Ray Lodato writes "Few people would deny that the world has changed significantly since the explosion of the Internet. Our access to immense volumes of data has made our lives both easier and less secure. Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, and Harry Lewis have written an intriguing analysis of many of the issues that have erupted due to the ubiquity of digital data, not only on the Internet but elsewhere. Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion, published by Addison-Wesley, digs into many of the ramifications of making so much information available to the world at large. As I read through the book, I was alternately fascinated and horrified at what information is available, and how it is being used and abused." Keep reading for the rest of Ray's review.While the subject matter is primarily about a technology that many people may still not comprehend, the book is written at a level permitting most people to understand how it affects them. There is sufficient tutorial information on how the Internet functions to allow all to follow the reasoning. For those more web-savvy, there are many references to web sites illustrating the authors’ points. The reader is encouraged to check them out as you go. While there is a natural flow from one chapter to the next, each one is sufficiently encapsulated so that you can read chapters in any order you like.
The first chapter of Blown to Bits sets the tone of the book by providing examples of how the new technology is both a boon and a menace. As an example of the former, Tanya Rider, who was trapped in her car after an horrific crash, was rescued days later by using the technology behind her cell phone to pinpoint the location of the cellular tower it was “pinging”. In contrast, 13-year-old Megan Meier committed suicide after “Josh” (a fabricated personality) tormented her on MySpace. In each case, the law had a significant role to play. For Tanya, her right to privacy delayed the acquisition of her cell phone location records. In Megan’s case, no law was found to prevent someone from fabricating a MySpace “friend” and saying what they wanted. As the book continues, the clash between the current set of laws and the new capabilities in the digital world is continually spotlighted.
Two chapters are devoted to the vast amounts of data collected on our personal habits, and how the processing power of computers is making it easier for us to extract information that used to be difficult to determine. Most of the information gathered by various companies is permitted by us in the name of convenience. How many of us have signed up for store rewards cards, just to save a few buck here or there? The authors detail how those companies track our purchasing profiles for their own benefit, and sometimes share that information with others. In most cases, they point out that the use in innocuous enough, but the potential exists for damage to us in the form of invading our private lives. In the past, collecting this vast amount of data would require a large investment in people and processing power to extract useful information. The chapter “Needles in the Haystack” shows how the new computers we can purchase today make that power available to anyone with the desire to know. It is made very clear that this data mining is available to anyone with an Internet connection and the desire to explore.
Two other chapters dig into how information can be hidden in files, both deliberately and unknowingly. For example, the metadata that describes a document is stored along with the actual content, and that metadata may not be something you want shared. Another example is how sensitive information in an official document was supposedly redacted (censored with a black bar) yet, unknown to the document owner, the underlying document contained the entire text which was easily retrieved. Data encryption by the general public is a subject of great concern to governments around the world. The chapter on data encryption explains how the FBI attempted to hamper independent efforts to create a strong public encryption algorithm in the name of national defense. Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis weigh the pros and cons of unbreakable encryption in the hands of the general public with the need of the government to insure terrorist plots cannot be hidden from the Defense Department. This chapter ends with a discussion of how anyone using a browser to purchase goods on the internet uses encryption, and how that’s principally the only use of encryption by the average user.
The final three chapters explore the legal ramifications of the digital age, and how the judicial system has lagged behind. Many news stories have described the fight for ownership of media, especially in the case of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) suing many individuals for allegedly sharing songs. Blown to Bits goes into depth describing the issues on both sides of this case. RIAA’s filing of over 26,000 lawsuits in five years is given as a chilling example of how a large organization can abuse the legal system that has not yet adjusted to the new realities of the ease of copying original works. The concerns surrounding free speech on the Internet include the availability of pornography and inflammatory messages. How do you rationalize protecting those who do not wish to be subjected to certain text or images against the rights of those who wish to make them available? No clear answers are provided, but many facets of the discussion are revealed.
Blown to Bits is a fascinating read which will get you thinking about how technology is changing our lives, for better and for worse. Each chapter will alternatively interest you and leave you appalled (and perhaps a little frightened). You will be given the insight to protect yourself a little better, and it provides background for intelligent discussions about the legalities that impact our use of technology.
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