June 27, 2019

Political issues around big tech companies

The technology industry has an increasingly complex relationship to government and politics, most importantly in three areas:

Here’s some of what I think about that, plus links to a lot more.

1. For a long time, I’ve maintained:

The first point is now widely accepted. The second unfortunately is not; laws and regulations generally state who may or may not record, keep or decrypt particular kinds of data, rather than what particular uses they may make of it.

2. Another threat to freedom has arisen as big as that from privacy/surveillance: a many-fronts push for censorship. It would ultimately be calamitous for free countries to agree that the threat of “Fake News” and other dangerous online partisanship justifies general censorship, by governments or “platform” tech companies as the case may be, yet that is exactly the path we seem to be on.

Fortunately, there are less dangerous ways to address the same challenges. I expect to make as much fuss about this issue in the upcoming decade as I have about privacy/surveillance over the past one.

Read more

June 27, 2019

How to beat “fake news”

Most observers hold several or all of the views:

And further:

But despite all those difficulties, I also believe that a good solution to news/opinion filtering is feasible; it just can’t be as simple as everybody would like.

Read more

June 25, 2018

New legal limits on surveillance in the US

The United States has new legal limits on electronic surveillance, both in one specific way and — more important — in prevailing judicial theory. This falls far short of the protections we ultimately need, but it’s a welcome development even so.

The recent Supreme Court case Carpenter v. United States is a big deal. Let me start by saying:

*The Katz test basically says that that an individual’s right to privacy is whatever society regards as a reasonable expectation of privacy at that time.

**The third-party doctrine basically says that any information of yours given voluntarily to a third party isn’t private. This includes transactional information such as purchases or telephone call detail records (CDRs)

Key specifics include: Read more

June 20, 2018

Brittleness, Murphy’s Law, and single-impetus failures

In my initial post on brittleness I suggested that a typical process is:

In many engineering scenarios, a fuller description could be:

So it’s necesseary to understand what is or isn’t likely to go wrong. Unfortunately, that need isn’t always met.  Read more

June 20, 2018

Brittleness and incremental improvement

Every system — computer or otherwise — needs to deal with possibilities of damage or error. If it does this well, it may be regarded as “robust”, “mature(d), “strengthened”, or simply “improved”.* Otherwise, it can reasonably be called “brittle”.

*It’s also common to use the word “harden(ed)”. But I think that’s a poor choice, as brittle things are often also hard.

0. As a general rule in IT:

There are many categories of IT strengthening. Two of the broadest are:

1. One of my more popular posts stated:

Developing a good DBMS requires 5-7 years and tens of millions of dollars.

The reasons I gave all spoke to brittleness/strengthening, most obviously in:

Those minor edge cases in which your Version 1 product works poorly aren’t minor after all.

Similar things are true for other kinds of “platform software” or distributed systems.

2. The UI brittleness/improvement story starts similarly:  Read more

May 20, 2018

Technology implications of political trends

The tech industry has a broad range of political concerns. While I may complain that things have been a bit predictable in other respects, politics is having real and new(ish) technical consequences. In some cases, existing technology is clearly adequate to meet regulators’ and customers’ demands. Other needs look more like open research challenges.

1. Privacy regulations will be very different in different countries or regions. For starters:

All of these rules are subject to change based on:

And so I believe: For any multinational organization that handles customer data, privacy/security requirements are likely to change constantly. Technology decisions need to reflect that reality.

2. Data sovereignty/geo-compliance is a big deal. In fact, this is one area where the EU and authoritarian countries such as Russia formally agree. Each wants its citizens’ data to be stored locally, so as to ensure adherence to local privacy rules.

For raw, granular data, that’s a straightforward — even if annoying — requirement to meet. But things get murkier for data that is aggregated or otherwise derived. Read more

May 20, 2018

Some stuff that’s always on my mind

I have a LOT of partially-written blog posts, but am struggling to get any of them finished (obviously). Much of the problem is that they have so many dependencies on each other. Clearly, then, I should consider refactoring my writing plans. 🙂

So let’s start with this. Here, in no particular order, is a list of some things that I’ve said in the past, and which I still think are or should be of interest today. It’s meant to be background for numerous posts I write in the near future, and indeed a few hooks for such posts are included below.

1.  Data(base) management technology is progressing pretty much as I expected.

2. Rightly or wrongly, enterprises are often quite sloppy about analytic accuracy.

Read more

February 7, 2018

Some things I think about politics

When one tries to think comprehensively about politics these days, it quickly gets overwhelming. But I think I’ve got some pieces of the puzzle figured out. Here they are in extremely summarized form. I’ll flesh them out later as seems to make sense.

1. Most of what people are saying about modern tribalism is correct. But partisanship is not as absolute as some fear. In particular:

2. The threat from Trump and his Republican enablers is indeed as bad as people fear. He’s a major danger to do terrible, irreversible harm to the US and the rest of the world. To date the irreversible damage hasn’t been all that terrible, but if Trump and his enablers are given enough time, the oldest modern democracy will be no more.

All common interests notwithstanding, beating Trump’s supporters at the polls is of paramount importance.

3. I agree with those who claim that many of our problems stem from the shredding of trust. But few people seem to realize just how many different aspects of “trust” there are, nor how many degrees there can be of trustworthiness. It’s not just a binary choice between “honest servant of the people” and “lying, cheating crook”.

These observations have strong analogies in IT. What does it mean for a system to be “reliable” or to produce “accurate” results? There are many possible answers, each reasonable in different contexts.

Read more

February 7, 2018

Politics can be overwhelming

Like many people, I’ve been shocked and saddened by recent political developments. What I’ve done about it includes (but is not limited to):

As for those writings: Read more

January 22, 2018

The chaotic politics of privacy

Almost nobody pays attention to the real issues in privacy and surveillance. That’s gotten only slightly better over the decade that I’ve written about the subject. But the problems with privacy/surveillance politics run yet deeper than that.


The politics of privacy and surveillance are confused, in many countries around the world. This is hardly surprising. After all:

Technical cluelessness isn’t the only problem. Privacy issues are commonly framed in terms of civil liberties, national security, law enforcement and/or general national sovereignty. And these categories are inherently confusing, in that:

Data sovereignty regulations — which are quite a big part of privacy law — get their own extra bit of confusion, because of the various purposes they can serve. Chief among these are:  Read more

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