Blown to bits
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Blown to Bits
Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion
Hal Abelson Ken Ledeen Harry Lewis
Upper Saddle River, NJ ? Boston ? Indianapolis ? San Francisco New York ? Toronto ? Montreal ? London ? Munich ? Paris ? Madrid
Cape Town ? Sydney ? Tokyo ? Singapore ? Mexico City
Why Is It Happening, and What Is at Stake?
On September 19, 2007, while driving alone near Seattle on her way to work, Tanya Rider went off the road and crashed into a ravine.* For eight days, she was trapped upside down in the wreckage of her car. Severely dehydrated and suffering from injuries to her leg and shoulder, she nearly died of kidney failure. Fortunately, rescuers ultimately found her. She spent months recuperating in a medical facility. Happily, she was able to go home for Christmas.
Tanya's story is not just about a woman, an accident, and a rescue. It is a story about bits--the zeroes and ones that make up all our cell phone conversations, bank records, and everything else that gets communicated or stored using modern electronics.
Tanya was found because cell phone companies keep records of cell phone locations. When you carry your cell phone, it regularly sends out a digital "ping," a few bits conveying a "Here I am!" message. Your phone keeps "pinging" as long as it remains turned on. Nearby cell phone towers pick up the pings and send them on to your cellular service provider. Your cell phone company uses the pings to direct your incoming calls to the right cell phone towers. Tanya's cell phone company, Verizon, still had a record of the last location of her cell phone, even after the phone had gone dead. That is how the police found her.
So why did it take more than a week? If a woman disappears, her husband can't just make the police find her by tracing her cell phone records. She has a privacy right, and maybe she has good reason to leave town without telling her husband where she is going. In
* Citations of facts and sources appear at the end of the book. A page number and a phrase identify the passage.
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Tanya's case, her bank account showed some activity (more bits!) after her disappearance, and the police could not classify her as a "missing person." In fact, that activity was by her husband. Through some misunderstanding, the police thought he did not have access to the account. Only when the police suspected Tanya's husband of involvement in her disappearance did they have legal access to the cell phone records. Had they continued to act on the true presumption that he was blameless, Tanya might never have been found.
New technologies interacted in an odd way with evolving standards of privacy, telecommunications, and criminal law. The explosive combination almost cost Tanya Rider her life. Her story is dramatic, but every day we encounter unexpected consequences of data flows that could not have happened a few years ago.
When you have finished reading this book, you should see the world in a different way. You should hear a story from a friend or on a newscast and say to yourself, "that's really a bits story," even if no one mentions anything digital. The movements of physical objects and the actions of flesh and blood human beings are only the surface. To understand what is really going on, you have to see the virtual world, the eerie flow of bits steering the events of life.
This book is your guide to this new world.
The Explosion of Bits, and Everything Else
The world changed very suddenly. Almost everything is stored in a computer somewhere. Court records, grocery purchases, precious family photos, pointless radio programs.... Computers contain a lot of stuff that isn't useful today but somebody thinks might someday come in handy. It is all being reduced to zeroes and ones--"bits." The bits are stashed on disks of home computers and in the data centers of big corporations and government agencies. The disks can hold so many bits that there is no need to pick and choose what gets remembered.
So much digital information, misinformation, data, and garbage is being squirreled away that most of it will be seen only by computers, never by human eyes. And computers are getting better and better at extracting meaning from all those bits--finding patterns that sometimes solve crimes and make useful suggestions, and sometimes reveal things about us we did not expect others to know.
The March 2008 resignation of Eliot Spitzer as Governor of New York is a bits story as well as a prostitution story. Under anti-money laundering (AML) rules, banks must report transactions of more than $10,000 to federal regulators. None of Spitzer's alleged payments reached that threshold, but his
C H A P T E R 1 DIGITAL EXPLOSION 3
bank's computer found that transfers of smaller sums formed a suspicious pattern. The AML rules exist to fight terrorism and organized crime. But while the computer was monitoring small banking transactions in search of big-time crimes, it exposed a simple payment for services rendered that brought down the Governor.
Once something is on a computer, it can replicate and move around the world in a heartbeat. Making a million perfect copies takes but an instant-- copies of things we want everyone in the world to see, and also copies of things that weren't meant to be copied at all.
The digital explosion is changing the world as much as printing once did-- and some of the changes are catching us unaware, blowing to bits our assumptions about the way the world works.
When we observe the digital explosion at all, it can seem benign, amusing, or even utopian. Instead of sending prints through the mail to Grandma, we put pictures of our children on a photo album web site such as Flickr. Then not only can Grandma see them--so can Grandma's friends and anyone else. So what? They are cute and harmless. But suppose a tourist takes a vacation snapshot and you just happen to appear in the background, at a restaurant where no one knew you were dining. If the tourist uploads his photo, the whole world could know where you were, and when you were there.
Data leaks. Credit card records are supposed to stay locked up in a data warehouse, but escape into the hands of identity thieves. And we sometimes give information away just because we get something back for doing so. A company will give you free phone calls to anywhere in the world--if you don't mind watching ads for the products its computers hear you talking about.
And those are merely things that are happening today. The explosion, and the social disruption it will create, have barely begun.
We already live in a world in which there is enough memory just in digital cameras to store every word of every book in the Library of Congress a hundred times over. So much email is being sent that it could transmit the full text of the Library of Congress in ten minutes. Digitized pictures and sounds take more space than words, so emailing all the images, movies, and sounds might take a year--but that is just today. The explosive growth is still happening. Every year we can store more information, move it more quickly, and do far more ingenious things with it than we could the year before.
So much disk storage is being produced every year that it could be used to record a page of information, every minute or two, about you and every other human being on earth. A remark made long ago can come back to haunt a political candidate, and a letter jotted quickly can be a key discovery for a
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biographer. Imagine what it would mean to record every word every human being speaks or writes in a lifetime. The technological barrier to that has already been removed: There is enough storage to remember it all. Should any social barrier stand in the way?
Sometimes things seem to work both better and worse than they used to. A "public record" is now very public--before you get hired in Nashville, Tennessee, your employer can figure out if you were caught ten years ago taking an illegal left turn in Lubbock, Texas. The old notion of a "sealed court record" is mostly a fantasy in a world where any tidbit of information is duplicated, cataloged, and moved around endlessly. With hundreds of TV and radio stations and millions of web sites, Americans love the variety of news sources, but are still adjusting uncomfortably to the displacement of more authoritative sources. In China, the situation is reversed: The technology creates greater government control of the information its citizens receive, and better tools for monitoring their behavior.
This book is about how the digital explosion is changing everything. It explains the technology itself--why it creates so many surprises and why things often don't work the way we expect them to. It is also about things the information explosion is destroying: old assumptions about our privacy, about our identity, and about who is in control of our lives. It's about how we got this way, what we are losing, and what remains that society still has a chance to put right. The digital explosion is creating both opportunities and risks. Many of both will be gone in a decade, settled one way or another. Governments, corporations, and other authorities are taking advantage of the chaos, and most of us don't even see it happening. Yet we all have a stake in the outcome. Beyond the science, the history, the law, and the politics, this book is a wake-up call. The forces shaping your future are digital, and you need to understand them.
The Koans of Bits
Bits behave strangely. They travel almost instantaneously, and they take almost no space to store. We have to use physical metaphors to make them understandable. We liken them to dynamite exploding or water flowing. We even use social metaphors for bits. We talk about two computers agreeing on some bits, and about people using burglary tools to steal bits. Getting the right metaphor is important, but so is knowing the limitations of our metaphors. An imperfect metaphor can mislead as much as an apt metaphor can illuminate.
C H A P T E R 1 DIGITAL EXPLOSION 5
CLAUDE SHANNON Claude Shannon (1916?2001) is the undisputed founding figure of information and communication theory. While working at Bell Telephone Laboratories after the Second World War, he wrote the seminal paper, "A mathematical theory of communication," which foreshadowed much of the subsequent development of digital technologies. Published in 1948, this paper gave birth to the now-universal realization that the bit is the natural unit of information, and to the use of the term.
We offer seven truths about bits. We call them "koans" because they are paradoxes, like the Zen verbal puzzles that provoke meditation and enlightenment. These koans are oversimplifications and over-generalizations. They describe a world that is developing but hasn't yet fully emerged. But even today they are truer than we often realize. These themes will echo through our tales of the digital explosion.
Koan 1: It's All Just Bits
Your computer successfully creates the illusion that it contains photographs, letters, songs, and movies. All it really contains is bits, lots of them, patterned in ways you can't see. Your computer was designed to store just bits--all the files and folders and different kinds of data are illusions created by computer programmers. When you send an email containing a photograph, the computers that handle your message as it flows through the Internet have no idea that what they are handling is part text and part graphic. Telephone calls are also just bits, and that has helped create competition--traditional phone companies, cell phone companies, cable TV companies, and Voice over IP (VoIP) service providers can just shuffle bits around to each other to complete calls. The Internet was designed to handle just bits, not emails or attachments, which are inventions of software engineers. We couldn't live without those more intuitive concepts, but they are artifices. Underneath, it's all just bits.
This koan is more consequential than you might think. Consider the story of Naral Pro-Choice America and Verizon Wireless. Naral wanted to form a
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