Attacking tech

February 25, 2010

I’m glad to see that we’re coming to a consensus about texting and driving. Most people these days recognize that it’s a dangerous activity — one that should be avoided at all costs. As my friend at aplaceforthoughts.com writes, Oprah is using her considerable influence to raise awareness, and many states are enacting laws to keep people from texting in the car.

Though I’m glad to see so many doing their part to stop this dangerous activity, it bugs me that texting has become such a target while many other dangerous activities are still legal behind the wheel, including eating, drinking, smoking, adjusting the radio, putting on makeup and reading. Yes, reading.

Just about everything on that list has been causing accidents since the dawn of the automobile age, and yet none of them has been outlawed. In fact, most of us are guilty of at least a few of them. Some of us are guilty of them every day. Personally, I drink coffee on the way to the office every day. I fiddle with the radio. I’ve even been known to scarf a burger or a burrito while barreling down the road.

Ever try eating a burrito in the car? Bad idea. Especially when the thing bursts all over your good shirt.

Studies have shown that eating and drinking hot beverages are more dangerous than talking on a cell phone or sending text messages. So why are we allowed to eat in the car? Why is every automobile equipped with a radio? Why are there NO warnings on car stereo systems that adjusting them while driving is hazardous?

The reason is simple: We all do these things. And it’s easier for lawmakers — many of whom are not particularly tech savvy — to condemn something they don’t understand, rather than look at the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture means we need a real “distracted driver” law — a broad law that penalizes drivers for any distracting behavior they take part in while driving. And that means everything.

The law wouldn’t have to prohibit a person from eating, drinking, or even talking on a cell phone. But in the case of an accident, the driver would be ticketed and their insurance would take a hit when it was found they were distracted.

When I worked as a crime reporter, I saw way more accidents caused by people fiddling with the radio or yelling at their kids than when people were talking on cell phones. To be fair, cell phones were a lot more rare in those days, but it doesn’t change the fact that distracted drivers have always been a danger on the roads.

Let’s all pledge to stop texting while driving. But if we’re going to make laws, let’s make sure we’re going after the behavior, not the technology.

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This is why we can’t have nice things…

July 31, 2009

The Internet is going haywire over the case of Gary McKinnon, the autistic hacker the U.S. is trying to extradite from the U.K. to stand trial for snooping around in NASA and Department of Defense computers seven years ago.

The U.K. is especially in an uproar, with McKinnon supporters screaming that an autistic man shouldn’t serve 60 years in prison, or that McKinnon shouldn’t be tried in the U.S., but in the U.K. instead.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in reading about the McKinnon case, it’s how ignorant the rest of the world is about the United States. And make no mistake: They are ignorant. Appallingly so.

Let’s backtrack for just a moment:

McKinnon admits that he broke the law by hacking computers belonging to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Department of Defense and NASA between 1999 and 2002. He’s a UFO conspiracy theorist, who  took it upon himself to dig around in U.S. government computers in search of proof that the United States was hiding proof that UFOs exist (I’ve seen no report indicating he found such proof). While snooping, he left messages, warning he would continue to disrupt and accusing the government of being behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Needless to say, he was caught. And since then, the U.S. government has been trying to bring him across the pond to stand trial. And, in the intervening years, he’s managed to be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. The maximum sentence for his crime is 60 years in federal prison.

To get a flavor of how the Brits are looking at the case, check out Henry Porter’s blog in the Guardian. To save you time, I’ll excerpt:

“…over 55 British defendants have been forced to submit to the often crude and vindictive criminal justice system of the United States. Sixty years for a rather hopeless individual who believes in UFOs is obviously absurd, and British law should have the ability to ensure that a citizen is not exposed to harsher treatment in America, then Americans accused of the same crime would face here.”

Absurd, Henry?

Here’s what’s absurd: Acting as if the U.S. should treat McKinnon with kid gloves because he’s a Brit. That’s absurd. The U.S. has a “crude and vindictive criminal justice system?” Really? We have trials where the accused is innocent until proved guilty. We have a system where Mr. McKinnon will be given attorneys to represent him at trial, to make sure he’s fairly treated. We have juries who are charged with hearing both sides of the story before judging a defendant’s guilt. Sure, our system is not perfect. But it’s not crude.

In fact, if Porter — or the myriad Internet experts — had done a shred of homework, here’s what they’d learn:

1. Though the maximum term for the crime McKinnon is charged with is 60 years, there is little to no chance he’ll actually receive that sentence. The maximum is reserved for the very worst offenders. It’s entirely possible that McKinnon would serve no prison time whatsoever.

2. Judges weigh many different factors in determining sentences. In this case, McKinnon’s mental state, his behavior since he was arrested, his mental state at the time of the crimes and the actual damage caused can all be considered mitigating factors.

3. If in fact McKinnon is sentenced to federal prison, it will most likely not be in a maximum-security facility with violent criminals, but in a medium- to minimum-security facility where white-collar criminals generally serve. In America, we call these “country club” facilities. Considering his special needs, he would be closely monitored for his own safety.

If McKinnon was inwilling to suffer the consequences of breaking U.S. law, he should have taken care not to break U.S. law. He was completely aware of what he was doing. He carried on, and should therefore suffer the consequences, whatever they may be.

The larger issue here is ignorance. The fact that Brits continue to holler about this case as though Americans have no other goal than to capture, beat and imprison a pathetic autistic man does nothing less than illustrate the arrogance and elitism — unwarranted, mind you — of Europeans, who believe we are uncivilized (we spell that with a ‘z’ here, thank you) barbarians following Hamurabi’s code.

When all is said and done, this case will prove to be much ado about nothing. McKinnon will serve about 18 months in Club Fed. And then he’ll go home. And it will be over.

But Americans should take note of what Europeans think of us. And we need to ask ourselves whether we prefer to bend over backwards to prove ourselves to them, or stand up for ourselves and lead by example.

I, for one, choose the latter.


This guy threatened to kill me.

June 8, 2009

I was outside my office Friday, testing out a video camera, the last time my life was threatened.

As I swept the lens across the streetscape, a shirtless “gentleman” rode his bicycle through my field of vision. I didn’t even notice him. He asked if I was pointing a camera at him. I turned off the camera. What followed was a string of expletives aimed at me, including this gem:

“If my picture shows up on the Internet, I will hunt you down and I will kill you.”

Awesome.

So, here’s the offending video:

I don’t put this up because I want to be hunted down or, indeed, killed. I do, however, want to clear up a few misconceptions this gentleman, and many others as well, have about privacy. I’ll go through his argument point by point. I will leave out the curse words.

1. “It is illegal to point a camera at someone without their permission.”

Wrong. I can legally point a camera at whomever I’d like. Furthermore, most of us are caught on camera several times a day, at stores, street corners, gas stations and ATMs. Consent is not necessary.

2. “This is an invasion of my privacy.”

Wrong again. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy on a public street. That’s why it’s called public. If I want to, I can take your picture and run it anywhere I’d like — on the front page of a newspaper or magazine, on my website. I can’t use it in ads or commercials, but as many newspapers do, I can sell prints of your image. The copyright holder — the guy with all the rights — is me.

Want to know something that will bug you even more? It’s entirely legal for me to take pictures of you in your house! If I can see you from the street, I can take your picture. I’m not allowed on your property, but if you happen to be washing your unmentionables in front of your livingroom picture window, you’re fair game.

3. “I’ll call the cops and have your camera confiscated.”

Wrong. There is a clause in our Constitution that protects against illegal search and seizure. My property cannot be taken from me without either a warrant or “probable cause.” If the police have no reason to believe I’ve broken the law, they cannot detain me, search me or take my property without my consent.

4. “We’ll see what my attorney has to say about this.”

No we won’t. Perhaps you will hear what he has to say, but I believe you’ll be sorely disappointed. And I doubt you’ll want to fill me in when your lawyer tells you to get out of his office.

If I seem a little bent about this, I apologize. I don’t mean to sound rude. It was, however, more than a little upsetting to be treated that way. I explained to him that I wasn’t using the footage for anything, that I was only testing the camera, and that I planned to throw the footage away. I even explained that I didn’t actually intend to film him — he rode through my shot. None of those things mattered, though.

So, I have thrown out the rest of the footage. I am, however, preserving the bit above for posterity.

Way to go, guy. Hope it was worth it.