America · Computers

So, the cloud

I had intended to follow up my last post with a long, informative piece about where the various cloud hosting providers were registered and where they kept their data.

I had hoped to work out how to escape from the situation in which all of my personal and business data is being provided to foreign authorities that consider me, my company, and my customers to have no legal existence except as surveillance targets.

But I can’t do it.

The short answer seems to be that every cloud document hosting, music sharing, email hosting, code hosting, or online office applications company you have ever heard of is either an American company, or using American hosting, or both. If you are not an American citizen, information about you is being used by American security authorities, and you have no legal standing that might allow you to question how it is used.

And in any case, if you’re British like me, your own government has also engaged in all sorts of baroque deals to make its own internet data available to the American security authorities, and then to share the analysis results without any of the legal obligations.

I think that I have nothing to hide from any legal authority, and it’s incumbent on people like me to help to make the point by moving away from those authorities that we can no longer depend on. But it’s not easy to do.

For what it’s worth, I have moved my email hosting from Google mail (American company, American hosting, named in NSA leaks) to Fastmail.fm (Australian company, American hosting, not yet named in an NSA leak)—a marginal improvement.

And I’ve moved all of my web hosting—apart from this blog!—from Rackspace (American company, American hosting) to Hetzner (German company, German hosting). Perhaps next we’ll learn a bit more about the German government’s own monitoring apparatus.

It’s not enough.

America · Computers

“It didn’t violate the First Amendment because Americans weren’t among the people targeted”

We’ve recently been told quite a lot about the activities of the US National Security Agency in monitoring internet communications. Much of it could be described as “stuff you might have feared, but that’s a bit depressing to have confirmed”.

For people outside the US, one perhaps surprising thing is that the US government seems happy to say the NSA’s surveillance programmes are OK because they are only aimed at non-Americans.

It involves extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted.

— US administration official quoted at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/obama-administration-prism-program_n_3399858.html

Blanket orders from the secret surveillance court allow these communications to be collected without an individual warrant if the NSA operative has a 51% belief that the target is not a US citizen and is not on US soil at the time.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/11/microsoft-nsa-collaboration-user-data

For people outside the US who have been encouraged over many years to use American internet and cloud-hosting companies, it comes as a bit of a surprise not just that the US government feels this way but that it is so unashamed about it.

Although the details about NSA snooping are new(ish), this principle isn’t a new one. It turns out it’s normal for constitutional safeguards not to apply to non-Americans, even when they are using the services of US companies. A current case:

Chevron… is asking Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, which owns Hotmail, to cough up the email data. When Lewis Kaplan, a federal judge in New York, granted the Microsoft subpoena last month, he ruled it didn’t violate the First Amendment because Americans weren’t among the people targeted.

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/07/chevron-ecuador-american-email-legal-activists-journalists

Now this one has nothing to do with the NSA; it’s about gathering evidence for a court case. The only reason it is considered news is because the opposition argues that the hosting service didn’t know for sure that its users were not Americans.

This is so problematic not because the US necessarily behaves worse than any other country—I suspect it has better oversight in place, for its own citizens, than the UK—but because people like me from outside the US have got used to thinking of US-based hosting, services and companies as the norm in the Internet world.

This attitude long pre-dates pervasive cloud computing. Hotmail, the example above, has been one of the world’s most popular email hosting providers for around 15 years, with (I’m guessing) a couple of hundred million users outside the US.

But it’s quite a problem now that cloud hosting is routinely used to store business data and private documents. And it seems obviously problematic for EU-based businesses, which have a legal obligation to follow data protection rules that presumably don’t include sending their customer data off to a country whose government is unapologetic about taking a copy of it, just in case.

America

I’ve been a bit prickly about the USA and Americans a few times before on this blog. That prickliness has the same cause: I’m sensitive about having become so dependent on American companies and attitudes myself. I have grown used to engaging with American companies, working methods, and laws, almost more than those of my own country, and certainly more than those of other European countries. That has a lot to do with the USA’s historical reputation as a stable, reliable democracy with visible workings, answerable to a relatively incorruptible legal system.

But this dependency increasingly seems just perverse.

I have become used to giving all my personal and business records to companies that have promised to make it all available to a spy agency run by a foreign government that openly declares it has no interest at all in my rights.

Why would anyone want to do that?

Accents · America · Flat Things

Can the American be trusted?

I found a striking bit of cultural conditioning in my head today.

I watched Apple’s introductory video about iOS 7. That’s this one:

If you haven’t seen it already, and have some minutes to spare, watch it now.

The first half is narrated by Jony Ive, Apple’s (former) top hardware designer and (now) chief Designer of Everything.

The second half features Craig Federighi, their top software bod.

I’d be interested to know how you felt while watching the two halves of the video.

I found that for the first half, I was thinking “yes, this is really good work” and agreeing with everything I was told. But as soon as the switchover happened, I felt I was being sold. It wasn’t that I disbelieved it, so much as that I wasn’t able to listen to it: as soon as the words entered my head, my brain captured them and set them aside as marketing guff.

Ive, narrating the first half, is British. His accent is hard to place—I gather he comes from London but spent time in Newcastle—but it’s remarkably unaffected by working for an American company. He speaks slowly and, to me, sounds familiar and quite earnest.

Federighi, in the second half, is American, but I don’t have a good enough ear for American accents to know where from (and Wikipedia doesn’t say). I know nothing about him. But his accent is enough, for me as a British listener, to make me instinctively tune out whatever it is he has to say. I guess I’ve hardly ever heard that accent except in situations where it lacks credibility, and I’ve subconsciously learned from that.

I found this a bit shocking. It’s no surprise that we judge people based on how familiar their accent is, and anyone speaking after Ive (who has a voice good enough to narrate children’s TV) is going to have a hard time. But it was quite a thing, to have that switch in my head made so clear.

[Note: some similar cultural brainwarp is probably going on my earlier piece about Helvetica]

America

Did you know? Some people like Helvetica

Helvetica is—as every font geek who enjoys a repulsive turn of phrase must agree—one of the most iconic fonts of our time.

Which is a pretty strange thing. Designed in 1957 by two not very famous type designers as a neutral typeface for the Haas foundry in Switzerland, Helvetica might almost have been drawn to Jan Tschichold’s 1928 prescription for the “New Typography”:

Among all the types that are available, the sans-serif is the only one in spiritual accordance with our time… But all the attempts up to now to produce a type for our time are… too artistic, too artificial… to fulfil what we need today.

I believe that no single designer can produce the typeface we need, which must be free from all personal characteristics: it will be the work of a group… For the time being it seems to me that the “jobbing” sans-serifs… are the most suitable for use today.

Gloomy

Helvetica is a basic, functional, not particularly charming typeface. But it has become the Graphic Designer’s Font. It’s currently the best-selling font from fonts.com. There are wallpapers. There’s a film about it (at least, I assume it’s about it—I haven’t seen it, partly because the title is a bit offputting). There are T-shirts, and I’ve seen people wearing them. It is the system font for iPhone and iPad: the squatting toad that contributes to the nagging sense of gloom that accompanies both devices.

No, I don’t like it a great deal. It’s a font to respect, not to like. Its design is almost perfectly invisible, unless you’re the sort of person made gloomy by almost-invisible fonts. As its basic shape goes, it is pretty much unimprovable.

Corporate image, shoddiness, America

No, the reason I write about Helvetica is not because I dislike the font—at least not as much as Alastair Johnston appears to—but because I read something about corporate branding, namely this post by Dustin Curtis. He writes of American Airlines, who recently redesigned their logo from something using Helvetica to something not-using-Helvetica:

With Helvetica

American Airlines’ previous visual identity … was a beautiful tribute to modern American design. The simplicity of Helvetica, set in red, white, and blue, and positioned next to an iconic eagle, defined the company with a subtle homage to the country it represents.

After forty-six years, one of the finest corporate brands in history has been reduced to patriotic lipstick.

I’m 40 years old and to me, in my youth, the American Airlines logo represented shoddiness. Crap font, cheesy colours, a bit ungainly, thrown together: the essence of America.

I have a bit more appreciation for it now, but let me explain.

I have only once ridden in a Cadillac, the classic American luxury car. This was fifteen-odd years ago, and it was a car of about this type:

It wasn’t very good. It wallowed and pitched along, and although it had every possible feature inside the cabin, details such as switches seemed to have been thrown together from the cheapest bits and bobs to hand. The dashboard looked like an imitation of that from a 1970s Volvo. Actually, it was a car that I can imagine its owners loving—comfy but awkward and homely. But it wasn’t very well done.

American products have been seen like that for a long time globally. In the UK, “Made in Germany” and “Made in Japan” have been badges of quality for decades, but “Made in America” was a badge only applied to products too embarrassing ever to reach these shores at all.

Helvetica was designed in Switzerland, but it’s now an American font. It’s used mostly by American companies, and has been since American Airlines first adopted it. It suggests the qualities of American products. And the very plainness of the font, the ungainly quality in some letters like the “e”, and the implication from its sheer ubiquitousness that it probably wasn’t chosen but simply picked from the bucket, reinforce those qualities.

In other words—a logotype in Helvetica, in two obvious colours, with the word American in it, is a badge of crap.

Hipness good, for once

The bright spot for Helvetica and its associated American corporate baggage is Apple.

To me, Helvetica brings down iOS: it’s a weak point. But to people who don’t give a crap about fonts, but love using their iPhones and iPads, Helvetica will be a subconscious reinforcer of quality.

Perhaps American Airlines—who had several rather cool logos before they got stuck with the venerated Helvetica one—might have been better making this decision a decade ago. Or else now staying put for a while, just to see.

Next week: “Made in England”, British Leyland, and the shocking legacy of Frutiger in books for children

America · Code

“Various nifty functions”

Further to the code-literate judge in Oracle v Google, via Groklaw we now have his ruling that the Java APIs are not copyrightable.

It’s an exceptionally clear piece of work and a good introduction to the subject. I certainly couldn’t have written a better technical summary, although I’m sure there are bits that a non-programmer would still struggle with—for example, the judge uses the term “subroutine” without explanation.

I like the jaunty language:

After Java’s introduction in 1996, Sun […] wrote hundreds more programs to carry out various nifty functions

And he is certainly decisive. The section describing the code at issue (rangeCheck) is introduced thus:

Oracle has made much of nine lines of code that crept into both Android and Java. This circumstance is so innocuous and overblown by Oracle that the actual facts, as found herein by the judge, will be set forth below for the benefit of the court of appeals.

And in the closing remark,

[It] is important to step back and take in the breadth of Oracle’s claim. Of the 166 Java packages, 129 were not violated in any way. Of the 37 accused, 97 percent of the Android lines were new from Google and the remaining three percent were freely replicable under the merger and names doctrines. Oracle must resort, therefore, to claiming that it owns, by copyright, the exclusive right to any and all possible implementations of the taxonomy-like command structure for the 166 packages and/or any subpart thereof — even though it copyrighted only one implementation. To accept Oracle’s claim would be to allow anyone to copyright one version of code to carry out a system of commands and thereby bar all others from writing their own different versions to carry out all or part of the same commands. No holding has ever endorsed such a sweeping proposition.

As an aside, nice to see our old friend Sega v Accolade cited again. I haven’t read all that many US legal opinions on software copyright, but I think pretty much all the ones I have seen have referred to Sega v Accolade.

You can read the whole thing on Groklaw.

America · Code

Speaking of learning to code

Dialogue in Oracle vs Google, between Judge Alsup and Oracle’s lead counsel David Boies:

Judge: We heard the testimony of Mr. Bloch. I couldn’t have told you the first thing about Java before this problem. I have done, and still do, a significant amount of programming in other languages. I’ve written blocks of code like rangeCheck a hundred times before. I could do it, you could do it. The idea that someone would copy that when they could do it themselves just as fast, it was an accident. There’s no way you could say that was speeding them along to the marketplace. You’re one of the best lawyers in America, how could you even make that kind of argument?

Oracle: I want to come back to rangeCheck.

Judge: rangeCheck! All it does is make sure the numbers you’re inputting are within a range, and gives them some sort of exceptional treatment.

(via Groklaw)