Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pandora's Crawler

This recent cartoon got me thinking about the preservation of "web stuff" and the peculiarity of what really is a new era of preservation of all manner of data statistical, textual, visual, and aural. My first thought was a variation on a theme of some years ago, a new era of its kind, the subpoena of presidential guards somewhat over ten years ago. At that time, there was history from both Kennedy's and Nixon's presidency which related to the secret recording of presidential meetings, but none relating to forcing revelations from White House security insiders from the Secret Service or elsewhere. I wondered, could literally anything that had ever been posted on the web be grist for some legal mill? Party A posts a video of Party B picking her nose, and twenty years on it's used as part of a character assassination of Party B as a high office candidate.

As expected, the answer to the question involves quite a bit of complexity, and yet is fairly well-defined, perhaps. Courtesy the Solid Forensics blog, for instance:

Although there are a few ISP companies that offer a web interface to subpoena data (Sprint is one of them), there is no excitement in the ISP world for setting up a national system to handle this type of data. There are too many security and privacy issues to overcome. This is exacerbated by a recent Justice Department’s 289 page report that claimed the 'FBI obtained Americans’ telephone records by citing nonexistent emergencies and simply asking for the data or writing phone numbers on a sticky note rather than following procedures required by law.'

That implies, however, a potential for a fiduciary requirement, which would then imply something like the Ken Starr scenario writ large. The thing that's pretty fascinating, though, is how much is really preserved, as in the case of the Wayback Machine (whose name has a Rocky and Bullwinkle legacy), which allows the casual user the ability to poke around in a historical web-in-amber which is the Internet Archive, where everything that was there in 1994 (and later) is preserved. As it happens, a news story today highlights that era; Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, whose DNA is sought now in connection with the earlier Tylenol poisonings, coerced the New York Times into publishing his manifesto about then. Now it would be a simpler matter both to publish and to retrieve his ravings.

Having finished my brief investigation of web forensics, though, I noticed that the Internet Archive had a drop down called "All Media Types", and when I dropped it down, well below Wayback Machine itself, in the Audio subsection, there was a Grateful Dead selection. I decided to pick it, then put in "Cosmic" as the search term, and the first of a whopping 270 entries was a late 1970 "Grateful Dead Live at Sargent Gym, Boston University" recording of - you might well have guessed it - "Cosmic Charlie". It had been downloaded over two thousand times, but reviewed but once, by someone noting "Bobby very high-----strung on vocals."

And today, the aural rock historian site Wolfgang's Vault put voluminous video archives online. And neither these nor my ramblings will ever quite go away...

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