Strata Week: The allure of a data haven

Wikileaks and Sealand may not be a good match, ThinkUp reboots, Factual's CEO gets the NYT's attention.

Here are a few of the data stories that caught my attention this week:

Sealand’s siren song

Principality of Sealand coat of armsArs Technica’s James Grimmelmann examines the recent history of the Principality of Sealand, a World War II anti-aircraft platform located six miles off the coast of England. Some reports claim Wikileaks is looking to relocate its servers there, ostensibly out of reach of legal threats and government interference. Why Sealand? It claims it’s an independent nation, and as such it “sounds perfect for WikiLeaks: a friendly, legally unassailable host with an anything-goes attitude,” writes Grimmelmann.

But as Grimmelmann notes, Sealand’s history isn’t exactly the “cryptographers’ paradise” one might expect. In the early 2000s another company called HavenCo set up shop there with a “no-questions-asked colocation” facility. Dandy in theory, but not in practice. The endeavor was never remotely successful, and the company spiraled downward, eventually becoming “nationalized” by Sealand. “HavenCo no longer had real technical experts or the competitive advantage of being willing to host legally risky content,” Grimmelmann writes. “What it did have was an absurdly inefficient cost structure. Every single piece of equipment, drop of fuel, and scrap of food had to be brought in by boat or helicopter. By 2006, ‘Sealand’ hosting was in a London data center. By 2008, even the HavenCo website was offline.”

It’s a fascinating story about the promises of data havens and the long-arm of the law. It’s also a cautionary tale for Wikileaks, suggests Grimmelmann. “Sealand isn’t going to save WikiLeaks any more than putting the site’s servers in a former nuclear bunker would. The legal system figured out a long time ago that throwing the account owner in jail works just as well as seizing the server.”

ThinkUp reboots

ThinkUp, one of the flagship products from the non-profit Expert Labs, will get a reboot as a for-profit company, write founders Gina Trapani and Anil Dash. The ThinkUp app is an open source tool that allows users to store, search and analyze all their social media activity (posts to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.).

It’s a simple tool, says Dash:

“But what ThinkUp represents is a lot of important concepts: Owning your actions and words on the web. Encouraging more positive and fruitful conversations on social networks. Gaining insights into ourselves and our friends based on what we say and share. And the possibility of discovering important information or different perspectives if we can return the web back to its natural state of not being beholden to any one company or proprietary network.”

ThinkUp will remain open source but it will evolve to include an “easy-to-use product with mainstream appeal,” says Trapani. Expert Labs will be winding down, but the new company that has grown out of it will share many parts of the organization’s original mission.

Factual’s Gil Elbaz profiled in The New York Times

With the headline “Just the Facts, Yes All of Them,” The New York Times profiles Gil Elbaz, the founder of the data startup Factual. “The world is one big data problem,” Elbaz tells journalist Quentin Hardy.

“Data has always been seen as just a side effect in computing, something you look up while you are doing work,” Elbaz says in the Times piece. “We see it as a whole separate layer that everyone is going to have to tap into, data you want to solve a problem, but that you might not have yourself, and completely reliable.”

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Principality of Sealand coat of arms via Wikimedia Commons.

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