Monthly Archives: April 2011

Interview with John Lanchester for Little Atoms

Image of John Lanchester from Faber's websiteWhen I joined the team of Little Atoms, I was told by Neil Denny, its head honcho, that the best thing about doing the show is that it’s a great excuse to meet your favourite writers. Well, my favourite writer is John Lanchester. Not because of his ideas, although I like his ideas. Simply because of the way he writes.

Last week Neil and I interviewed John Lanchester at the Resonance studios in London, and the broadcast went out on Friday. You can now download the podcast. In the interview, we talk about the ideas in his most recent book Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. It’s a great book to read if you want to understand the events that led to the credit crunch, not just because it takes you from financial ideas you might have some hope of understanding (like the balance sheet of a company) all the way to the complex PhD level maths that is the stock-in-trade of the modern quant, but also because it places events in a political context – something most commentators have failed so far to do.

They say you should never meet your heroes, but John turned out to be as eloquent a speaker as he is a writer. The interview was a relaxed, if mildly depressing, way to commence a Tuesday morning. Listening back to it I think it is the best one I’ve been involved with for Little Atoms so far. If you want to read more John Lanchester, check out his restaurant reviews for the Guardian, or look through his archive at the LRB, out of which I’d pick this piece on video games as one of my favourites.

Links for week ending 15 April

India rejects intellectual property talks set outside the WTO
India will not accept bilateral attempts to discuss changes to global intellectual property norms, the country’s commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma has announced. The statement comes in the context of India’s ongoing objection to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, a bilateral treaty with provisions for copyright and patent enforcement which go far beyond norms established by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

EU: Threat of copyright term extension emerges again
A proposal to extend the term of copyright on sound recordings from 50 to 70 years is being revived and may go to the European Council for approval in a matter of weeks, despite the objections of economists and copyright experts.
An overview by Bernt Hugenholtz | ORG’s campaign page:

US: Lawsuits and legal reform raise hopes of a future for digital privacy
The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) reports on new legislation being proposed in the United States that they assert “moves us one step closer to the enactment of needed baseline privacy protections”. Meanwhile, according to Wired, smartphone application manufacturers could be facing two separate legal cases where they stand accused of illegally handling or sharing private data.
Legal reform | Lawsuits

Germany chooses deletion over blocking to fight online child abuse content
The German government has announced it will drop child-protection legislation that would have forced internet service providers to block websites, in favour of a policy of removing websites showing images of child sex abuse at source. The decision, which was based on evidence of the effectiveness of the delete-at-source approach, will do much to strengthen arguments against similar web-blocking legislation currently being discussed at the European Parliament.

US: Legislators move to overturn regulators on net neutrality
Legislators in the United States House of Representatives have voted to adopt a procedural measure that could allow them to veto new regulations established by the US Federal Communications Commission on net neutrality.

How Sudan used the internet to crush a protest movement
This McClatchy feature details the Sudanese government’s success in repressing popular protest using digital surveillance and intimidation tactics: “In Sudan, the “Arab spring” that’s shaken most other Arab countries feels like a grim wintry chill”.

“Big Content” is strangling American innovation
This op-ed in the Harvard Business Review argues that the US music and film industries “are attempting to protect themselves from change so aggressively that they risk damaging America’s position as a world leader in innovation”.

One man’s cyber-crusade against Russian corruption
The New Yorker profiles Alexey Navalny, “the Russian Julian Assange”, detailing his efforts to expose corporate corruption.

Open source biology deserves a shot
This feature on approaches to data-sharing in the biotech industry profiles Sage Commons, a platform for sharing genomic data.

Audio: Interview with Malte Spitz
This feature on Malte Spitz, the German campaigner and politician who sued his mobile provider Deutsche Telekom to hand over all the information they possessed about him, features an audio interview. “Under the terms of a settlement between Spitz and Telekom, he received a massive file detailing his movements anytime his phone was on, often with precision down to a few hundred meters of his actual location.”

Article on phone-hacking for Hackers! newspaper

The second number of Leila Johnston‘s new paper Hackers! went on sale last week. I’ve written an article in it on phone hacking.

Here’s a little taste:

After a while, listening in on A-list celebrity voicemails gets boring. At least I imagine it would if you were a real phone hacker. Hacking someone’s voicemail is so easy even I could do it. Every network has a single number and – at least until recently – an easily-Googleable, default PIN, intended to help richer customers access their voicemails from abroad and poorer ones access their voicemails when their credit runs out. All you need to know is your target’s mobile number and there’s an odds-on chance that in less than five minutes you too can be listening to their Mum reminding them they’re coming for lunch on Sunday.

But while politicians and police agonise about what to do with the UK tabloids’ phone phreaks, the real story of phone hacking is continuing amid markedly less furore. In December 2009 Karsten Nohle announced that the weak cryptography that protects the GSM standard had been cracked…

It is only available on DTF (dead-tree format, or “the original DRM”) so the only way you can finish reading this is if you buy a copy here. I fully suggest you do this, not least because Leila presents my second-favourite podcast, Shift Run Stop, and buying her paper might persuade her to make another episode, but more importantly because it’s got loads of other good stuff in it, including the hacks that stopped Hitler, Helen Keen’s top five rocket scientists, and a rather sweet spelling mistake in my biog which conveys the relieving news that I have now been fully restored from my temporary status as an adjective.

Screenshot of hackers

Links for week ending 8 April 2011

US to shut down major digital transparency projects
The Sunlight Foundation reports that the US federal government’s two open government data portals, and face “virtual extinction” if current budget proposals being considered by US legislators are made law: “The funding source for these e-government initiatives is the Electronic Government Fund, a $34 million bucket of money that would be drained to $2 million for the remainder of this fiscal year”.

Czech Constitutional Court rejects data retention law
European Digital Rights (EDRI) report that the constitutional court of the Czech Republic has ruled that the country’s implementation of the European Data Retention Directive is unconstitutional. The ruling was made on the grounds that the law represented an unacceptable level of mass surveillance. The law was repealed by the court.

Campaign launched to expand open access policy
The Right to Research Coalition has launched a campaign to put pressure on US federal funding agencies to mandate open access policies on all research they fund. This week is the third anniversary of the National Institutes of Health adopting such a policy.

Appeal begins in gene patents case
The Council for Responsible Genetics reports on the opening days of a hearing at the US Court of Appeals which will rule on whether patents on two genes associated with increased breast and ovarian cancer risk are valid, or whether the genes can’t be patented because they are “products of nature”.

Profile: the Guardian Project
The Personal Democracy Forum blog profiles the Guardian Project, an initiative to create a secure, private communications platform for activists and journalists on top of Google’s Android mobile phone operating system.

WikiLeaks: The illusion of transparency
This working paper by US legal professor Alasdair S. Roberts sets out a clear and compelling argument why, despite the excitement over Wikileaks, the forces stacked against radical transparency are more powerful than those acting in its favour.

A critique of legislative monitoring websites
David Sasaki uses the story of a successful grassroots campaign against legislation to enact an “internet tax” in Mexico to show where legislative monitoring websites are going wrong.

Designers make data much easier to digest
This New York Times feature is a great introduction to why information design matters.

Audio: Interview with Tim Wu
Little Atoms interview Tim Wu, author of the Master Switch and recent appointment to the Federal Trade Commission, about business cycles in telecommunications and media and their effect on free expression.

Links for week ending 1 April 2011

Uzbekistan tightens control over mobile internet
The Uzbek Agency for Communications and Information has demanded that mobile operators notify them of mass distributions of SMS messages containing “suspicious content”, telling operators they would also have to switch off access to the internet at the behest of the Uzbek authorities. reports: “until now, internet users surfing the Web through their mobile phone browsers have been able to access otherwise blocked sites unimpeded”.

Iranian hackers obtain fraudulent HTTPS certificates
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reports on a hacking incident at one of the web’s 650 Certificate Authority organisations, Comodo. The work of Certificate Authorities underpins secure (HTTPS) web-browsing, and the EFF have been at the centre of research and awareness-raising about current flaws in the system: “the incident got close to — but was not quite — an internet-wide security meltdown”. Strong circumstantial evidence locates the perpetrators of the attack in Iran.

Chinese government crackdown on dissent growing
The New York Times reports that the recent sentencing of democracy activist Liu Xianbin to ten years in prison, based largely on articles he had written advocating for human rights and democracy, is part of a growing crackdown. “In recent weeks nearly two dozen writers, lawyers and civil society advocates have been detained on criminal charges and 11 more people have vanished into police custody.”

Sudan to unleash “cyber jihadists”
Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party has warned anti-government campaigners that attempts at organising protests online will be crushed by the government’s own “cyber-battalion”. However, according to this BBC report, “despite the NCP’s threat, there is little evidence regarding the size or nature of the cyber battalion”.

US develops “panic button” for democracy activists
This New York Times report details some of the projects being targeted by the US State Department’s $50m “Internet Freedom” fund, including a mobile phone application that will wipe its own address book and emit emergency alerts to other activists if confiscated by police.

More Google Books analysis
The Director of Harvard University Library Robert Darnton analyses the recent Google Books decision and sets out his case for a Digital Public Library of America, while the Chronicle of Higher Education interviews Pamela Samuelson, the law professor whose amicus brief proved highly influential in the recent case.
Darnton | Samuelson

Report: Use of Western technologies by Middle East censors
Building on their work documenting internet filtering across the globe, the Open Net Initiative analyse the use of tools manufactured in the West to censor social and political content in at least nine Middle Eastern and North African states.

Interview: Elizabeth Eagen
Information Program Officer Elizabeth Eagen outlines the strategy behind the Human Rights and Information Initiative, a joint initiative with the Human Rights and Governance Grants Program that focuses on equipping human rights practitioners with documentary and advocacy tools and skills fit for the digital world, in this interview with David Sasaki.

Book Review: The Information, by James Gleick
Cory Doctorow’s exuberant review of James Gleick’s masterly “biography” of information theory, The Information: “Gleick takes us through Wikipedia and the meaning of information, the debates about it, the helplessness of information overload, the collisions in namespaces – even through his beloved chaos math – until he has spun out his skeins so that they wrap around the world and the universe”.