Maybe if we banned everything, everybody would be safe and happy

Paul Raven @ 16-09-2010

Sounds naive, don’t it? But it’s an attitude that turns up all the time in the halls of governments everywhere… though whether it manifests as an earnestly-held belief or a sop to tabloid-fuelled public disapproval is (perhaps) an open question.

An example? Sex ads on Craigslist – O NOES! The adult services section of Craigslist has been under fire for a long time for allegedly enabling child trafficking, pimping and other unsavoury stuff to occur alongside the more legitimate personal ads between consenting persons of legal majority. Now, tired of being asked to jump through an ever-greater succession of hoops to ensure compliance with government guidelines, Craigslist has dropped the section permanently, and explained why in a public speech to the government:

“Those who formerly posted adult services ads on Craigslist will now advertise at countless other venues. It is our sincere hope that law enforcement and advocacy groups will find helpful partners there,” Powell said.

Ars Technica paraphrases their reasoning thusly:

Translation: we’re taking our ball and going home, and good luck with those other guys.

They’ll need more than luck; they’ve just created a whole new gap in the market for something that does the same as the Craigslist adult services section, but which does so in a more clandestine (and hence harder to police) manner. The subtext of the message: no matter how hard you try to help us find the few bad apples, we’ll still persecute you as enablers thereof; therefore, you may as well just not comply at all. So, rather than criminals misusing a legal service, you’ll have them using services run by other criminals. That doesn’t strike me as one to chalk up on the victory board.

Now, let me be clear: although someone’s bound to accuse me of it anyway, I’m not defending the rights of child traffickers or pimps or serial abusers to do the things they do. I’m trying to make a point about the ways we blame technology for problems that we’ve always had – problems which I suspect are actually far less prevalent than they were back in the mythical “good old days”.

I think everyone here would probably agree with me if I said “closing down Craigslist’s adult services section won’t stop child trafficking and pimping”; the people doing those things will find other ways to do them. So what if we just banned the internet entirely? After all, it enables all sorts of unsavoury and/or illegal behaviour, and it’s impossible to police it all effectively…

(Having very recently experienced the joys of airport security, I see a parallel with the War On Liquids In Baggage: one stupid failed terror plot that couldn’t ever have succeeded as intended, and suddenly you can’t take a bottle of water onto a plane with you. Or, to put it another way: we’re all restricted in the vain hope that the 0.1% (arbitrary guesstimate) of bad guys will be prevented from doing something nasty. Which parses for me as being very similar to “the only way to prevent people attacking our freedoms is to give them up before they have the chance”.)

The point I’m vaguely ambling towards here is this: I’m not sure we can ever hope to achieve a global society where no one ever does anything bad. But I am sure that chasing after the easily-found tools that wrongdoers take advantage of is at best futile, and at worst counter-productive (what we might paraphrase as the “driving it underground” argument). Doing so is, I suspect, another manifestation of Tofflerian future-shock, as discussed by Charlie Stross earlier in the week.

“But how else can we stop child trafficking, smart-arse?” I hear (some of) you say. Quite simply, I don’t know. But I reckon a step in the right direction would be to expend less resources on playing whack-a-mole with enabling technologies, and more on tracking down the people who use them.


Snow Crash ‘dentata’ is a (harsh) reality in South Africa

Paul Raven @ 30-04-2010

(Trigger warning: discussion of rape and aftermath)

Chalk another one up on the list of sf-nal gadgets that have graduated from printed page to reality… but at the same time deplore the need for it, because the gadget in question is something like the dentata anti-rape device featured in Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic Snow Crash. The bluntly-named Rape-aXe is…

… a latex sheath, which contains razor-sharp barbs. The device is worn in her vagina like a tampon. When the attacker attempts vaginal penetration the barbs attach themselves to the penis, causing great discomfort. The device must be surgically removed, which will result in the positive identification of the attacker and subsequent arrest.

South Africa has the highest incidence of reported cases of rape in the world (according to the US Dept. of State), and the Rape-aXe’s inventor would like to see the device distributed widely around the country before the World Cup kicks off [via grinding.be]… but, as is inevitable with technologies related to such a controversial and destructive crime, opinions differ wildly as to its worth.


The CSI Effect

Paul Raven @ 28-04-2010

Via BoingBoing, The Economist investigates the “CSI Effect” – the phenomenon whereby facts, falsehoods and mythinformation about criminal forensics procedures in entertainment media is hampering (and sometimes aiding) the detection and prosecution of real criminals.

… a new phrase has entered the criminological lexicon: the “CSI effect” after shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”. In 2008 Monica Robbers, an American criminologist, defined it as “the phenomenon in which jurors hold unrealistic expectations of forensic evidence and investigation techniques, and have an increased interest in the discipline of forensic science.”

[…]

The most obvious symptom of the CSI effect is that jurors think they have a thorough understanding of science they have seen presented on television, when they do not. Mr Durnal cites one case of jurors in a murder trial who, having noticed that a bloody coat introduced as evidence had not been tested for DNA, brought this fact to the judge’s attention. Since the defendant had admitted being present at the murder scene, such tests would have thrown no light on the identity of the true culprit. The judge observed that, thanks to television, jurors knew what DNA tests could do, but not when it was appropriate to use them.

This sort of informational feedback loop happens in all sorts of places. I’m immediately reminded of the most common denigration of open-source software, namely that because anyone can download the code, anyone can work out how to compromise it. Of course, very few people do so… and proprietary software certainly isn’t immne from hacking, despite its closed nature. But is that because there’s less profit to be made from hacking Linux systems, as Microsoft advocates often suggest? Given the number of servers that run on *nix, I can’t believe it’s as clear-cut as all that.

But back to the forensics issue: the ‘open code’ of forensic science is helping some of the smarter criminals cover their tracks:

Criminals watch television too, and there is evidence they are also changing their behaviour. Most of the techniques used in crime shows are, after all, at least grounded in truth. Bleach, which destroys DNA, is now more likely to be used by murderers to cover their tracks. The wearing of gloves is more common, as is the taping shut—rather than the DNA-laden licking—of envelopes. Investigators comb crime scenes ever more finely for new kinds of evidence, which is creating problems with the tracking and storage of evidence, so that even as the criminals leave fewer traces of themselves behind, a backlog of cold-case evidence is building up.

Is there anything to be gained from trying to stem the flow of forensics knowledge out into the wider world? And if there is, how would one go about enforcing it?


It’s a man’s life in the global pseudocorporate cybercrime conglomerates!

Paul Raven @ 26-03-2010

PC Pro has an interesting insight into the daily goings-on at a defunct scareware corporation from Ukraine [via SlashDot], which – if it’s to be taken at face value – demonstrates how similar such blackhat operations are to many (arguably more legitimate) organisations, at least as far as flim-flamming the people they screw over and rewarding their star employees is concerned:

According to court documents, former employees and investigators, a receptionist greeted visitors at the door of the company, known as Innovative Marketing Ukraine. Communications cables lay jumbled on the floor and a small coffee maker sat on the desk of one worker.

As business boomed, the firm added a human resources department, hired an internal IT staff and built a call center to dissuade its victims from seeking credit card refunds. Employees were treated to catered holiday parties and picnics with paintball competitions.

Top performers got bonuses as young workers turned a blind eye to the harm the software was doing. “When you are just 20, you don’t think a lot about ethics,” said Maxim, a former Innovative Marketing programer who now works for a Kiev bank and asked that only his first name be used for this story. “I had a good salary and I know that most employees also had pretty good salaries.”

Hardly the two-geeks-and-a-table operation that you might expect, eh? If only that infuriating 50% of internet users would stop opening spam emails


Please Rob Me: what’s the big panic, exactly?

Paul Raven @ 18-02-2010

Unless you’ve been sleeping under that hypothetical internet-proof rock for the last 24 hours, you’ve probably caught wind of the charmingly-named Please Rob Me, a site that aggregates publicly-available Twitter updates which announce that their creator has left their home empty while they go somewhere else. The theory here is that, by announcing you’re not at home, you’re openly inviting some nefarious evil-doer to burgle all your stuff in your absence; what a terrible indictment of geolocational status updates and public announcements of your daily comings and goings, AMIRITE?

Well, frankly, no. Even someone as poorly versed in crime literature (be it fictional or factual) as myself is aware that an experienced and/or smart burglar tends to “case the joint” carefully before doing the job. And while Please Rob Me might make it possible to know when someone’s out of the house without surveilling it from across the street, that’s its only advantage… assuming that said burglar is willing to take an internet status update as a surety, which – were I a burglar – I certainly wouldn’t do.

So, yes – Please Rob Me may be a useful way of highlighting the fact that many people who geolocate themselves publicly on the web haven’t thought about the implications of that information being publicly available (which is what its creators meant it to do, if I’ve understood their “why” page properly), but it isn’t a sign that there’ll be a sudden swarm of Twitter-combing burglary crews hitting the luxury pads of Silicon Valley high-flyers while they’re slurping up lattes downtown.

If your house is worth robbing, and if it’s being targetted by the sort of burglar who doesn’t just operate on the basis of pure opportunism, then that burglar will find a way of knowing when you’re out of the house, whether that be through watching your Twitter stream or the more old-school (not to mention tried, tested and reliable) method of keeping an eye on the place for a week or so and learning your daily routine. Public geolocation might make that easier to do at a distance, but when their freedom is at stake, I expect the more cautious burglars – the ones who are likely to get away with burgling rich people’s houses at least once, in other words – aren’t going to rely on 140 characters and a GPS tag before crowbarring your back door.

Privacy and lifelogging are important issues, but the alarmist tabloid-esque flapping over Please Rob Me is actually obscuring the important parts of those issues, not bringing them to the forefront. So let’s think things through before hitting the big red button marked ‘technophobia’, shall we?


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