Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Onions Make Me Cry

From Miguel Guhlin's blog for Sep 24:

TorPark, an anonymizing browser (available for Windows) that doesn't have to be installed on your computer, is now out, shares Ben Horst at SolidOffice.org. ...[snip]... As far as I know, while it's possible to block, many school districts don't have a clue. . .the best they can do is block the download site that students might use. Now, all students have to do is load TorPark onto a USB drive (some schools are providing USB Flash drives to students as alternatives to floppies, so all they have to do is load it on there...convenient, huh?). ...[snip]... It's also available in different languages!

Plug it into any internet terminal whether at home, school, work, or in public. Torpark will launch a Tor circuit connection, which creates an encrypted tunnel from your computer indirectly to a Tor exit computer, allowing you to surf the internet anonymously. How much does Torpark cost? IT'S FREE.

What are the implications for something this easy to use? Well, don't worry, info-tech people will be getting all excited about blocking this! Quick, Quick...get started blocking and filtering!! What is fascinating is how K-12 schools can continue to try and block sites like this when there are communities of developers figuring out ways to bypass the blocks and filtering...it's a free speech, protect your privacy kind of use that many Americans see as fundamental.

To achieve strong anonymity, intermediate services may be employed to thwart attempts at identification, even by governments. These attempt to use cryptography, passage through multiple legal jurisdictions, and various methods to thwart traffic analysis to achieve this. A more recent approach in internet anonymity involves the use of an onion router such as Tor. Onion routers send information over encrypted protocols to several intermediate computers around the world in order to make identification more difficult. This has been countered with advances in text analysis, in which the identity of a writer is determined by comparing the writing style of a piece to styles of pieces in which the author is known.

This last point--text analysis--almost reminds me of TurnItIn, and the ongoing controversy of using it.

At McLean High School, in Virginia, students collected more than 1,100 signatures on a petition opposing mandatory use of the service, according The Washington Post. The anti-Turnitin faction argues that the database violates students’ intellectual-property rights. And the high school’s use of Turnitin creates the sense that students are guilty until proved innocent, says Ben Donovan, a senior at McLean. "It’s like if you searched every car in the parking lot or drug-tested every student," he says. Source: The Chronicle Campus Blog [Source]

Around the Corner - MGuhlin.net - Courage can't see around corners, but goes around them anyway. - Mignon McLaughlin

I hadn't heard of onion routers until I read this blog entry and then did a little research, starting with the TorPark site itself. It's not hard to see why some school administrators would be getting nervy - this sort of technology can easily make a mockery of a school's filtering efforts.

And the more I think about that, the more convinced I am that trying to use technology to thwart people from using technology is about as sensible as washing grease stains with olive oil. (I was going to say, 'painting over wallpaper', but then I remembered my father... /sigh/.)

That's not to say that we don't use technology at all in managing technology in our school. Obviously Internet content filtering in a K-12 school is good practice, if only to protect little ones from the "nasty stuff". At the same time, relying almost exclusively on technology to handle what students do with technology is just crazy -- if we imagine that filtering systems will stop older/smarter students who are determined to bypass it, we're deluding ourselves.

The TurnItIn issue surrounds the use of software to detect plagiarism -- one gripe with it is that every student is "assumed guilty until proved innocent". As one commenter to the Chronicle Campus Blog pointed out, the software "will only catch the laziest students that simply buy a paper or copy a website off of the Internet, but it does nothing to stop a student from using a thesaurus to change enough words to fool the software" [comment 9 on the aforementioned Blog]. As almost every word processor now comes with a thesaurus, casting through a paper and 'adjusting' enough words to beat the software takes relatively little effort. (How many of these teachers have actually considered changing their assessment methods to address the problem?)

In the same vein, but on a different scale (but not that different), the music publishing companies who are currently pushing legislators in several countries to treat everyone as music pirates (and remember, you're guilty until proven innocent) are following the same flawed logic -- digital rights management is all about using technology to stop you from using technology. But can it really? I read somewhere recently that the new DRM technology in the latest incarnation of iTunes was broken in three days. If you can think of a way to lock it, someone else out there can conceive a way to unlock it.

I honestly think it's naive to believe that you can defeat technology with technology. But there's plenty of people out there who are going to try. And there will be lots of tears before they're through. Mostly their own, I suspect.

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