Tech Companies to the Government: Hands off Our Cookie Jars
For years the nation’s Internet companies have been locked in a high-stakes battle to collect, analyze, and capitalize on their users’ personal data. Today, in a rare moment of harmony, they put aside their infighting to focus on a greater goal: decrying the U.S. government’s efforts to collect and analyze their users’ personal data.
Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, AOL, Twitter, and LinkedIn don't agree on many things. But it seems they’re unanimous in their conviction that tracking people’s every move on the Web and on their phones raises troubling privacy concerns—when the government does it, that is.
To that end, they’ve created a website, written an open letter, and taken out full-page ads in national newspapers calling on governments to rein in their surveillance activities and establish a legal framework that limits the circumstances under which they’re allowed to collect people’s online information. Together, the tech giants are calling on the world’s governments to adopt five principles.
Those five principles are pretty fascinating when you actually read them. The first three are about limiting governments’ powers to collect users’ information—and the fourth one, as far as I can tell, is about preventing governments from limiting tech companies’ powers to collect users’ information. I’m not kidding. Here’s principle number four, in full:
4. Respecting the Free Flow of Information
The ability of data to flow or be accessed across borders is essential to a robust 21st century global economy. Governments should permit the transfer of data and should not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country. Governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.
As the New York Times points out:
While the Internet companies fight to maintain authority over their customers’ data, their business models depend on collecting the same information that the spy agencies want, and they have long cooperated with the government to some extent by handing over data in response to legal requests.
The new principles outlined by the companies contain little information and few promises about their own practices, which privacy advocates say contribute to the government’s desire to tap into the companies’ data systems.
Oh, and the fifth principle is about how the world’s governments ought to work together to get their laws straight so that tech companies don’t have to deal with confusing, sometimes conflicting policies when responding to various regimes’ data requests. These are the same companies, mind you, that each offer consumers their own interminable, utterly confusing and often conflicting legally binding terms of service and end-user license agreements.
Some say these tech companies should be applauded for belatedly pushing back against government surveillance. And sure, there’s merit to their proposals for greater oversight, transparency, and checks on government data collection. But as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Trevor Timm pointed out to the Times:
“It’s now in their business and economic interest to protect their users’ privacy and to aggressively push for changes. The N.S.A. mass-surveillance programs exist for a simple reason: cooperation with the tech and telecom companies.””
Granted, it was the telecoms and not today’s big tech companies that started the practice of secretly giving away users’ information to government spooks. In many ways they remain the worst offenders, and it’s worth noting that none of them are among the co-signers of today’s document. Perhaps we should be grateful that today’s tech giants at least take their users’ privacy seriously enough to come out and say something about it.
But it’s hard to wave away the whiffs of hypocrisy emanating from such an obviously self-serving stance—especially when Facebook and Google are at the same time spending piles of money to resist European governments’ calls for reform and transparency in their own practices. In short, it feels less like the big tech companies are calling on governments’ to respect users’ privacy rights, and more like they’re trying to protect their own hundred-billion-dollar cookie jars.
Computer Scientist Grace Hopper, Subject of Today’s Google Doodle, Rocked Letterman in 1986
Today’s Google doodle honors Grace Hopper, the late, great computer scientist who was known as the “queen of software.” Had she not died in 1992, Hopper would have turned 107 today.
Hopper, who received a Ph.D. from Yale in mathematics before entering the Navy and working her way up to rear admiral, was a pioneer in the early days of computing. Women were well-represented in the field in the 1940s, but Hopper's work stands out: She helped create the programming language COBOL, for instance, as well as the colloquial language we still use for computers. As the Washington Post explains, "She also once discovered a problematic dead moth in a computer; she de-bugged the computer, saved the specimen and would be credited with popularizing the term 'bug in the system.' ”
She also knew how to work a crowd. In 1986, shortly before her 80th birthday and just after she retired from the Navy, Hopper chatted with David Letterman for a full 10 minutes about her career in the military, what exactly a “nanosecond” is, and how hard it is to buy pantyhose. She’s delightfully smart-alecky in the interview: When Letterman asks her why she joined the Navy at the age of 37 in 1943, she responds, “Well, World War II, to begin with.”
In the clip below, Hopper reminisces about when “the Navy ordered me the first big computer in the United States”—the Mark 1.
The NSA Has Been Spying on World of Warcraft
In Joseph Heller's absurdist war novel Catch-22, a pair of military Criminal Investigation Division officers covertly infiltrate an Army hospital to try to figure out who’s been signing the name Washington Irving on censored letters from the troops to loved ones back home. Among a series of blunders, one CID man comes to suspect the second CID man of the crime. They never do find the real culprit, but at least they get to spend part of the World War II lounging around the hospital instead of out in the line of fire.
In real life, meanwhile, the Guardian revealed today that the NSA and British spies have been covertly infiltrating World of Warcraft, Second Life, and other online multiplayer video games to try to catch terrorists. Secret briefings from 2007 and 2008 show agents expressing great enthusiasm for video games as a “target-rich communication network” affording bad guys “a way to hide in plain sight.” At one point, the Guardian reports:
According to the briefing documents, so many different US intelligence agents were conducting operations inside games that a “deconfliction” group was required to ensure they weren’t spying on, or interfering with, each other. …
But the documents contain no indication that the surveillance ever foiled any terrorist plots, nor is there any clear evidence that terror groups were using the virtual communities to communicate as the intelligence agencies predicted.
Here’s my favorite part:
One problem the paper's unnamed author and others in the agency faced in making their case—and avoiding suspicion that their goal was merely to play computer games at work without getting fired—was the difficulty of proving terrorists were even thinking about using games to communicate.
A 2007 invitation to a secret internal briefing noted "terrorists use online games—but perhaps not for their amusement. They are suspected of using them to communicate secretly and to transfer funds." But the agencies had no evidence to support their suspicions.
Being an NSA agent sounds fun, no? Want to spend all day playing video games? Just convince your superiors that terrorists play video games too—perhaps not for their amusement! Want to take a trip to Hawaii? Terrorists take trips to Hawaii—perhaps not for their amusement!
The New York Times notes, however, that the investigations weren't a total washout:
According to the minutes of a January 2009 meeting, GCHQ’s “network gaming exploitation team” had identified engineers, embassy drivers, scientists and other foreign intelligence operatives to be World of Warcraft players—potential targets for recruitment as agents.
That sounds like a double win, since those newly recruited agents would come with all the World of Warcraft experience necessary to further beef up the agency’s World of Warcraft surveillance efforts. But that apparently wasn’t enough: The government also handed out multi-million-dollar contracts to corporations like SAIC and Lockheed Martin for “research projects” linked to World of Warcraft and other online games.
Fun fact: In 2007, a Second Life executive made a pitch to U.S. intelligence agencies about the potential for government spies to use online games “to understand the motivation, context and consequent behaviors of non-Americans through observation, without leaving U.S. soil.” That Second Life executive was a former Navy officer named Cory Ondrejka who had previously worked at the NSA. Ondrejka no longer works at Second Life, the Times notes—he’s now director of mobile engineering at Facebook.
Cellphone Companies Reveal How Often They Hand Your Data Over to Law Enforcement
Cellphones are the spies in our pockets, gathering information about whom we befriend, what we say, where we go, and what we read. That’s why Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., recently asked the nation’s major cellphone companies to disclose how frequently they receive requests from law enforcement for customer call records—including the content of communications, numbers dialed, websites visited, and location data. Sometimes police have a warrant, sometimes they don’t.
Seven companies provided information in response to the inqury. The letters Markey received, which covered today in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, and New York Times, show that the quantity of requests for these records is staggering. T-Mobile and AT&T together received nearly 600,000 requests for customer information in 2012. AT&T has to employ more than 100 full-time workers to process them. And police demand for our call records is growing rapidly, with requests to Verizon doubling in the last five years.
It used to be impossible for law enforcement agents to monitor all of the people all of the time, but now our cellphone carriers do it for them. The contents of the communications aren’t even necessary for law enforcement to glean insight into you. The carriers also know whom you call and text, and they hold on to that information for years. These records reveal your social network and hint at the nature of those connections. The relationship you have with someone you text repeatedly at 2 a.m. is not the same as the relationship you have with someone you call once a week on Sunday afternoons.
TPP Trade Agreement Could Make "Bio-Piracy" Worse
This blog post is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate that explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. On Dec. 9, 2013, Future Tense will host an event on patent reform in Washington, D.C. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
The West’s infatuation with organic foods and natural ingredients can be found in pharmaceutical and agricultural companies, too. Just as they have since our earliest days, researchers today look to the botanic for the cure to what ails us. (Of course, “natural” and “organic” are somewhat fuzzy labels. Just this year, Naked Juices settled a class action suit for $9 million after their “all natural” juices were found to contain cyanocobalamin, Fibersol®-2, and pyridoxine hydrochloride.) Once a new miracle plant has been found, companies can process and profit. According to a 2012 European Union report, 26 percent of all new approved drugs over the last 30 years are either natural products or have been derived from a natural material, and that number is set to grow. Just think about the ascendency of the acai berry.
But the commercialization of genetic resources found in biologically diverse areas like the Amazon and India comes with a cost. In a practice sometimes called bio-piracy, companies use patents to secure lucrative monopolies on plants, genes, and traditional knowledge in developing countries, often without cutting native people in on the profits. And the United States is apparently attempting to make this practice even easier for American companies.
Bio-piracy was a key grievance of the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s and early 2000s. Activists still call it a form of “colonial pillaging,” particularly because accusations of bio-piracy are most frequently levied against European and American companies scouring the developing world for the next big thing.
The Neem case was one such flashpoint. Foreign companies attempted to patent the use of the kernels of the Neem tree as a nonchemical pesticide, despite it having been used by Indian famers for that purpose for decades. Likewise, the British company Phytopharm claimed in the early 2000s to have discovered that Africa’s Hoodia was a miracle diet drug and very profitably sold it to U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. As it turned out, the Kung bushmen of southern Africa traditionally used the cactus as an appetite-suppressant on hunting trips, although Phytopharm neglected to compensate them for their knowledge. Phytopharm’s CEO even (incorrectly) told the Financial Times that fair repayment was impossible as the tribe was extinct.
Equity is not the only thing at stake. If a company is able to patent and popularize the medical use of a particular plant, its harvesting often becomes environmentally unsustainable, which can make it impossible for locals to use the plant for their traditional—often medicinal—purposes.
Though it rarely gets as much attention as other environmental issues, bio-piracy has been the focus of a number of international treaties, resulting in a growing array of protections that allow countries to benefit from and protect their native resources and ancient knowledge. Their rights have even been written into the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which now states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop … the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora.” Yet even as the European Union is exploring an agreement that would force companies to repay locals in the regions they exploit—based on the so-called Nagoya Protocol—the United States is running in the other direction and trying to take everyone along.
The secret Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiation documents recently published by WikiLeaks show that the United States wants to give companies even more legal cover to patent the resources of other countries. The draft language would "make patents available for inventions for the following: plants and animals" and also allow “diagnostic, therapeutic, and surgical methods for the treatment of humans or animals" to be patented. The language is opposed by a number of countries that intend to eventually ratify TPP, including New Zealand, but the language could still make it into the final treaty—and if it does, it could undermine global efforts to provide proper recompense to developing nations for the use of their natural assets.
So the next time you hear about a new miracle plant that promises to make you instantly thin, remember: Not only have many of these natural cures failed to live up to the hype—but they may also be exploiting native populations without fair compensation.
The Weather Map Today Is Completely Insane
I checked my weather app this morning and did a double-take. I have family in both Kentucky and North Carolina, and most days their weather is pretty comparable. Not today. The forecast for Durham is straight out of June, nearly 80 degrees and sunny. In Lexington, just 340 miles away, winter is in full force, with freezing temperatures and “ice pellets” falling from the sky.
Then I looked at the whole map, helpfully tweeted this morning by The Weather Channel’s Shawn Reynolds. It looks like something from The Day After Tomorrow—or, as Josh Sternberg joked, a Grateful Dead concert.
There’s a massive Arctic cold front gripping the entire country—except for the Southeast, which is blissfully balmy. It’s spring in Louisiana and brutal late January in Arkansas. There’s an ice storm in Dallas. And it’s bitterly, bitterly cold across the West, with parts of Montana in the negative-30s. In Laredo, Texas yesterday it was 85 degrees. Now there’s a wind chill of 32. Paso Robles, California hit a record low of 16 degrees this morning, shattering the previous Dec. 6 mark of 23. The differential between the high and low temperatures in the United States yesterday was a jaw-dropping 118 degrees.
What the hell is going on? I asked Mike Musher, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center, and he assured me that the weird weather is not a sign of the apocalypse, as far as he can tell. Rather, it’s the result of an Arctic air mass descending across the country both earlier in the year and at lower latitudes than usual. While the cold front is moving slowly, he said, it should reach most of the Eastern seaboard by later this evening. So enjoy your sunbathing while it lasts, Durham. Your forecast for Sunday is—you guessed it—a high of 36 with ice pellets.
Google Finally Lets You Download Your Own Calendar, Gmail Data
A welcome bit of news from Google’s “don’t be evil” department: You can now download a copy of your own Gmail and Google Calendar data.
The move is part of the growing menu of “Google Takeout” options that includes YouTube, Drive, and several other products. They’re being developed by a team or engineers within Google that calls itself the “Data Liberation Front.” (Yes, that’s a Monty Python reference.) Your Google Calendar data is available for download as of today, and the option to download your Gmail messages will be rolled out over the next month. Just go to your account settings, click “download your data,” and select the data sources you’re interested in.
The ability to download your own data is useful in couple ways. First, it allows you to easily transfer that data if you want to switch to a different service, like iCal or Microsoft Outlook. Second, it gives you a backup should anything happen to your Google data. More fundamentally, it gives you ownership over your personal information in a way that just isn’t possible when your only access point is through Google’s proprietary apps and interfaces. Information is power, and while many of us have grown comfortable entrusting it to for-profit Internet companies in exchange for free services, the least we ought to demand in return is the right to keep a copy of it for ourselves.
As much as we mock Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” slogan as nebulous or self-serving, Google Takeout is a concrete example of how it can actually influence the company’s actions for the better, at least in small ways. The Data Liberation Front’s FAQ page cites a quote from Google Chairman Eric Schmidt as one of the primary motivations for its work:
How do you be big without being evil? We don't trap end users. So if you don't like Google, if for whatever reason we do a bad job for you, we make it easy for you to move to our competitor.
At the time Schmidt said that, though, Google didn’t really make it that easy, as the DLF admits: “We started looking at our products and discovered that while the door to leave wasn't locked, in some cases it was a bit ‘stuck’ and we thought that we could do better.”
That said, Google could still do a lot better. As the Register’s Jack Clark points out, Google Takeout does not include your search history or the history of online ads you’ve clicked on. To get that, you have to go through a much more intricate set of steps involving an RSS reader and multiple batches of data. Clark’s pointed conclusion:
The process is laborious, and seems to discourage users from accessing this data. A strange coincidence, given that search is what Google uses to refine its algorithms and make its money.
Why Obama Still Uses a BlackBerry
Barack Obama is the world’s most prominent BlackBerry user. For years he has clung to the original smartphone even as the rest of the world has moved on. But it turns out that even he wouldn’t mind upgrading to an iPhone, in theory. (He does seem to love his iPad.) The problem: He’s not allowed to.
In a speech to some young folks about Obamacare at the White House yesterday, Obama digressed into tech territory in order to draw another strained analogy between healthcare.gov and one of the world’s most popular consumer products. From the transcript:
Now, I am not allowed, for security reasons, to have an iPhone. (Laughter.) I don’t know what your bills are. I have noticed that Sasha and Malia seem to spend a lot of time on it. (Laughter.) My suspicion is that for a lot of you, between your cable bill, your phone bill, you're spending more than 100 bucks a month. The idea that you wouldn’t want to make sure that you've got the health security and financial security that comes with health insurance for less than that price, you guys are smarter than that. And most young people are, as well.
Leaving aside the dubious claim that most young people are smart enough to prefer health insurance to an iPhone and cable TV, Obama’s remarks raised an interesting tech question that few media outlets have bothered to answer: What is it, exactly, that makes the president’s BlackBerry more secure than an iPhone?
For starters, there’s the fact that his BlackBerry is apparently locked down in multiple ways, including a personal email address to which only 10 contacts have access. That’s one of the concessions he had to make in order to be allowed to keep a smartphone at all when he took office. As computer-security blogger Graham Cluley points out:
… A smartphone is, at its most basic level, a tracking device. It knows where you are in the world, and in some cases can geolocate you with extraordinary precision. That’s why you need to be really careful about what apps you allow to record your location, and where they might share that information.
BlackBerry has long enjoyed a reputation for greater security in its devices than Apple or Android, thanks to its strong encryption practices. As AFP notes, that’s one reason it remains popular with Washington officials, even as its market share slides everywhere else. Yet even two years ago Ars Technica was reporting that iPhone and Android devices were catching up in security features like encryption, forced PIN entry, and the ability to wipe your phone remotely if it’s stolen. On the other hand, that same piece added that organizations find it easier to control how their employees use BlackBerries, including app installations and operating-system upgrades. The mere idea of Obama trying out iMessage or automatically upgrading to iOS 7 before it’s been fully vetted would probably give the Secret Service heart palpitations. They probably figure: Why take the risk?
The more sinister explanation is that U.S. security officials know of big holes in Apple’s privacy and security features—because the government itself has exploited them. For one thing, Apple was one of several major tech companies identified in leaked NSA documents as being part of the agency’s PRISM surveillance program. And while Apple has insisted that its users’ iMessages are secure, hackers have called those claims into question.
In short, no one knows for sure why the president isn’t allowed to use an iPhone. But Cluley neatly distills what will surely be the main takeaway for the security-conscious consumer: “If the people responsible for security give you a nod and a wink that maybe an iPhone *isn’t* the most sensible device in the world for an American president to rely upon for his privacy and security, I guess they must have their reasons, right?”
NORAD's Fighter Escort for Santa: Another Example of Wasteful Government Spending
Most of the year, NORAD—the North American Aerospace Defense Command—watches the skies for incoming nukes. But every Christmas Eve since 1955, it’s switched gears and tracked Santa instead, giving kids updates on his progress across the globe. This year, though, there’s a twist: Rather than simply watching Santa, NORAD has also provided him with a USAF fighter escort.
Predictably, this angered some bleeding-heart types, who claimed NORAD was using Christmas to aim recruiting messages at kids. Well, maybe that’s true, but there’s something even worse about this program: Santa doesn't need an armed escort. The jolly old elf is fully capable of defending himself against attack, making this unnecessary expenditure yet another example of government waste.
First of all, NORAD needs to establish why Mr. Kringle warrants government protection. Has U.S. intelligence uncovered a credible threat against Santa Claus? If so, the chatter must’ve been dramatic to prompt such drastic action—despite being a high-value target, Santa has no known enemies. On the other hand, perhaps NORAD is taking precautions in light of China’s new air-defense zone, worrying that Santa may overfly the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and cause an international incident. They needn’t be concerned, however—Santa has countermeasures Lockheed Martin only dreams about.
Santa's primary defense against air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles is speed. One popular estimate posits that Santa travels 650 miles per second, more than Mach 3,000 in ideal conditions. By contrast, most air-to-air missiles travel at a pokey Mach 4, and even Russia's S-400 SAM would lag far behind at Mach 12. Target acquisition would be another challenge for attackers, since without an engine or radar, the sleigh doesn't give off any signature that heat-seeking or radar-guided missiles can pick up, and it moves too fast for electro-optical guidance systems to get a digital image.
Missiles are a wash: Can't lock him, can't catch him.
Theoretically a hostile state could down Santa with a traditional WWII-style air defense grid—firing enough AAA into the sky that one shell is bound to hit him. But history debunks this scenario. Santa managed to deliver to British air raid shelters during the Blitz, so he’s not afraid of a little flak. Still, this vulnerability to traditional artillery may explain why the big man steers clear of North Korea.
In fact, the only time Santa appears vulnerable is when he's dismounted. He’s such a soft target during his deliveries that even children have managed to catch him off-guard, and in stand-your-ground states there’s a danger he might be mistakenly shot as a home invader. If the U.S. military is truly worried for Saint Nick’s safety, they should scrap the fighter escort and deploy a team that can secure his LZs against hostile homeowners, lone actors, or extremists with MANPADs. A Marine Corps Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) would be ideal. After all, FAST companies train for this type op, and Santa’s already works with the Marines on Toys for Tots.
Picture it. The team breaches a house via multiple entry points. Santa crashes in the window wearing NVGs. Delivers the package. Eats cookies. Rolls a grenade across the floor—it stops in front of a sleepy beagle and ejects doggie treats. His work done, Santa exfils to the rooftop where the sleigh retrieves him by skyhook.
But it’s not really his style, is it? Santa is minimally invasive, preferring stealth and evasion to confrontation. And with all respect to the U.S. Marine Corps, the old guy doesn't need the help. Don’t let it fool you when he lets kids catch him—Santa is an infiltrator without peer. He's bypassed more security systems than Anonymous and has a better intel network than the NSA. He breaks into military bases on a regular basis, even though they know he’s coming.
We're talking about a guy who slipped into the White House three months after 9/11, planted multiple suspicious packages and left undetected—I think he can handle his personal security. (Though you never know, he may have clearance. That dude's connected way up.)
Given Santa's capabilities, it’s clear a fighter escort serves no tactical purpose. On the contrary, Santa will have to decelerate in order to keep formation, both putting Christmas behind schedule and making the sleigh vulnerable to attack. Add the high cost of coordinating and refueling a round-the-world escort—a mere Super Bowl flyover costs $450,000—and it’s clear the American taxpayer can’t afford empty pageantry.
Given the situation, I’m begging you NORAD: Just stand back and watch the man work. Who knows? You might learn something.
Why Did This Man Get Arrested for Charging His Electric Car?
Early last month, a police officer approached Kaveh Kamooneh outside of Chamblee Middle School in Georgia. While his 11-year-old son played tennis, Kamooneh was charging his Nissan Leaf using an outdoor outlet. When the officer arrived, he opened the unlocked vehicle, took out a piece of mail to read the address, and let a puzzled Kamooneh know that he would be arrested for theft. Kamooneh brushed the entire incident off. Eleven days later, two deputies handcuffed and arrested him at his home. The charge? Theft of electrical power. According to a statement from the school, a “local citizen” had called the police to report the unauthorized power-up session.
The total cost of the 20 minutes of electricity Kamooneh reportedly used is about 5 cents. So why did he end up in jail for 15 hours? Sgt. Ernesto Ford of the Chamblee Police Department dismissed the idea that it wasn’t worth arresting someone over a nickel, telling reporters that “It doesn't matter. He broke the law. He stole something that wasn't his. … A theft is a theft.” (The police dispute Kamooneh's account, saying in a statement that he, not his son, was the one playing tennis and that Kamooneh was not supposed to be on school grounds. The statement also says, "He made no attempt to apologize or simply say oops and he wouldn't do it again.")
Are political attitudes toward environmentally friendly electric vehicles to blame? North Carolina legislators proposed (and later abandoned) a bill to ban Teslas in the state, citing a need to prevent “unfair competition.” (These are the same legislators who celebrate their own “free-market reforms.”) A similar effort in Ohio also failed. Outgoing Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, proposed a $100 annual fee levied against “alternative fuel” car owners. In New Jersey, one Democratic politician suggested electric car owners to pay a mileage-based tax. But Georgia has a handful of initiatives to promote electric vehicle ownership. What gives?
Kamooneh’s case is different, of course, because it involves using a public outlet to juice up the battery. In a way, this is also more troubling. With the growing popularity of electric vehicles outpacing the infrastructure enhancements needed to keep them charged, this problem could become increasingly common. Or could Kamooneh’s misfortune simply be a case of overzealous and reactionary law enforcement officers proving a perverse point?
I recently used a public outlet in New York City during a desperate attempt to juice up my dying smartphone, and law enforcement didn’t come after me. The only risk I considered was my unprotected USB. Undoubtedly, thousands of Americans have stopped to plug in various devices at cafes, airports, convention centers, schools, and parks across the country when they need a quick charge. Are we guilty of theft, or are we simply using publically available outlets in a pinch?
Of course, there is a precedent: The practice of piggybacking Wi-Fi has been around since the dawn of wireless Internet. While there have been a handful of arrests for Wi-Fi theft, it remains a common practice among the general public. Unlike electrical grids, however, unauthorized access to a Wi-Fi network can lead to a whole host of ugly problems—including use of the network for criminal activity. Strong password protections can easily solve the problem. Should we start protecting electrical outlets in a similar way?
One solution would be to cover and lock public outlets when not in use, or to switch off power from a control room outside of business hours. A more practical solution is to implement some kind of reasonable use policy. The costs of charging an electric car are difficult to calculate but generally rather low; a few minutes at a public outlet won’t exactly drain the public coffers. Plus, public outlets charge cars incredibly slowly, often requiring up to 15 hours for a full charge. (In contrast, a top-of-the-line charging station can boost a battery in as little as 30 minutes.) For his misdemeanor, Kamooneh spent about 15 hours in jail, or just long enough to charge his car from a public outlet. If only Georgia had more charging stations, he could have powered up in a fraction of that time—and avoided a night at the police station, too. Until the infrastructure catches up with electrical vehicles, it should be considered fair game for drivers to plug in at publicly available outlets.
Update, Dec. 5, 2013: This post has been updated to include a statement from the police about the incident.