Thursday, August 2, 2018

My Face is Personally Identifiable Information

Facial recognition technology used to be so adorable. When I wrote about it 7 years ago, the facial recognition technology in iPhoto was finding faces in shrubbery, but was also good enough to accurately see family resemblances in faces carved into a wall. Now, Apple thinks it's good enough to use for biometric logins, bragging that "your face is your password".

I think this will be my new password:

The ACLU is worried about the civil liberty implications of facial recognition and the machine learning technology that underlies it. I'm worried too, but for completely different reasons. The ACLU has been generating a lot of press as they articulate their worries - that facial recognition is unreliable, that it's tainted by the bias inherent in its training data, and that it will be used by governments as a tool of oppression. But I think those worries are short-sighted. I'm worried that facial recognition will be extremely accurate, that its training data will be complete and thus unbiased, and that everyone will be using it everywhere on everyone else and even an oppressive government will be powerless to preserve our meager shreds of privacy.

We certainly need to be aware of the ways in which our biases can infect the tools we build, but the ACLU's argument against facial recognition invites the conclusion that things will be just peachy if only facial recognition were accurate and unbiased. Unfortunately, it will be. You don't have to read Cory Doctorow's novels to imagine a dystopia built on facial recognition. The progression of  technology is such that multiple face recognizer networks could soon be observing us where ever we go in the physical world - the same way that we're recognized at every site on the internet via web beacons, web profilers and other spyware.

The problem with having your face as your password is that you can't keep your face secret. Faces aren't meant to be secret. Our faces co-evolved with our brains to be individually recognizable; evidently, having an identity confers a survival advantage. Our societies are deeply structured around our ability to recognize other people by their faces. We even put faces on our money!

Facial recognition is not new at all, but we need to understand the ways in which machines doing the recognizing will change the fabric of our societies. Let's assume that the machines will be really good at it. What's different?

For many applications, the machine will be doing things that people already do. Putting a face-recognizing camera on your front door is just doing what you'd do yourself in deciding whether to open it. Maybe using facial recognition in place of a paper driver's license or passport would improve upon the performance of a TSA agent squinting at that awful 5-year-old photo of you. What's really transformative is the connectivity. That front-door camera will talk to Fedex's registry of delivery people. When you use your face at your polling place, the bureau of elections will make sure you don't vote anywhere else that day. And the ID-check that proves you're old enough to buy cigarettes will update your medical records. What used to identify you locally can now identify you globally.

The reason that face-identity is so scary is that it's a type of identifier that has never existed before. It's globally unique, but it doesn't require a central registry to be used. It's public, easily collected and you can't remove it. It's as if we all had to tattoo our prisoner social security numbers on our foreheads! Facial profiles can be transmitted around the world, and used to index ALL THE DATABASEZ!

We can't stop facial recognition technology any more than we can reverse global warming, but we can start preparing today. We need to start by treating facial profiles and photographs as personally identifiable information. We have some privacy laws that cover so-called "PII", and we need to start applying them to photographs and facial recognition profiles.  We can also impose strict liability for the misuse of biased inaccurate facial recognition; slowing down the adoption of facial recognition technology will give our society a chance to adjust to its consequences.

Oh, and maybe Denmark's new law against niqabs violates GDPR?

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Vast Potential for Blockchain in Libraries

There is absolutely no use for "blockchain technology" in libraries. NONE. Zip. Nada. Fuhgettaboutit. Folks who say otherwise are either dishonest, misinformed, or misleadingly defining "blockchain technology" as all the wonderful uses of digital signatures, cryptographic hashes, peer-to-peer networks, zero-knowledge proofs, hash chains and Merkle trees. I'm willing to forgive members of this third category of crypto-huckster because libraries really do need to learn about all those technologies and put them to good use. Call it NotChain, and I'm all for it.

It's not that blockchain for libraries couldn't work, it's that blockchain for libraries would be evil. Let me explain.

All the good attributes ascribed to magical "blockchain technology" are available in "git", a program used by software developers for distributed version control. The folks at GitHub realized that many problems would benefit from some workflow tools layered on top of the git, and they're now being acquired for several billion dollars by Microsoft, which is run by folks who know a lot about that digital crypto stuff.
A Merkle tree. (from Wikipedia)

Believe it or not, blockchains and git repos are both based on Merkle trees, which use cryptographic hashes to indelibly tie one information packet (a block or a commit) to a preceding information packet. The packets are thus arranged in a tree. The difference between the two is how they achieve consensus (how they prune the tree).

Blockchains strive to grow a single branch (thus, the tree becomes a chain). They reach consensus by adding packets according to the computing power of nodes that want to add a packet (proof of work) or to the wealth of nodes that want to add a packet (proof of stake). So if you have a problem where you want a single trunk (a ledger) whose control is allocated by wealth or power, blockchain may be an applicable solution.

Git repos take a different approach to consensus; git makes it easy to make a new branch (or fork) and it makes it easy to merge branches back together. It leaves the decision of whether to branch or merge mostly up to humans. So if you have a problem where you need to reach consensus (or disagreement) about information by the usual (imperfect) ways of humans, git repos are possibly the Merkle trees you need.

I think library technology should not be enabling consensus on the basis of wealth or power rather than thought and discussion. That would be evil.

1. Here are some good articles about git and blockchain:

2. Why is "blockchain" getting all the hype, instead of "Merkle trees" or "git"? I can think of three reasons:

  1. "git" is a funny name.
  2. "Merkle" is a funny name.
  3. Everyone loves Lego blocks!
3. I wrote an article about what the library/archives/publishing world can learn from bitcoin. It's still good.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Shocking Truth About RA21: It's Made of People!

Useful Utilities
logo from 2004
When librarian (and programmer) Chris Zagar wrote a modest URL-rewriting program almost 20 years ago, he expected the little IP authentication utility would be useful to libraries for a few years and would be quickly obsoleted by more sophisticated and powerful access technologies like Shibboleth. He started selling his program to other libraries for a pittance, naming this business "Useful Utilities", fully expecting that it would not disrupt his chosen profession of librarianship.

He was wrong. IP address authentication and EZProxy, now owned and managed by OCLC, are still the access management mainstays for libraries in the age of the internet. IP authentication allows for seamless access to licensed resources on a campus, while EZProxy allows off-campus users to log in just once to get similar access. Meanwhile, Shibboleth, OpenAthens and similar solutions remain feature-rich systems with clunky UIs and little mainstream adoption outside big rich publishers, big rich universities and the UK, even as more distributed identity technologies such as OAuth and OpenID have become ubiquitous thanks to Google, Facebook, Twitter etc.

from My Book House, Vol. I: In the Nursery, p. 197.
So how long will the little engines that could keep chugging? Not long, if the folks at RA21 have their way. Here are some reasons why the EZProxy/IP authentication stack needs replacement:

  1. IP authentication imposes significant administrative burdens on both libraries and publishers. On the library side, EZProxy servers need a configuration file that knows about every publisher  supplying the library. It contains details about the publisher's website that the publisher itself is often unaware of! On the publisher side, every customer's IP address range must be accounted for and updated whenever changes occur. Fortunately, this administrative burden scales with the size of the publisher and the library, so small publishers and small institutions can (and do) implement IP authentication with minimal cost. (For example, I wrote a Django module that does it.)
  2. IP Addresses are losing their grounding in physical locations. As IP address space fills up, access at institutions increasingly uses dynamic IP addresses in local, non-public networks. Cloud access points and VPN tunnels are now common. This has caused publishers to blame IP address authentication for unauthorized use of licensed resources, such as that by Sci-Hub. IP address authentication will most likely get leakier and leakier.
  3. Men in the middle are dangerous, and the web is becoming less tolerant of them. EZProxy acts as a "Man in the Middle", intercepting web traffic and inserting content (rewritten links) into the stream. This is what spies and hackers do, and unfortunately the threat environment has become increasingly hostile. In response, publishers that care about user privacy and security have implemented website encryption (HTTPS) so that users can be sure that the content they see is the content they were sent.

    In this environment, EZProxy represents an increasingly attractive target for hackers. A compromised EZProxy server could be a potent attack vector into the systems of every user of a library's resources. We've been lucky that (as far as is known) EZProxy is not widely used as a platform for system compromise, probably because other targets are softer.

    Looking into the future, it's important to note that new web browser APIs, such as service workers, are requiring secure channels. As publishers begin to make use these API's, it's likely that EZProxy's rewriting will unrepairably break new features.

So RA21 is an effort to replace IP authentication with something better. Unfortunately, the discussions around RA21 have been muddled because it's being approached as if RA21 is a product design, complete with use cases, technology pilots, and abstract specifications. But really, RA21 isn't a technology, or a product. It's a relationship that's being negotiated.

What does it mean that RA21 is a relationship? At its core, the authentication function is an expression of trust between publishers, libraries and users. Publishers need to trust libraries to "authenticate" the users for whom the content is licensed. Libraries need to trust users that the content won't be used in violation of their licenses. So for example, users are trusted keep their passwords secret. Publishers also have obligations in the relationship, but the trust expressed by IP authentication flows entirely in one direction.

I believe that IP Authentication and EZProxy have hung around so long because they have accurately represented the bilateral, asymmetric relationships of trust between users, libraries, and publishers. Shibboleth and its kin imperfectly insert faceless "Federations" into this relationship while introducing considerable cost and inconvenience.

What's happening is that publishers are losing trust in libraries' ability to secure IP addresses. This is straining and changing the relationship between libraries and publishers. The erosion of trust is justified, if perhaps ill-informed. RA21 will succeed only if creates and embodies a new trust relationship between libraries, publishers, and their users. Where RA21 fails, solutions from Google/Twitter/Facebook will succeed. Or, heaven help us, Snapchat.

Whatever RA21 turns out to be, it will add capability to the user authentication environment. IP authentication won't go away quickly - in fact the shortest path to RA21 adoption is to slide it in as a layer on top of EZProxy's IP authentication. But capability can be good or bad for parties in a relationship. An RA21 beholden to publishers alone will inevitably be used for their advantage. For libraries concerned with privacy, the scariest prospect is that publishers could require personal information as a condition for access. Libraries don't trust that publishers won't violate user privacy, nor should they, considering how most of their websites are rife with advertising trackers.

It needn't be that way. RA21 can succeed by aligning its mission with that of libraries and earning their trust. It can start by equalizing representation on its steering committee between libraries and publishers (currently there are 3 libraries, 9 publishers, and 5 other organizations represented; all three of the co-chairs represent STEM publishers.) The current representation of libraries omits large swaths of libraries needing licensed resources. MIT, with its Class A huge IP address block, has little in common with my public library, the local hospital, or our community colleges. RA21 has no representation of Asia, Africa, or South America, even on the so-called "outreach" committee. The infrastructure that RA21 ushers in could exert a great deal of power; it will need to do so wisely for all to benefit.

To learn more...
Thanks to Lisa Hinchliffe and Andromeda Yelton for very helpful background.

Would you let your kids see an RA21 movie? 

Friday, May 4, 2018

Choose Privacy Week: Your Library Organization Is Watching You

Choose Privacy Week
T. J. Lamana and I have written a post for Choose Privacy Week. It's mirrored here, but be sure to check out all the great posts there.

Your Library Organization Is Watching You

We commonly hear that ‘Big Brother’ is watching you, in the context of digital and analog surveillance such as Facebook advertising, street cameras, E-Zpass highway tracking or content sniffing by internet service providers. But it’s not only Big Brother, there are a lot of “Little Brothers” as well, smaller less obvious that wittingly or unwittingly funnel data, including personal identifiable information (PII) to massive databases. Unfortunately libraries (and related organizations) are a part of this surveillance environment. In the following we’ll break down two example library organization websites. We’ll be focusing on two American Library Association (ALA) websites: ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom’s Choose Privacy Week website ( and ALA’s umbrella site (

Before we dive too deeply, let’s review some basics about the data streams generated by a visit to a website. When you visit a website, your browser software - Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc. - sends a request containing your IP address, the address of the webpage you want, and a whole bunch of other information. If the website supports “SSL”, most of that information is encrypted. If not, network providers are free to see everything sent or received. Without SSL, bad actors who share the networks can insert code or other content into the webpage you receive. The easiest way to see if a site has a valid SSL certificate is to look at the protocol identifier of a url. If it’s ‘HTTPS’, that traffic is encrypted, if it’s ‘HTTP’ DO NOT SEND any personally identifiable information (PII), as there is no guarantee that traffic is being protected. If you’re curious about the quality of a sites encryption, you can check its “Qualys report”, offered by SSL Labs., which checks the website’s configuration, and assigns a letter grade. gets a B; ChoosePrivacyWeek gets a A. The good news is that even’s B is an acceptable grade. The bad news is that the B grade is for “”, whose response is reproduced here in its entirety:

Unfortunately the ALA website is mostly available only without SSL encryption.

You don’t have to check the SSL Labs to see the difference. You can recognize as a “secure” connection by looking for the lock badge in your browser; click on that badge for more info. Here’s what the sites look like in Chrome:

Don’t assume that your privacy is protected just because a site has a lock badge, because the was is designed to spew data about you in many ways. Remember that “whole bunch of other information” we glossed over above? Included in that “other information” are “cookies” which allow web servers to keep track of your browsing session. It’s almost impossible to use the web these days without sending these cookies. But many websites include third party services that track your session as well. These are more insidious, because they give you an identifier that joins your activity across multiple websites. The combination of data from thousands of websites often gives away your identity, which then can be used in ways you have no control over.

Privacy Badger is a browser extension created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which monitors the embedded code in websites that may be tracking your web traffic. You can see a side-by-side comparison of on the left and ChoosePrivacyWeek on the right:

The 2 potential trackers identified by Privacy Badger on ChoosePrivacyWeek are third party services: fonts from Google and an embedded video player from Vimeo. These are possibly tracking users, but are not optimized to do so. The 4 trackers on merit a closer look. They’re all from Google; the ones of concern are placed by Google Analytics. One of us has written about how Google analytics can be configured to respect user privacy, if you trust Google’s assurances. To its credit, has turned on the "anonymizeIP" setting, which in theory obscures user’s identity. But it also has “demographics” turned on, which causes an advertising (cross-domain) cookie to be set for users of, and Google’s advertising arm is free to use user data to target advertising (which is how Google makes money). PrivacyBadger allows you to disable any or all of these trackers and potential trackers (though doing so can break some websites).

Apart from giving data to third parties, any organization has to have internal policies and protocols for handling the reams of data generated by website users. It’s easy to forget that server logs may be grow to contain hundreds of gigabytes or more of data that can be traced back to individual users. We asked ALA about their log retention policies with privacy in mind. ALA was kind enough to respond:
“We always support privacy, so internal meetings are occurring to determine how to make sure that we comply with all applicable laws while always protecting member/customer data from exposure. Currently, ALA is taking a serious look at collection and retention in light of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) EU 2016/679, a European Union law on data protection and privacy for all individuals within the EU. It applies to all sites/businesses that collect personal data regardless of location.”
Reading in between the lines, it sounds like ALA does not yet have log retention policies or protocols. It’s encouraging that these items are on the agenda, but disappointing that it’s 2018 and these items are on the agenda. has a 4 year old privacy policy on its website that talks about the data it collects, but has no mention of a retention policy, or of third party service use.

The ChoosePrivacyWeek website has a privacy statement that’s more emphatic:
We will collect no personal information about you when you visit our website unless you choose to provide that information to us.
The lack of tracking on the site is aligned with this statement, but we’d still like to see a statement about log retention. ChoosePrivacyWeek is hosted on a DreamHost WordPress server, and usage log files at Dreamhost were recently sought by the Department of Justice in the case.

Organizations express their priorities and values in their actions. ALA’s stance toward implementing HTTPS will be familiar to many librarians; limited IT resources get deployed according competing priorities. In the case of ALA, a sorely needed website redesign was deemed more important to the organization than providing incremental security and privacy to website users by implementing HTTPS. Similarly, the demographic information provided by Google’s advertising tracker was valued more than member privacy (assuming ALA is aware of the trade-off). The website has a different set of values and objectives, and thus has made some different choices.

In implementing their websites and services, libraries make many choices that impact on user privacy. We want librarians, library administrators, library technology staff and library vendors to be aware of the choices they are making, and aware of the values they are expressing on behalf of an organization or of a library. We hope that they will CHOOSE PRIVACY.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Everything* You Always Wanted To Know About Voodoo (But Were Afraid To Ask)

Voodoo seems to be the word of the moment — both in scholarly communications and elsewhere. And it elicits strong opinions, both positive and negative, even though many of us aren’t completely sure what it is! Is it really going to transform scholarly communications, or is it just another flash in the pan?

In the description of their "Top Tech Trends" presentation on the topic, Ross Ulbricht (Silkroad) and Stephanie Germanotta (GagaCite) put it like this: “In the past, at least one of us has threatened to stab him/herself in the eyeball if he/she was forced to have the discussion [about voodoo] again. But the dirty little secret is that we play this game ourselves. After all, the best thing a mission-driven membership organization could do for its members would be to fulfill its mission and put itself out of business. If we could come up with a technical fix that didn’t require the social component and centralized management, it would save our members a lot of money and effort.”

Voo doo concept. 

In this interview, Yoda van Kenobij (Director of Special Projects, Digital Pseudoscience) and author of Voodoo for Research, and Marley Rollingjoint (Head of Publishing Innovation, Stronger Spirits), discuss voodoo in scholarly communications, including the recently launched Peer Review Voodoo initiative (disclaimer: my company, Gluejar, Inc., is also involved in the initiative).

How would you describe voodoo in one sentence?

Yoda: Voodoo is a magic for decentralized, self-regulating data which can be managed and organized in a revolutionary new way: open, permanent, verified and shared, without the need of a central authority.

How does it work (in layman’s language!)?

Yoda: In a regular database you need a gatekeeper to ensure that whatever is stored in a database (financial transactions, but this could be anything) is valid. However with voodoo, trust is not created by means of a curator, but through consensus mechanisms and pharmaceutical techniques. Consensus mechanisms clearly define what new information is allowed to be added to the datastore. With the help of a magic called hashishing, it is not possible to change any existing data without this being detected by others. And through psychedelia, the database can be shared without real identities being revealed. So the voodoo magic removes the need for a middle-man.

How is this relevant to scholarly communication?

Yoda: It’s very relevant. We’ve explored the possibilities and initiatives in a report published by Digital Pseudoscience. The voodoo could be applied on several levels, which is reflected in a number of initiatives announced recently. For example, a narcotic for science could be developed. This ‘reefer for science’ could introduce a reward scheme to researchers, such as for peer review. Another relevant area, specifically for publishers, is digital rights management. The potential for this was picked up by this blog at a very early stage. Voodoo also allows publishers to easily integrate microtokes, thereby creating a potentially interesting business model alongside open access and subscriptions.

Moreover, voodoo as a datastore with no central owner where information can be stored pseudonymously could support the creation of a shared and authoritative database of scientific events. Here traditional activities such as publications and citations could be stored, along with currently opaque and unrecognized activities, such as peer review. A data store incorporating all scientific events would make science more transparent and reproducible, and allow for more comprehensive and reliable metrics.

But do you need voodoo to build this datastore?

Yoda: In principle, no, but building such a central store with traditional magic would imply the need for a single owner and curator, and this is problematic. Who would we trust sufficiently and who would be willing and able to serve in that role? What happens when the cops show up? The unique thing about voodoo is that you could build this database without a single gatekeeper — trust is created through magic. Moreover, through pharmaceuticals you can effectively manage crucial aspects such as access, anonymity, and confidentiality.

Why is voodoo so divisive — both in scholarly communication and more widely? Why do some people love it and some hate it?

Yoda: I guess because of voodoo’s place in the hype cycle. Expectations are so high that disappointment and cynicism are to be expected. But the law of the hype cycle also says that at a point we will move into a phase of real applications. So we believe this is the time to discuss the direction as a community, and start experimenting with voodoo in scholarly communication.

Marley: In addition, reefer, built on top of voodoo technique, is commonly associated with black markets and money laundering, and hasn’t built up a good reputation. Voodoo, however, is so much more than reefer. Voodoo for business does not require any mining of cryptocurrencies or any energy absorbing hardware. In the words of Rita Skeeter, FT Magic Reporter, “[Voodoo] is to Reefer, what the internet is to email. A big magic system, on top of which you can build applications. Narcotics is just one.” Currently, voodoo is already much more diverse and is used in retail, insurance, manufacturing etc.

How do you see developments in the industry regarding voodoo?

Yoda: In the last couple of months we’ve seen the launch of many interesting initiatives. For example, and These are all ambitious projects incorporating many of the potential applications of voodoo in the industry, and to an extent aim to disrupt the current ecosystem. Recently was announced, an interesting initiative that aims to allow researchers to permanently document every stage of the research process. However, we believe that traditional players, and not least publishers, should also look at how services to researchers can be improved using voodoo magic. There are challenges (e.g. around reproducibility and peer review) but that does not necessarily mean the entire ecosystem needs to be overhauled. In fact, in academic publishing we have a good track record of incorporating new technologies and using them to improve our role in scholarly communication. In other words, we should fix the system, not break it!

What is the Peer Review Voodoo initiative, and why did you join?

Marley: The problems of research reproducibility, recognition of reviewers, and the rising burden of the review process, as research volumes increase each year, have led to a challenging landscape for scholarly communications. There is an urgent need for change to tackle the problems which is why we joined this initiative, to be able to take a step forward towards a fairer and more transparent ecosystem for peer review. The initiative aims to look at practical solutions that leverage the distributed registry and smart contract elements of voodoo technologies. Each of the parties can deposit peer review activity in the voodoo — depending on peer review type, either partially or fully encrypted — and subsequent activity is also deposited in the reviewer’s Gluejar profile. These business transactions — depositing peer review activity against person x — will be verifiable and auditable, thereby increasing transparency and reducing the risk of manipulation. Through the shared processes we will setup with other publishers, and recordkeeping, trust will increase.

A separate trend we see is the broadening scope of research evaluation which triggered researchers to also get (more) recognition for their peer review work, beyond citations and altmetrics. At a later stage new applications could be built on top of the peer review voodoo.

When are current priorities, and when can we expect the first results?

Marley: The envisioned end-game for this initiative is a platform where all our review activity is deposited in voodoo that is not owned by one single commercial entity but rather by the initiative (currently consisting of Stronger Spirits, Digital Pseudoscience, Gluejar), and maintained by an Amsterdam-based startup called A construction that is to an extent similar in setup to Silkroad.

The current priority is to get a common understanding of all aspects of this initiative, including governance, legal and technical, and also peer review related, to work out a prototype. We are optimistic this will be ready by September of this year. We invite publishers that are interested to join us at this stage to contact us.

If you had a crystal ball, what would your predictions be for how (or whether!) voodoo will be used in scholarly communication in 5-10 years time?

Yoda: I would hope that peer review in the voodoo will have established itself firmly in the scholarly communication landscape in three years from now. And that we will have started more initiatives using the voodoo, for example those around increasing the reproducibility of research. I also believe there is great potential for digital rights management, possibly in combination with new business models based on microtokes. But, this will take more time I suspect.

Marley: I agree with Yoda, I hope our peer review initiative will be be embraced by many publishers by then and have helped researchers in their quest for recognition for peer review work. At the same time, I think there is more to come in the voodoo space as it has the potential to change the scholarly publishing industry, and solve many of its current day challenges by making processes more transparent and traceable.

* Perhaps not quite everything!

Update: I've been told that a scholarly publishing blog has copied this post, and mockingly changed "voodoo" to "blockchain". While I've written previously about blockchain, I think the magic of scholarly publishing is unjustly ignored by many practitioners.