An interview with Francine Berman, a computer-science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a longtime expert on computer infrastructure.
In October, when malware called Mirai took over poorly secured webcams and DVRs, and used them to disrupt internet access across the United States, I wondered who was responsible. Not who actually coded the malware, or who unleashed it on an essential piece of the internet’s infrastructure—instead, I wanted to know if anybody could be held legally responsible. Could the unsecure devices’ manufacturers be liable for the damage their products? Right now, in this early stage of connected devices’ slow invasion into our daily lives, there’s no clear answer to that question. That’s because there’s no real legal framework that would hold manufacturers responsible for critical failures that harm others. As is often the case, the technology has developed far faster than policies and regulations.
[Commentary] The larger problem with WikiTribune is this: Someone who is paid for doing journalistic work cannot be considered “equals” with someone who is unpaid. And promoting the idea that core journalistic work should be done for free, by volunteers, is harmful to professional journalism.
The difference between a professional and a hobbyist isn't always measurable in skill level, but it is quantifiable in time and other resources necessary to complete a job. This is especially true in journalism, where figuring out the answer to a question often requires stitching together several pieces of information from different sources—not just information sources but people who are willing to be questioned to clarify complicated ideas.
Pairs of Android apps installed on the same smartphone have ways of colluding to extract information about the phone’s user, which can be difficult to detect. Security researchers don’t have much trouble figuring out if a single app is gathering sensitive data and secretly sending it off to a server somewhere. But when two apps team up, neither may show definitive signs of thievery alone. And because of an enormous number of possible app combinations, testing for app collusions is a herculean task. A study released recently developed a new way to tackle this problem—and found more than 20,000 app pairings that leak data.
As a youth in the Virginia colony, Thomas Jefferson encrypted letters to a confidante about the woman he loved. While serving as the third president of the newly formed United States, he tried to institute an impossibly difficult cipher for communications about the Louisiana Purchase. He even designed an intricate mechanical system for coding text that was more than a century ahead of its time.
Cryptography was no parlor game for the idle classes, but a serious business for revolutionary-era statesmen who, like today’s politicians and spies, needed to conduct their business using secure messaging. Codes and ciphers involving rearranged letters, number substitutions, and other now-quaint methods were the WhatsApp, Signal, and PGP keys of the era.
What everyone actually knows, or should by now, is that while President Donald Trump claims to hate “the media,” he is himself an active publisher. And when the Trump Administration talks about the press as “the opposition,” that may be because President Trump is himself competing with traditional outlets in the same media environment, using the same publishing tools. It’s no wonder there was so much speculation about President Trump possibly launching his own TV network to rival Fox. It’s also no wonder that President Trump recently suggested he owes his presidency to Twitter, which he has used to blast critics and spout conspiracy theories since at least 2011.
Thus far, much of the post-election discussion of social-media companies has focused on algorithms and automated mechanisms that are often assumed to undergird most content-dissemination processes online. But algorithms are not the whole story. In fact, there is a profound human aspect to this work. I call it commercial content moderation, or CCM.
When you cross into or out of the United States, whether in a car or at an airport, you enter a special zone where federal agents have unusual powers to search your belongings—powers they don’t have elsewhere in the country. The high standard set by the Fourth Amendment, which protects people against unreasonable searches, is lowered, and the Fifth Amendment, which guards against self-incrimination and prevents the government from demanding computer passwords or smartphone PINs, is rendered less effective. The rules around what information can be retained after Customs and Border Protection inspections—and for how long—aren’t entirely clear-cut.
[Commentary] “I love the First Amendment,” President Trump told the CPAC crowd. “Nobody loves it better than me. Nobody.” “I mean, who uses it more than I do?” he added. He uses it all right, but to what end? Freedom of the press is not an institutional right, it’s a Constitutional one. It belongs to all American people—to you, and to me, and to Donald Trump. And no matter what the president says, no matter who he calls fake, the best journalists will be doing what they must. They’ll be reporting. Fearlessly, fairly, truthfully, and relentlessly.
Civil conversation in the comment sections of news sites can be hard to come by these days. Whatever intelligent observations do lurk there are often drowned out by obscenities, ad-hominem attacks, and off-topic rants. Some sites, like the one you’re reading, hide the comments section behind a link at the bottom of each article; many others have abolished theirs completely. For those outlets who can’t hire 14 full-time moderators to comb through roughly 11,000 comments a day, help is on the way. Jigsaw, the Google-owned technology incubator, released a tool that uses machine-learning algorithms to separate out the worst comments that people leave online.
The tool, called Perspective, learned from the best: It analyzed the Times moderators’ decisions as they triaged reader comments, and used that data to train itself to identify harmful speech. The training materials also included hundreds of thousands of comments on Wikipedia, evaluated by thousands of different moderators.
[Commentary] The relationship between the government and the press should be adversarial, as their missions are often at odds. As those seeking to downplay the current confrontation have rightly pointed out, this has resulted in a power struggle between that is as old as the Republic itself. But Trump’s relationship with the media represents something new and potentially dangerous to both. He is the first President to publicly question the place of the media in American society itself And his branding of the press as an "enemy" seems less an attempt to influence coverage than an invitation to repression and even violence. The level of antipathy or collegiality between the government and the press has always moved in cycles of confrontation and detente.
First, his assault on the press seems calculated not to influence coverage, but to destroy the credibility of the media so he can usurp the its traditional role as the arbiter of facts on which policy decisions are based.
Second, Trump chose a phrase ("enemies of the people") replete with ominous historical resonance in other societies as a prelude to violence.
Third, while every one of our previous Presidents may have criticized particular reporters...they never publicly questioned the press as an institution.
[Jon Finer was Chief of Staff to Secretary of State John Kerry and Director of Policy Planning at the State Department]