Skip to content

Big Surveillance, Little Coverage

June 25, 2013

If you listen to the hype, the biggest bomb dropped on the United States in the War on Terror™ wasn’t an actual bomb. Instead, the United States’ body politic was shocked, shocked, to hear that the government has been collecting vast amounts of cell phone records, cell phone location data, and just about all of your online information from just about every major Internet platform (Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo, Skype, and PalTalk[?]). Basically, this information adds up to enough to predict your movements, who talks to whom, and anything you have ever entered into a search bar in a moment of curiosity.

The public shock and temporary outrage has seemed more surprising to some of us than the actual program, the ominously named PRISM, the legalities of which had been settled since the Patriot Act was renewed. But the story has some staying power; it seems to be the dominant narrative in American and European news media right now, despite the fact that countries like Russia and China have taken the news with a bit of a shrug, as if to say, “how did you think these things were done?”

So, has the slumbering giant finally woken? Has this leak precipitated the freak-out that privacy advocates have been waiting for?

No, probably not. In fact, despite the hype, this is hardly anything new. Those like myself who have long advocated more privacy, and observed the likely deleterious effects of public ignorance and deference to the presumedly well-meaning authorities, could say that we saw this coming. Most of us had sort of expected that this sort of spying and data collection was already happening. It’s something the American psyche has long emotionally accepted, the culmination of a series of steps down the road to the inevitable Hobbesian Leviathan.

And how does the Leviathan react to this story? To shift the blame, of course.

That blame, according to the Administration, lies with the whistleblower/leaker/future Hollywood Blockbuster pro-/an-tagonist Edward Snowden, the latest in the Bradley Manning mold of Americans who have decided to conscientiously object to the surveillance state that Americans have been settling into. So now the story has shifted to this man, a literally ad hominem attack, in order to distract and mislead the news media into thinking that the person who collected information on the surveillance state is more important than the surveillance state itself.

Of course, the fact that Snowden himself leaked these documents isn’t anything new. Bradley Manning and Julian Assange were both denounced and lionized for their roles in previous leaks of government misconduct. Manning now faces arcane charges and unspeakable (literally) treatment for his “treason” (read: whistleblowing), and Assange has had to make careful legal moves internationally to avoid extradition for crimes that are barely a pretext for thumbing his nose at the US government. There is at least one consensus among U.S. lawmakers: Snowden committed treason. Presumably they would say the same of Daniel Ellsburg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers. People who cry treason tend to lack a long view on history, after all; they forget that transparency about how government operates serves our democracy more than treason prosecutions.

So Snowden sacrificed his $200,000 salary, his girlfriend with whom he shared a home in Hawaii, and his family, adopting a life of exile because the Obama administration has been hunting down anyone who leaks anything even minimally unflattering. One might say that this incident reinforces the fact that we need some protection for whistleblowers and the places that receive their information (like Wikileaks) so that the public can be involved in the decision of whether this trade-off is appropriate or necessary. As Ellsburg puts it, how else can we evaluate whether “the machinery of our democratic government has entirely broken down“?

At a hearing of the Senate intelligence committee in March this year, Democratic senator Ron Wyden asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

“No sir,” replied Clapper.

The scariest part of the program may in fact be just how tone-deaf the security administration is to how evil it sounds. I mean, there are pretty obvious flaws in the logic of the lumbering institutions that we don’t seem to question, like “If the NSA trusted Edward Snowden with our data, why should we trust the NSA?” and “Have we just built all of the infrastructure a tyrant could possibly want?

Obama’s part in all this (given that Presidents usually have to operate at a distance and only set out grand strategic objectives rather than specific tactical choices) seems to have been to buy into the Big Data mindset when it comes to the issue of terrorism. Instead of trying to figure out why terrorism exists, and to eradicate its causes (which seemed to be his promise during his first presidential campaign), he has adopted the institutionally generated strategem of trying to figure out what data there is to help find and eradicate the terrorists that currently exist. This was the same flawed logic of the Bush Administration, which galvanized the Middle East, making the new leaders that pop up in the places of the old even more extreme and dangerous. We’re contributing to the evolution of terrorism by forcing them to undergo survival of the fittest.

Obama’s biggest fault may be that he isn’t the philosopher king we foolishly thought he was.

And while the news media has done a surprisingly admirable job expressing outrage at lack of Obama-promised transparency and the vastness of the government intrusiveness and surveillance, they haven’t done a very good job building a case of why any of this matters to Americans. Sure, observers have wryly mocked the name of the program, PRISM, as well as the portal by which analysts access these vast troves of data, Boundless Informant, and its fittingly cartoonish and evil objectives. I’m sure many Americans see this as another opportunity to hate on Obama, regardless of what they think about the actual program. And some have even outlined the serious injuries Americans have sustained to any shred of privacy they once held (e.g., the fact that you can basically be criminally prosecuted at any time given enough information about your internet activities).

However, what the conversation forgets (or at least is content to simply sigh at) is that Americans don’t care about privacy. It has long been established that Americans today would rather trade security for liberty. Americans believe that the fullest extent of counter-terror measures available should be taken, including widespread (read: total) surveillance if necessary. They frankly have no conception of a cost benefit analysis when it comes to terror, which just makes this episode the latest tip of the Leviathan to rear its increasingly ugly head.

When you look at terrorism in light of any other possible subject of comparison, the numbers just don’t add up. In 2001, compared to approximately 3,000 deaths due to terrorism (the absolute peak, of course):

  • 71,372 people died of diabetes;
  • 29,573 people were killed by guns; and
  • 13,290 people were killed in drunk driving accidents.

When you compare those numbers across a larger, more “regular” interval, like 1990 to 2010, the numbers are far worse:

  • roughly 360,000 were killed by guns (actually, the figure the CDC gives is 364,483 — in other words, it’s easy to round off more gun deaths than there were total terrorism deaths); and
  • roughly 150,000 were killed in drunk-driving accidents.
gun and terrorism graphic.png

Measured in lives lost, during an interval that includes the biggest terrorist attack in American history, guns posed a threat to American lives that was more than 100 times greater than the threat of terrorism. Over the same interval, drunk driving threatened our safety 50 times more than terrorism.

So the annual U.S. terror fatality risk for 1970-2007 is about 1 in 35,000,000. Let’s ask the why question now: how much marginal reduction are we getting from mass spying? Is this a sound strategy?

Sometimes we get the anecdotal success stories like the Boston bombers being caught through the use of expansive surveillance, or like how federal agents make arrest in connection to ricin letters by using technology that photographs every piece of mail sent through the USPS. But we’re not really closer to understanding why these crimes happen, let alone honestly dealing with the psychology that leads to mass shootings like Sandy Hook (gee, does anyone even remember that?).

But the point is that we are totally being outplayed on the strategic level by committing to mass spying as a cost-effective solution. Do we attach a breathalyzer to every car steering wheel by the same logic? How about a camera near every pool or home appliance that could electrocute a toddler? These strategies would seem to have far greater returns, but they’re not TERRORISM, so you can forget about it.

As Band-Aids go, Big Data is excellent. But Band-Aids are useless when the patient needs surgery. In that case, trying to use a Band-Aid may result in amputation.

Reporting these kinds of stories is hard, of course. And when you’re trying to deliver news that an audience wants to consume, it makes sense to focus on the theatricality of the spies and spooks rather than complex, philosophical questions about strategy and ephemeral values like privacy.

In the words of Newton Minnow, “Some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree.” A fitting corollary might be that some say that national security is whatever it takes to secure the nation. I respectfully disagree.


In GOOG We Antitrust

May 27, 2013

I’ve recently been introduced to Waze, a mapping application for iPhone and Android developed by an Israeli tech startup. It’s a pretty great app, one that leaped several plateaus as a result of the opportunity created by the Apple Maps fiasco that decoupled Google Maps from Apple. Waze was the option adopted by many iOS users post-Google. Perhaps most surprising, even after Google Maps was re-released for iOS, many users stayed with Waze, preferring it to even the new-and-improved Google Maps. Waze has basically done what every tech startup hopes to do. They’re competing with the big boys and have hopes of maybe, just maybe, dethrone the king of the hill.

Waze by the numbers

Waze’s success as a mapping utility lies in the fact that it has cultivated a community that is willing to contribute to the content of the application: they report traffic incidents, mapping inaccuracies, and their own location for added social benefits. And when it comes to tech companies, any actively engaged and devoted community is worth major money.

So, does it come as any surprise that the likes of Apple, Facebook, and even Google have expressed interest in acquiring Waze before it can grow up to be a fully-fledged competitor? Has that set off any bells for anyone remotely aware that this country used to have a policy of vigorous antitrust enforcement? Does it not seem intuitively problematic that the largest player in the maps business might buy one of the few proven potential competitors? Isn’t this what antitrust law is for? What possible pro-competitive rationale could Google advance for simply buying a direct competitor and consolidating the top market share?

Of course, intuition and the law overlap far less often than one would hope. Through the George W. Bush years, the Administration didn’t file a single antitrust case against a dominant firm for violations of antitrust law. And 2001-2009 wasn’t exactly a lull in mergers and acquisitions. Acquisition became a common exit strategy for tech startups. The model was simple: make enough of a splash with your technology that it looks like the inevitable Next Big Thing, sell out to some deep-pocketed public firm, and walk away a happily cashed-out entrepreneur moving on to the next venture. E.g., AOL, MySpace, Skype, Instagram, and now Tumblr. With all of these companies growing themselves up with their eyes fixed on the exit-prize, the Bush Administration self-enforced a rule that made it harder to find anything problematic in a merger or acquisition, because “hey, that’s the beauty of capitalism.”

Certainly, Waze is complicit in this cycle; they’ve almost deliberately ignored the need to create a revenue model that would actually support it as a business. Instead, the plan all along has been to find some company with the deepest pockets that either wants the freshest, newest mapping application on the market or very specifically does not want a fresh, new mapping application on the market. For the founders of Waze, who have families and mortgages, how can you blame them for selling their company for a billion dollars?

That re-raises the incredulity of Google’s potential attempts to buy Waze: Google has no legitimate need for what Waze has developed (other than their user base, maybe). Google already has all the technology that Waze has to offer and more. Google is already installed on the vast majority of smartphones, and can track and correlate user data better than any firm on the market. Instead, the far more likely rationale for buying Waze would be to prevent some other competitor from offering a package that could compete with Google on some other level, e.g., smartphone, operating system, search platform, etc. In “platform analysis” terms, this is known as “vertical leveraging.”

In brief, you can think of just about anything as a platform in that content gets delivered to consumers through various pipes and competitors and any way a user interacts with the stream of content is a platform. So, a TV is a platform, an internet browser is a platform, a streaming video service is a platform, and a cell phone is a platform. Everything is really a platform. Now, whenever one or a few players dominate all possible choices at any stage of the process, they can create a bottleneck according to standard microeconomic behavior when there are few competitors in a market. Essentially, those players get a higher-than-efficient price or can otherwise constrain consumer choice to their own products (where they may get another subsidy to the company’s overall bottom line). For example, Comcast as a local cable internet monopoly may prefer to limit the users’ ability to stream Netflix at top speeds in order to make its own cable TV packages look relatively more attractive. By the same token, Comcast may hold out on licensing NBC shows to Netflix because Comcast wants people to think of Netflix as an incomplete substitute for what they’d get with Comcast TV. Thus, Comcast has effectively “vertically leveraged” its monopoly as the only high-speed internet service provider in town to subsidize its other businesses in a way that would never fly if those other markets were straight-up competitive.  That’s vertical leveraging.

So, to see a political-economic climate that encourages consolidation of firms and power as “the beauty of capitalism” is a near-sighted view of the picture (or maybe just depends on the eye of the beholder). From my own vantage point, I get slightly more concerned about the effects of monopolies and oligopolies on consumer welfare than I would be in a more competitive market. When firms are simply competing by buying each other out, consumers lose out by losing both the ability to control the terms and conditions of how they are able to consume and redistribute content as well as the competitive spirit that would have instigated innovation in a competitive market. And after all, isn’t beating out the next guy on the product or price level the whole presumptive motive for a firm to innovate when all they are induced by is a profit-maximizing motive? Isn’t this what led to too-big-to-fail banks when they consolidated so many assets with values contingent on them remaining stable that they can hold the economy at knife-point? And when a company like Google buys the services you like, those same monopolistic control you can’t negotiate with will just spread. Google doesn’t have any reason to respect its users anymore, if Google’s streamlined-to-the-point-of-illegality privacy policies are any indication.

So that’s why I’m willing to go out on a limb and guess (without knowing all of the specific details of possible software synergies or other benefits from vertical integration with a more major player in the space) that from a social standpoint, the public would probably be better served by Waze remaining an independent and competitive firm than by being bought out by Google or by Facebook (though less clearly bad in Facebook’s case, since Facebook might not already have all that Waze has to offer and more technologically speaking). Of course, Waze would have to find the profit model that it has been deliberately ignoring first, which might mean that Waze simply couldn’t exist if it weren’t able to simply sell out. To many, that new product might justify any social costs of giving a buyer like Google even more power and access to data. However, I think there is still the concern of the deceit that must have been perpetrated in getting people to use a product like Waze in the first place: the calculus (specifically) didn’t include the possibility that one’s Waze data would be integrated into the all-knowing Google profile. And if people did realize that, maybe they would have acted differently or preferred to pay for another application with another business model.

Even apart from Waze specifically, I think we all need to be interested in fostering a healthier marketplace for competing technology companies that encourages bucking the normal trend toward consolidation of both power and services. That consolidation leads to oligopolistic results, where the firms don’t make choices that benefit consumers so much as they create deadweight welfare loss by artificially constraining choice and the ability of competitors to offer different goods and services. Antitrust litigation and enforcement would go a long way to keeping markets healthy. See, e.g., the FTC’s intervention and prevention of AT&T’s acquisition of T-Mobile. It would just be nice if it wasn’t a once-in-a-decade thing. Then again, it would be even nicer if the space had some ethics or pride that came along with remaining a profitable and independent startup so that they could self-enforce the principles of antitrust.

Regardless, at present, Waze has reached a major fork in the road: to sell out or to stay independent and create its own path. And I’m guessing, to my own dismay, that they will follow their own product’s advice and follow the surefire paths blazed before them.

The Boston “We” Party

April 16, 2013

The tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon yesterday was undoubtedly surreal to anyone who followed the events as they unfolded, myself included. For the first time that I can recall since September of 2001, time seemed to slow down and attention seemed dragged to the center of a swirling vortex of sorrow, fear, and anxiety in Northeastern America.

The human reaction to the Boston bombing had many echoes of 9/11. Some Islamophobes immediately suspected and accused Muslim religious extremists; others spouted unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that the federal government was behind the bombings; and still others leapt to score cheap political points. People fixated on the negative, to be sure: 3 dead and over 120 injured. Fears and suspicions of broader terroristic plots have been raised and doubted.

But, as with 9/11, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of solidarity. People immediately focused on treating and organizing the wounded and bewildered–what a weirdly ironic blessing and/or oversight of the bomber(s) that the bombs went off in a location where hundreds of medical personnel and ambulances already were waiting to treat potential injuries incurred at the marathon!–and police already were onsite to cordon off the area and preserve the scene for evidence gathering.

And again, like 9/11, people from across the country and across the world came together to show support. Reddit, my favorite site on the internet, discharged its self-appointed duties with distinguishable honor. Redditors compiled, verified, and posted in real-time eight pages of updates, a summary of events, collected offers from Bostonians offering stranded marathoners ground transportation, airline flights, places to stay for the night, and even free pizza.

As Patton Oswalt, a prolific purveyor of perspective, wrote in an online piece, the response of almost literally everyone else was to help and heal, not to harm.

But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

The immediate legacy of 9/11 was to create a broad basis of support for a president that was already divisive; now we are in dramatically overpolarized political climate in dire need of some kind of common ground. Hopefully, one legacy of this atrocity will be a move back toward some sort of consensus that we are all Americans in it for the common good regardless of political party.

Unfortunately, there likely will be other sorts of echoes of 9/11 in the form of crass attempts at commercializing a tragedy. Your guess is as good as mine as to what color the donation ribbon/wristband/marathon bib will be. Where Boston will hopefully begin to really diverge from 9/11 is how America reacts to these acts of terrorism.

Aside from the bombings themselves, perhaps the biggest story that is apparent from the survey of coverage of the Boston bombing is the absolutely revolutionized technological landscape that now surrounds us as opposed to 11.5 years ago. The state investigation (as opposed to public, a significant difference in this case) may have simply proceeded with the more conventional 9/11-era tools such as bomb fragment analysis, call tracing, purchase tracking, etc. But what everyone already knows is that investigators will heavily rely on crowdsourced public surveillance. Surveillance cameras are distributed and located in every pocket and on every corner, making the public a far more efficient form of surveillance than any of the state’s tools of surveillance.

There are limits to the crowdsourcing. The data used in the investigation will be crowdsourced. The investigation will not be. A crowdsourced investigation runs a high risk of becoming a witchhunt, as we saw in the Newton shooting spree.

Hopefully, the vast comparative efficiency of crowdsourcing surveillance and intelligence to the clunky state methods of intelligence-gathering will prove itself as a source of American resilience in the aftermath of this tragedy. Even more hopefully, Boston will prove that the authorities can ask for information rather than demanding or simply taking the photos off of phones “for national security reasons.” And who knows, maybe this method of law enforcement will make Americans think twice about the decade of fruitless torture we have implicitly authorized through inaction.

This was a lesson we could have learned from 9/11 itself. After all, Flight 93 (the one headed for the Capitol) wasn’t brought down by the TSA or even the Air Force; it was brought down by American citizens on the plane who had unfettered access to crowd-sourced intel (in that case, cell phone calls to/from loved ones who had seen what happened to the World Trade Center). Of course, crowd-sourcing intel will undoubtedly lead to a lot of false positives, and it already has, but which is worse: some racist paranoids calling out turban wearers (which they already do), or giving the national security leviathan the power to control for everything all the way down to pressure cookers?

Although, if 9/11 is our historical guide, I’ll give you one guess as to the direction that our public approach to civil liberties will take.

“They can give me a cavity search right now and I’d be perfectly happy,” said Daniel Wood, a video producer from New York City who was waiting for a train.

The Power of Monomyth

March 19, 2013

It has been said that you can understand a culture by examining their founding mythology. What does that say when we find that our heroes are all the same across cultures? Does it mean, in the words of most fictional villains, “We’re not so different?”

Joseph Campbell, a name that might be familiar to high schoolers, argued in The Hero With a Thousand Faces that our shared stories say quite a lot about us. Campbell points out that despite the cosmetic differences between nations and cultures, there are more fundamental stories we will always share. The fact that those stories have any kind of resonance speaks to our innermost and unchangeable feelings and ways of seeing the world. Because we share our common foundation as human beings that make us subject to the same biological imperatives and urges, we can come to understand other culture’s essential commonality with ourselves.

An evolutionary psychologist (or someone who’s simply read more Jung than I have) might have more insight into possible explanations for why Campbell’s thesis is true on a neuro-/psychological level, but the point is that there are bedrock experiences that we can relate to across cultures. If you want a more comprehensive version of the story, Campbell and Bill Moyers got together to produce a six-part miniseries called The Power of Myth, which was just released for free online.

Campbell suggests that the fact that archetypal events like the flood myth and characters like Orpheus (whose tale of travels to the underworld to save a loved one appears not only in Ancient Greece but also in Feudal Japan, Sumeria, and Mayan cultures) or Jesus (whose life-death-ressurection heroic antecedents existed in Medieval Europe, Ancient Egypt, Hinduism and Buddhism).

And of course, for those wise enough to slavishly learn the lessons of history, like George Lucas or the Wachowskis, you can make a movie that appeals across all cultures. Which is why people who don’t like Star Wars or The [Original] Matrix probably shouldn’t be trusted.

The Quick Fox

March 15, 2013

Timed just so that I would miss including it in my last post is the latest overblown reaction to attempts at preserving privacy on the net.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) freaked out when Mozilla decided to implement “Do Not Track” and block third party cookies (which are often the carriers of viruses and other malware), and said it would be the death of “American small business” because it relies online advertising.

“Thousands of small businesses that make up the diversity of content and services online will be forced to close their doors,” said Randall Rothenberg, IAB’s president. “This move will not put the interest of users first. Nor does it promote transparency or ‘move the web forward’ as Mozilla claims in its announcement.”

Maybe the simpler answer is that websites and content providers just need to find a better way to generate revenue than requiring, as a condition of ever using their site, the ability to follow you off their own webpages and onto the rest of the net to collect your personal information. They seem to be upset that they’ve left Firefox to guard the hen-house because they didn’t want any guards at all.

In-N-Out Merger

March 14, 2013

Does it feel like things are finally starting to turn a corner when it comes to online data privacy? It seems like a lot more people are starting to care about privacy, at least as an issue, if not as a personal ethic. Sure, some people are starting to use Facebook’s privacy settings, but because those things change all the damn time, it’s hard to tell whether that will make much of a lasting difference.

Percent of social networking users who have taken these steps to protect their privacy (Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project)

Privacy settings: Teens Vs. Adults (Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project)

I’m also not convinced that people are seeing the writing on the wall when it comes to online privacy or the retention of their own civil liberties. People have never seemed to care that data is used to sell them stuff they “already want,” or that current and prospective health insurers are getting all sorts of data on what you Google. Nor do they care that their reading list–something the Founders would have considered sacrosanct–has been accessible by government since the PATRIOT ACT.

Want to buy a list of people who read romance novels? Epsilon can sell you that, as well as a list of people who donate to international aid charities. …

A subsidiary of credit reporting company Equifax even collects detailed salary and paystub information for roughly 38 percent of employed Americans. …

Datalogix … which collects information from store loyalty cards, says it has information on more than $1 trillion in consumer spending “across 1400+ leading brands.” It doesn’t say which ones. …

Data companies can capture information about your “interests” in certain health conditions based on what you buy — or what you search for online. Datalogix has lists of people classified as “allergy sufferers” and “dieters.” Acxiom sells data on whether an individual has an “online search propensity” for a certain “ailment or prescription.”

People don’t seem to care about whether their information is up for grabs because they don’t understand how easily comprehended and quantified they are. Everyone thinks he or she is immune from easy prediction, but with the rise of big data, prediction is getting scarily smart. For example, analyzing Facebook “likes” is enough to predict a lot about your personality that you probably wouldn’t tell a stranger, let alone some amoral marketing firm trying to figure out ways to extract money from you.

The researchers used a pool of 58,000 volunteers in the United States. Based on “Likes” alone, they were able to predict whether a user was African-American or white 95% of the time, male or female 93% of the time.

They were able to gauge sexual orientation 88% of the time for men and 75% of the time for women. They were also able to predict political leaning (Republican versus Democrat) 85% of the time. On a more personal level, the researchers were able to predict whether your parents divorced when you were a kid 60% of the time.

The study also could make reasonably accurate guesses about whether you were a drug user, drinker, or smoker, as well as a host of other attributes, including emotional stability, satisfaction with life, and extraversion.

And in many cases, it’s not even a question of prediction; it’s simply data analysis because people live enough of their lives on the web for there to be sufficient data to determine all of those characteristics.

On a small side note, this attitude has had serious implications. Except for Rand Paul and a few others who have been written off as right-wing loonies (and not without some justification), no one really seems to be talking about the near-omnipotence of government vis-a-viz individual civil liberties and freedom from state monitoring, as long as lip service is paid to the correct constitutional priority. Didn’t liberals care about civil liberties at some point? Wouldn’t they be crowing about the horrendous abuse of executive power if Bush was still in office, authorizing drone strikes or signing off on memos that allow for unilateral targeting and assassination of anyone it designates an enemy combatant? People have been placated in this permanent surveillance state by having Obama institutionalize the violations that began under Bush. In that way, greater damage has been done to civil liberties in the failure to restore them than the initial infringement could ever do.

Government’s hunger for data also fuels its passive allowance of private companies to do its collection and data mining for it. Sure, government is constrained by the Fourth Amendment, but Facebook, Google, Apple, and the like aren’t. And they do respond to subpoenas.

Other than certain kinds of protected data — including medical records and data used for credit reports — consumers have no legal right to control or even monitor how information about them is bought and sold. As the FTC notes, “There are no current laws requiring data brokers to maintain the privacy of consumer data unless they use that data for credit, employment, insurance, housing, or other similar purposes.”

In terms of online privacy, though, I think it’s that people are starting to get possessive about their data, and it’s because it’s becoming increasingly easy to care about privacy as it is to not care about it. Of course, the additional effort means that most people will stay in-by-default than opted-out. But there are ways to start to default to an opt-out. For example, there are user-side solutions like “Do Not Track“:

The customer demand for stronger data controls led to the introduction of the “do not track” feature. “Do not track” is a setting that can be now found on all the major browsers: Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari. When turned on, it asks sites not to track that person’s online activities. A Microsoft survey found that 75% of people were concerned about online tracking and thought the setting should be turned on by default.

And then, there are the more forcible opt-out solutions, that can opt-out your data from being further used and abused. Sure, it’s more effort, but those who care enough can take the steps to opt-out. That scheme stands in stark contrast to the state of civil liberties, where an opt-out gives rise to automatic suspicion.

The Long Goodbye

February 20, 2013

Papa, besides being the wonderful person you are,

You were my first hero. And you were also my first friend. How could you not be? Outside of my parents, you spent more time with me the first year of my life than any other person.

Early on, you delighted in teaching me a great many things: how to make a “constipated face,” how to burp on command, what a “barking spider” is, how to ride a horse, how to drive a car, when to flip a “hickory burger,” and you even tried to teach me how to sell dresses (although the last part never really stuck for me).

You taught me to restlessly pursue your goals, literally, even (or especially) if that means getting up at 4:30 in the morning to do so. You taught me my work ethic, my moral ethic, and my life ethic.

And even though you’re gone now, I know that you will live on in our memories as a friend, a grandfather, and a hero.

As a friend, I’ll always remember your amazing sense of humor. One of my favorite jokes was when you would quip that you had more hair than you needed; you had closets full. I don’t know why, but that one has special meaning to me.I’ll remember the conspiratorial jokes we’d share at dinners after a long day of work at the Water Wheel Cafe, the sly comments with a quick wink on the side that would let me in on the joke.

As a grandfather, I’ll always remember how you would play “midnight poker” with us grandkids, so long as we were playing at midnight, Eastern Standard Time. You were a kid at heart, and always had us grandchildren share in your fun, whether it was when you sat at the kids’ table, or when you taught us to read your horoscopes and fortune cookies by reciting “besides being the wonderful person you are,” before reading the rest of it.

You loved your family, a good joke, taking a nap in a movie theater, and a song, as long as you could belt it at the top of your lungs.

And when it came to your heroism, you idolized and emulated the silver screen cowboys: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Ronald Reagan. You strove to live like they did, and achieved that lifestyle on your own terms. But unlike those silver screen heroes, your heroism was never faked, always genuine, and a pure product of the choices of your spirit, not some contrived circumstances.

Papa, besides being the wonderful person you are, your heroism will never die. Your memory will always stick with us, and your friendship and generosity of spirit will live on through our memory of you and your vision of the world that you helped shape. I know that you were proud to have lived larger than life, as a hero not only in the mind of a grandson who will always miss you, but never forget you.

Out of Thin Air

February 5, 2013

Given the near-constant international economic angst over energy security, you would think that the discovery of trillions of dollars of oil in Australia could be the most significant geopolitical development in the recent past. For a frame of reference, the estimated 133,000,000,000-233,000,000,000 barrels of oil that was discovered = 7,000-12,000 days of America’s aggregate oil consumption = 20 years worth of American oil consumption = approximately 4 years of global oil consumption.

That’s a pretty big deal, considering the implications that has on the predictions of some doomsayers who predicted the world would not be able to find a replacement for oil before it ran out in our lifetimes. And its an even bigger deal when you consider the find’s effects on the ability of OPEC to control prices when another non-member state like Australia becomes a major net exporter and can break up the oligopolistic control over pricing that has kept consumers simultaneously addicted to oil and resistant to change for so long.

Interestingly enough, the Australian find comes at the heels of similarly major discoveries and innovations in the exploitation of shale oil in the United States. These discoveries and new techniques may lead to the United States surpassing Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading producer of petroleum, which has other obvious geopolitical implications for a slightly less oil-hungry United States. And let’s not forget the non-outsourceable jobs that will be created to harness and process those reserves. Now there’s a big gain.

However, if these oil discoveries are like every other such discovery, it is likely that most of the positive externalities of additional oil reserves are likely to be mostly internalized by private entities that will be exploit those reserves for their own profit. By contrast, there is another giant, natural resource with incredible potential may soon be tapped: the wireless spectrum.

The FCC has recently proposed that portions of the electromagnetic spectrum be reserved for large free public use, that consumers could eventually use to make calls or access the Internet. Unlike those seemingly trollish networks labelled “Free Public Wi-Fi,”

The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing WiFi networks that have become common in households. They could penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees. If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and in many rural areas.

The new WiFi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing for a driverless car to communicate with another vehicle a mile away or a patient’s heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town.

(Note, most of that should have used the word “could” rather than “would”). You might ask why the FCC hasn’t already done this, and the reason is that it was assumed that people wouldn’t be able to figure out how to use free spectrum without the FCC telling people which frequencies they may use. Until now, the FCC has accepted the economists’ logic that, in the face of the tragedy of the commons that is electromagnetic spectrum, the public is best served by slicing up the spectrum and selling it to various stewards who can make sure it gets commercially exploited by someone with an interest in efficient levels of use.

However, when it comes to a resource like the electromagnetic spectrum (and the transmission of information, in particular), traditional arguments don’t fare so well. Device makers have been figuring out how to use even extremely limited spectrum without interfering with the usage of others since the advent of WiFi itself, which was invented on–and continues to operate on–the sliver of electromagnetic spectrum the FCC left open for garage door openers. And now, the truth of technology has finally caught up to logic and the historic justification for regulation of the electromagnetic spectrum: the FCC is finally treating the spectrum like the public resource it is, and we may see that it gets used for the public’s maximal benefit.

The result of legitimately free (as in freedom, if not as in beer) access to the spectrum would be an explosion of communication, innovation, culture, socio-economic fairness, and yes, even commerce. Though the proposal doesn’t necessarily mean that free (as in beer) internet access will be provided, it seems likely if companies like Apple, Google, Cisco or Microsoft can build in technology on their devices that can figure out ways to connect to an Internet backbone. Think about how much money could go directly back into the pockets of how many people who pay telecommunications providers, and how much innovation and freedom would be promoted by allowing companies to try new things in the most free environment possible.

If it wasn’t already obvious enough that this move would have serious benefits to consumers, just look at who’s opposing it: the $178 billion wireless industry. These are the same guys making 97 percent profit margins on their “almost comically profitable” internet services because there are only a few major players in the market and prices can be fixed relatively easily. Remind you of any other industry that seems to get a lot of its crazy profits from exorbitant and seemingly unavoidable charges to consumers?

The ISPs also oppose basically any new innovation or change in the marketplace on the grounds that they “have to capitalize on what [they]’ve invested.” Which is to say, the official policy is that the telecommunications companies plan no more innovation until they’re forced to innovate further as a result of competition. And until the FCC’s latest proposal, it seems like Google was the only company with the size to give the ISPs a reason to even consider improving their infrastructure in a way that would pass the benefits along to the consumer. And even a company as large as Google is only rolling out Fiber in Kansas City as a way of testing the water.

So, for the rest of us, we’ll have to put some public trust in the FCC, and hope that the difference between spectrum and oil is that the spillover benefits will flow to the public.

If You Liked It, Then You Should Have Put A Pin In It

January 9, 2013

I just got engaged. And even though I’m not interested in starting any hardcore planning, I do have thoughts/ideas/curiosities/fantasies about what might take place some time down the road. So I figured that I might as well do what all newly engaged people seem to do to fritter away pent up ante-nuptial energies, and I joined Pinterest.

Pinterest calls itself a “virtual pinboard,” which lets users organize images, recipes and other things they find on the Web. Despite the fact that it was formed by three dudes, Pinterest seems (from my anecdotal experiences using it) to be populated almost exclusively by women (If you’re a fan of actual numbers, it has been reported that 83% of its users are female). I guess that comports with the ration of women to men who are actively involved in planning a wedding, but I have no doubt that there are economists far more capable than myself studying the question.

Another explanation may be that, at bottom, Pinterest seems to be about nesting (an activity associated with females as well). The central activity of Pinterest involves taking shiny things from one corner of the web or another pinner’s nest and adding it to one’s own. Once in the nest, the beautiful idea or product represents a call to action or inspiration, there to sit and stare you in the face, almost like the pinups an adolescent cuts out and pastes to their walls. The act of pinning is not so much active and involved as it is aspirational and reflective. Like the brightly colored, glossy magazines at the grocery store checkout, Pinterest allows users to bathe themselves in a fantasy that the images set before them represent the user’s actual life. It’s sort of like The Secret brought to social networking (a Pinterest board is nothing if not a vision board, after all).

Of course, providing the space for virtual nesting isn’t frivolous, despite what some scoffing dudes may tell you. Even if it was a frivolous waste of time, if investor valuations are any metric (and isn’t it really the only metric we have of such a thing?), it’s worth at least $1.5 billion of classic internet frivolity. Apparently, and this was a big surprise to me, Pinterest’s revenue model is about as pleasant as its design-centered aesthetic, considering the more common practices of the Internet economy. Even though Pinterest makes you give away all rights to your soul in its Terms of Use, Pinterest’s monetization strategy seems pretty tame for the moment. Like the rest of the web, Pinterest could collect and sell all of the personal information it wanted to about its users and sell them to the highest bidder. But apparently, the only thing Pinterest is doing with user content is modifying the links that users post to include Pinterest’s affiliate codes so that Pinterest gets a cut of whatever gets sold after a user clicks through to a purchase. Which is to say that Pinterst isn’t overreaching at all: it’s merely claiming its fee for delivering users to their purchase by way of its platform. Wonderful!

However, despite all that is legitimately laudable about Pinterest, I do have a few gripes based on my limited experience. Because people don’t have to actually consume/buy/use whatever products they pin, you end up seeing a lot of impractical or half-baked (literally) ideas and inexpert or unartful labelling and categorization by amateurs. For example, adding a random fruit juice to champagne DOES NOT CONSTITUTE A COCKTAIL, ladies of Pinterest. Nor is anything with caramel in it a martini of any kind, no matter what glass you put it in. And if the word “decadence” is in the name of the drink, you’re probably doing it wrong. One thing Pinterest can definitely show you is the depths of the varieties of flavored vodka: “iced cake” and “kissed caramel” vodka are actual things apparently used by people in drinks.

Of course, you can chalk up anything distasteful to the tastes of the users themselves. The fact that you see a lot of stuff you’d disagree with on an aesthetic level just shows that Pinterest is much like other social networks in terms of displaying a profile of each user. What may set Pinterest apart is that the user gets to re-examine their own pinboard, a composite of their tastes, interests, and habits. Users may even perform some analytics on themselves (and hopefully their drinking habits) in order to figure out what it is each user actually wants in their nest. Luckily for me, I already found my lady.


Post Hocalypse Now!

December 20, 2012

Mayans. Who’d have thought they’d come back to haunt us? Oh wait, they’re not.

It’s simultaneously one of the oldest and also the most recent prediction of apocalypse. But what’s really telling about the 12/21/12 thing, is how we have squirmy reactions we don’t admit to and overt, winking news coverage on a date. I suppose it’s no surprise that people are willing to latch onto any prediction of end-times, given that it is inherent in human nature to want our lives to be imbued with more importance. And our survival instincts kick in at subconscious levels, even prior to our conscious mind has the time to react and quell those fears.

But, even if you buy into the hype, apparently the Mayan-predicted apocalypse is a misinterpretation. What a twist! In May, another (even older) Mayan calendar was found that shows the current baktun cycle is not the last one, and that the cycles continue for another 7,000 years or so beyond December 21, 2012. As it turns out, like all calendars, you can keep making new ones. The fact that the Mayans didn’t figure out what calendars would look like past tomorrow doesn’t mean that days wouldn’t continue to happen past that point.

But if your adrenaline is still high, and you really feel like preparing yourself for the end of the world, check out this list of handy dandy tips.

Also, this already happened in New Zealand, in case you’re still worried:

New Zealand Reports: the world has not ended