California's cell-phone kill switch is a solution that's worse than the problem


As the California legislature moves to mandate "kill switches" that will allow owners of stolen phones to shut them down, the Electronic Frontier Foundation sounds an important alarm: if it's possible for someone to remotely switch off your phone such that you can't switch it back on again, even if you're physically in possession of it, that facility could be abused in lots of ways. This is a classic War on General Purpose Computation moment: the only way to make a kill-switch work is to design phones that treat their possessors as less trustworthy than a remote party sending instructions over the Internet, and as soon as the device that knows all your secrets and watches and listens to your most private moments is designed to do things that the person holding it can't override, the results won't be pretty.

There are other models for mitigating the harm from stolen phones. For example, the Cyanogen remote wipe asks the first user of the phone to initialize a password. When it is online, the device checks in with a service to see whether anyone using that password has signed a "erase yourself" command. When that happens, the phone deletes all the user-data. A thief can still wipe and sell the phone, but the user's data is safe.

Obviously, this isn't the same thing as stolen phones going dead and never working again, and won't have the same impact on theft. But the alternative is a system that allows any bad guy who can impersonate, bribe or order a cop to activate the kill-switch to do all kinds of terrible things to you, from deactivating the phones of people recording police misconduct to stalking or stealing the identities of mobile phone owners, with near-undetectable and unstoppable stealth.

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Supreme Court invalidates software patent because it's a software patent

Supreme-Court

In a stunning verdict, the Supreme Court has tossed out a patent because it is a software patent, ruling that "merely requiring generic computer implementation fails to transform that abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention" -- that is, adding "with a computer" doesn't make a new patentable invention. This is seismic, and not just because of what it says about whether software is patentable in America, but because of how it escalates the turf war between the Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit, which is the nation's "patent court."

The Supremes have spent more than a year pumping out decisions that fly in the face of the Federal Circuit's longstanding precedents, but the Federal Circuit judges have refused to consider Supreme Court decisions when hearing new cases -- meaning that every time the Federal Circuit goes against a Supreme Court judgment, you have to apply to have the case retried in front of the Supremes to get justice. Normal practice is for Federal judges to treat the Supremes as having the last word on US legal interpretation, so when the Supremes rule, all the lower courts follow.

There have been rumors about the Federal Circuit being abolished -- or having jurisdiction over patents yanked -- as the turf war has heated up. Federal Circuit judges have a reputation for being ideologically biased towards patents as a matter of course, wanting to use patents to solve every problem. It's classic regulatory capture -- patent judges tend to start life as patent lawyers, and are improperly chummy with the white-shoe lawyers who appear before them.

There's precious little expert analysis of the new judgment online yet. The Slashdot post recommends checking in with the Software Freedom Law Center for updates as everyone digests this decision.

After federal document-snatch, ACLU case over Florida cops' phone surveillance collapses

After US marshalls raided a Florida police department to seize documents about to be revealed in an ACLU case over "stingray" mobile phone surveillance, we knew that the case was endangered. Now the worst has happened: state circuit court judge Charles Williams has thrown out the case because he says his court has no jurisdiction over federal agents, so he can't order the critical documents to be returned, so there's no case.

The feds have offered a limited, sealed disclosure to the Florida court, and the ACLU has vowed to fight to unseal them and carry on with the case.

At issue is the widespread police use of "stingray" devices that spoof mobile phones, tricking them into revealing information about their owners' movements, communications, associations, and identity.

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Top US patent judge resigns after ethics breach

Judge Randall Rader, the top US patent judge, has resigned from the bench after he sent a letter to a patent attorney praising his courtroom appearance, inviting him to share the letter publicly. Radar is one of the top ambassadors for the US patent system, touring the world giving speeches extolling its virtues. He's planning to spend the rest of his life teaching patent law in global universities.

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Copyright trolls cut and run at suggestion that they're a front for disgraced firm Guardaley

Now that evidence has surfaced suggesting that Guardaley, a disgraced firm of German copyright trolls, is secretly behind the legal actions of notorious US trolls like Malibu Media, the US plaintiffs are running scared, asking judges to dismiss their cases before they can be dragged into a discovery process that might confirm the link.

Guardaley is seriously toxic in the USA, and any suggestion that they were pulling the strings of US plaintiffs would likely be enough to get any case booted -- and possibly result in sanctions for the lawyers representing the trolls.

The defendants in a case over downloading the B-movie Elf-Man has presented evidence that not only links Guardaley to the suit, but also suggests that Guardaley was one of the seeders of the Elf-Man bittorrent file. In other words, they were sharing the file while acting as representatives for the copyright holders, making the downloads they're suing over authorized, and not infringing.

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Court finds full-book scanning is fair use


The Hathi Trust has won another important victory in its court battles against the Authors Guild over the right of academic libraries to scan books under the banner of fair use. Hathi creates full-text indexes of books from academic institutional libraries that were scanned by Google, so that academic libraries can access full-text indexes of the books, as well as offering the books in assistive formats used by people with visual disabilities, and providing long-term archives of rare texts that are still under copyright.

The Authors Guild members are overwhelming trade-book authors; the books scanned by the Hathi Trust are overwhelmingly scholarly books written as part of an academic tradition that takes free access and sharing as its foundation. The court remanded a question of standing in the case, asking the Guild to demonstrate that it represented authors of the affected works.

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Canadian Supreme Court's landmark privacy ruling

The Supreme Court of Canada's ruling in R. v. Spencer sets an amazing precedent for privacy that not only reforms the worst practices of Canadian ISPs and telcos; it also annihilates the Tories' plans to weaken Canadian privacy law into insignificance. The Supremes unanimously held that the longstanding practice of carriers voluntarily handing over subscriber data to cops and government agencies without a warrant was unconstitutional.

The court's decision, written by Harper appointed Justice Thomas Cromwell, takes a nuanced view of privacy, and upholds the importance of anonymity as part of the protected right to privacy.

The Harper government is currently pushing two surveillance bills, C-13 and S-4, which would radically expand the practice of "voluntary" disclosure of subscriber data without a warrant. As Michael Geist writes in an excellent explainer, these bills are almost certainly unconstitutional under this ruling and are likely to die or be substantially reformed.

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Bot alerts you every time the Supreme Court silently alters its rulings


As the New York Times recently reported, the Supreme Court has a habit of silently altering its rulings on its websites. Now, the @SCOTUS_servo feed will alert you when this happens, with links to the diffs and interpretation by David Zvenyach, general counsel to the Council of the District of Columbia.

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She just wanted beer

Lidia Zuradzka, 52, of Wheeling, Illinois, was charged with burglary after entering a stranger's home and taking a can of beer. Subsequently challenged by a resident, she reportedly responded "I want beer."

Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance now in ebook


I loved The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance, a collection of weird laws from around the world by Kevin Underhill of Lowering the Bar [review|excerpt]. Now I bring the glad tidings that it's available in ebook form!

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Handbook to figure out what's in the public domain


Jennifer Urban sez, "I'm happy to say that the Samuelson Clinic at Berkeley has just released a handbook to help folks research whether older items (pre-1978) are still under copyright in the U.S., or are in the public domain." This is probably the most esoteric question that normal people from all walks of life have to answer routinely; the Samuelson Clinic has really done an important public service here.

Interestingly the project originated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Legacy Project, "a nonprofit organization run by civil rights movement veterans that is creating a digital archive of historical materials."

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Should a past mental health episode mean this mom loses her child?

Steve Herbert for ProPublica


Steve Herbert for ProPublica

At ProPublica, the story of a young woman who had a mental health crisis -- a psychotic episode -- and as a result, lost custody of her infant daughter. In the crisis incident, the mom became delusional and believed her child had been raped. The child had not been assaulted, nor was she ever harmed by her mom. Four years later, the mom is receiving effective treatment for her postpartum depression and psychosis, and capably raising a son. Yet, the courts in Kansas still won't give back her daughter, arguing she is unfit based an principle sometimes called "predictive neglect." Is this right?

Pirate Bay co-founder Peter "brokep" Sunde arrested in Sweden

Peter "brokep" Sunde, the Pirate Bay co-founder who also started Flattr and made a bid for the European Parliament on behalf of the Finnish Pirate Party, has been arrested in Sweden. Sunde -- who is a friend of mine -- had been working his way through a series of unsuccessful appeals to his conviction for his role in running the Pirate Bay, which included a €10M fine. Sunde faces an eight-month sentence, which he was meant to begin serving in 2012.

I don't know what's next for Peter; his appeals have always turned on legal complexities that were somewhat esoteric. It may be that this is the last stop for him and that he will have to serve. He's written before about his struggles with depression. I hope that he is safe and as comfortable as he can be under the circumstances, and that he knows that he has friends and fans all over the world who care about what happens to him.

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Engineering our way out of mass surveillance

Smári "Mailpile" McCarthy's lecture Engineering Our Way Out of Fascism sets out a set of technical, legal and social interventions we can undertake to make mass surveillance impossible, starting with this: "The goal of those interested in protecting human rights should be to raise the average cost of surveillance to $10.000 per person per day within the next five years."

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Harvard Bluebook: more threats to those who would cite the law

Carl Malamud writes, "On May 16, Boing Boing brought us the story of five years of intimidation on the Uniform System of Citaiton required in the United States, a system otherwise known as The Bluebook. Based on your story, a stern keep off the grass warning was dispatched from the ever-growing Bluebook Legal Task Force at the eminent white shoe firm of Ropes & Gray."

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