Category: Science Fiction


Stanford Law Review Online: In Search of Cyber Peace

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Scott J. Shackelford entitled In Search of Cyber Peace: A Response to the Cybersecurity Act of 2012. In the wake of recent events with the group Anonymous and other “hacktivists,” Shackelford discusses the pressing need for improved cybersecurity and explains why the proposed Cybersecurity Act is a step in the right direction–but doesn’t go far enough:

The Cybersecurity Act of 2012, which was recently introduced in the Senate Homeland Security and Governance Affairs Committee, is the latest legislative attempt to enhance the nation’s cybersecurity. If enacted, the bill would grant new powers to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to oversee U.S. government cybersecurity, set “cybersecurity performance requirements” for firms operating what DHS deems to be “critical infrastructure,” and create “exchanges” to promote information sharing. In its current form, the bill is a useful step in the right direction but falls short of what is required. Fundamentally the bill misconstrues the scale and complexity of the evolving cyber threat by defining critical infrastructure too narrowly and relying too much on voluntary incentives and risk mitigation strategies. The Act might improve on the status quo, but it will not foster genuine and lasting cybersecurity. Still, it is preferable to the softer alternative SECURE IT Act proposed by senior Republicans.

He concludes:

If we want to change the status quo, accountability and responsibility must be increased throughout the system. Government regulations are a necessary part of that process. But given political realities and the magnitude of the problem, reform must also include relying on the competitive market whenever possible to proactively foster best practices, providing market-based incentives and cyber risk mitigation techniques to firms operating [critical national infrastructure (CNI)], negotiating new international norms, and educating users to avoid becoming victims of social-engineering attacks like phishing. Cybersecurity cannot truly be enhanced without addressing the myriad governance gaps, which include incomplete regulation of CNI; technical vulnerabilities in the physical, logical, and content layers of the Internet; and legal ambiguities ranging from liability for data breaches to the applicability of international law to cyber attacks. One Act cannot accomplish all that—not even close. But being honest about the magnitude of the problems we face would help to begin a national conversation about what needs to happen next.

In 3001: The Final Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke envisions a future in which humanity had the foresight to rid the world of its worst weapons of mass destruction by placing them in a vault on the moon. A special place in this vault was reserved for the malignant computer viruses that, in Clarke’s speculative fiction, had caused untold damage to humanity over the centuries. Before new cyber attacks do untold damage to our information society, it is in our interest to educate and regulate our way to a steady state of cybersecurity. Part of this process involves broadening the definition of CNI in the Cybersecurity Act and deepening public-private partnerships through more robust information sharing. Science fiction teaches us that our future world can be either a wonderful or a dystopian place. Whether or not the future includes the security and prosperity of cyber peace is up to us—including, for better or worse, the U.S. Congress.

Read the full article, In Search of Cyber Peace: A Response to the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 by Scott J. Shackelford, at the Stanford Law Review Online.


Ben Stein and the ABA’s Facepalm

The American Bar Association is kicking off its 2012 tech show with an address by… Ben Stein. Yes, who better to celebrate the march of technological progress and innovation than a leading defender of intelligent design? Who better to celebrate rigorous intellectual discourse than a man who misquotes Darwin and fakes speeches to college audiences?

This is a pretty embarrassing misstep. The ABA is irrelevant in the IP / tech world, and this facepalm is a nice microcosm of why. (Wait, what is the ABA relevant to? Now that’s a hard question.) We geeks don’t like it when you dis science. Thanks anyway, ABA – maybe you should stick to having your judicial recommendations ignored.

Hat tip: health law expert Margo Kaplan.

Update: I found the perfect keynote speaker for ABA’s 2013 TechShow: Marshall Hall!

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

“The Workers are Animals. Let’s Replace Them with Robots.”

Among the billionaires at the vanguard of global capital, Terry Gou of Hon Hai (also known as Foxconn) deserves special recognition for his honesty. “Hon Hai has a workforce of over one million worldwide and as human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache,” said the chairman. His company has also begun building “an empire of robots” to replace a whining workforce.

To get a better sense of why the “animals” may be complaining, be sure to listen to Mike Daisey’s extraordinary report on his trip to Shenzhen, home of a massive Foxconn factory. Here’s one excerpt:

N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It’s great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them can’t even pick up a glass.

I talk to people whose joints in their hands have disintegrated from working on the line, doing the same motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times. It’s like carpal tunnel on a scale we can scarcely imagine. And you need to know that this is eminently avoidable. If these people were rotated monthly on their jobs, this would not happen.

But that would require someone to care. That would require someone at Foxconn and the other suppliers to care. That would require someone at Apple and Dell and the other customers to care. Currently no one in the ecosystem cares enough to even enforce that. And so when you start working at 15 or 16, by the time you are 26, 27, your hands are ruined. And when they are truly ruined, once they will not do anything further, you know what we do with a defective part in a machine that makes machine. We throw it away.

When workers are already treated as machines, perhaps their replacement by robots should be a cause for celebration. But the question then becomes: what do the displaced do for a living? Is there an alternative to exploitation?
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19 Points on Wikileaks

Don’t worry, it’s not another prolix post from me, just commentary on Jack Goldsmith’s Seven Thoughts on Wikileaks and Lovink & Riemens’s Twelve theses on WikiLeaks. (And here’s an FAQ for those confused by the whole controversy.)

Goldsmith, who takes cybersecurity very seriously, nevertheless finds himself “agreeing with those who think Assange is being unduly vilified.” He believes that “it is not obvious what law he has violated,” and Geoff Stone today said that many Lieberman-inspired efforts to expand the Espionage Act to include Assange’s conduct would be unconstitutional. Goldsmith asks:

What if there were no wikileaks and Manning had simply given the Lady Gaga CD to the Times? Presumably the Times would eventually have published most of the same information, with a few redactions, for all the world to see. Would our reaction to that have been more subdued than our reaction now to Assange? If so, why?

Lovink & Riemens provide something of an answer:
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Avatar Experimentation: Human Subjects Research in Virtual Worlds

I have just posted a (rough) draft of my latest paper, entitled Avatar Experimentation: Human Subjects Research in Virtual Worlds to SSRN.  Virtual worlds make such great research testbeds precisely because people act in a lot of ways (especially economic ways) as if the virtual world were real.  But that complicates ethical research design: you can’t engage in activities that threaten the subject’s digital property or community, for example.  This raises human subjects research issues that a lot of Institutional Review Boards may not immediately take into consideration.  Here’s the abstract — but the important part is that this is still a work-in-progress (it’s coming out in a symposium issue of the U.C. Irvine Law Review next year), and I would love comments or suggestions.

Abstract: Researchers love virtual worlds. They are drawn to virtual worlds because of the opportunity to study real populations and real behavior in shared simulated environments. The growing number of virtual worlds and population growth within such worlds has led to a sizeable increase in the number of human subjects experiments taking place in such worlds.

Virtual world users care deeply about their avatars, their virtual property, their privacy, their relationships, their community, and their accounts. People within virtual worlds act much as they would in the physical world, because the experience of the virtual world is “real” to them. The very characteristics that make virtual worlds attractive to researchers complicate ethical and lawful research design. The same principles govern research in virtual worlds as the physical world. However, the change in context can cause researchers to lose sight of the fact that virtual world research subjects may suffer very real harm to property, reputation, or community as the result of flawed experimental design. Virtual world research methodologies that fail to consider the validity of users’ experiences risk harm to research subjects. This article argues that researchers who put subjects’ interests in danger run the risk of violating basic human subjects research principles.

Although hundreds of articles and studies examine virtual worlds, none has addressed the interplay between the law and best practices of human subjects research in those worlds. This article fills that gap.

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On the Colloquy: Military Sexual Status Regulation, Artificial Intelligence, Black Holes, and more…


In the past month, the Northwestern University Law Review Colloquy has published essays relevant to current events and debates.

Professor Zachary Kramer writes in his essay that the U.S. military should not be in the business of regulating sexual status. Rather, the military should focus on regulation of sexual conduct for both hetero- and homosexuals.

Professor John McGinnis discusses a recent major media interest, Artificial Intelligence, and what the best government response to its development should be. He argues that, rather than prohibition or heavy regulation, the government should support the development of so-called “friendly AI,” to both prevent potential threats and develop the many benefits of it.

Several legal scholars, notably Professor Adrian Vermeule, contend that the APA is replete with procedural exceptions, which generate “black holes” where federal agencies are free to act outside the constraints of legal order. Unlike Professor Vermeule, Professor Evan Criddle argues that such black holes are not institutional inevitabilities. Rather, administrative law should be reformed to promote a culture of justification, based on the principle that public officials and agencies serve as fiduciaries for the public.

Finally, in Professor Martin Redish’s new book, Wholesale Justice, he provides a thorough analysis of the constitutional implications of the class action mechanism. In his book review, Douglas Smith expands upon these ideas and discusses other ways in which Professor Redish’s theories may be applied in practice or in which the constitutional concerns he identifies may already be recognized.

For more, go to the Colloquy archives page, and remember to check back each week for new content.


Alien Languages and Christmas Gifts

The God EnginesI spent Thanksgiving with my friend John Scalzi. His wife and he bought me a rather nice bottle of Scotch which may have influenced me when I read an advance of his latest novella, The God Engines. (In case you were wondering, the gifts were not consumed at the same time). I am a fan of John’s writing and easily recommend his Old Man’s War series. This most recent effort, however, is quite different, and in my opinion, his best work to date. It is dark, the world is well-developed, and the ideas touch on areas one may prefer to leave alone.

The book also has characters with the apparently requisite extra consonants so that one knows the world is different than ours. I teased and joked with John about this point. In books, the extra letters drive me nuts, because I have no idea how to pronounce the names in my head. Yet alien languages and names seem to be essential to science fiction. Dune, Star Wars, Star Trek, Land of the Lost (the T.V. series), and more strive to insert this type of detail. This weekend the New York Times ran an article about this behavior, and its occurrence in the new Avatar film (which by the way has some striking resemblances to Old Man’s War as far as military science fiction and blue-green creatures go). The article is a fun exploration of how fiction has drawn on linguists to create alien tongues. I am not sure, but I think that at one point there were more people who tried to speak Klingon than there were Esperanto speakers. Fandom may indeed rule culture in the end.

In any event, if you want to get a short but damn fine read for someone or yourself, I suggest John’s new novella. It is available for pre-order at Amazon or you can go to the publisher’s site and buy one of 400 limited signed editions which are leather-bound and have a different cover from the trade paperback. Which reminds me, those interested in product differentiation and price discrimination strategies for culture products may want to study the publisher of the novella, Subterranean. It serves a special part of the book buying world quite well and seems to make money too. Whether a large number of authors could plug into a house like this one and make money without having already established a name is an open question (but I doubt it). Nonetheless, the press is an interesting model.


Some Thoughts About Meteors and the Hugos

Perseus_Hevelius_2BFor time to time, I like to remind folks that they should look up from work and take note of the world around them. Today, or rather tonight, is just such a time to do that. Yes, it is Perseid meteor shower time! I remember a particularly spectacular one around when Star Wars or Empire came out. To me it was film come to life. The best time to see the shower is hard to pin down but prognosticators have picked between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. ET (1-2 a.m. PT). For the truly hardy or awe-seeking, 11 pm to dawn both tonight and tomorrow is suggested. The moon and cloud cover may play havoc with the chance to see the shower (as will light pollution). And remember to take some warmer clothes. I know it is summer but sitting around in the great outdoors even in summer can require a layer and maybe a knit hat for warmth.

And if while watching this dazzling light display, the stars should go out, we may be experiencing Spin. Spinis the Hugo-award winning novel by Robert Charles Wilson. My friend Doselle Young recommend it to me, and I must say I loved it. Wilson writes beautifully. The prose and the story grabbed me and kept me reading well into the night. It turns out I was at the WorldCon when Wilson won because that was the same year John Scalzi won his Campbell Award (he also won his second Hugo but this time for Best Related Book). So I guess I’ll read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book a few years from now.

Image: WikiCommons, Public Domain


Rent-seeking in Fantasy World

Last week, Josh Marshall at TPM had a great post about the future of books in the post-Kindle world. After a generally positive review of the gadget, Josh wrote:

[L]ast night, sitting in front of [my books], I had this dark epiphany. How much longer are these things going to be around? . . . The few hundred or so I was looking at suddenly seemed like they were taking up an awful lot of space, like the whole business could dealt with a lot more cleanly and efficiently, if at some moral loss.

Don’t get me wrong. Book books still have some clear advantages. Kindle is a disaster with pictures and maps. But I didn’t realize the book might move so rapidly into the realm of endangered modes of distributing the written word. I was thinking maybe decades more. The book is so tactile and personal and much less ephemeral than the sort of stuff we read online.

I hope it’s clear that I don’t view this as a good thing or something I welcome. When I had the realization I described above it felt like a sock in the gut, if perhaps a fillip on the interior decorating front. All the business model and joblessnes stuff aside, that’s how I feel about physical newspapers too. There’s a lot I miss about print newspapers, particularly the serendipitous magic of finding stories adjacent to the one you’re reading, articles you’re deeply interested in but never would have known you were if it weren’t plopped down in front of you to pull you in through your peripheral vision. Yet at this point I probably read a print newspaper only a handful of times a year.

I don’t have a Kindle, but I’ve been thinking about this passage over the last week. It’s certainly true that there’s something reassuring about having lots of books in a room, but I suspect Josh is right that their day is ending. And this is probably for the best. My books weigh me down: they make me less flexible about traveling, they take up space in the house, they are hugely expensive, and they are inefficient.

Consider as an illustrative example Tor Book’s decision to split the final volume of Robert Jordan’s fantasy series into three books, to be released over time, presumably in hard- and soft-covers, followed by a definitive volume reintegrating them. Tor’s stated reason is that the final book has become too big to bind. (And the author of the book, who took over when Jordan died, offers his own self-serving justification here.) But it’s obvious (to me, at least) that Tor is simply seeking to extract more rent from fans of the series, who, having waited for years for the final installment of the series, and invested the time reading the eleven books to date, are now as captive an audience as you’re likely to see. Thankfully, his kind of behavior would be much more difficult to justify in a world of digital books. Bring on the revolution.


. . . and I feel fine

explosion.JPG How should the law deal with the end of the world?

A set of recent NYT articles discusses a lawsuit filed to stop the (possible) end of the world. Apparently, there is a very, very remote chance that the newest particle accelerator will create

a tiny black hole, which could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a “strangelet” that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called “strange matter.”

Yikes! And so there is a lawsuit seeking to enjoin use of the accelerator, at least until an environmental impact study (!) is completed. And with that, the fate of the universe suddenly rests in the hands of lawyers and judges. It sounds like a bad script that tries to marry Armageddon with Law and Order:

“Will beautiful attorney Lisa and her trusty paralegal sidekick Jake get the papers filed in time? Will cranky judge Hornblatt grant the TRO that saves the world? Find out next Friday, right after the series premiere of Survivor: Law School Edition.”

And how exactly does the law analyze these sorts of claims, anyway? It strikes me that law is not particularly well-equipped to handle claims of infinite destruction. For instance:

-When can a party get a TRO to prevent an act that would cause the end of the universe?

Well, they’ve got to show irreparable harm. Presumably, the end of the universe is always irreparable harm.

-When does a company have to disclose the possibility of the end of the universe in its filings?

Well, if it’s future or speculative information, we apply Basic v. Levinson‘s probability/magnitude test. The probability may be small, even infinitessimal. But the magnitude of the potential harm? Infinite. I guess you always disclose it.

(10-K’s everywhere will now include the line, “There is a very, very, very small chance that something the Board does will inadvertently cause the end of the universe.”)

-And how would a court apply the Hand formula, for instance, in assessing whether a party should have taken better precautions to prevent the universe from being destroyed?

Burden = Probability x Loss.

P may be low, but L is really, really high. Does this mean that parties always have a burden to take reasonable steps to prevent the end of the universe?


But then, law typically gives damages, which are backward-looking. And if the universe has been destroyed . . . well, good luck finding a court in which to bring your claim.

Plus, all your evidence is probably destroyed.

(Image source: Wikicommons)