WikiLeaks and Tor: Moral use of an amoral system?

Reading the New Yorker’s piece on WikiLeaks, it’s hard to decide whether I’m reading about freedom fighters, skilled propagandists, or as is often the case, both.

Without looking too deeply, although I have serious reservations about their editorial decisions from time to time, I believe in what WikiLeaks is trying to do, and I have since they first arrived on the scene.

But I’m profoundly worried to read about Tor server traffic mined for data.

If I have the story straight, this is the sort of behavior Tor is designed to protect people from, not subject them to:

Before launching the site, Assange needed to show potential contributors that it was viable. One of the WikiLeaks activists owned a server that was being used as a node for the Tor network. Millions of secret transmissions passed through it. The activist noticed that hackers from China were using the network to gather foreign governments’ information, and began to record this traffic. Only a small fraction has ever been posted on WikiLeaks, but the initial tranche served as the site’s foundation, and Assange was able to say, “We have received over one million documents from thirteen countries.”

Confusing, right?

In this narrative, Chinese hackers are crawling the Tor network for the purpose of espionage. Someone attached to WikiLeaks with access to a Tor node — most likely an anonymous volunteer, if we believe the narrative regarding the structure of WikiLeaks elsewhere in the story — notices this, and starts tracking the activity of the Chinese hackers.

My first set of questions, directed toward friends who know far more about Tor than I do:

  • What, what? Can “hackers from China” successfully trawl Tor for information?
  • Hold on, even if they can, could someone with access to logs from a single Tor node figure that out, and then, figure out how to get access to the same documents the Chinese were accessing?

And then we come to my greater question, and worry:

If these two points of the narrative are true, then Tor is (perhaps as it should be?) an amoral network being used for both good and evil (painting with a broad brush here, forgive me).

And if that’s the case, if Tor is just a platform that doesn’t make any judgments of its use, how do we then judge the acts of a lone WikiLeaks/Tor volunteer?

Is it OK to hack Tor in the name of the public good?

And if it is, what do we do when secrets are exposed that don’t serve the public good?

I’m not sure, but I have a hard time trusting Tor or WikiLeaks right now.

Tell me why I’m wrong…

(It occurs to me now, of course, that the “Tor” line in the narrative could easily be a falsehood, constructed to substitute for something a bit more direct. If WikiLeaks wanted to fend off queries regarding the sources of documents in their possession, getting them from a network that theoretically provides total anonymity to the user certainly sounds like a solid way to parry those questions. Maybe.)

More context: Does the “military” section of the “Who uses Tor” page answer any of my questions?

These are all open questions. I’m reading up on the history of Tor, and its vulnerabilities. I’ll update this post with anything I hear from friends who know better…

[UPDATE: As expected, commenters come through. Ethan Zuckerman added a thorough explanation of what someone hosting a Tor server would be doing monitoring what users are up to, among other things.]

[SECOND UPDATE: The Tor Project blog responds, pointing out that Tor doesn’t magically encrypt text, it simply allows for the anonymous transfer of files. So if you use unsecure connections and send data in plain text, it’s just as safe as writing down the information on a piece of paper, folding it into an airplane, and throwing it across the street. (My ridiculous metaphor, not Tor’s.)  The other interesting thing you’ll find in the Tor blog post is this sentence: “We hear from the Wikileaks folks that the premise behind these news articles is actually false — they didn’t bootstrap Wikileaks by monitoring the Tor network.”] //Thanks to commenter Shava Nerad for pointing out the Tor post and more.

Further reading:

Back to the Internet’s Future

Once in a while, I take a look through some of the links I’ve been saving, sharing, and publishing in the sidebar of my blog, Twitter, and a few other places, and try to scrape the pixelly cream off the top to immortalize (until the links break, anyway) a little bit of the Web, hung in blog post with care, framed neatly by a theme. This is one of those onces in a while. If you like what you see here, follow me on Twitter to get ’em while they’re fresh.

The Internet? Bah!
Published at Newsweek on February 27, 1995.
Clifford Stoll’s 1995 predictions included “…no computer network will change the way government works.”

What the Internet hucksters won’t tell you is that the Internet is one big ocean of unedited data, without any pretense of completeness. Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data. You don’t know what to ignore and what’s worth reading.

Anonymous Polk Award Honors Citizen Journalists
Published at The New York Times on February 21, 2010.
The chain of people who moved video of an Iranian woman’s violent death from the street to the Web are honored.

The panel that administers the George Polk Awards, based at Long Island University, said it wanted to acknowledge the role of ordinary citizens in disseminating images and news, especially in times of tumult when professional reporters face restrictions, as they do in Iran. The university said it had never bestowed an award on an anonymous work before.

On foursquare, location & privacy…
Published at Foursquare Blog on February 18, 2010.
The Foursquare team responds to the conversation around pleaserobme.com and the perceived dangers of sharing your physical location on the Internet.

The truth is you could make something like this without using foursquare at all. Just try searching Twitter for the words “headed to”…

Coworking.com: The Next Generation
Published at dangerouslyawesome.com on February 18, 2010.
The Coworking community picks itself up by its bootstraps and raises money to buy the coworking.com domain. What happens next? They’ll figure it out as a community.

The beautiful thing about the internet is it’s made up of words. Domain names are technically pointers to ideas, and instead of having to remember IP addresses, DNS has allowed us to connect words with ideas.

Expert Labs, ThinkTank, Gina Trapani and our Grand Challenges
Published at dashes.com on February 17, 2010.
Anil Dash begins to claim territory for Expert Labs as a technology incubator for networking tools to help governments ask and answer big questions.

Today, I’ve been able to go to the White House and help make the case that a better technology platform, connected to the social networks we already use, could have the same transformative effect on policy making that it did on the world of media or business. And they were ready to listen, not just to me, but to our entire community.

Multi-Touch Will Change Everything
Published at trentwalton.com on February 2, 2010.
This post comes a bit closer to the way I’d like to see designers and developers think about the iPad. It *is* a completely new interface.

With multi-touch, DIVs are the new fold. Being able to tap on a section to zoom in will allow users to focus only on the content they want to see. This quadrant based page browsing will make skipping over uninteresting content & advertisements much easier.

kleinmatic: First correction issued in a news app? http://bit.ly/7Yd4HD
Published at Twitter on February 9, 2010.
Maybe not the first, but it becomes an interesting question. How long do you leave the correction on the page? How and where do you archive corrections that relate to databases? Is it worth having some sort of microblog — or at least a blog category — for every app to cover notes like this?

Gizmodo’s Comment System: How It Works and Why It’s Better
Published at Gizmodo on February 2, 2010.
A great explanation of how comments work on Gawker blogs, powered by karma, Facebook Connect, and heavy moderation of new commenters before they’re set free on threads.

There are three levels of commenters: Unapproved, Approved and Starred. You basically have to audition for the right to comment, by leaving a smart blurb—if it’s good, you’ll get approved by an editor, one of our moderators, or a starred commenter, and then people can see your comment.

So what do you think? Are all these bits and pieces signs that point to the future of communication, or the past? It’s difficult to look at today’s innovation without looking through the lens of everything that it’s built on, eh? Including, complicatedly, our own habits and biases.

We are all technologists now

A company launches a new phone, or is rumored to likely be planning to launch a fancy tablet computer, or a new browser, or upgrading its mobile data network, and thousands (millions?) of us have something to say about it.

Really?

What do we know about technology, business, strategy, and the machinations of multinational corporations?

A lot, apparently, judging by our visceral reactions, emotions, and excitement about every new shiny object released into the technosphere.

Over at Media Decoder, David Carr says “We are all gadget nerds now,” focusing on the way technology has driven the production of culture in recent years:

“Longtime players in the media space have been struggling to come to grips with an era in which the consumers serve as their own programmers. And now, the rapid rate of hardware innovation is metastasizing the trend, putting smaller, more powerful tools in their hands, leaving producers of all manner of software — not just the coded kind, but movies, novels, pop songs, magazine articles — struggling to format their content in way that pleases consumers and still provides a way to make a living.”

And he’s right, but I’d like to see some analysis of, say, the evolution of personal technology from 1984 to 2009, with the intention of identifying the key moments where it leapt not just into our everyday lives as users, but into our everyday conversations as amateur pundits.

Of course, I suppose when fire was discovered, early humans were pretty psyched about that, too, and said so.

Notes on managing technology decisions

Over at the Knight News Challenge blog, I’ve contributed a short list of tips on dealing with developers and choosing a platform for your project:

3. Hire human beings, not a programming language or Web framework. Unless you’re doing the programming yourself, stay focused on your end goal and steer clear of mandating how the humans you hire do the job. Don’t look over the designer’s shoulder and worry about which shade of eggshell white to paint the walls until you have something really great to hang on them. Like content, for instance.”

You are getting your Knight News Challenge application ready, right? The deadline is October 15. Get on it.

I forget useful code, but Snipt remembers.

If you’re anything like me, you’re not really a Web developer by trade, but you push around a little bit of code on an extremely regular basis.  And often, it’s the same little bits of code over and over again.  And every time you need to use it, you go flipping through text files, Google searches, Delicious bookmarks, and oh, there it was.

Or there’s Snipt:

It’s simple.

  1. Sign up.
  2. Save your snippet of useful, reusable code.
  3. Give it a logical name.
  4. Add some tags.
  5. Find what you need later, quickly, just the way you like it.

Snipt is another fine little piece of usefulness from my friends (and co-workers) who go by the name of Lion Burger.

Yes, I’m still talking about Twitter

Three links about Twitter you should see if you haven’t yet:

  1. Guy Kawasaki on How to use Twitter as a Twool.
  2. Katherine Boehret writes YASEOT (yet another simple explanation of Twitter), but it’s at the Wall Street Journal’s AllThingsD site, so your editor and publisher will read it this time.
  3. Old Media New Tricks has a brief guide to live-tweeting an event.

Bonus link: Merlin Mann’s metatweet regarding Guy Kawasaki’s approach, if you’re into that sort of comedy.


Sometimes, robots just aren’t enough

TechMeme adds a human editor to make adjustments when the algorithm fails:

“Any competent developer who tries to automate the selection of news headlines will inevitably discover that this approach always comes up a bit short. Automation does indeed bring a lot to the table — humans can’t possibly discover and organize news as fast as computers can. But too often the lack of real intelligence leads to really unintelligent results. Only an algorithm would feature news about Anna Nicole Smith’s hospitalization after she’s already been declared dead, as our automated celeb news site WeSmirch did last year

Would Google News add humans to the mix to craft a more up-to-date, relevant news site?  I doubt it.

But I’d be interested to see further variations of the algorithms that run Google News, TechMeme, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Digg or Reddit, to see what else is possible when it comes to translating the logic of linking behavior into actual prioritization of “importance,” if that’s still a relevant metric.

via @jayrosen_nyu

Catering to information obsession

The moment that launched years of overzealous information consumption, filtering, sharing, and engagement, for me, was seeing Scoble’s feedreader on a screen in 2005.  He was subscribed to 1200 feeds.

Since then, he’s shifted his information production and consumption around from stream to stream as necessary to stay at the absolute front of the curve as news breaks.  In his case, it’s usually technology news that he’s engaged with, but take the following bits of this blog post to heart if you produce a news site of any size:

“Some of my friends say I’m really stupid to stop spending so much time obsessing over TechMeme and blogging and to be spending so much time on FriendFeed and Twitter.

That might be so. But already my inbound news is more diverse AND faster than TechMeme and my outbound “Likes” and “Comment” feed is pretty damn good cause it includes all sorts of different data types. Quick, how often have you seen a video on TechMeme? I can’t remember the time. But video is a HUGE part of news today and video and photos are huge parts of the experience on FriendFeed. Especially live video. That shows up on FriendFeed, it doesn’t show up on TechMeme. Well, except when YouTube throws a big concert. Then you see the news stories about the concert, but you need to click through articles to see the live video.” [The emphasis is mine.]

Read the whole thing.  It will make more sense if you’re familiar with the trends in technology news for the last few years, but you can substitute “traditional newspaper Web site” for TechMeme in a lot of places, as crazy as that sounds, and think about how faster, more personal gatherings of links to news and information (like what you get from the people you follow on Twitter or FriendFeed) are disruptive to that traditional editorial structure.

Placeblogger: More human than ever

Check out the redesigned Placeblogger a 2007 Knight News Challenge winner.

The aggregation-by-location niche seems to be blowing up lately, especially as startups try to hitch their maps to the iPhone’s wagon, but Placeblogger feels like real live humans are writing blog posts in real live places.  I like that.

via the Knight Foundation Blog.

See also: Build your own local news application using Outside.In’s API