Thursday Threads: Google Maps is Good, DRM is Bad, and Two-factor Authentication can be Ugly

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[caption width="360" align="alignright"] Looking at maps, Eastern Carolina University Digital Collections.[/caption]

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Three threads this week: how mapping technologies have come such a long way in the past few years, and why explaining digital rights management is bad for your sanity, a cautionary tale for those trying to be more conscious about security their digital lives.

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The Huge, Unseen Operation Behind the Accuracy of Google Maps

The maps behind those voices are packed with far more data than most people realize. On a recent visit to Mountain View, I got a peek at how the Google Maps team assembles their maps and refines them with a combination of algorithms and meticulous manual labor—an effort they call Ground Truth. The project launched in 2008, but it was mostly kept under wraps until just a couple years ago. It continues to grow, now covering 51 countries, and algorithms are playing a bigger role in extracting information from satellite, aerial, and Street View imagery.

A fascinating look at the application of machine learning to map-making. What used to be hand-done (and is still hand-done with projects like Open Street Map) is now machine done with human review.

Things That Make the Librarian Angry: Enforcing artificial scarcity is a bad role for a public institution

Having a waiting list for library ebooks is really stupid, on the face of it. As a librarian I’m pretty savvy about digital content—enough to know that patrons want it, lots of it. However, we have a short list of ways that we can offer it in a lendable fashion. At work I keep my game face on. At home I just want to tell people the truth, the frustrating truth: offering digital content in this way has short term benefits but long term negative consequences.

- Things That Make the Librarian Angry, by Jessamyn West, The Message — Medium, 12-Dec-2014

Jessamyn leads the layperson through the limited choices that librarians need to make as they select ebooks paired with her frustration at not being able to always say what she wants to say to patrons. Digital is different, and when we try to make it behave like physical objects we find that the analogous processes break down.

The Dark Side of Apple's Two-Factor Authentication

I’d turned two-factor on my Apple ID in haste when I read Mat Honan’s harrowing story about how his Mac, iPhone and other devices were wiped when someone broke into his iCloud account. That terrified me into thinking about real security for the first time.
When I finally had time to investigate the errors appearing on my machine, I discovered that not only had my iCloud account been locked, but someone had tried to break in. Two-factor had done its job and kept the attacker out, however, it had also inadvertently locked me out.
The Apple support page relating to lockouts assured me it would be easy to recover my account with a combination of any two of either my password, a trusted device or the two-factor recovery key. When I headed to the account recovery service, dubbed iForgot, I discovered that there was no way back in without my recovery key. That’s when it hit me; I had no idea where my recovery key was or if I’d ever even put the piece of paper in a safe place.

Two factor authentication -- when you sign into a system with both something you know (your password) and something you have (like an app that generates a sequence of numbers based on the current time) -- is an important step to increase the security of your online identity. But as with all things dealing with security (i.e. choosing strong, unique passwords and not sharing accounts), it isn't always easy to do it right. It takes effort and forethought (as in this case, the need to print and safely store that long string of random letters) to do effectively.