could become a lot worse!” Oooh, scary! I happen to believe that if you regulate now, you’re guaranteed to make it worse.
» Read more

It’s not a privacy threat today…

Oregon is trying to devise a system to tax all those shifty, tax-evading environmentalists they have up there:

Oregon is among a growing number of states exploring ways to tax drivers based on the number of miles they drive instead of how much gas they use, even going so far as to install GPS monitoring devices in 300 vehicles. The idea first emerged nearly 10 years ago as Oregon lawmakers worried that fuel-efficient cars such as gas-electric hybrids could pose a threat to road upkeep, which is paid for largely with gasoline taxes.

“I’m glad we’re taking a look at it before the potholes get so big that we can’t even get out of them,” said Leroy Younglove, a Portland driver who participated in a recent pilot program.

Any reader of this site will see the words “GPS monitoring device” and immediately worry about privacy from prying government eyes. Don’t worry, Oregon’s got it all figured out for you:

Another concern is that such devices could threaten privacy. Whitty said he and his task force have assured people that the program does not track detailed movement and that driving history is not stored and cannot be accessed by law enforcement agencies.

“I think most people will come to realize there is really no tracking issue and will continue to buy new cars,” Whitty said, noting that many cell phones now come equipped with GPS, which has not deterred customers.

I’d love to believe that the devices present no tracking issue. Really, I would. Too bad it’s simply not true:

Though the GPS devices did not track the cars’ locations in great detail, they could determine when a driver had left certain zones, such as the state of Oregon. They also kept track of the time the driving was done, so a premium could be charged for rush-hour mileage.

If the devices can determine whether a vehicle has left the state and how many miles were driven in rush-hour traffic, there is a tracking issue.

How serious is this tracking issue? » Read more

Open Thread — Off-Topic / Notebook vs. Netbook

This is somewhat off-topic, but as I know many bloggers and blog-readers are technophiles, I wanted to get advice from the best place I could.

The time has come for us to replace my wife’s laptop. It’s about as old and decrepit as a laptop can be and still run Windows, and is a constant source of frustration for her. As any married guy knows, that means that it’s a constant source of frustration for me as well.

Her computing needs are very sparse, so performance is not an issue. At the moment, I’m toying with the idea of getting her a netbook rather than a notebook. I’m sure several readers here have played with the netbooks, and can give an idea of whether they are functional enough to be her primary computer. She will be using it primarily to run her business, but most of that is email and web-based, with occasional document editing.

Considerations:

Cost — The decision is between netbook and low-end notebook, not netbook vs. high-end notebook. Note that this also rules out the ultra-slim notebooks, as you typically pay for the small size.

Operating System — I prefer WinXP. For her, it can’t be Linux, for me, I’d prefer it’s not Vista. We could live with Vista if we had enough horsepower, though.

Storage — Rotating HDD. I know more about SSD technology than most (it’s my job), but the cost/capacity equation is wrong for her application. As a primary PC, and with a lot of storage of digital photos, 8-16 GB would disappear in months.

Software — 95% Firefox. 5% OpenOffice, Picture Viewing, etc.

Size — It needs to be portable enough for her to carry, since she runs a business and needs connectivity on a regular basis. She’s also trucking around one 16-month old child with her, and in another 6-7 months, will have two. So smaller is better in this sense.

Convenience — If a small screen & keyboard (luckily she has small fingers) will grow tiresome quickly, she may need to move up to the notebook.

If I didn’t regularly use one laptop for everything, I’d probably be using a netbook for travel and general connectivity. But I’m sure it would get very old for me quickly, as I’m used to large high-resolution screens and full-size keyboards.

What do you think? I’m thinking of buying a netbook retail for Christmas, letting her play with it for a few weeks, and then if she hates the small keyboard/screen, returning it for a real notebook. But if the general consensus is that she’ll hate it right up front, I might as well save myself a trip.

Question Of The Day

Which provision of the Constitution, propertly construed, authorized the Federal Government to do this:

WASHINGTON — Congress has passed legislation that will require the government to keep closer tabs on who has access to the Internet and who does not.

Supporters hope the Broadband Data Improvement Act will help policymakers better identify areas of the country that are falling behind when it comes to high-speed Internet access.

The bill passed both houses of Congress, with the Senate approving a final version Tuesday on a voice vote.

Senate sponsor Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said the federal government has a responsibility to make sure Americans have access to the Internet, but “we cannot manage what we do not measure.”

The Federal Communications Commission collects data on broadband use, but its methods have been criticized as outdated. The commission voted in March to greatly improve its data collection. Broadband providers will be required to provide subscription numbers by Census tract, speed and type of technology.

The legislation passed by Congress goes further. It requires the FCC to conduct consumer surveys of broadband use in urban, suburban and rural areas, as well as large and small business markets. Survey questions will include the cost of access and data transmission speeds.

The legislation requires the agency to compile a list of locales that lack broadband service and determine population and income levels in those areas.

Yea, I can’t find it either.

Open Thread — A Free-Market Solution To Spam

If the myriad of emails coming into my inbox every day are representative of reality, there are many reputable universities willing to offer an easy path to a degree, many “nice girls” would love to share their pictures with me, Africa is full of rich orphans looking for an escape (along with a nice reward to help them get their father’s wealth out of the country), and someone on the internet is dearly concerned with the size of my… ahem. I’m referring, of course, to spam.

Spam is a bit of a scourge of the internet. Given that the internet is largely a lawless medium, our government has very little recourse to fight spam originating overseas. The cost of creating spam is nearly zero, the upside of even a very low hit rate is pure profit, and thus spam doesn’t seem to be a phenomenon that is solvable. After all, as long as gullible old ladies really do believe that the Nigerian prince is willing to give millions of dollars as a reward for getting their wealth out of the country, there’s really no way to stop this phenomenon, right?

The other day, though, I was thinking about it. These Nigerian phishing scams are not rocket science. There is a way to defeat them, without requiring government force. I thought of it as a merely personal idea: I would reply to every Nigerian scam email I receive, stringing the spammer along (making him think he’s swindling me) for several days or weeks, until eventually the spammer leaves me alone as he realize he’s wasted his time. Get enough of them to realize that they’re wasting their time by inducing a high rate of “false positive” responses, and they might look for other ways to scam people out of income.

Frankly, though, I just don’t have time for that. I barely have time to respond to important emails any more; I certainly don’t have time to engage in this sort of counter-spam behavior. The amount of effect I could cause would be miniscule in relation to the number of emails they send out. I simply can’t create enough false positives to dissuade them from their task…

But hotmail/yahoo/gmail can! Think about it. They make their living by doing things such as spam filtering, and as someone who receives a great deal of spam on a daily basis (the downside to having a publicly-accessible email address), an effort by the major email service providers would have both the scope and the size to effect some change. They have the incentive– competition with other email providers and protection of their users– and they have the resources.

For the scam artists, the keys to success are a high target rate (to maximize response), a low false positive response rate (because it does no good for non-dupes to respond), and a high conversion rate extracting the money from respondents. Creating a situation where there would be an overwhelming number of false positives in the system would increase the response rate, and thus reduce the conversion rate. Thus, it dramatically increases the cost of attempting to extract money, because the spammers will need to treat both the dupes and the false positives equally.

For a major email provider to assign a bank of interns to a job like this may even improve their subscriber base, as they can advertise a more spam-free email experience than their competitors. The spammers aren’t dumb. If they realize that sending spam to hotmail is likely to result in wasted time, but gmail and yahoo aren’t participating in these counter-spam tactics, they’ll stop sending to hotmail. The major email providers have the size and efficiency to engage in behavior such as this when busy guys like myself simply can’t afford the time to attempt it. All this, without relying on Congress.

So tell me… Would such an idea work? Would it make sense to create so many false positives in the system that the Nigerian Scam simply ceases to operate? Can it be done?

Recycling Bad Ideas: Bringing Back 55

Senator Warner has a brilliant idea how to reduce gas prices; force Americans to consume less at gun point:

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., asked Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman to look into what speed limit would provide optimum gasoline efficiency given current technology. He said he wants to know if the administration might support efforts in Congress to require a lower speed limit.

Warner cited studies that showed the 55 mph speed limit saved 167,000 barrels of oil a day, or 2 percent of the country’s highway fuel consumption, while avoiding up to 4,000 traffic deaths a year.

“Given the significant increase in the number of vehicles on America’s highway system from 1974 to 2008, one could assume that the amount of fuel that could be conserved today is far greater,” Warner wrote Bodman.

Warner asked the department to determine at what speeds vehicles would be most fuel efficient, how much fuel savings would be achieved, and whether it would be reasonable to assume there would be a reduction in prices at the pump if the speed limit were lowered.

The department’s Web site says that fuel efficiency decreases rapidly when traveling faster than 60 mph. Every additional 5 mph over that threshold is estimated to cost motorists “essentially an additional 30 cents per gallon in fuel costs,” Warner said in his letter, citing the DOE data.

This law is patently unconstitutional: nowhere in the United States Constitution is the Federal Government permitted to pass laws governing speed limits. The Congress can get around this limit on their power using the usual dodge of merely passing voluntary regulations and withholding highway funds from states that refuse to go along.

This proposed law is ridiculous on many levels. First, the optimum speed varies from vehicle to vehicle. A one size fits all law would really require some people to drive at suboptimal speeds. The law would have the effect of limiting innovation: why research ways to make fuel efficiency at 70 mph better if nobody is allowed to drive at that speed? Just as when the courts in the 19th century gave polluters carte-blanche to pollute on their neighbors’ properties and killed the nascent emission reduction industry – this law will kill all such groundbreaking research.

Second, contrary to Sen Warner’s assertion, a reduced speed limit does not save lives. In fact, quite the opposite:

Taken as a whole, these different analyses lead to the conclusion that overall statewide fatality rates fell by 3.4 to 5.1 percent in the states that adopted the 65 mph limit.

Why did the new speed limit lower the fatality rate? 1) Drivers may have switched to safer roads; 2) highway patrols may have shifted resources to activities with more safety payoff; and 3) the speed variance among cars may have declined — it might decline on the interstates as law abiding drivers caught up with the speeders, and it might have declined on other highways as their speeders switched to the interstates. The evidence indicates that events 1 and 2 did occur; we have no evidence for event 3. Future research ought to be directed toward disentangling the relative contribution of these factors.

What about its impact on the price of oil?

True, such a law would result in lower consumption of gasoline on the roads, both because of lower fuel consumption and because people would curtail long road trips (because they would take too long). But the reduction in demand for driving would have no impact on the other manifold uses of petroleum. People living in the United States consume upwards of 9 billion barrels a day. If we are charitable, and assume that this time around the savings in consumption will be 100 times larger – that would still amount to 16 million barrels a day, or less than 1% of the oil consumed in the United States each day. Obviously this move would have a barely perceptible effect on the price of unrefined oil.

What about the impact on the price of gasoline?

Well, the price of gasoline is set almost entirely by the supply available. The run up in price could be due not only to to a shortage of available oil, but also due to the availability of refining capacity. And indeed, the oil industry has been expanding its refining capacity at a much lower rate than the rate at which gasoline consumption is growing. Last year, refineries supplying the U.S. market were pumping out 98% of the maximum amount of gasoline that they can theoretically produce.

In such a circumstance, a small drop in the consumption of gasoline could have a major impact on the price. So Senator Warner could be right, forcing everyone to drive more slowly could result in a 10% reduction in the price of gasoline… in the short term. Of course, 5 – 10 years from now, demand would have risen to current levels, and we would be right back where we are today.

The obvious question is why aren’t refiners expanding capacity? After all, gasoline is liquid gold. If they make it, they will be able to sell it at a profit. We should be seeing refiners adding capacity to their operations. Are these refiners idiots? Are they walking away from money? Apparently not! Two years ago, they were trying to avoid wasting money because they didn’t want to invest in major expansions until they figured out what regulations the government is going to impose upon them.

In hearings before Congress [in 2006], oil executives outlined plans to increase fuel production by expanding their existing refineries. Those plans would add capacity of 1.6 million to 1.8 million barrels a day over the next five years, for an increase of 10 percent, according to the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association.

But those plans have since been winnowed to no more than 1 million barrels a day, according to the Energy Information Administration, an arm of the federal government.

“If the national policy of the country is to push for dramatic increases in the biofuels industry, this is a disincentive for those making investment decisions on expanding capacity in oil products and refining,” said John Hofmeister, the president of Shell Oil. “Industrywide, this will have an impact.”

So, because refiners are afraid that their investment in additional capacity can be rendered worthless at the stroke of a presidential pen, they are holding off making any such investment. And I can hardly blame them.

The 55 mph speed limit was one of many dumb ideas that came out of the Federal Government in the early 1970’s. Thankfully, it was abandoned in the 1990’s for reasons that are still operative today. It is a shame that an economic ignoramus who manages to win an election could have he power to reinstitute such a dumb law. Senator Warner would be making a better use of his time and political capital if he worked towards ending the disastrous “Energy Independence/Sustainability” initiatives that are wreaking such havoc with the production of energy world wide. Let’s leave the disastrous ideas of the 1970’s in the dustbin, where they belong.

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.

Pie Vegetation In The Sky?

Seen on Colbert:

Sounds like a very cool concept… But his use of terms like what “the plan we would like to see implemented” worries me. I’m a much bigger fan of letting the market decide, not relying on some collective implementation of a plan* (i.e. government).

So I went and checked out the group’s website. I’ll let you graze there yourself to learn more, but a few things I found here only confirm my fears:

Providing all urban populations with a varied and plentiful harvest, tailored to the local cuisine eliminates food and water as resources that need to be won by conflict between competing populations. Starvation becomes a thing of the past, and the health of millions improves dramatically, largely due to proper nutrition and the lack of parasitic infections formerly acquired at the agricultural interface. Given the strength of resolve and insight at the political and social level, this concept has the potential to accomplish what has been viewed in the past as nearly impossible and highly impractical.

Will vertical farming walk my dog too? After all, they’re promising a whole lot of other ridiculous benefits along with it…

Oh, and this one really takes the cake:

It is further anticipated that large-scale urban agriculture will be more labor-intensive than is currently practiced on the traditional farm scene, since the deployment of large farm machinery will not be an option. Hence, employment opportunities abound at many levels.

And this is a good thing? Really, in a nation where we’re already importing agricultural workers, he’s saying that less efficiency in our agricultural sector is a good thing?

Maybe I should go to his house and break some windows; imagine how many more glaziers he’ll need to employ!
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The Amish– Behind Ahead Of Their Time

From the AP, sure to be an environmentalist’s wet dream:

High gas prices have driven a Warren County farmer and his sons to hitch a tractor rake to a pair of mules to gather hay from their fields. T.R. Raymond bought Dolly and Molly at the Dixon mule sale last year. Son Danny Raymond trained them and also modified the tractor rake so the mules could pull it.

T.R. Raymond says the mules are slower than a petroleum-powered tractor, but there are benefits.

“This fuel’s so high, you can’t afford it,” he said. “We can feed these mules cheaper than we can buy fuel. That’s the truth.”

And Danny Raymond says he just likes using the mules around the farm.

“We’ve been using them quite a bit,” he said.

Brother Robert Raymond added, “It’s the way of the future.”

Way of the future? Does this mean we should all switch from petroleum to alternative mules? Just make sure you understand the mule industry’s “planned obsolescence” strategy. You need to replace the mules every time they stop fogging a mirror.

I guess the Amish would be laughing their heads off over this… They’ve been using alternative mules for generations. But since they’re not typically connected to the internet (oh, the electricity they save!), I don’t think we need to worry about their reaction.

Hat Tip: Billy Beck

Cuba — Can You Hear Me Now?

Now, you’re not going to hear me defend Raul Castro very often, but he has at least made some slight easing on the restrictions of ordinary Cubans. Among other things, he’s lifted the ban on private ownership of cell phones. Most of the changes are very small, but typically freedom is an infectious organism, and when an oppressed people start to get a taste of it, they want more.

But one ivory-tower elitist– a phrase I don’t use often– doesn’t like the change. David Lazarus of the LA Times would prefer that Cuba remain the quiet, poverty stricken hellhole that it’s been for decades, rather than have to put up with an annoying cell phone user.

You know you’re in for a ride when an article starts off like this:

The Cuban government made headlines worldwide when it announced the other day that its citizens would finally have unrestricted access to cellphones, ushering in a new era in telecommunications for the economically challenged island.

I say: The people of Cuba don’t know how good they’ve had it.

Oh, yes, David! Tell us how wonderful the average Cuban has had it!

Economically challenged?! That’s one way to put it. Someone who has to take out a pay-day advance loan to pay for a car repair is “economically challenged”. The Cubans, on the other hand, are economically oppressed.

It’s only a matter of time before the Cuban government bows to the inevitable and permits its citizens to pay in local currency, and thus follow the example of people throughout the developing world in flushing their hard-earned money down a rathole of text messages and idle chatter.

How about this, David? Maybe the Cubans who don’t want to throw their hard-earned money down for cellphones can choose not to. And those who actually want to use their newfound freedom to join the modern world can choose for themselves, too! Part of that whole “freedom” thing is allowing people to do things that you don’t agree with, as long as they don’t infringe upon your rights.

Cubans will be able to enjoy the capitalistic thrill of paying not just the advertised price for cellphone service but also hidden taxes, fees and surcharges that can boost monthly costs by as much as 20%.

Hmm, the “hidden” taxes and fees on my wife’s cellphone bill look to be either most or all government-imposed. Just what is a “capitalistic thrill” about that? Really, if you wanted to attack policies like “bundling” of services or the fact that you often get charged for things you don’t need (really, if you have a cellphone why do you need “automatic call forwarding”?), I could at least understand. But to call government-imposed fees a “capitalistic thrill” is just disingenuous.

He goes on to rant about how Cubans will adjust to people answering cellphones in movies and driving with a cellphone. Because you know that in dirt-poor (kept so by the government) Cuba, movies and cars are just plentiful! Somehow, I just don’t think these concerns will be nearly as large a problem as Lazarus believes.

How about this, David? Perhaps if Cuba’s ruling elite eases a few more restrictions, there might be private business again? And maybe– just maybe– cellphones will help those who wish to do business to pull their “economically challenged” island out of the 1950’s and into the 21st century? You may have your little neo-luddite fantasy, but please don’t suggest that Cubans should have their freedoms continually restricted to support it.
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Earth Hour — What They SHOULD Have Said

Allow me to engage in a bit of strawman-bashing. In the comments to Don Boudreaux’s excellent post at Cafe Hayek, a rather idiotic argument came up. It is the same argument that many of our own contributors received when we opposed Ron Paul, and commenters told us “If you don’t like Ron Paul, you must tell us who we SHOULD vote for.” It’s a strawman, of course, because criticizing one idea doesn’t obligate you to posit your own. But that’s not good enough for some people, as this comment to Don’s post shows:

Congratulations!

Instead of bringing forward some better and more rational proposals that will help to avoid that hysteria that indeed clouds the environmental issues and could cause the remedies to be worse than the sickness, and help the world to be able to use scarce resources wisely and effective… you live up to your role as an educator, as a beacon of light… and just make fun of it all.

As if the folks at Cafe Hayek haven’t offered their own positive ideas on a whole host of topics, one bit of criticism gets the “well, what would YOU do about it?” response. Laughable…

…but I’m going to offer a suggestion anyway. I’m going to offer the free-market environmentalist answer.

Here’s what the World Wildlife Fund should have said:

Greetings. In our modern world, we are faced with many problems. While the work of caring environmentalists and improved technology has done a lot to improve the environmental situation in the Western world, we have much farther to go. Rising populations and increased worldwide standard of living are only adding to the strain that humanity is placing on our planet. Oil and coal have served us well to bring us to this point, but exact a heavy toll on the planet to extract and use. These sources of energy are the past; they are not the future.

Conservation is one part of the solution to this problem. Conservation helps the environment by reducing demand, and helps individuals by reducing the prices they pay for the resources they use. Taken in the aggregate across society, reduced individual energy use helps to ensure that we can move from today’s needs to the future, and do so in a smooth transition. We hope that our recent Earth Hour event reminds humanity that they should be ever-mindful of their impact on the planet, and do what they can to minimize that individual impact, for the good of their pocketbooks and the planet.

But conservation is not enough. The pressures of increased population and increased prosperity will only lead to higher energy consumption. In order to protect our Earth, we must find alternative energy sources, with a smaller impact on our environment. To ensure widespread acceptance, the solution must be both environmentally-friendly and cheap. Our current solutions show promise, but are too expensive to be deployed on a wide scale. Thankfully, rising prices of oil will make it more economically feasible to explore alternatives, and the work of firms such as Massachussetts’ Konarka Technologies are helping to bridge the gap between today and the future.

Environmentalism and energy consumption are not mutually-exclusive. The crucial factor, however, is technology. We can solve these problems, but it won’t be done by politicians or policymakers. It won’t come from Washington or Brussels. And it can’t be done by mandate. The solutions will come from hard-working, caring, dedicated scientists and engineers. It will come from those in the private sector who stand to make a profit from cheap, clean energy.

Those who care about our planet have many options open to them. For those who are still young, with their careers and lives ahead of them, we encourage you to study physics, materials science, and engineering. You can directly impact the problem by researching, developing, and implementing the technologies which will help us solve these problems. For those who may be too late to change their career path, there are countless investment opportunities in the companies working on these problems. The beauty of these options is that it offers you both the opportunity to profit and enact a social good.

Turning off your lights for an hour is a reminder of what you can do in the short term, and of the important problem that we must solve. But if you really want to help, it’s time to get your hands dirty and start making the long-term solution a reality.

Those of us on “the right” are often lambasted as uncaring when it comes to environmental problems. We are not. We are simply cognizant of the fact that the solutions “the left” offers are typically damaging, counterproductive, and anti-prosperity. The real solution will come from the same place all solutions come — the long-term work by people trying to improve their own lives, and by extension improve the world for the rest of us.

The FBI Hyperlink Honeypot, and what you can do to stay safe

This post is intended to help internet users who make legitimate, non-criminal use of the internet avoid being caught by the FBI’s hyperlink honeypot. While there are methods that can be used to cover deliberate criminal activity on the internet, I will not post them here.

Declan McCullagh brings scary news of the latest tactics from the FBI (via Instapundit, via Classical Values):

The FBI has recently adopted a novel investigative technique: posting hyperlinks that purport to be illegal videos of minors having sex, and then raiding the homes of anyone willing to click on them.

Undercover FBI agents used this hyperlink-enticement technique, which directed Internet users to a clandestine government server, to stage armed raids of homes in Pennsylvania, New York, and Nevada last year. The supposed video files actually were gibberish and contained no illegal images.

This is serious stuff, and not for the reasons you may think. The FBI is operating from the assumption that one IP address equals one household. It’s also operating from the assumption that all HTTP requests are user initiated. Both are wrong.

First, with NAT routing and WiFi, one IP address could be several houses, or even a sizeable chunk of an apartment building. The way most homes are set up with broadband and wireless is pretty simple and extremely open to abuse. The broadband connection comes in the home and has a single IP address. The device closest to the connection is a modem, which acts as a bridge between the home network and the broadband provider. The device after that is a wireless router, which takes traffic from all devices that connect to it and channels it to the modem.

This means that, to anyone on the other side of the modem, like web sites, your ISP, or the FBI, all the traffic looks like it’s coming from a single source. Since someone has to pay for that broadband connection, all the traffic is automatically assumed to come from that person. So, as a user, it’s in your best interest to be in control of all the traffic going over your internet connection, which leads us to…

TIP #1: Lock down your wireless network with WPA

In a utopian world, free love and free WiFi might seem like wonderful things. With creeps running around and the FBI trailing after them, not so much. Since people are actually getting jailed for clicking on hyperlinks based on their IP address, it’s time to get serious about making sure only the people you want get on your network.

WPA stands for Wireless Protected Access, and it is the only secure way to prevent access to your wireless network. WPA works using a pre-shared key (PSK) of up to 63 characters to encrypt network traffic. This means that any device must have the key before any traffic can be sent or received on the wireless network.

(Don’t confuse this with WEP, which is so-called Wired Equivalent Protection. WEP has been thoroughly broken and can be cracked in less than 5 minutes.)

If you need a good, strong password, I highly recommend visiting GRC’s Perfect Passwords page. This page provides extremely secure pseudo-random passwords that make password attacks almost impossible.

If the FBI can’t tell what behind an IP address accessed a given URL, they probably can’t tell whether the user initiated the access or whether the machine did automatically. In addition to making sure that there aren’t machines on your network doing things out of your control, you have to make sure there aren’t things on your machine doing things outside your control. This brings us three more tips…

TIP #2: Scan your system for viruses and malware

Any software on your system can request any web address at any time. Well-behaved programs only do so at the user’s command. Malware, however, doesn’t. Most malware running today exists to use compromised machines as a platform to run the creator’s software on a mammoth scale, usually to generate spam. (You didn’t think there were actual people typing up those ads for Vi4g00, did ya?)

A piece of malware could very well access a honeypot link and get you, the user, into trouble. So, install that anti-virus software and run it, often.

For those who don’t want to load down their (Windows) systems with bloated software like Norton or McAfee, I personally recommend Avast‘s free anti-virus. It’s lightweight and does a good job of catching crud.

Also, no matter what anti-virus you use, be sure and keep your software up to date. Anti-virus software works best when it has the latest virus definitions.

TIP #3: Turn off the preview pane in your e-mail program.

This one’s an inconvenience, but it’s important. If your e-mail program is rendering e-mail without your specific instruction, it’s accessing addresses without your specific instruction.

Every time an e-mail has an image or other embedded content, your e-mail program has to fetch it from the internet. If the FBI were using a JPEG image as the honey pot, all it would take your e-mail program rendering an HTML e-mail with the image in it to make it look like an attempted access.

Once the preview pane is turned off, it’s still your responsibility to delete suspicious messages without opening them. (Hey, sometimes it’s tough to do. Personally, I’m always open to a little chuckle from the latest generic drug scams and variations on the always classic Nigerian money scam. Now, I’m going to behave myself.)

TIP #4: Turn off link prefetching

If you use Mozilla Firefox, iCab, or Google Web Accelerator, your computer is accessing links without your knowledge. This feature is called link prefetching. In a perfect world, this would be a good thing for the user. Not so when a person can be arrested for being associated with the IP that accessed a link.

Here are the directions for turning off link prefetching in Firefox. Google Web Accelerator should be completely uninstalled to prevent prefetching.

These are just the things I can come up with for preventing accidental ensnarement in this despicable FBI trap. I’d appreciate any more tips and tricks for preventing you might have.

Also, for those with a larger interest in security, I highly recommend Security Now! with Steve Gibson and Leo Laporte. It’s a weekly podcast that deals solely with security, and the archives are a wealth of information.

(If you have a few minutes, please come by and check out the new blog at http://pith-n-vinegar.blogspot.com/)

Why Can’t Government Deal In Cyberspace?

As a member of the internet generation, I do more things online these days than offline. In the world of commerce, there are a host of simple and useful tools, created by companies, that make it very easy for me to accomplish what I want to accomplish. Need a map? Google. Need information on where to go for dinner & drinks, and then what entertainment to take my wife to celebrate special occasions? Citysearch, ticketmaster, etc. Hotels, airfare, and vacations? A host of sites provide me with information, pricing, and simple booking. I can communicate with fellow homebrewers or fellow Boilermakers on a number of message boards. Buying and selling of goods and services can be done on a host of sites (my favorite being craigslist). Even banking, a form of commerce as old as money, is available and convenient online. I can’t remember the last time I actually wrote a check, stuck it in an envelope, added a stamp, and sent it off to pay my bills.

But when it comes to making things easier for “consumers”, one area of our society lags far, far behind: the government. Outside of a few bright spots, government-service web sites are largely cumbersome and useless. Why? Well, the economist points us at the usual suspects: lack of competition, lack of accountability, and a tendency to spend money without actually ensuring the results are achieved.

Governments have few direct rivals. Amazon.com must outdo other online booksellers to win readers’ money. Google must beat Yahoo!. Unless every inch of such companies’ websites offers stellar clarity and convenience, customers go elsewhere. But if your country’s tax-collection online offering is slow, clunky or just plain dull, then tough. When Britain’s Inland Revenue website crashed on January 31st—the busiest day of its year—the authorities grudgingly gave taxpayers one day’s grace before imposing penalties. They did not offer the chance to pay tax in Sweden instead.

But shame and beauty contests are still weak forces in the public sector. Failure in bureaucracy means not bankruptcy but writing self-justifying memos, and at worst a transfer elsewhere. Bureaucrats plead that just a bit more time and money will fix the clunky monsters they have created. That kind of thinking has led to the botched computerisation in Britain’s National Health Service, where billions of pounds and millions of precious hours are spent on a system that at best will be substandard and at worst dangerously leaky with patients’ private medical data.

That reflects another problem. In the private sector, tight budgets for information technology spark innovation. But bureaucrats are suckers for overpriced, overpromised and overengineered systems. The contrast is all the sharper given some of the successes shown by those using open-source software: the District of Columbia, for example, has junked its servers and proprietary software in favour of the standard package of applications offered and hosted by Google.

Not that such an indictment of the system will surprise any regular readers of this web site, of course. Systems don’t work when the incentives don’t force them to work, and the political incentive to operate efficiently simply doesn’t exist. I would, of course, add one additional point. I added emphasis to the article’s point on bureaucrats’ use of overpriced, overpromised, and overengineered systems. In addition, it’s quite often that these systems are not chosen for their technical fit in the required application, but are chosen because of who is supplying the system, and what politicians they have lobbied. Or, as is common in the military, the politically-correct need to source products from “small disadvantaged businesses” leads to perverse incentives, where either sub-optimal solutions are chosen, or the implemented solution has needless overhead in the cost because it must be purchased through a qualifying distributor.

As is usually the case with government, it’s not that incompetence or malfeasance is the direct cause of the failure of a system. It’s that the system is not designed to operate in the way we expect it to. Our elected officials and the bureaucrats they appoint are not supermen. In fact, those who believe the internet is a series of tubes simply shouldn’t be expected to implement sound e-government policies.

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