Trust busted

It’s hard not to be agog at the ongoing troubles of Boeing. The covid-19 pandemic was the first break in our faith in the ready availability of travel; this is the second. As one of only two global manufacturers of commercial airplanes, Boeing’s problems are the industry’s problems.

I’ve often heard cybersecurity researchers talk with envy of the aviation industry. Usually, it’s because access to data is a perennial problem; many companies don’t want to admit they’ve been hacked or talk about it when they do. By contrast, they’ve said, the aviation industry recognized early that convincing people flying was safe was crucial to everyone’s success and every crash hurt everyone’s prospects, not just those of the competitor whose plane went down. The result was industry-wide adoption of strategies designed to maximize collaboration across the industry to improve safety: data sharing, no-fault reporting, and so on. That hard-won public trust has, we now see, allowed modern industry players to coast on their past reputations. With this added irony: while airlines and governments everywhere have focused on deterring terrorists, the risks are coming from within the industry.

I’m the right age to have rarely worried about aviation safety – young enough to have missed the crashes of the early years, old enough that my first flights were taken in childhood. Isaac Asimov, born in 1920, who said he refused to fly because passengers didn’t have a “sporting” chance of survival in a crash, was actually wrong; the survival rate for airplane crashes in over 90%. Many people feel safer when they feel in control. Yet, as Bruce Schneier has frequently said, you’re at greater risk on the drive to the airport than you are on the plane.

In fact, it’s an extraordinary privilege that most of us worry more about delays, lost luggage, bad food, and cramped seating than whether our flight will land safely. The 2018 crash of a Boeing 737 MAX 8 did little to dislodge this general sense of safety, even though 189 people died, and the same was true following the 2019 crash of the same plane, which killed another 156 people. Boeing tried to sell the idea that it was inadequately trained pilots working for substandard (read: not American or European) airlines, but the reality quickly became plain: the company had skimped on testing and training and its famed safety-first engineering-led culture had disintegrated under pressure to reward shareholders and executives.

We were able to tell ourselves that it was one model plane, and that changes followed, as Bloomberg investigative reporter Peter Robison documents in Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing. In particular, the US Congress undid the 2020 legal change that had let Boeing self-certify and restored the Federal Aviation Administration’s obligation of direct oversight, some executives were replaced, and a test pilot went to jail. However, Robison wrote for publication in 2021, many inside the industry, not just at Boeing, thought the FAA’s 20-month grounding of the MAX was “an overreaction”. You might think – as I did – that the airlines themselves would be strongly motivated not to fly planes that could put their safety record at risk, but Robison’s reporting is not comforting about that: the MAX, he writes, is “a moneymaker” for the airlines in that it saves 15% on fuel costs per flight.

Still, the problem seemed to be confined to one model of plane. Until, on January 5, the door plug blew out of a 737 MAX 9. A day later, the FAA grounded all planes of that model for safety inspections.

On January 13, a crack was found in a cockpit window of a 737-800 in Japan. On January 19, a cargo 747-8 caught fire leaving Miami. On January 24, Alaska Airlines reported finding many loose bolts during its fleetwide inspection of 737 Max 9s. Then on January 24, the nose wheel fell off a 757 departing Atlanta. Near-simultaneously, the Seattle Times reported that Boeing itself installed the door plug that blew out, not its supplier, Spirit Aerosystems. The online booking agent and price comparison site Kayak announced that increasing use of its aircraft-specific filter had led it to add separate options to avoid 737 MAX 8s and 9s.

The consensus that formed about the source of the troubles that led to the 2018-2019 crashes is holding: blame focuses on the change in company culture brought by the 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas, valuing profits and shareholder payouts over engineering. Boeing is in for a period of self-reinvention in which its output will be greatly slowed. As airlines’ current fleets age, this will have to mean reduced capacity; there are only two major aircraft manufacturers in the world, and the other one – Airbus – is fully booked.

As Cory Doctorow writes, that’s only one constraint going forward, at least in the US: there aren’t enough pilots, air traffic controllers, or engine manufacturers. Anti-monopolist Matt Stoller proposes to nationalize and then break up Boeing, arguing that its size and importance mean only the state can backstop its failures. Ten years ago, when the US’s four big legacy airlines consolidated to three, it was easy to think passengers would pay in fees and lost comfort; now we know safety was on the line, too.

Illustrations: The Wright Brothers’ first heavier-than-air flight, in 1903 (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon

Objects of copyright

Back at the beginning, the Internet was going to open up museums to those who can’t travel to them. Today…

At the Art Newspaper, Bender Grosvenor reports that a November judgment from the UK Court of Appeal means museums can’t go on claiming copyright in photographs of public domain art works. Museums have used this claim to create costly licensing schemes. For art history books and dissertations that need the images for discussion, the costs are often prohibitive. And, it turns out, the “GLAM” (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) sector isn’t even profiting from it.

Grosvenor cites figures: the National Gallery alone lost £31,000 on its licensing scheme in 2021-2022 (how? is left as an exercise for the reader). This figure was familiar: Douglas McCarthy, whom the article quotes, cited it at gikii 2023. As an ongoing project with Andrea Wallace, McCarthy co-runs the Open GLAM survey, which collects data to show the state of open access in this sector.

In his talk, McCarthy, an art historian by training and the head of the Library Learning Center at Delft University of Technology, showed that *most* such schemes are losing money. The National Gallery of Liverpool, for example, lost £71,873 on licensing activities between 2018 and 2023.

Like Grosvenor, McCarthy noted that the scholars whose work underpins the work of museums and libraries, are finding it increasingly difficult to afford that work. One of McCarthy’s examples was St Andrews art history professor Kathryn M. Rudy, who summed up her struggles in a 2019 piece for Times Higher Education: “The more I publish, the poorer I get.”

Rudy’s problem is that publishing in art history, as necessary for university hiring and promotions, requires the use of images of the works under discussion. In her own case, the 1,419 images she needed to use to publish six monographs and 15 articles have consumed most of her disposable income. To be fair, licensing fees are only part of this. She also lists travel to view offline collecctions, the costs of attending conferences, data storage, academic publishers’ production fees, and paying for the copies of books contracts require her to send the libraries supplying the images; some of this is covered by her university. But much of those extra costs come from licensing fees that add up to thousands of pounds for the material necessary for a single book: reproduction fees, charges for buying high-resolution copies for publication, and even, when institutions allow it at all, fees for photographing images in situ using her phone. Yet these institutions are publicly funded, and the works she is photographing have been bought with money provided by taxpayers.

On the face of it, THJ v. Sheridan, as explained by the law firm the law firm Pennington, Manches, Cooper in a legal summary, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the GLAM sector. Instead, the central copyright claim was regarding the defendant software used in webinars and presentations. However, the point, as the Kluwer Copyright blog explains, was deciding which test to apply to decide whether a copyrighted work is original.

In court, THJ, a UK-based software development firm, claimed that Daniel Sheridan, a US options trading mentor and former licensee, had misrepresented its software as his own and had violated THJ’s copyright by using the software after his license agreement expired by including images of the software in his presentations. One of THJ’s two claims failed on the basis that the THJ logo and copyright notices were displayed throughout the presentation.

The second is the one that interests us here: THJ claimed copyright in the images of its software based on the 1988 Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act. The judge, however, ruled that while the CDPA applies to the software, images of the software’s graphical interface are not covered; to constitute infringement Sheridan would have had to communicate the images to the UK public. In analyzing the judgment, Grosvenor pulled out the requirements for copyright to apply: that making the images required some skill and labor on the part of the person or organization making the claim. By definition, this can’t be true of a photograph of a painting, which needs to be as accurate a representation as possible.

Grosvenor has been on this topic for a while. In 2017, he issued a call to arms in Art History News, arguing that image reproduction fees are “killing art history”.

In 2017, Grosvenor was hopeful, because US museums and a few European ones were beginning to do away with copyright claims and licensing fees and finding that releasing the images to the public to be used for free in any context created value in the form of increased discussion, broadcast, and visibility. Progress continues, as McCarthy’s data shows, but inconsistently: last year the incoming Italian government reversed its predecessor’s stance by bringing back reproduction fees even for scientific journals.

Granted, all of the GLAM sector is cash-strapped and is desperately seeking new sources of income. But these copyright claims seem particularly backwards. It ought to be obvious that the more widely images of an institution’s holdings are published the more people will want to see the original; greater discussion of these art works would seem to fulfill their mission of education. Opening all this up would seem to be a no-brainer. Whether the GLAM folks like it or not, the judge did them a favor.

Illustrations: “Harpist”, from antiphonal, Cambrai or Tournai c. 1260-1270, LA, Getty Museum, Ms. 44/Ludwig VI 5, p. 115 (via Discarding Images).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.


It’s a peculiarity of the software industry that no one accepts product liability. If your word processor gibbers your manuscript, if your calculator can’t subtract, if your phone’s security hole results in your bank account’s being drained, if a chatbot produces entirely false results….it’s your problem, not the software company’s. As software starts driving cars, running electrical grids, and deciding who gets state benefits, the lack of liability will matter in new and dangerous ways. In his 2006 paper, The Economics of Information Security, Ross Anderson writes about the “moral-hazard effect” connection between liability and fraud: if you are not liable, you become lazy and careless. Hold that thought.

To it add: in the British courts, there is a legal presumption that computers are reliable. Suggestions that this law should be changed go back at least 15 years, but this week they gained new force. It sounds absurd if applied to today’s complex computer systems, but the law was framed with smaller mechanical devices such as watches and Breathalyzers in mind. It means, however, that someone – say a subpostmaster – accused of theft has to find a way to show the accounting system computer was not operating correctly.

Put those two factors together and you get the beginnings of the Post Office Horizon scandal, which currently occupies just about all of Britain following ITV’s New Year’s airing of the four-part drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

For those elsewhere: this is the Post Office Horizon case, which is thought to be one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history. The vast majority of the country’s post offices are run by subpostmasters, each of whom runs their own business under a lengthy and detailed contract. Many, as I learned in 2004, operate their post office counters inside other businesses; most are news agents, but some share old police stations and hairdressers.

In 1999, the Post Office began rolling out the “Horizon” computer accounting system, which was developed by ICL, formerly a British company but by then owned by Fujitsu. Subpostmasters soon began complaining that the new system reported shortfalls where none existed. Under their contract, subpostmasters bore all liability for discrepancies. The Post Office accordingly demanded payment and prosecuted those from whom it was not forthcoming. Many lost their businesses, their reputations, their homes, and much of their lives, and some were criminally convicted.

In May 2009, Karl Flinders published the first of dozens of articles on the growing scandal. Perhaps most important: she located seven subpostmasters who were willing to be identified. Soon afterwards, Welsh former subpostmaster Alan Bates convened the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, which continues to press for exoneration and compensation for the many hundreds of victims.

Pieces of this saga were known, particularly after a 2015 BBC Panorama documentary. Following the drama’s airing, the UK government is planning legislation to exonerate all the Horizon victims and fast-track compensation. The program has also drawn new attention to the ongoing public inquiry, which…makes the Post Office look so much worse, as do the Panorama team’s revelations of its attempts to suppress the evidence they uncovered. The Metropolitan Police is investigating the Post Office for fraud.

Two elements stand out in this horrifying saga. First: each subpostmaster calling the help line for assistance was told they were the only one having trouble with the system. They were further isolated by being required to sign NDAs. Second: the Post Office insisted that the system was “robust” – that is, “doesn’t make mistakes”. The defendants were doubly screwed; only their accuser had access to the data that could prove their claim that the computer was flawed, and they had no view of the systemic pattern.

It’s extraordinary that the presumption of reliability has persisted this long, since “infallibility” is the claim the banks made when customers began reporting phantom withdrawals years ago, as Ross Anderson discussed in his 1993 paper Why Cryptosystems Fail (PDF). Thirty years later, no one should be trusting any computer system so blindly. Granted, in many cases, doing what the computer says is how you keep your job, but that shouldn’t apply to judges. Or CEOs.

At the Guardian, Alex Hern reports that legal and computer experts have been urging the government to update the law to remove the legal presumption of reliability, especially given the rise of machine learning systems whose probabilistic nature means they don’t behave predictably. We are not yet seeing calls for the imposition of software liability, though the Guardian reports there are suggestions that if the onoing public inquiry finds Fujitsu culpable for producing a faulty system the company should be required to repay the money it was paid for it. The point, experts tell me, is not that product liability would make these companies more willing to admit their mistakes, but that liability would make them and their suppliers more careful to ensure up front the quality of the systems they build and deploy.

The Post Office saga is a perfect example of Anderson’s moral hazard. The Post Office laid off its liability onto the subpostmasters but retained the right to conduct investigations and prosecutions. When the deck is so stacked, you have to expect a collapsed house of cards. And, as Chris Grey writes, the government’s refusal to give UK-resident EU citizens physical proof of status means it’s happening again.

Illustrations: Local post office.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.


“Status: closed,” the website read. It gave the time as 10:30 p.m.

Except it wasn’t. It was 5:30 p.m., and the store was very much open. The website, instead of consulting the time zone the store – I mean, the store’s particular branch whose hours and address I had looked up – was in was taking the time from my laptop. Which I hadn’t bothered to switch to the US east coat from Britain because I can subtract five hours in my head and why bother?

Years ago, I remember writing a rant (which I now cannot find) about the “myness” of modern computers: My Computer, My Documents. My account. And so on, like a demented two-year-old who needed to learn to share. The notion that the time on my laptop determined whether or not the store was open had something of the same feel: the computational universe I inhabit is designed to revolve around me, and any dispute with reality is someone else’s problem.

Modern social media have hardened this approach. I say “modern” because back in the days of bulletin board systems, information services, and Usenet, postings were time- and date-stamped with when they were sent and specifying a time zone. Now, every post is labelled “2m” or “30s” or “1d”, so the actual date and time are hidden behind their relationship to “now”. It’s like those maps that rotate along with you so wherever you’re pointed physically is at the top. I guess it works for some people, but I find it disorienting; instead of the map orienting itself to me, I want to orient myself to the map. This seems to me my proper (infinitesimal) place in the universe.

All of this leads up to the revival of software agents. This was a Big Idea in the late 1990s/early 2000s, when it was commonplace to think that the era of having to make appointments and book train tickets was almost over. Instead, software agents configured with your preferences would do the negotiating for you. Discussions of this sort of thing died away as the technology never arrived. Generative AI has brought this idea back, at least to some extent, particularly in the financial area, where smart contracts can be used to set rules and then run automatically. I think only people who never have to worry about being able to afford anything will like this. But they may be the only ones the “market” cares about.

Somewhere during the time when software agents were originally mooted, I happened to sit at a conference dinner with the University of Maryland human-computer interaction expert Ben Shneiderman. There are, he said, two distinct schools of thought in software. In one, software is meant to adapt to the human using it – think of predictive text and smartphones as an example. In the other, software is consistent, and while using it may be repetitive, you always know that x command or action will produce y result. If I remember correctly, both Shneiderman and I were of the “want consistency” school.

Philosophically, though, these twin approaches have something in common with seeing the universe as if the sun went around the earth as against the earth going around the sun. The first of those makes our planet and, by extension, us far more important in the universe than we really are. The second cuts us down to size. No surprise, then, if the techbros who build these things, like the Catholic church in Galileo’s day, prefer the former.


Politico has started the year by warning that the UK is seeking to expand its surveillance regime even further by amending the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act. Unnoticed in the run-up to Christmas, the industry body techUK sent a letter to “express our concerns”. The short version: the bill expands the definition of “telecommunications operator” to include non-UK providers when operating outside the UK; allows the Home Office to require companies to seek permission before making changes to a privately and uniquely specified list of services; and the government wants to whip it through Parliament as fast as possible.

No, no, Politico reports the Home Office told the House of Lords, it supports innovation and isn’t threatening encryption. These are minor technical changes. But: “public safety”. With the ink barely dry on the Online Safety Act, here we go again.


As data breaches go, the one recently reported by 23andMe is alarming. By using passwords exposed in previous breaches (“credential stuffing”) to break into 14,000 accounts, attackers gained access to 6.9 million account profiles. The reason is reminiscent of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where access to a few hundred thousand Facebook accounts was leveraged to obtain the data of millions: people turned on “DNA Relatives to allow themselves to be found by those searching for genetic relatives. The company, which afterwards turned on a requireme\nt for two-factor authentication, is fending off dozens of lawsuits by blaming the users for reusing passwords. According to Gizmodo, the legal messiness is considerable, as the company recently changed its terms and conditions to make arbitration more difficult and litigation almost impossible.

There’s nothing good to say about a data breach like this or a company that handles such sensitive data with such disdainx. But it’s yet one more reason why putting yourself at the center of the universe is bad hoodoo.

Illustrations: DNA strands (via Wikimedia.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.