Blown To Bits

Archive for January, 2009

Not Watching, but Weird Anyway

Saturday, January 31st, 2009 by Harry Lewis

I went to the local Stop and Shop to buy groceries this morning, passing on the opportunity to use the hand-held scanner about which I’ve blogged already. Preserving my privacy, remember? When I got to the checkout I was happy to find an open line with both a cashier and a bagger. As I always do, I asked the cashier to use his card — in Massachusetts, supermarkets are required to give you the “loyalty card” price if you ask for it. He acknowledged my request and scanned the groceries. I paid my $57.17 by credit card. As I was starting to wheel my cart away, I checked the register tape and discover that nothing had been discounted. (Why is it that they make you verify the total and complete the transaction BEFORE showing you their account of what you’re buying?)

I complained, and the cashier was surprised and apologetic — plainly he’d just neglected to do it. (When I made my request, though he did hear it, he was in the middle of a conversation with the bagger about whether McDonald’s might have been the source of his indigestion.) By now he’d already started scanning the next customer’s order.

He directed me to the service desk, staffed by two teenagers. I explained my problem, and one of them took the register tape, tore something off the bottom, and gave me back the rest. He then scanned or punched something into his computer and handed me $4.41 in cash. It took only a few seconds.

Now what strikes me about this is that the entire record of my purchase was accessible at the service desk. There are many good reasons for retaining those records — to prevent me from “returning” the same purchase multiple times, for example, the record can be updated to show when an item is returned. And of course a great deal of the analytical value of the data doesn’t depend on knowing my identity. But the instant rebate of exactly $4.41 reminds me how disaggregated the scanner data remains — probably forever.

And by the way — in the realm of really, truly watching you in stores — some of those video displays that show ads now have tiny, hidden cameras and enough processing smarts to tell whether you’re black or white, male or female — and to adjust the ads you are shown accordingly!

Google-Bombing Obama

Friday, January 30th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Barak Obama was the object of a google-bombing — searches for “cheerful achievement” got you links to Obama. And Obama inherited from George Bush some of the White-House-directed search results for “miserable failure.”

We talk about Google bombs in Blown to Bits (p. 150). Some conservative sources are suggesting political explanations for the fact that Google moved more quickly against these bombs than it did when the object was Bush. That seems a pretty silly idea — Google would have much better ways to create partisan slant than this. I imagine Google is simply very reluctant to interfere with the natural search results, and it took several years to develop algorithms that could reliably distinguish Google bombs from legitimate shifts in the ranks of pages. They would surely like the whole search engine to operate as an automaton exactly so they could not be accused manipulating results for partisan purposes. But getting algorithms to do things about which human beings might make different judgments is a tricky business.

NSF’s Internet Porn

Thursday, January 29th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

An NSF internal report revealed that some NSF workers (including at least one high official) were using their NSF computers and Internet connections to view pornography and participate in pornographic chat rooms. Senator Grassley of Iowa, the same Senator Grassley who put the bogus Rimm report on Internet pornography on the cover of Time magazine a decade ago (p. 239 of Blown to Bits), wants answers from NSF. He is threatening to hold up NSF’s #3 billion share of the stimulus money until the Foundation cleans up its act.

Now this story is a good giggle about human stupidity (OK, male stupidity, I expect) and workings of bureaucracies. You do have to wonder, right off the bat, if NSF is being singled out just because it’s the only agency that actually conducted an internal audit of how its systems are being used. (Have they done that in Health and Human Services, for example?)

But there are a couple of more serious questions this raises. The first is whether Senator Grassley’s problem is the agency’s inefficiency or morals. If the report had said that time was being lost to eBay, or to reading stories about US tariffs on Roquefort cheese, would he have been equally upset? Because there is every reason to think that in offices all over the country, government and corporate, people are spending lots of time doing non-work stuff on the Internet. Given the recession, wouldn’t this be the logical time to try to get full value out of every employee?

And then there is the reminder that this stuff can be tracked. Every web site you visit can be recorded, and employers can monitor, analyze, restrict, and punish what we do on the Internet.

For many of us, the Internet has shattered the barriers between work time and home time; it’s as easy to do knowledge work from home as from the office. A certain amount of bleeding in the other direction is inevitable. Where are the limits of control over employee’s actions? I’m willing to go with the good Senator in condemning someone spending 20% of his office time viewing porn, but the workplace needs some reasonable standards, other than “you can’t do anything personal from your office,” or the surveillance and retaliation is going to be capricious and unpredictable.

Privacy Pressure through Shareholder Resolutions

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

A group called the Open Media and Information Companies Initiative is advocating free speech and information privacy through a novel strategy: they are trying to get shareholder resolutions endorsing such principles, and disclosing corporate practices in these areas, put on the docket for shareholder meetings of major communication and media companies. It’s far from clear that this approach will be particularly effective, but it can create public relations pressure for companies to be more open about what they are doing. I wish them luck!

What the Web Knows About You

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

That’s the title of a terrific piece from ComputerWorld documenting what the journalist found out about himself on the Web and how he found it.¬†Here’s the list:

TITLE: National Correspondent
COMPANY: Computerworld

  • Full legal name
  • Date of birth
  • Social Security number
  • Current property addresses
  • Personal phone numbers
  • Business phone numbers
  • Previous addresses and phone numbers dating back to 1975 (except for cell phone numbers)
  • Real estate property deed descriptions and addresses
  • Property tax record from 2004
  • Assessed value of home from 1997
  • Identifying photographs
  • Digital image of signature
  • Mortgage documents (current and previous) and a legal agreement
  • Computerworld affiliation, stories and blog posts
  • Employment history
  • Resume with educational background going back to high school
  • Sex offender status (negative)
  • Affiliations with several nonprofits
  • Editorial award
  • Spouse’s name, age and Social Security number
  • Names of friends and coworkers
  • Names, addresses, phone numbers and first six digits of Social Security numbers for neighbors past and present
  • Parents’ names, address, phone and first five digits of Social Security number
A crucial piece of the search was to find the Social Security Number. Turns out the state of New Hampshire (like many other states) has undertaken to scan in mortgage documents, which have technically been public all along, and make them accessible via the Web. These documents include SSNs. Good grief! There are many handy tools mentioned in this article to speed your snooping. And some tips about how scammers can get more.

Virtual Meetings Where Real Meetings Are Banned

Monday, January 26th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Most people still think of Facebook as connecting friends, or perhaps “friends” in the technical sense that’s rather less committed than real friendship. It’s possible that Mark Zuckerberg anticipated that proceeding from that foundation, Facebook would become the worldwide phenomenon that it has. But could he possibly have imagined that it would be a major vehicle for political organizing in countries where unauthorized political organizing is banned?

In Egypt, as the New York Times reports, you can’t assemble more than 5 people without a government permit. And yet there are many Facebook groups for political factions, both liberal and radically Islamist. These groups are used to organize flesh-and-blood protests, as well as for the exchange of news and ideas. It’s exactly what the government doesn’t want to happen, and what it long was able to control through laws outlawing political assembly. But it can’t block Facebook — the site is part of the daily, non-political life of too many people. So it has become an important political platform — every bit as much as the printing press was in the 18th century in the US and France.

The Barackberry

Saturday, January 24th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

(Nice neologism by the Times of London.)

President Obama is going to have a handheld, but it won’t actually be a Blackberry. It will be special military equipment, capable of entering a super-secure mode in which it can communicate only with identical equipment (presumably in the hands of military and intelligence personnel).

The Times story, as well as some others, state that it won’t be possible to forward presidential emails. I don’t know what that means. If Sasha gets an email on her home computer from her daddy, what would prevent her from taking a screen shot, or cutting and pasting the body of the message? It’s possible to restrict the President’s computer so that its functionality is limited, by I just don’t know how you could stop the recipient of one of his emails from using ordinary office software to manipulate it.

The Recording Industry Gets Nasty

Friday, January 23rd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

IANAL (I am not a lawyer) and I have no idea if Professor Charles Nesson is going to prevail in his defense of Joel Tenenbaum and his counterclaims that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is unconstitutional. But the recording industry sure is taking him seriously. When Nesson asked for a hearing in the case to be webcast, the RIAA reacted with horror — rather oddly, as the judge noted in granting Nesson’s request, given that the RIAA claims that it wants publicity of its anti-piracy campaign. Now the judge has delayed the hearing so the RIAA can appeal to a higher court her ruling about webcasting the proceedings.

Meanwhile, the RIAA sent Nesson a letter (pdf) demanding that he drop a request for a deposition by one of the RIAA’s former lawyers, stating that it would ask the court to sanction him if he didn’t comply. Nesson’s classic reply, quoted verbatim:

our motion stands

we welcome your opposition

And the next day the RIAA went ahead and filed court papers stating that “Defendant‚Äôs Motion has no factual or legal basis whatsoever” and asking Nesson to pay for their costs in opposing it (as apparently the law provides in the case of certain patently gratuitous motions).

There are serious and important issues at stake here, as we discuss in Chapter 6 of Blown to Bits. But on top of that, the lawyers’ duel makes good theatre.

Back Pages Books

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 by Harry Lewis

I’ll be speaking Thursday night, January 22, at Back Pages Books in Waltham, at 7:30. Do come — it’s a friendly local bookstore and you’ll enjoy the conversation.


Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The Supreme Court has let stand a lower court’s ruling that the Child Online Protection Act is unconstitutional. This act was passed hastily in 1998 after the display provisions of the Communications Decency Act were overturned. On p. 248 of Blown to Bits we rather prematurely declared COPA dead after the lower court ruling, but the government appealed to the Supreme Court. In refusing to take up the case, the Supreme Court finally killed COPA. The main problem is that COPA required age verification, effectively requiring adults to register in order to see content they have every right to see.

Unrelated bonus post: Barak Obama re-took the oath of office in the White House today, thus eliminating any risk of a challenge to his legitimacy on the basis that he never said the words that Article II of the Constitution says he must.