Government Spying, Canadian Edition

September 23rd, 2013

It has been a while since Edward Snowden’s leaked documents exposed the nature and depth of NSA surveillance of U.S. citizens.  More and more details come to light almost every day, and each new revelation seems to show a pattern of constitutional abuse that is justified in the name of keeping everyone safe.

In Canada, the Globe and Mail revealed last week that the Canadian government has been granted even more secret latitude for spying than the NSA.  While the NSA so far has only collected phone call metadata, it seems the Canadian government has the ability to get “real-time, full-time” access to all wireless call and text content.  According to the article, this includes access by police agencies nationwide.  What’s different about the U.S. experience is that this access is still governed by judicial authority.  In other words, a warrant is still required.  Technically this is true in the U.S. but the secret FISA court has been hoodwinked and since it is secret no one knew that the NSA was exceeding the stipulations of the court.

Regardless of the differences, I think it is a good thing that the public is now able to know exactly how much government scrutiny the average person faces.  We can blame the terrorists for stripping away our privacy, but really it is our reaction to terror that puts us where we are today.  I’d personally be more comfortable with fewer eyes and ears on everything we do, even if that meant a slight uptick in risk of another attack.  And based on what we’ve seen globally in recent weeks, another attack is almost certain. Sadly, I believe that the data collection effort by governments in the U.S. and Canada is so pervasive and complete that they will not be able to suss out a needle in the massive haystack they have now.

In light of government spying

June 12th, 2013

This past week the governments in both the United States and Canada have admitted to wholesale data gathering on a wide variety of everyone’s electronic communications.  These are not admissions of illegal activity.  They are admissions of, at most, a novel interpretation of existing law.  Many constitutional experts in the United States would say that the secret anti-terrorism laws have likely not even been circumvented at all.  In other words, spying on all citizens without cause is perfectly legal now.  Both the U.S. Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms seem to have become quaint little documents about how things should run if we didn’t have to face such nastiness as terrorism, drug dealing, or child pornography. A cynical man might lump copyright infringement in there too.

When inaugurated, the President of the United States speaks these words: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  I think someone has redefined the words “preserve, protect, and defend”.  Either that or we’ve dropped the Jeffersonwords “the Constitution of” so that the President thinks he is preserving, protecting, and defending the country at the expense of fundamental law. Checks and balances are another quaint little idea with no apparent place in the war on… whatever possible threats to safety and security we are fighting at the moment.

I would not have written this entry on September 12, 2001.  But as John Oliver pointed out on The Daily Show: we can’t make long-term decisions about the way we want to run our society on a day when we’re at our most vulnerable and frightened. With context and perspective, I think most people would agree that the pendulum has swung way way too far away from individual freedom towards the total surveillance state that George Orwell illustrated so famously.

It is not like the overstepping could not have been foreseen.  We can’t write vague laws and expect that politicians will only ever use them ethically. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1782: “Mankind soon learns to make interested uses of every right and power which they possess or may assume. The public money and public liberty will soon be discovered to be sources of wealth and dominion to those who hold them: distinguished, too, by this tempting circumstance that they are the instrument, as well as the object, of acquisition.”

Your ISP and Reality

June 5th, 2013

In North America, whichever company is providing your Internet service, there’s a good chance you’re getting ripped off.

First of all, data caps are the biggest lie we’ve ever been told.  The fight against “bandwidth hogs” — people who download more than their fair share of data — is the reason for these caps. According to the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) caps mean that average people, those folks who use the Internet for email and the occasional low-resolution YouTube video, will never pay extra while the hogs will pay for all the high-resolution video downloading they’re doing. The way they frame the argument, “hog” is a veiled reference to “pirate”.

There are holes in that argument.  “But” holes.  But: Netflix.  But: today’s 1080p HD video content on YouTube. But: lots of new and innovative services that can’t run without a modern pipeline of data to go with them.

The good news is that most of the big ISPs have introduced “unlimited” services.  I always laugh at the definition of unlimited: it means that they set their systems to accept a limit so high that no one should ever run into it.  This works in most cases.  For example, with the Rogers plan I have now, it would be impossible to hit the cap with today’s technology.  Still, we’ve heard the stories of “unlimited texting” plans that are exceeded by avid teenaged texters.

Even with the unlimited plans, we’re still facing a situation where our communications infrastructure is falling behind in terms of worldwide comparisons on price, availability, and speed — true in both the United States and Canada.

Google may change all that with the introduction of 1 Gigabit service in many under-served communities in the United States.  But Google is carefully evaluating each market and will only enter those where it knows it can make a huge profit.  They have no plans to enter Canada at all.

There are a couple of suggestions that seem to make sense.  These suggestions would outrage the big telecommunications companies, based on their last reaction to being told late last year by the CRTC that yet another merger was not in the public’s best interest.

  1. Do not allow the service providers to also provide content and distribution channels on top of their base service.  Laying cable and fibre then opening up the pipe, like a true utility company, should be the only thing an Internet Service Provider does.  When the same company has profit motivation related to data they are running along those pipes, the temptation to filter or otherwise hinder their competitors is too great.
  2. Introduce true competition in the space. We already have a duplication of wires running through most neighbourhoods, but as we lay down more fibre we have an opportunity to allow different companies to fight for the ability to serve on those existing wires or lay down additional ones.

Real Estate Career

April 27th, 2013

After just over three years, I am hanging up my hat as a real estate agent.  It was a great experience but I am making far more money “on the side” than in real estate itself.

I want to thank everyone who supported my efforts.  There were far fewer people who wholeheartedly supported me than you’d think, so that makes each supporter extra special.


March 27th, 2012

In the most recent (Early Spring 2012) issue of Home Digest, author Jim Campbell delves into the topic of trust.  It is not a review of ethics but an observation that in today’s complex world we rely on trust far more than we used to.

I am almost never in agreement with these “slippery slope” theories about how the world is so much worse today than it was it the good old days.  But Campbell does a great job of moving from our trust in technological advancements like plasma TVs and USB memory sticks (the inner workings of which are completely hidden from us) to our trust in legal documents.

In today’s complex and harried world, people often don’t want to know the details of the things they are signing.  In my field, real estate, we are talking about the biggest purchase someone may ever make. I encourage all my clients to read the documents they are signing.  I further try to go through the documents clause by clause.  However, even with such a big purchase, many clients feel that they don’t need to know it all. Some prefer to rely on trust.

Every day we are asked to sign things that may or may not bind us to terms that we wouldn’t agree with if we fully understood them.  In fact, modern “terms of use” licenses often never even require a signature and just by opening or using a product we are implicitly agreeing to the terms.

Campbell’s point is that a signature today represents trust in the sales representative or the lawyer far more than it represents actual knowledge of what is being signed.

All our lives, we’ve been warned to watch out for the fine print.  Often the lawyers have added so many things to a standard agreement that it is ALL fine print.  Sometimes, Campbell points out, there is ultra-fine print — presumably much more dangerous than the fine print.

I watch the reaction of salespeople when I actually read the things they put in front of me to sign.  Most are annoyed that I am slowing things down.  In fact, in Campbell’s article, he asserts that if we actually stopped to understand all the agreements we are being asked to make, the world would “grind to a halt”. I want my clients to trust me, but I believe the best way I can earn that trust is to ensure that they are entering into any deal with eyes wide open and full knowledge of the contents and terms of the deal: no matter how long it takes.

We, the Web kids

February 28th, 2012

One of the greatest pieces of writing I have seen recently is by a Polish writer, Piotr Czerski, and translated by Marta Szreder.  The piece is like a manifesto for the Internet age.  It targets three key areas of thought:

  1. How the Internet is not something separate but something integral.  How this fact makes attitudes of the “Web kids” different.
  2. How culture is viewed in an age when digital copying and distribution have become commonplace.
  3. How governments and traditional institutions force outmoded paradigms onto a citizenry who increasingly feels contempt for them — not because the Web kids are such rebels but because they are growing accustomed to working with institutions who are in line with the way the “kids” live and work.

By the way, as old as I am, I feel very much in line with the sentiments expressed in this article and thus consider myself a Web kid too.

Please read the piece called “My, dzieci sieci” or “We, the Web kids”.

Really Big Screen for the Super Bowl Party? Lawbreaker!

February 4th, 2012

If you’re in the United States and you’re thinking about getting a big screen for the Super Bowl, be careful.  On any screen larger than 55 inches, if you invite someone over to watch the game, you’re committing copyright infringement.  That’s because the way the law is written, your friends comprise “the public” and that makes it a public performance.

(II) if the performance or display is by audiovisual means, any visual
portion of the performance or display is communicated by means of a total
of not more than 4 audiovisual devices, of which not more than 1
audiovisual device is located in any 1 room, and no such audiovisual
device has a diagonal screen size greater than 55 inches, and any audio
portion of the performance or display is communicated by means of a total
of not more than 6 loudspeakers, of which not more than 4 loudspeakers
are located in any 1 room or adjoining outdoor space;

Transferrable skills

January 27th, 2012

When I first made the leap into my current real estate career, I did a skills inventory and concluded that I would be suited to the job.

I looked at my project management experience and my ongoing fascination with language, including legalese.  I looked at my communications and public speaking experience. Finally I looked at my ability to get technology working for myself and others.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that my earlier experiences in life also come into play in this career: retail sales is an obvious one that seemed so long ago as to be irrelevant (yet it comes up almost every day), and journalism.

Journalism? Yes, I now realize that those skills are very relevant.  I am not the only person with on-air broadcasting experience and interviewing skills to get into real estate.  Lance Chilton and Jim Tatti, two high-profile broadcasters in the Greater Toronto Area are real estate agents now.  Asking the right questions and getting to the bottom of things are critical in any real estate transaction.  Knowing how to frame a story and present the facts are also key skills.

The lesson of course is that your life experiences accumulate to make you who you are.  I’m just happy to have a strong sense that nothing I did was “wasted effort”.

Innovation and the Film Studios

January 18th, 2012

There’s a fascinating infographic that summarizes the long history the Hollywood film studios have with trying to stop innovation.  SOPA is really just the latest round. Click on the image to go to the original site and see it properly.

Red Herring Soup

January 17th, 2012

Since November, when I wrote about the legislation coming through the U.S. Congress and a similar one in the Senate, SOPA has become a household word.  PIPA is almost as common.  OPEN is still quite obscure.  They are all legislative forays with the same goal.  OPEN is the best of the three, but the same driving forces behind the legislation are copyright holders: the big companies that own copyrights.  The laudable introductory text that says “Americans have a right to benefit from what they’ve created” ignores the fact that these days copyright benefits the artist who actually created the work in very few cases.

There are lots of laws on the books that are already used (and abused and abused and abused) to enforce copyright and generally hold people accountable for their online actions.

Meanwhile, Adam Curry postulates that “winning” over SOPA (which happens to be Spanish for soup) and the big Internet blackout that is coming tomorrow in protest of these bills, is nothing but a red herring.