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Supreme Court vs online security: Has the reckoning come?

(TECH NEWS) The Supreme Court has had a case brought to it that may finally force a reckoning on the vague and long criticized Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

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Two hands on a keyboard with dual monitors behind them, in need of online security.

Online security is an ever changing landscape of defenses, strategies, intrusion tactics, countermeasures, and technologies locked in an eternal war. Legal matters sometimes intersect and can provide sweeping changes as new perspectives are considered in a world that marches toward a digital future at a faster rate. As every fact of life becomes more imbued with digital surveillance, there are times when specific acts and events must be scrutinized for the sake of judicial review.

This is even more prevalent with the move to working from home. Several industries are coming to terms with the new normal of telecommunication, and this is presenting challenges to be negotiated for a wide variety of personnel.

Simply put: our lives are online all the time now.

On November 30th, 2020, a new case – Van Buren vs. United States – had arguments open up with the Supreme Court concerning this very topic. In short, a police officer accepted money to look up restricted information in a law enforcement database (specifically, the license plate of a citizen). The question here is simple – does an actor who has privileged access still maintain that clearance when it is used for unauthorized purposes?

Essentially, this matter can be reduced to “it’s not illegal, buuuuuuut something feels a little off about it.” Theoretically, the argument of “there’s no law against it, thus it is not legal” has come under fire for a variety of reasons throughout history, and anything that resembles an invasion of privacy can certainly fall under this umbrella. The policeman in this situation did not break a law or violate any kind of rule or order, but it still feels strange to know that someone on friendly terms with an officer could gain access to information hidden from the public.

However, really, that’s kind of besides the point. The bigger issue here is less about the foggy nature of what happened, and more about how to classify it. This is important because until we can apply specific labels and designations, appropriate punishment (if even any should be applied) for breaching online security is difficult to assess.

Specifically, this case falls under the nebulous area of hacking (broadly defined as a situation where a user gains unauthorized access to digital resources), with specific respect to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). It was enacted in 1986 in response to ensuring that computer-related crimes could actually be punished from a legal standpoint (again, shades of weeeeeell it wasn’t illegal when I did it).

Unfortunately, the CFAA has generally been seen as vague. For example, does breaching any part of the terms of service for a website, application, or digital service constitute a violation of online security?

Tim Wu – a longstanding legal scholar and professor at Columbia Law School – has called it “the worst law in technology,” and his involvement in the computer world cannot be understated (he coined the term “net neutrality” for starters). The CFAA is believed and cited to pressure free-speech advocates, stifle journalistic endeavors, and complicate the punishment phase of law by raising a misdemeanor into a felony (creating disproportionate sentences).

One of the most famous examples of this is the case of Aaron Swartz. To summarize, he downloaded academic journals from MIT, and was charged under the CFAA with wire fraud. Following a very controversial lawsuit that resulted in felony charges, he committed suicide. This has been a subject of intense debate when it comes to free speech and the limitless punitive measures available to federal prosecutors.

Maybe the shortest way to think of this is that we – as a society – are still coming to terms with the breadth and depth that technology has on daily life, and have not yet caught up in terms of proper regulation and law with regards to our online security.

This is why this case is being heard by the Supreme Court – to discuss a long standing and still undecided law that can potentially have widespread impact on the entire digital world. Apparently, this discussion is a long time coming.

You are most likely wondering why or how this would affect you, which is an entirely valid response to have. For example, if you created two accounts on a shopping website to get a 10% coupon for two separate orders when the coupon specifically dictates one per household, could you be charged? Think about it – you knowingly created two accounts with the same physical address for the purpose of saving some money. Under some interpretations of the CFAA, this would constitute hacking behavior (or at least hacking- like behavior) and could result in felony charges.

Another example: All the recent activity involved the Playstation 5 and scalpers could fall under CFAA litigation. I’m not even sure there’s ANY laws being broken there, but a shrewd argument could be made regarding the use of bots to game checkout systems to obtain stock in a not-fraudulent fraudulent way. I’m not saying this kind of behavior should be punished, even if I really want to play that sweet new Spiderman game.

The point here is that it’s a planet sized swamp of legal complexity that may finally force specific conversations and new laws to be put into place. Arguments are underway, and digital rights advocates are understandably keeping close watch.

I’d wager no one in the entire world – should their entire inventory of digital actions be known – would be immune to prosecution under the current constructs of the CFAA. When you think about it that way, and when you think of all the seemingly innocuous things you’ve done that could suddenly land you in front of a judge, then it’s clear that this case can and should be considered extremely applicable to everyone.

Robert Snodgrass has an English degree from Texas A&M University, and wants you to know that yes, that is actually a thing. And now he's doing something with it! Let us all join in on the experiment together. When he's not web developing at Docusign, he runs distances that routinely harm people and is the kind of giant nerd that says "you know, there's a King of the Hill episode that addresses this exact topic".

Tech News

Get all your digital organization in one place with Routine

(TECH NEWS) Routine makes note-taking and task-creating a lot easier by merging all your common processes into one productivity tool.

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A desk with a laptop, notepad, smartphone, and cup of coffee settled into an organized routine.

Your inbox can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. Without organization, important emails with tasks, notes, and meetings can become a trash pile pretty quickly. Luckily, there are a lot of tools that aim to help you improve your efficiency, and the latest to add to that list is Routine.

Routine is a productivity app that combines your tasks, notes, and calendar into one easy-to-use app so you can increase your performance. Instead of having to switch between different apps to jot down important information, create to-do lists, and glance at your calendar, Routine marries them all into one cool productivity tool. By simply using a keyboard shortcut, you can do all these things.

If you receive an email that contains an actionable item, you can convert that email into a task you can view later. Tasks are all saved in your inbox, and you can even schedule a task for a specific day. So, if Obi-Wan wants to have Jedi lessons on Thursday, you can schedule your Force task for that day. Likewise, chat messages that need follow-up can also be converted into tasks and be scheduled.

To enrich your tasks, notes can be attached to them. In your notes, you can also embed checkboxes, which are tasks of their own. And if you have tasks that aren’t coming from your inbox, you can import them from other services, such as Gmail, Notion, and Trello.

To make sure you can stay focused on the events and tasks at hand, Routine makes it easy to take everything in. By using the tool’s keyboard-controlled console, you can access your dashboard to quickly see what tasks need to be addressed, what’s on your calendar, and even join an upcoming Zoom session and take notes about the meeting.

Routine is available for macOS, iOS, web, and Google accounts only. Overall, the app centralizes notes and tasks by letting you create and view everything in one place, which helps make sure you stay on top of things. Currently, Routine is still in beta, but you can get on a waitlist to test the product out for yourself.

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Tech News

The paradox of CAPTCHAs: Too smart for humans vs AI?

(TECH NEWS) AI is catching up to our cybersecurity technology and often tricking humans too — so what’s next for CAPTCHAs and the internet?

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Person using phone with laptop to verify CAPTCHAs and code.

We’ve all encountered it before: The occasional robot test that feels impossible to beat. If you’ve felt like these tests, also known as CAPTCHAs, have gotten harder in the last couple of years, you aren’t wrong—and the reason is as ironic as it is baffling.

Simply put, AI are just as good as—and often better than—humans at completing CAPTCHAs in their classic format. As machine learning and AI become more advanced, the fundamental human attributes that make consistent CAPTCHA formats possible become less impactful, raising the question of how to determine the difference between AI and humans in the future.

The biggest barrier to universal CAPTCHA doctrine is purely cultural. Humans may share experiences across the board, but such experiences are typically basic enough to fall victim to the same machine learning which has rendered lower-level CAPTCHAs moot. Adding a cultural component to CAPTCHAs could prevent AI from bypassing them, but it also might prevent some humans from understanding the objective.

Therein lies the root of the CAPTCHA paradox. Humans are far more diverse than any one test can possibly account for, and what they do have in common is also shared by—you guessed it—AI. To create a truly AI-proof test would be to alienate a notable portion of human users by virtue of lived experience. The irony is palpable, but one can only imagine the sheer frustration developers are going through in attempting to address this problem.

But all isn’t lost. While litmus tests such as determining the number of traffic cones in a plaza or checking off squares with bicycles (but not unicycles, you fool) may be beatable by machines, some experts posit that “human entropy” is almost impossible to mimic—and, thus, a viable solution to the CAPTCHA paradox.

“A real human being doesn’t have very good control over their own motor functions, and so they can’t move the mouse the same way more than once over multiple interactions,” says Shuman Ghosemajumder, a former click fraud expert from Google. While AI could attempt to feign this same level of “entropy”, the odds of a successful attempt appear low.

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Move over, Clubhouse: Slack adds their own audio chat rooms

(TECH NEWS) Slack planning to co-opt Clubhouse’s synchronous audio rooms has lead to mixed response. Did it really need to be done?

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Woman in green cardigan and headphones listening to audio chat room on mobile, where Slack becomes a competitor.

Slack is adding a synchronous audio chat room feature similar to what Clubhouse already has. While not everyone is happy about it, the addition is true to Slack’s ongoing form—if a little redundant.

Slack’s audio rooms would work similarly to Clubhouse’s current feature of the same persuasion. The rooms themselves would be ongoing for as long as they were open, and users would be able to drop in and out of calls at their leisure, even joining the conversation when permitted by the host or settings. In theory, it’s a cool way to round out Slack’s platform and make for yet another way for people to engage during the work day.

But not everyone is stoked about the addition. Pocketnow’s Nadeem Sarwar makes a strong point about the redundancy of adding a Clubhouse feature to the already-packed Slack deck: “…from a regular remote worker’s perspective, I’d rather use services such as Telegram, Discord, or Google Meet that we’ve grown accustomed to using for jumping into a group call with my teammates.”
“…[T]he need for audio chatrooms to get in a chaotic chat with colleagues, with whom you already chat over work and share memes five days a week, doesn’t make much sense,” he adds.

Sarwar also references research about remote meeting fatigue from Stanford and The Washington Post, positing that—since video conferences are already played out at this point—adding another quasi-conference option to Slack doesn’t serve much of a purpose.

He isn’t wrong. There are multitudinous conference options on the market now, many of which are free. One could argue that Slack, having marketed itself as a text-first communication hub, has no business entering the audio chat landscape.

That argument falls on its face when you consider Slack’s model—something both Sawar and the Slack CEO himself mention—involves “stealing” and implementing “good ideas” from others in order to make their own platform as comprehensive as possible. If one is able to use Slack for the majority of tasks that Google, Discord, and Clubhouse offer, that makes the platform a lot more attractive to users who are on the fence.

And, perhaps more importantly, it ensures that current users won’t migrate to a comparable platform in the future—especially if their colleagues are making the same choice.

It’s a smart move for Slack, especially given Clubhouse’s lack of Android support at this time—something Clubhouse has said probably still won’t launch for a couple of months.

The Clubhouse team, for their part, continues to add new features in efforts to maintain the platform’s upward mobility. One such feature is the option for paid subscriptions to content creators, allowing for people to monetize their presence on the platform. At the time of this writing, Clubhouse is valued at around $1 billion.

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