Archive for January 17th, 2011

Jan 17 2011

Information Sovereignty and Data Havens

Published by under General

Overlooked in the news about WikiLeaks and the sexual escapades of its founder  is the fascinating issue of data havens: secure  “places” where data may be stored and accessed  out of the legal reach of any government or plaintiff.  The concept has interested me for over a decade, and perhaps the best presentation of the concept was in Neal Stephenson’s 199 novel, Cryptonomicon, in which the modern day protagonists try to establish a data haven in the fictional Sultanate of Kinakuta with the objective of providing a platform for anonymous  banking, censorship-free hosting of content, and eventually an online “gold” standard for a virtual currency.

Wikileak’s travails in finding a host are well reported, but to recount, the site was booted off of Amazon Web Services. It’s instructional to read Amazon’s explanation for why they dropped the site from its servers:

“There have been reports that a government inquiry prompted us not to serve WikiLeaks any longer. That is inaccurate.

“There have also been reports that it was prompted by massive DDOS attacks. That too is inaccurate. There were indeed large-scale DDOSattacks, but they were successfully defended against.

“…. AWS does not pre-screen its customers, but it does have terms of service that must be followed. WikiLeaks was not following them. There were several parts they were violating. For example, our terms of service state that “you represent and warrant that you own or otherwise control all of the rights to the content… that use of the content you supply does not violate this policy and will not cause injury to any person or entity.” It’s clear that WikiLeaks doesn’t own or otherwise control all the rights to this classified content. Further, it is not credible that the extraordinary volume of 250,000 classified documents that WikiLeaks is publishing could have been carefully redacted in such a way as to ensure that they weren’t putting innocent people in jeopardy. Human rights organizations have in fact written to WikiLeaks asking them to exercise caution and not release the names or identities of human rights defenders who might be persecuted by their governments.”

In sum, AWS invoked its Terms of Service clause in which it reserves the right to not provide common carriage to data of suspect ownership, e.g. the  stolen diplomatic cables,  banking records, emails, etc. that WikiLeaks serves up.

There are precedents for WikiLeaks — Sweden’s The Pirate Bay is a classic example of a service that was disrupted when the site’s servers were seized by police on a judge’s order  (one server is apparently enshrined in a Swedish computer museum). The fact that a judge could order a seizure that would then be executed by police led to the very interesting attempt by The Pirate Bay to purchase The Principality of Sealand – a former WWII  “Maunsell Sea Fort” sitting a few miles off of England’s eastern coast. Sealand was abandoned after the war, then occupied in 1967 by a pirate radio broadcaster who took advantage of the structure’s placement outside of England’s three-mile territorial limits. The Pirate Bay was unable to pull off the transaction, and one has to marvel at the technical logistics of building a data center far from power sources and fiber optic cables. Pirate Bay now has mirrors in Russia and Belgium in the event another seizure takes place.

Another example of digital activity “beyond the law” would be the  Penet “remailer” established in Finland in the 1990s to make one’s email anonymous — a useful concept for whistleblowers, or people concerned about retribution for their content. Anonymizers such as Tor are another case in point of an attempt by users to mask actions which might be grounds for a lawsuit or criminal charges …. including deplorable uses such as child pornography, but also commendable ones such as the exercise of freedom of speech in a repressive regime.

The concept of legal “venue” — the jurisdiction in which a trial is held or suit is filed — must be remarkably complex in a digital age.  I recall one lawyer telling me, during her law school education, that the course that fascinated her the most was the one of venue. The question of which laws apply when, to cite a pre-digital example, a passenger on an airplane commits a crime at 30,000 feet going 500 miles per hour over several states. The notion of cross-border legal venue is complex and is, in the end, why the world used to enjoy anomalies like Lichtenstein and Andorra.

My short unforgettable stint in the world of online private banking in 2001-2003 placed me in Lichtenstein, the tiny principality between Switzerland and Austria renowned for its uber-secret banking laws and the concept of the treuhand, or trust, in which, to seriously simplify matters, an individual or organization transfers ownership or custody of an liquid asset such as cash or intellectual property such as music copyrights to a trusted person or entity for safekeeping or storage outside of the borders of a tax authority or the legal subpoenas of a plaintiff.

The “trust” part is essential. Do you trust that banker in Lichtenstein to safeguard your assets and return them to you when you need them? For some uber-rich or criminal clients, the issue is one of privacy — do you trust the trust officer to keep your assets and their location secret? Banking secrecy is useful when the resident of one country moves money out from under that country’s tax regime into a country such as Lichtenstein where the tax man can’t touch it. This worked for a long time until 2008 when the German government, fed up with German citizens hiding their cash, paid an employee of LGT Bank, one Heinrich Kieber, more than 4 million Euros for a CD holding the names of German account holders.  Combine that scandal with the post-9/11 Patriot Act in the U.S. and it has become very difficult to hide money offshore without getting exposed.

Will the concept of a datahaven ever be truly realized? Some argue they already do, and yes, to an extent, there are many examples of data that is illegal in one country being housed and permitted in another. But the concept of a truly secure haven seems impossibly far away.

If you accept that serving sensitive or illegal data is, inevitably impossible in the long run because that data can be physically seized, shut off, or blocked, then the solution is to go extra-terrestrial — serve the data from space via satellite. Other than a space seizure out of James Bond,  a satellite server could, if privately launched and maintained, cause quite a ruckus. The possibilities have been explored and may, in fact, be already operational.

As for Wikileaks — the site is currently hosted in Sweden by PRQ — who also hosts The Pirate Bay.

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Jan 17 2011

The Last of His Kind

Published by under Books,General

I just finished reading The Last of His Kind, David Robert’s biography of Bradford Washburn: the esteemed American mountaineer, founder of the Boston Museum of Science, and accomplished alpine photographer and cartographer. While I’m a fan of maritime adventure writing, I do have a passing interest in mountaineering, driven I suppose by Jon Krakauer‘s Into Thin Air, and a couple of other books, but a fear of heights that emerged in 1968 on a Cub Scouts field trip to a firespotter’s tower in Georgetown, Massachusetts has condemned me to a life of sea-level adventures.

Washburn was the last of a certain breed of Bostonian — Harvard-educated, Brahmin to some extent —  part of  the “greatest”  generation of Boston WASPs that included Tom Winship, the esteemed late editor of the Boston Globe; David Ives, the driving force behind WGBH public television, and many other Yankee names who marked the passing of a certain era in Boston. This was a generation that served in World War II, were progressive in their politics, loyal to their institutions, and quietly accomplished without celebrity.

Washburn’s story is fascinating in that he progressed from a childhood spent roaming New Hampshire’s White Mountains, to learning the ropes of classic Alpine climbing in Chamonix as a teenager, then on to media celebrity as a lecturer and author published by GP Putnam, the National Geographic, and Lif e Magazine — all while attending Harvard as an undergraduate in the 1920s. He never climbed an Asian peak like K2 or Everest — preferring to blaze his trails in the wild mountains of southern Alaska and the Canadian Yukon, notching many “firsts” and making the glaciers of North America his specialty.  His photography is his legacy, detailed aerial studies that are art in their own right. His maps of Mount Washington, Everest, and McKinley are works of art in their own right, projects undertaken long after he hung up his crampons and focused his career on transforming the New England Museum of Natural History from a dusty anachronism into the state of the art Boston Museum of Science.

Roberts  was Washburn’s protege,  and follows in the tradition of Harvard Mountain Club climbers. He wrote a fine biography that interestingly — in the paperback version I read —  omits the tragic events involving Washburn’s son and daughter later in his life, events I only became aware of while Googling the subject and uncovering an earlier, different version of the book archived by Google. I won’t go into the details, but I do respect Roberts’ decision to omit the incidents in later editions, but that decision does force the question of how comprehensive a biography needs to be. My sense is that, in the context of Washburn’s long and esteemed life, that omitting details of his personal life and family is the sort of benign protectionism that the press displayed towards say John F. Kennedy’s sexual escapades, or FDR’s polio, as not being germane to the business at hand.  Emphasizing the salacious and sensational is a regrettable by product of our current celebrity-scandal driven media, but still I am curious about how Roberts, as biographer, first made the decision to include the details and then redacted them.

All that aside, The Last of His Kind, piqued my interest in mountain hiking (note I don’t say climbing) that I was introduced to in Switzerland ten years ago when I spent my bachelor weekends traversing some Swiss weg, or walk, up the likes of Mount Tendre in the Jura (5509 feet) and the Hoher Kasten in Appenzeller (5,886 feet). Something in my rower’s legs makes climbing up steep inclines a semi-enjoyable activity, just as long as I stay away from sheer precipices, ropes, and pitons. With some shame I will admit I have never climbed Mount Washington, the third tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River — tallest in the northeast — and thanks to the book  have ordered a copy of Washburn’s famous map of the 6,288 foot peak as well as the Appalachian Mountain Club’s hiking guides. My good friend and former biking buddy, Marta, has done several Presidential Traverses — a marathon effort to hit the peaks of all the mountains named for presidents in the White Mountains in a single day.  This 20 mile effort is usually undertaken on the Summer solstice to get as much daylight as possible on one’s side in completing the effort. I definitely will need to train a lot more than my typical ergometer work to get in shape at my age for the effort, but the story of Washburn’s herculean exploits traversing the glaciers of the Yukon is providing some inspiration.

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