Thursday, March 19, 2015

On Iditarod, justice, and "two-way communication" devices

As I wrote on my Facebook page, I haven't been saying much about Brent's disqualification because I am nauseated by it.  I haven't wanted to participate in some of the technical nitpicking that's been going on because I think the real issue is justice.  Whether or not there's a network available is irrelevant - nobody, including the race judges, think that Brent had any intention to cheat or had taken any actions that would give him an unfair advantage.  At the same time they acknowledge that there are other mushers on the trail with similar devices and they're not going to seek those people out for punishment.  So, unjust rule unfairly applied.

That said, I do think it's worth talking about the technology a little bit, because another problem is that the rule is very, very poorly specified and I suspect a competent lawyer with some technical expertise or who had access to expert technical witnesses could have a field day.  The real question from where I sit isn't whether or not there's a network that a musher could access, but rather what constitutes a two-way communication device.

By way of context, one of the things I do to earn my dogs' kibble is develop internet protocol specifications, as a participant in and chair of several working groups in the Internet Engineering Task Force.  We develop the core protocols that are used on the internet, including things like routing, security, transport, and so on.  We are an organization of fuss-budgets, and our work consists of specifying protocol and device behavior to a level of detail that would make most people comatose.  So, I feel pretty comfortable looking at something like the Iditarod's rule 35 and trying to figure out whether or not it makes sense.

The bottom line is that I think it probably does not, for several reasons.  The primary reason is that it's overly broad and would exclude devices like Bluetooth headsets, which perform a (two-way!) negotiation with another device in order to pair.  It excludes special-purpose radio/wi-fi devices which cannot be used for anything but the purpose for which they were developed (for example, Nikon cameras speak PTP/IP over 802.11, with the camera acting as the access point/hotspot - completely useless for anything but camera control and transferring images/video).  They also incorrectly identify a SPOT and other trackers as a one-way communication device.  Technically, they are two-way - they receive radio from satellites and uplink back to the satellites.  They only uplink if they "know" they're in contact with the satellites.  A DeLorme InReach Satellite Communicator, which falls generally within the same category as SPOT devices, allows the person with the device to send arbitrary messages.  And what about a Fitbit?  Technically, those are two-way communication devices, since they swap messages with your computer, tablet, etc.

And then there's the more general problem of keeping up as technology changes and develops.  For example, what about the Apple watch and other "smart watches?"

This probably sounds like nitpicking, and it is.  There are a lot of two-way communication devices that don't provide general communication facilities.  You can't send and receive email with a Bluetooth headset and you can't browse the web with a Nikon camera (yet, as far as I know).  The problem is that this is the rule under which Brent was disqualified, and the rule is a mess as far as the specification of communication capabilities.  Because this is the rule that was used and because the penalty was so severe, its technical correctness matters a lot.  As I said I think a competent attorney (and likely even an incompetent one) could have a field day with it.

The Iditarod organization has repeatedly demonstrated itself to be technically unsophisticated.  Usually this comes out in the form of making bad decisions about writing their own tracking system, having their social media people provide technical support (badly), and so on, but here's a case where their lack of ability to describe what it is that they'd like to prevent has caused material damage to someone who even the race judges who made the disqualification decision agreed wasn't cheating.

Given that the problem that they're trying to solve isn't really a technical one, although it could be instantiated using technology, I think they are probably much better off trying to define disqualifying behavior rather than disqualifying devices.  Their technical incompetence has led to considerable injustice against someone who did nothing wrong,

1 comment:

  1. Comatose or not from your tech explanations, I know what happened to Brent was wrong on so many levels I could write an essay on it. The rule is totally open to interpretation. (not a good thing in legalities) Words do matter. Enforcement appears to not be consistent based on public statements, and what advantage can you get from a personal device, that is not available in any CP? Those are just starting points. The damage is done, and there was no 2015 Iditarod for Brent. I get a little irritated at the people who say just wait for next year. Circumstances are always changing, and a wonderful opportunity was taken from him. I hope he has a lawyer.