Gov’t Transparency (2014)

Dammit, my typewriter just went down.

Investigative journalism is crucial to a democracy. It uncovers lies, corruption, malfeasance, misfeasance, nonfeasance, and the breaking of rules of law and decency. It breaks news that would not be available to the public without the intervention of a journalist.

Public records are crucial to investigative journalism. They reveal trends that are not readily apparent, like delays at Veterans Administration hospitals, or systemic abuse at homes for the elderly.

So I was (unpleasantly) surprised, while investigating politics in my small town, to see the following message on my California county government web site:

California, home of Silicon Valley, says microfilm is okay, but the internet is not.

Notice the bold emphasis (theirs, not mine) on the phrase: “California law prohibits the display of recorded documents on the internet.

Really? No, not really. What California law really says is:

6254.21.  (a) No state or local agency shall post the home address or telephone number of any elected or appointed official on the Internet without first obtaining the written permission of that individual.

Here’s the catch: County bureaucrats say that because almost anyone can be appointed or elected for some office or another, and because it’s too much work to go through millions of documents to identify current office holders and their home addresses, the only prudent response is to keep all recorded documents off the internet.

Stop whining and sniveling, I hear you say. Woodward and Bernstein cracked Watergate without the internet. Just get in your car and drive 45 miles to the county clerk’s office during government business hours to view documents that are probably already digitized and stored on a computer network. It’s okay to view public records containing the home addresses and phone numbers of elected or appointed officials as long as it’s inconvenient.

This must never be allowed on the interwebs.

Comcast (2014)

I'm here to install XFINITY WIFI

Comcast, a perennial champion in the “Most Hated Companies” surveys, has now figured out a way to have me pay to help construct a nationwide network of public WiFi hotspots, using equipment inside my house. Comcast plans to offer public access to the WiFi network inside my house for rates starting at $2.95 an hour.

Here’s how it works.

Like most Comcast customers, I rent my cable modem from Comcast for $7 a month. The cable modem has within it a wireless internet radio transmitter, which allows me to create my home WiFi network.

When a friend visited last week and wanted to connect his computer to my wireless network, he asked me which network to use: WeaselNet, my private network, which required a password, or XFINITY WIFI, a public network that did not require a password. Both showed four-bar signals, the strongest WiFi signals in the house.

A bit of poking around revealed that the mysterious new XFINITY WIFI public network signal was so strong inside my house because it was actually inside my house. In fact, it was in the same Comcast router that operates my private home network.

urlOkay, I’m a bit slow. Simple research reveals that Comcast started testing the XFINITY WIFI service in a handful of cities last year. Comcast is now expanding the scheme, equipping all of its new cable modems – they call them “wireless gateways” — with this dual-network WiFi capability. But it didn’t hit home until it hit my home.

The second, public network is created by default. The network’s SSID (Service Set Identifier, the code that allows computer, tablets, phones and other devices to connect to the wireless network) is broadcast to the world.

Comcast does not ask permission to set up a second, public network inside my house, using the bandwidth that I’m paying for. It does not ask permission to route the data traffic of strangers through the same router that handles my private network. No, Comcast is The Honey Badger.

Comcast calls this a “feature enhancement.” A Comcast spokesman said, “The wireless gateways rent for $7 a month and there’s no additional charge for enabling the public networks.”

It's a feature, not a bug

Me: Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.

Comcast: Don’t worry sir. No extra charge.

Me: Waiter, there’s also a strange man sitting at my table.

Comcast: You have an extra chair at the table, and he’s paying to eat whatever soup you have left over. There’s no extra charge to you for the companionship.

Me: Whoa. Now there’s a big snake. He looks scary.

Comcast: He’s renting the other chair, waiting for the fly. No extra charge.

It’s a brilliant strategy: Comcast doesn’t have to spend a dime to build out a nationwide mesh of wireless hotspots. Instead, it has its customers pay for both the hardware and the bandwidth. Comcast then generates megabucks in new profits by re-selling access to the hardware and bandwidth. If people squawk, Comcast merely points out that it, not the customer, owns the box. If the customer doesn’t like it, they can switch to another broadband provider.


Oops. Silly me. There isn’t another broadband provider in most towns, if you use the same definition of broadband that the rest of the world uses. If the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger is approved, there will be even less competition.

So let’s add up the pros and cons, starting with the pros.

  • As long as I remain a paying Comcast customer, I get free access to the public wireless network when I’m out of the house.
  • Instead of using up my data allowance on 4G wireless telephone carrier networks, I can freeload on some other Comcast sucker’s home WiFi network.
  • The next time I buy a tablet computer, I might decide not to pay extra for the 4G radio and monthly telephone company wireless service fees, because Comcast will soon be a nationwide monopoly and half the broadband households in America will be open hotspots.
  • I live in the last house on a dead-end street in a small town, so the chances of weirdoes parking in front of my house to use my broadband connection are minimal.

And now the cons.

  • Despite Comcast’s assurances to the contrary, I’m unconvinced that increased network traffic will not slow down my home broadband service. Comcast says there is more than enough capacity on the feed into my house to accommodate any extra traffic. If that’s the case, why do my network speeds so often fall woefully short of the speeds I’m paying for? Why does my system slow to a crawl on Friday nights when all the neighbor kids are streaming movies and playing online games? Comcast says:

“The broadband connection to your home will be unaffected by the XFINITY WIFI feature. Your in-home WiFi network, as well as XFINITY WIFI, use shared spectrum, and as with any shared medium there can be some impact as more devices share WiFi. We have provisioned the XFINITY WiFii feature to support robust usage, and therefore, we anticipate minimal impact to the in-home WiFi network.”

  • Comcast’s customer service reps were unable to answer my questions: Does XFINITY WIFI run on the same channel as my private home network, in which case my network performance will definitely suffer? Or does it run on a separate channel, in which case it will probably interfere with my private home network?
  • Wireless networks are notoriously hard to secure. I simply don’t believe Comcast when it says there is no risk in allowing a stranger to directly connect to the router that controls my private home network. Once on the public network, the proverbial 14-year-old hacker would have little problem hijacking the router and taking control of my private network, where he or she could intercept all my user names and passwords, etc. If I’ve allowed sharing on the network, the hacker would have access to the files on every shared device.

Let’s go to Comcast’s XFINITY WIFI FAQ:

A discount?

Q. Is Comcast going to give me a discount?

[Hysterical laughter]

Okay, I made that one up. But the next two are verbatim:

Q. How do I disable/enable the XFINITY WIFI Home Hotspot feature?

“We encourage all subscribers to keep this feature enabled as it allows more people to enjoy the benefits of XFINITY WIFI around the neighborhood. You will always have the ability to disable the XFINITY WIFI feature on your Wireless Gateway by calling 1-800-XFINITY. You can also visit My Account at, click on “Users & Preferences,” and then select “Manage XFINITY WIFI.”

Q. What happens if I choose to disable the Home Hotspot feature?

“We encourage all subscribers to keep this feature enabled as it allows more people to enjoy the benefits of XFINITY WIFI around the neighborhood. You will always have the ability to disable the XFINITY WIFI feature on your Wireless Gateway by calling 1-800-XFINITY. You can also visit My Account at, click on “Users & Preferences,” and then select “Manage XFINITY WIFI.”

I guess Comcast doesn’t want me to disable the XFINITY WIFI network. And if Comcast doesn’t want me to do something, it goes to the top of my To Do list.

I’m now shopping to buy my own cable box. Comcast can’t force me to create a public wireless network on a box that it doesn’t own.

And then maybe I’ll set up my own open public network – after hiding my private SSID and firewalling the hell out of it – under the Open Wireless Movement, because a free, open, nationwide, wireless broadband network is a good idea.

The Spy Game (2014)

Here’s how Andy Hertzfeld, an eyewitness, recounted it:

No fair: I broke in first

“You’re ripping us off!” Steve [Jobs] shouted, raising his voice even higher. “I trusted you, and now you’re stealing from us!”

But Bill Gates just stood there coolly, looking Steve directly in the eye, before starting to speak in his squeaky voice.

“Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

It was November 1983, and Jobs had just learned that Microsoft was planning to introduce a new graphical operating environment called Windows. It would compete directly against Apple’s soon-to-be-introduced Macintosh operating system, which bore an uncanny similarity to a mouse-driven graphical software environment invented at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC).

“When Steve Jobs found out about Windows, he went ballistic. “Get Gates down here immediately,” he fumed to Mike Boich, Mac’s original evangelist who was in charge of our relationships with third party developers. “He needs to explain this, and it better be good. I want him in this room by tomorrow afternoon, or else!”

Or else what? Hertzfeld doesn’t say.

And that’s pretty much the same scenario playing out this week, following yesterday’s news that the United States Department of Justice had filed indictments against five officers of China’s People’s Liberation Army Unit 61398, accusing them of using the Internet to spy on American companies. The Justice Department is saying to the Chinese, “You’re ripping us off! Send the five hackers over here for trial. We want them in this country by tomorrow afternoon, or else!”

Chinese response needs no translation

I don’t know the Mandarin translation for “I fart in your general direction,” but that is approximately the response of the Chinese government.

And who can blame them, after the latest revelations of National Security Agency sneakiness? The United States and China, it turns out, are the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of corporate espionage. “We both have these rich corporate neighbors using the internet, and I broke into them to steal foreign corporate secrets and found out that you had already stolen them.”

In his new book “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald describes a June 2010 document leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden:

“The NSA routinely receives — or intercepts — routers, servers, and other computer network devices being exported from the US before they are delivered to the international customers,” Greenwald writes. “The agency then implants backdoor surveillance tools, repackages the devices with a factory seal and sends them on. The NSA thus gains access to entire networks and all their users.”

In 2012, the United States House of Representatives Permanent Committee on Intelligence accused two Chinese telecommunications giants, Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corporation, of installing backdoor surveillance tools inside the telecom equipment sold to American companies, at the behest of the Chinese government. The House report said Huawei and ZTE equipment should be considered threats to national security. Huawei and ZTE denied the accusations.

If the leaked Snowdon documents are authentic, the United States was accusing China of trying to steal the television more than two years after the NSA stole it.

Cisco also pointed the finger at Huawei at about the same time, saying Huawei products were boobytrapped by the government. One has to assume, for the sake of sanity, that Cisco did not know its own routers were being hacked by the NSA.