M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

Archive for the ‘Tech’ Category

Reporting: Porn piracy wars get personal

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Cross-posted from msnbc.com’s Technolog blog, where it originally appeared. To read it in context, with all information boxes and art, click here.

Ron Jeremy is one of more than a dozen adult video stars who talked about the damage piracy can cause in public service announcements published last year by the Free Speech Coalition, the industry’s trade association.

It’s not fun, but all things considered, John Steele is OK with being a villain.

In recent months, Steele’s Chicago law firm has filed almost 100 federal lawsuits seeking to identify thousands of “John Does” who downloaded pornographic videos in violation of their producers’ copyright. Federal court records indicate that none of Steele’s cases — in fact, no case of this type ever — has ended with a verdict at trial.

Sometimes, the cases run into roadblocks from skeptical judges over jurisdiction or whether the defendants have been appropriately identified. Others end in settlements for a few thousand dollars from defendants who are relieved that they get to remain anonymous.

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Human editors matter

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Google News picks up a grisly story from Reuters and gets bitten by its computerized presentation:

Here’s the headline:
Body of missing Brooklyn boy found in freezer, trash

Here’s the caption Google News automatically generated, because Reuters includes a picture-of-the-day feature on its story pages:
A host of new surveys don’t paint a pretty picture for many small businesses. Uncertainty about the economy, slow retail sales and high commodity prices have small business owners in the dumps this summer.

There’s no one to blame for this, really. But it does illustrate, tastelessly and uncomfortably, that it will be a long time — perhaps not in my lifetime — before human editors are totally dispensable.

Agree or disagree? Will computers some day be able to completely replace us? Let me know in the comments.

Written by Alex

July 13, 2011 at 10:25 am

E911: Needle, meet haystack

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Exactly two years ago tomorrow, I wrote an msnbc.com piece about the accuracy of 911 calls from wireless phones. The takeaway was:

[T]he accuracy of location data generally drops in rural areas, where older, less-advanced cell towers can be farther apart, the Congressional Research Service found in a background report for lawmakers late last year. And it can drop in densely populated cities, where a phone might show up as being at 1 Main St., with no indication of whether it’s on the seventh or the 77th floor.

Depending on the technology a carrier is using — GPS or tower triangulation — FCC regulations allow a margin of error of up to 300 meters for some E911-capable phones. That’s longer than three football fields.

Today, the Federal Communications Commission published proposed E911 regulations that wouldn’t allow carriers to rely on tower triangulation — that is, measuring a phone’s distances from its three closest towers, which is the measure that yields the 300-meter margin of error. Instead, carriers would have to use location services on the device itself (GPS, for example), which is supposed to be accurate within 50 to 150 meters.

It would take Usain Bolt almost 15 seconds to sprint 150 meters — assuming stairs weren’t involved. Not all GPS services measure or report altitude, so they can’t indicate which floor you’re on if you’re in a high-rise building.

The technology to make wireless E911 work is incredibly difficult, but the new regulations mean that even under optimum conditions,  you could still be waiting a good amount of time for emergency crews to find you.

That’s the first caution. The second is that the new regulations wouldn’t take effect until after an eight-year sunset period; the current three-football-field allowance would be OK until 2019.

What do you think? Is that close enough? Do you expect better technology to be created in the near future? And if it is, what would the implications be for individual privacy?

Written by Alex

July 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm

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Foreign computer tech comes pre-infected for your convenience

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Over at Technolog, I’ve posted a followup on amazing comments at yesterday’s House cybersecurity hearing, during which a top official of the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged that computer hardware and software is already being imported to the United States preloaded with spyware and security-sabotaging components.

U.S. official says pre-infected computer tech entering country (Alex Johnson/Technolog)

Written by Alex

July 8, 2011 at 11:58 am

Reporting: Challenges to red light cameras span U.S.

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Video: NBC's Kerry Sanders reportsCross-posted from msnbc.com, where it originally appeared. To read it in context, with all information boxes and art, click here.

In more than 500 cities and towns in 25 states, silent sentries keep watch over intersections, snapping photos and shooting video of drivers who run red lights. The cameras are on the job in metropolises like Houston and Chicago and in small towns like Selmer, Tenn., population 4,700, where a single camera setup monitors traffic at the intersection of U.S. Highway 64 and Mulberry Avenue.

One of the places is Los Angeles, where, if the Police Commission gets its way, the red light cameras will have to come down in a few weeks. That puts the nation’s second-largest city at the leading edge of an anti-camera movement that appears to have been gaining traction across the country in recent weeks.

A City Council committee is considering whether to continue the city’s camera contract over the objections of the commission, which voted unanimously to remove the camera system, which shoots video of cars running red lights at 32 of the city’s thousands of intersections. The private Arizona company that installed the cameras and runs the program mails off $446 tickets to their registered owners.

The company’s contract will expire at the end of July if the council can’t reach a final agreement to renew it.

Opponents of the cameras often argue that they are really just revenue engines for struggling cities and towns, silently dinging motorists for mostly minor infractions. And while guidelines issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say revenue is an invalid justification for the use of the eyes in the sky, camera-generated citations do spin off a lot of money in many cities — the nearly 400 cameras in Chicago, for example, generated more than $64 million in 2009, the last year for which complete figures were available.

Federal camera guidelines
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says red light cameras and other automated traffic controls should:

• Reduce the frequency of violations.
• Maximize safety improvements with the most efficient use of resources.
• Maximize public awareness and approval.
• Maximize perceived likelihood that violators will be caught.
• Enhance the capabilities of traffic law enforcement and supplement, rather than replace, traffic stops by officers.
• Emphasize deterrence rather than punishment.
• Emphasize safety rather than revenue generation.
• Maintain program transparency by educating the public about program operations and be prepared to explain and justify decisions that affect program operations.

Source: Speed Enforcement Camera Systems Operational Guidelines, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Los Angeles hasn’t been so lucky.

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Reporting: Police on radio scanner apps: That’s not a 10-4

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Police Scanner by Juicy Development

Police Scanner is available for $2.99 in the iPhone App Store.

This report was cross-posted on msnbc.com’s Technolog blog. Read it in context here

Matthew A. Hale, 29, was arrested last week in Muncie, Ind., after he allegedly fled the scene of a failed stickup at a pharmacy.

Police accused Hale of being the getaway driver for an accomplice who was supposed to rob the pharmacy. But Hale drove off when things went sour, only to be stopped and arrested shortly thereafter, they said. Bail was set this week at $25,000 on felony charges of attempted armed robbery.

It’s all pretty run-of-the-mill stuff, except for one thing: How did Hale know the heist was falling apart inside the pharmacy as he sat outside in the car?

How did he know to take off?

Matthew Hale, it turned out, had a smartphone — specifically, a Droid from Verizon Wireless. And on that Droid he had an app that he used to monitor Muncie police radio traffic, Detective Jim Johnson said.

If you’re one of the millions of smartphone users who’ve downloaded scanner apps with names like iScanner, PoliceStream and 5-0 Radio Police Scanner, pay attention:

You might be breaking the law.

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Written by Alex

May 25, 2011 at 6:20 am

Jack Daniel, Internet Cop

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Part of my job requires me to review potentially interesting stories NBC’s local stations are reporting. Today, many of them picked up a short AP piece on Jack Daniel’s announcing a new, slimmer bottle for its famous Old No. 7 whiskey.

Fine, I thought. I’ll see if I can find the actual announcement on Jack Daniel’s site.

I didn’t get that far.

Like nearly all liquor companies, Jack Daniel makes you verify your age before you can get past a splash screen. That’s fine; liquor companies would want to protect themselves from complications associated with appearing to market to minors.

But Jack Daniel goes much further than that. It has a link to something called a “linking policy” on its home page, and it’s pretty amazing.

Basically, Jack Daniel says that if you want to link to its site, you have to agree to 15 conditions — among them: “You will not challenge the validity of this Agreement or its binding effect or enforceability” and “You agree not to use the link on any web site that disparages the Brand, the Site, or the Brand’s products or services.” And you must fill out a form disclosing your name, residence and e-mail address.

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Written by Alex

May 17, 2011 at 2:06 pm

‘This is about social networks that are beyond the reach of Mubarak’

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Cross-posted from Technolog: read in context

Large parts of the Internet essentially went dark about midnight Egypt time after the government of President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime ally of Washington, ordered service providers and cell phone companies to shut down.

While it looks like Egypt has been cut off — attempts to get to pretty much any Web site in Egypt are unsuccessful, and Twitter.com is unavailable inside the country — protesters and sympathizers have been able to get their message out through a variety of means because “what the government does is very effective for stopping the most basic users, meaning average users, the folks who probably aren’t Twitter users,” says Philip N. Howard, director of the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam at the University of Washington and author of “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam.”

“Most of the folks who are tweeting are kind of the digital elite who can set up proxy servers and Twitter clients and get their message out,” he says. “It only takes a few thousand of those folks to feed the rest of us news about what’s going on.”

Here’s the text of our full conversation with Howard:

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Written by Alex

January 28, 2011 at 11:38 am

Live from Las Vegas, it’s …

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Having worked in radio years and years ago, I had a great time doing this CES interview on Chad Hartman’s show on WCCO/Minneapolis today. We talked tablets, phones, TV and weird tech. You can download it directly here or listen to the podcast on the station’s site.


Written by Alex

January 6, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Fractured Android leaves orphans behind

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If tablets are the stars at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, then the headliner is Google, whose Android mobile operating system runs most of the devices getting so much attention this week in Las Vegas.

The iPad is still the king, but Apple isn’t here — as usual. This gives Google’s little green robot command of the spotlight almost by default. Nearly every major computer maker already has an Android tablet or is debuting one (or more) at CES; by the end of the year, Android will have grabbed a third of the tablet market to go along with half the smartphone market, analysts Piper-Jaffray projected this week.

But by mid-year, consumers will have to wade through a half-dozen different Android operating systems on tablets. Those on earlier releases will essentially be stranded — Google orphans left to rely on the cleverness of an already-thriving community of hackers who fill in the holes in Android on their own. Meanwhile, developers must weigh whether it’s worth the resources to bring out yet another version of their applications for yet another version of Android.

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Written by Alex

January 6, 2011 at 1:25 pm