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Blown to Bits 91

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
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.
Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion
author Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry Lewis
pages 384
publisher Addison-Wesley Professional
rating 9/10
reviewer Ray Lodato
ISBN 0137135599
summary An intriguing analysis of how computers and the internet have fundamentally changed our personal lives.
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.

You can purchase Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Blown to Bits

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  • Wake up. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @11:27AM (#24859819)
    Anyone who is "horrified" at the amount of personal data available has not been paying any attention for the last decade or so.
  • by name*censored* (884880) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @11:57AM (#24860313)

    ... Privacy isn't about being different, and it isn't necessarily about being unpredictable (although that can help). The idea is to protect yourself from things like stalking, identify theft, targeted telemarketers, and even just the idea that someone you don't even know can have so much information about you. I don't consider myself overly interested in privacy, but I can see how someone might be.

    Besides, even if they are carbon copies of one another (which technically you shouldn't be able to know, since the thing these people have in common is they hide their lives well), I don't see how that would diminish their point.

  • by thedonger (1317951) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @12:12PM (#24860537)

    Forget about private data. Far more threatening is the amount of unchecked information. People use blogs who post blog posts from blogs who reference editorial pieces. Little fact-checking happens. Misinformation and mis-education spread like wildfire.

    Example: I read a story about how harmful the production of the Prius is to the environment. Every post on blogs and actual news web sites I found all came from the same source: a kid from a CT college writing an editorial using some out-of-date though not totally untrue and unbelievable information. Had I only waded through the first few layers I might have been convinced at all the hits.

  • by Otter (3800) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @12:57PM (#24861217) Journal
    You might want to rely less on science fiction books when explaining to the rest of us how uninformed and ignorant we are. It reminds me of the guy yesterday who was complaining about the quality of science education, as evidenced by his neighbors not knowing who the Borg are.
  • by UncleGizmo (462001) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:51PM (#24864105) Homepage

    IIRC, Jr. Mints were chosen as a backup - the candy was going to be M&M's but the writers couldn't get permission from Hershey to use the brand name. Jr. Mints was more than happy for the free pub and got millions worth of free advertising (and a resulting sales bump).

    Although many if not most actual products in shows these days are paid product placements.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 04, 2008 @07:49AM (#24871787)

    Stupid liberals are all in a tizzy when we don't let the mainstream media get away with turning the Superbowl into a hardcore fuckfest in front of millions of innocent children,

    For starters, the goddamned superbowl is nothing but a national festival of ritualized violence in its most basic form. The goddamned Republicans have the balls to run a fucking war that's approaching a trillion dollars pissed way (with another one or two trillion to go, just in proper care for the returning vets), get over 4,000 Americans (and God only knows how many tens of thousands of innocent Iraquis) killed, then quail (or should that be Quayle) at a two-second tit shot. You sons of bitches should be ashamed to show your faces in polite society. Better you should use lots of lube and force your heads back up your assholes where you pulled them out of.

    Jesus Holy Christ -- do you not understand that you've foisted off on the nation a President so stupid that he actually said, in the state of the union speech, in mid-war, that the two biggest problems in america were athletes using steroids and Janet Jackson flashing a tit at the sacred superbowl?

    I say let the overpaid bastard athletes stuff themselves so full of steroids that they turn their nuts into raisins. At least that way, they won't be doing any breeding. Except for the dumb chicks they take back to their hotel rooms to rape.

    As for JJ's tit, I can see a hell of a lot better on the beach or even in my own house. Malfunction my ass -- the publicity whore would likely have gone down on on all fours for both teams if it would have gotten her another two days in the press.

    In case anyone's interested, the people who make tivos, and can track all replays, said that the nip flash was the most-replayed clip for the entire year. Doesn't it make you wonder what kind of country we're living in?

    And as for "the innocent children", when I hear third graders in local schools telling each other to go fuck themselves, I am disinclined to think that a hooter shot will do much to damage their tender psyches.

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