31 December 2008

Detect plagiarism and debunk hoaxes in seconds

The people at Google are very smart. It is one competitor that Microsoft has not been able to swallow up with the one thing they do best—and the only thing they are good at—marketing. And they have Microsoft very worried.

There is a lot more than meets the eye to the Google search box, and sometimes it is indespensible.

Detecting plagiarism

Suppose you had doubts about the originality of the following passage:

This year Marcian and Valentinian assumed the empire, and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Wurtgern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them. The king directed them to fight against the Picts; and they did so; and obtained the victory wheresoever they came. They then sent to the Angles, and desired them to send more assistance. They described the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land. They then sent them greater support. Then came the men from three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the men of Kent, the Wightwarians (that is, the tribe that now dwelleth in the Isle of Wight), and that kindred in Wessex that men yet call the kindred of the Jutes. From the Old Saxons came the people of Essex and Sussex and Wessex. From Anglia, which has ever since remained waste between the Jutes and the Saxons, came the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, and all of those north of the Humber. Their leaders were two brothers, Hengest and Horsa; who were the sons of Wihtgils; Wihtgils was the son of Witta, Witta of Wecta, Wecta of Woden. From this Woden arose all our royal kindred, and that of the Southumbrians also.

Copy and paste the text into a text editor to remove all the line breaks. In Notepad++, this can be done using the Join lines command under the Edit menu.

Now copy the line of text and paste it into the Google search box.

Clicking on Google Search reveals that the original source of this passage is the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. It appears on page 21 of the edition published by Kessinger Publishing, as shown in Google Book Search.

Debunking Hoaxes

If you receive a mass-forwarded message about some health hazard, missing person, superstition or petition, it is likely to be a hoax or inaccurate. It doesn't matter how unremarkable or believable the claim is, hoax messages are created for one reason only: to propagate. Anything worthwhile announcing to the general community is not delivered by e-mail; it is delivered via the mass media through television, newspapers, radio, websites and so on.

Here is one hoax warning that has been circulated around inboxes since February 2004:

Imagine: You walk across the parking lot, unlock your car and get inside. Then you lock all your doors, start the engine and shift into REVERSE. Habit! You look into the rear-view window to back out of your parking space and you notice a piece of paper, some sort of advertisement stuck to your rear window. So, you shift into PARK, unlock your doors and jump out of your vehicle to remove that paper (or whatever it is) that is obstructing your view . . . when you reach the back of your car, that is when the car-jackers jump out of nowhere . . . jump into your car and take off — your engine was running, your purse is in the car, and they practically mow you down as they speed off in your car.


Just drive away and remove the paper that is stuck to your window later ... and be thankful that you read this email and that you forwarded it to your friends.

If you search the Internet for this passage using the method above, you will find that this hoax has been documented on numerous sites, such as Sophos.

Blogger with axe to grind against the CCC

A blogger who goes by the pseudonym of Diogenes has launched a blog called CCC Exposed. At the top of the page there is a banner which reads "Western Australia's Greatest Corruption Scandal Exposed". The first post for this blog was made on November 11 last month.

The blogger uses a Swiss-based e-mail service called swissmail.org.

One of the alleged "victims" of the CCC happens to be, oddly enough, Brian Burke. His complaint is outlined under a post titled "Brian Burke speaks out".

28 December 2008

Brian Burke bemoans CCC for uncovering corruption

Brian Burke, that former premier, crook, lobbyist and political terrorist, refuses to go away and leave WA in peace. Perhaps we can do a deal with New South Wales and swap him for Nathan Rees, but that would be overrating Burke. Maybe 10 or 20 MPs from the government of NSW would make it an even deal.

He just appeared in an interview on Channel 9 blaming the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) for ruining the careers of politicians. He attempted to put a negative spin on something that is actually positive. The CCC didn't ruin their careers, Burke did.

Nobody should ever trust or come near this appalling character after everything he has done. No matter how convincing he sounds, a leopard never loses its spots, and he certainly hasn't lost his.

Government ignores its own study on ISP level filtering

A report on the feasibility of ISP level content filtering has been released that clearly highlights the inherent flaws of the government's planned Internet filtering scheme. The government's disregard for its own policy advice is a concern in itself.

The key findings are as follows:

Key Finding 1
There is a need for a clear policy on the goals of any filtering system that might be implemented.

Key Finding 2
The focus of the study was on content available in the form of web pages on the World Wide Web. This does not fully reflect the current dynamics of Internet based media.

Key Finding 3
Australia has a very heterogeneous ISP industry. Depending on the nature of a mandated filtering function, the impact on industry may be significant.

Key Finding 4
The industry is not well prepared for the implementation of content filtering systems. Our findings show that there is great disparity in the vision of how such systems should be implemented and the perceived level of difficulty in implementation.

Key Finding 5
There are many important legal and general business aspects that need to be addressed before a decision can be made on a filtering implementation. Frameworks need to be in place to ensure that the legal aspects and responsibility are adequately addressed.

Key Finding 6
It is evident that there are significant technical problems surrounding dynamic content filtering and its implementation in a nationwide ISP-based content filtering system. Current technology is unlikely to yield efficient and economically viable solutions for this purpose.
Furthermore, the problem is of a nature that requires a research effort before firm conclusions can be drawn on its effectiveness. As the accuracy of this form of filtering is still not high it could be expected that allowed content would be blocked inadvertently. For example, if child pornography is to be blocked, other pornographic content may also be blocked. Conversely, if all pornographic content is to be blocked, other content with a 'resemblance' in features will also be blocked; e.g. sex education, medical information, erotic content etc.

The report makes the following recommendations:

  • Define the objectives of filtering;
  • Consider applying the above objectives to a national filtering scheme with particular attention to be given to:
    • The role and scope of a filtering scheme;
    • The implementation options: i.e. ISPs either implementing their own filtering capability or utilising a national filtering service (refer to Key Finding 4).
    • The blacklist sources. International sources, such as INHOPE or the Internet Watch Foundation might be considered in conjunction with the ACMA blacklist;
    • The opt in/opt out framework. In particular, consider the implications of making the framework optional for ISPs;
    • The implications of making the national filtering scheme voluntary for the ISP industry, in line with international precedence.
  • Engage with industry to clarify how such a scheme would:
    • Interface with existing ISP infrastructure;
    • Impact on broadband performance;
    • Impact on costs;
    • Handle the issue of recovery of costs to industry as a result of implementation.
  • Undertake analysis to determine how vulnerable a national filtering scheme is to circumvention and to attempts to disable it.
  • Consult relevant stakeholders regarding the management of the nationwide scheme. Issues to consider include:
    • The legal aspects of such a scheme;
    • Compliance with Australian legislation;
    • Complaint procedures for incorrectly classified content;
    • The scope of filtering (to be undertaken in consultation with the general public): what is to be filtered; how often is filtering to be applied; how often will filter lists be updated and provided to ISPs; and
    • How will content be classified; what levels of transparency, scalability and security will apply to the classification process.
  • Mobile Internet service providers should be included in the consultation and planning activities.

24 December 2008

Letter to Senator Nick Michin

From: Justin Lee
To: Nick Minchin
Sent: Wed 24/12/2008 10:46 AM
Subject: Conroy's filtering fiasco

Hi Nick,

I was pleased with the comments (http://www.news.com.au/technology/story/0,28348,24840348-5014239,00.html) you made today about Conroy’s planned Internet filter. They echo the unanimous views of outraged users and professionals in the industry throughout the country. We condemn this policy not because of fears about freedom of speech, not because we fear losing access to streaming adult content, but because the means are not justified by an end that will never be achieved by this idiotic policy. It is a bad implementation of a bad policy with no moral or social justification.

He should be investigating how technology can be effectively used to find and prosecute those carrying out these evil crimes online, not just sending the URL to a black list whenever images showing sick individuals ruining the lives of defenceless children are discovered.

It is as if the policy was not bad enough, he had to make it worse by attempting to filter peer-to-peer traffic, which will be even more ineffective and detrimental to the quality of our Internet services. Perhaps someone should explain to him what encryption is. It appears it never dawned upon him that word might get around that the government is scrutinising the content of peer-to-peer traffic and users will just encrypt their data. He appears to be desperate to save his policy train wreck.

It is my honest opinion that he needs to be sacked. This is hardly the time for the government and businesses to be wasting money on a politically motivated scheme that will only trash a vital part of our communications infrastructure.

Have a happy and safe Christmas,
Justin Lee

13 December 2008

Child Wise's fundamentally flawed argument for Internet filtering

One organisation that backs the federal government's plans to censor the Internet is Child Wise. Bernadette McMenamin, CEO of Child Wise, uses the following statistics to justify her position in a media release:

Reports show that these filters are very effective, with the UK system operated by British Telecom blocking over 35,000 attempts per day. During 2006, the Norwegian system blocked 1.7million attempts to access child pornography. The Swedish system blocked 15,000 attempts during its first few weeks of operation and resulted in a 40% drop in reports of child pornographic sites to ECPAT Sweden's Internet hotline. Telenor, a large European mobile phone operator, has been filtering child pornography on their 3G phones since June 2005. Each country uses their local authorities such as the police to determine what sites are blocked.

These statistics are quite misleading. The "40% drop in reports of child pornographic sites" is rather meaningless—it states nothing about the impact on the distribution of child pornography via peer-to-peer file sharing, which is the typical method that is used to share illegal content on the Internet. The big entertainment companies certainly understand this and they have fought to protect their sales by taking legal action against the makers of peer-to-peer file sharing software. Studies show that peer-to-peer traffic consumes a large percentage of Internet bandwidth. According to a report released by Sandvine, peer-to-peer traffic consumes 61% of upstream bandwidth and 22% of downstream bandwidth. Also, one doesn't need any technical expertise to realise that the number of illegal sites reported cannot be used as a performance measure on its own as we are unable to compare it to the total number of illegal sites that are in operation, which probably dwarf those that are discovered and reported. The same can be said about the "1.7million attempts to access child pornography", but what makes this figure more deceptive is that it only includes accesses to known illegal sites using a server-based protocol; it does not include accesses via peer-to-peer file sharing.

There is no doubting that Ms McMenamin has the welfare of children at heart in her efforts to introduce ISP level filtering across the board, but her case is fundamentally flawed.

Ms McMenamin provides contact details for media enquires on Child Wise's website:

Bernadette McMenamin AO
Chief Executive Officer
Phone:  +61 3 9645 8911
Mobile: +61 419 397 689
Fax:    +61 3 9645 8922
E-mail: office@childwise.net

12 December 2008

RBA governor shoots himself down in flames

Many economists will be outraged by the following statement made by Glenn Stevens, Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, at his address to the Australian Business Economists Annual Dinner:

I do not know anyone who predicted this course of events. This should give us cause to reflect on how hard a job it is to make genuinely useful forecasts. What we have seen is truly a ‘tail’ outcome – the kind of outcome that the routine forecasting process never predicts. But it has occurred, it has implications, and so we must reflect on it.

A number of economists have been warning about this for years, including

It makes you wonder if he listens to anybody outside his board meetings.