Today for the first time, a web site I visited directed me to http://www.enable-javascript.com/  The site is supposed to be a service for webmasters who need an easy and accurate way to tell site visitors how to enable Javascript in the browser.  Though at first glance that may seem like a great idea and a useful service, it is just the opposite.

This is bad on so many levels.

  • The site makes no mention of any of the many good reasons why you would want Javascript disabled.
  • It doesn’t ask the user to consider how or why Javascript  came to be disabled in their browser in the first place and the implications of reversing that action.
  • It fails to consider the possibility that Javascript is enabled but that it is being blocked by a plug-in or add-on, in which case the instructions will be useless.
  • It offers no information on any of the tools that allow you to enable Javascript on a site-by-site basis

The only function of the site is to tell visitors how to enable Javascript globally for a variety of browsers, as if that were universally a Good Thing.  There is no attempt whatsoever to explain the issues with sufficient depth to allow the visitor to make an informed decision about enabling Javascript.  Considering that Javascript generally has to be manually disabled, who is the target audience?  People who used to know why they wanted scripts disabled but have since forgotten?

And who are the target audience among webmasters?  If the site is usable without script, visitors have no reason to enable script, therefore no reason to visit http://www.enable-javascript.com/.  Presumably, this service is targeted to webmasters whose sites fail to provide content with script disabled.  The webmaster who links to this site is saying to their visitors “My content is so valuable that it is worth the risk to you of turning on Javascript for all sites on the Internet, including those that host active malware such as phishing sites and malvertising networks.”

Or, more likely, it is aimed at webmasters whose advertising fails to render with scripts disabled. In that case the webmaster who links to this site is saying to their visitors “My content is so valuable to me that it is worth imposing the risk to you of turning on Javascript for all sites on the Internet, including those that host active malware such as phishing sites and malvertising networks.”

Who is the more naive one in this exchange?  The visitor who follows the link and enables Javascript globally?  Or the webmaster who genuinely thinks this is a good idea and implements it?

I use some script on my web sites but my approach is to not collect personal data so there’s nothing for me to lose, and to not monetize traffic with dynamic ad networks known to carry malvertising.  I want people to feel comfortable white-listing my site if they want it to be responsive and mobile-friendly, to see the slider on the home page, or to use the social media functions.  I will happily point them to NoScript, Ghostery, Privacy Badger, and more.  But the content doesn’t rely on scripts.  (Possibly The Odd is Silent does since WordPress hosts it, but I try to minimize the impact, including paying them to remove their ads.)

I would never ask you to enable scripts globally to view my content.  And I can’t help but wonder about anyone who would.

Vendor entitlement run amok

My main issue with vendors turning us into instrumented data sources isn’t the data so much as the lack of consent. My Fitbit knows a lot about me but it’s an add-on that I self-selected and it provides value to me. The tracking in my browser is not something I can easily avoid since the browser is now an integral part of my life. Between those extremes there are lots of IoT devices that you can currently choose a private version but where that choice is rapidly disappearing. You can still buy a dumb light switch but not a dumb car, for example. Your shiny new GT phones home.

Among the vendors who seem to feel an entitlement to our data is Microsoft, whose Windows 10 is basically a box of spyware disguised as a user-productivity-gaming-and-cat-video-watching platform. I’ve already written about the issues there, how to mitigate them, and the disheartening number of those “features” that can’t be disabled. Yet as bad as all that is, this latest revelation still managed to surprise me across several metrics: the lack of consent, the extent of the invasion, the degree of exposure, the fact that it’s already been exploited to infect user devices, the fact that the entity who exploited it is a “legitimate” vendor, and the fact that said “legitimate” vendor egregiously exposed the exploit to the Internet. [Read more…]

Apple applies for patent to deliver ads based on credit status

In USPTO Application 20150199725, Apple describes a system for targeting advertisements “based on the amount of pre-paid credit available to each user.”  The application goes on to say that “An advantage of such targeted advertising is that only advertisements for goods and services which particular users can afford, are delivered to these users.”

I’m unhappy with this for a few reasons.  My first objection is that the human-readable description on the application is deceptive.  Your pre-paid balance is not an indicator of what you “can afford.” For example, if you deposit $X each week for your college kid’s expenses, that balance on the card doesn’t mean (s)he can “afford” luxury products costing $X or less. If you are me, it means they can afford ramen noodles, paper, pens and not much else.

People shouldn’t be bombarded with ads products costing $X or less just because that amount shows up in their debit card regularly. It would be a very effective technique to market items with a street price of $(1.25*X) discounted to $X to such people. That changes the equation from “can’t afford to buy it” to “can’t afford *not* to buy it, at these prices!”

Ads for things that cost more than you can spend are described in the application as being disappointing.  But I submit that a constant barrage of ads for things you know you can buy but should not is worse.  Having to say no to things you obviously cannot buy gives you practice saying no to things you should not buy.  You get used to a large portion of things in your ad stream being unavailable.  Exercising that “no muscle” helps at times of vigilance fatigue when you are sorely tempted to do something self-destructive, and who doesn’t have days like that?

On the other hand, a constant stream of things you want, have the cash to pay for, but really cannot afford would be depressing.  It leads toward the rationalization of “why shouldn’t I buy this? I can afford it.”  In a bit of psychological alchemy, it converts “can pay for” to “can afford” much as the patent application conflates the two and to the same ends.  I suspect there are people for whom this system will make shopping even more addictive than it already is and I doubt they can get a medical exemption from the advertiser.  At least not without agreeing to let the advertiser use their medically diagnosed addiction as a targeting criteria.

I can see it now.  Ads for “Shopaholics Pseudonymous – more effective than any 12-Step program and only $69.95/month!”

I also wonder about the subtle but significant disconnect between the example of “pre-paid credit” used in the human-readable introduction, versus the text of the patent claims which consistently use the words “credit status” as the decision criteria. Credit status is a lot broader term than pre-paid credit and could include FICO scores, payment history, income-to-debt ratio, etc. Future Terms Of Service documents supporting this technology could use a similar suggestive and ambiguous language construction to bootstrap unwitting permanent permission grants by consumers that allow advertisers to run full credit reports at will.

Various Federal and State laws restrict who is allowed to pull your credit report and for what reasons. The last project I worked on at Equifax was designed to get as far as possible around those laws in order to sell credit-qualified mailing lists without recording a credit report hit. Bypassing those legal restrictions is the holy grail of reporting agencies because it opens up their information database to lucrative new markets eager for that data. Of course, none of that matters once the consumer explicitly grants permission and a TOS worded to grant access to your “credit status” could do just that.

Of all the claims in the application, I especially like this one:

[0044] In one embodiment, the advertisement management system 14 is arranged to reserve a portion of the available credit (or actual credit) equal to the amount of an item in an advertisement being delivered to a user upon delivery of the advertisement. Thus, if the user wants to purchase the advertised item, they would definitely have available credit. However, the user would not be able to use this reserved credit, if needed, for other purchases.

Assuming widgets cost more than half your balance and you don’t like Apple’s widget on offer, you are prevented from buying Orange’s widget until the charge hold expires.

Incidentally, substitute “gun” for “widget” and Apple just implemented a mandatory cooling-off period for gun sales. Well, except for the one Apple wanted to sell you. You can have that one immediately.

IYou can't buy this am imagining the series of ads you get. Say you have $500 of credit available. The first few ads are for $100 items like expensive wine or flower delivery for your spouse. But now the credit is reserved and you have only $200 left to spend so the next ads are for a pair of mid-tier headphones and a new mobile handset costing $50 and 2-years of indentured servitude. But those ads reserved some of your balance too and now you have less than $100 available.

It continues on like this until the only ads you receive are for a soft drink in the vending machine and all you can afford there is the generic soda and not the Coke or Pepsi. At some point you are turned down at the grocery checkout trying to buy baby formula and diapers because Apple’s been pushing ads for iPads at you all day.

Many years ago, Eve took a bite out of the apple and Bad Things happened.  Hang onto your wallets folks because it looks like the Apple is finally getting around to biting back.



The nightmare of easy and simple

The instrumented waste bin I predicted at the San Francisco Personal Data meetup a couple years back is now a thing.  While researching GeniCan I naturally had to go read their privacy policy.  It was there that I stumbled onto a service that lets you generate a privacy policy from a workflow.  You fill in some data and select from several options, it generates a custom policy from an inventory of templates that it fills in and assembles.  It can make policies for your web site, Facebook app or mobile app. Easy. Simple. Free.

Sounds awesome, right?

You were waiting for the “but”?

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Better surveys = better signal

I’ve spilled many bits in this blog about the difference between vendor-driven creepy malvertising ad-tech versus consumer-driven intentcasting and Vendor Relationship management.  The vendor-driven model is the one where you are surveilled from all sides and the data compiled, analyzed, sliced, diced, massaged, correlated and enhanced until the vendor has a good idea to which things you will respond viscerally and then attempt to manipulate you with them.  This model is based on exploitation of human biases and vigilance fatigue. Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) on the other hand is about the consumer broadcasting intent and preferences to a market that can respond accordingly.  This model is based on fulfillment of the consumer’s self-directed interests and desires.

Somewhere in the middle are consumer surveys: direct customer input, wholly vendor driven.  Or at least many people, vendors and customers alike, think these are somewhere in the middle.  Me?  I’m a sucker for surveys since they are about as close to VRM as it gets most of the time these days.  I fill them out in bulk in hopes of detecting some whiff of VRM in one of them, and now and then I’m rewarded for my effort.  But only once in a blue moon.  Sadly, virtually all surveys I’ve seen fail to rise to a level that might qualify as anything close to VRM and most are just plain clueless.

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Forget back doors, the NSA wants to mandate a front door

In their never-ending quest to eavesdrop on you, the NSA now wants to mandate that all encrypted communications must allow them access.  As Joel Hruska explains in an article in Extreme Tech, there are many reasons why this will not work.  The two big ones are that it isn’t possible to guarantee only authorized government agents will use the access, and because we currently have no effective means of oversight and accountability.

Dean Landsman recently posed the question “how does one go about preventing/protecting or just enabling security against such intrusion?”  The only answer is to do so in the legislature and in the various international bodies.  If the NSA proposals and others of its ilk become law, products like Blackphone and Qredo will become illegal.  However, this will not stop criminals from using crypto that the government cannot break and which is readily available.  It is true in the most literal sense that when unbreakable crypto is outlawed, only outlaws will have unbreakable crypto.

Considering the triviality of obtaining unbreakable crypto, only law-abiding citizens will use the NSA-accessbile stuff.  Combine that with the power imbalance inherent in such a scheme and the inevitable conclusion is this:

Of all possible uses to which such a law can be put, the only ones we can predict with 100% confidence to be implemented are those that abuse the privacy of law-abiding citizens.

The corollary to this is that the higher value a criminal target, the more likely they are to use readily available unbreakable crypto.  That means the people the government most wants to catch are those least likely to be vulnerable to eavesdropping if the proposed legislation is enacted.  Such a law would be unfit for its stated purpose.  It would be broken at birth, defective by design.

There are a few possible technological controls that can be imposed.  For example, when using blinded tokens it is possible to design them in such a way that they can be un-blinded but doing so is detectable.  It is doubtful any government would agree to using that technology though, since their investigation would revealed immediately upon the unblinding of the token.

However, even if enforceable accountability were implemented as a compromise, the government’s strategy could be to simply unblind everything.  Sort of a mass Denial-of-Privacy attack.  Or perhaps a Denial-of-Privacy-Enhancement (DOPE) attack if you want the acronym to accurately describe the people who would do such a thing.

This also illustrates one of the primary weapons brought to bear against personal liberty around the world: fatigue.  All that is necessary to pass such laws is to keep submitting them to the legislature.  The people impacted will object the first time.  A few less of them the second time.  When it comes down to just the die-hard activists, the legislature can be confident they are one bill away from victory.

Thomas Jefferson once said “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  That was before digital communications were invented.  Can we perhaps try to refresh the tree of liberty with a call or FAX to our representative before we go off and start killing people?

Intentcasting…to a roach?

OK, so it’s a robot and not a roach. But it is a robot that *looks* a lot like a roach. Researchers at Bielefeld University are experimenting with emergent behavior on a robot platform they named Hector. Their software thus far has been reactive. The new software aims to give the robot “what if” capabilities to solve problems it has not been programmed for. This would imbue the robot with independent goal-directed behavior – i.e. robot intentions.

But beyond that, “they have now developed a software architecture that could enable Hector to see himself as others see him.” In other words, they gave it theory of mind and their ultimate goal is for it to be able to sense the intentions of humans and take these into account when formulating responses and actions. They want it to be self-aware. Though the rest of the world will probably see in this the parallels to Skynet of Terminator fame, the more interesting part to me is the notion that it will sense human intention.

Perhaps this is because the current crop of “smart” devices seems very autistic to me.  Though they have a wide range of apparent intelligence, they respond only to what they can directly sense, and only within a context of which they are the center.  The inability to make inferences about humans, and in particular to understand their intentions, is a typically autistic cognitive deficit.  While it is possible to emulate this to some extent, it is often perceived as inauthentic and creepy, which may be why I write about it so much.

Bielefeld University's Hector robot

Bielefeld University’s robot Hector is close to being self-aware

The quest by the marketing industry to provide targeted messaging tailored to your specific interests and intentions very much parallels the autistic experience.  Any given product or brand seeks to better understand how it is perceived by humans.  Or to put it another way, products and brands lack theory of mind and the ability to infer human emotions and intentions from non-verbal communication.  Like any autistic person, they attempt to mitigate their cognitive deficits by gathering data, observing reactions, forming a model of human behavior, calculating appropriate responses, then improving data sources and refining the model over time.  When humans do this we call it vocational training and independence skills.  When vendors do this we call it ad-tech.  Both groups tend to wonder why people at large often perceive it as creepy.

Hector is essentially autistic.  With the addition if self-awareness and the ability to infer human intentions, Hector may cross the line to creepy.  We’ll find out shortly.


JT (Jibo Terrestrial) phone home!

The consciousness of most of our iconic sci-fi robots like C3PO and Robbie was modeled after that of humans – it was self-contained and part of the robot itself. Even though the Star Wars bots could access the networked world, they didn’t send their sensor data back to a central mother ship to be interpreted, processed, and turned into instructions for the robot to follow, then transmitted back. Everything happened locally. Contrast this with our real-world robots that use the mother ship architecture. Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Google [x], Jibo, Pepper, etc. all phone home more often than ET.  If you use these products, their vendors have access to all the data they send back to the mother ship.  Because that data is potentially very valuable, it would be naive to believe that it will be discarded once its benefit to you  the user has been realized.

It remains to be seen how the software coming out of Bielefeld will work, but one hopes that some aspect of self-awareness will be so incompatible with latency as to strongly favor local processing. If that is true and the new robot architecture is more like science fiction of yesteryear than the science fact of today, there is some hope that someone, somewhere on the planet will finally use intention detection in a non-creepy way that primarily benefits the individual and not the vendor.  It might also give us insights that will improve the lives of autistic people by helping us learn to infer human behavior in non-creepy ways.

On the other hand, if you ever read about Hector in Ad Age, we are all doomed. Skynet will have awoken. And it will have a really good deal for you.


A version of this post which more deeply explores the autism connection is posted on my Ask-An-Aspie blog here.

Surprising security issue at Host Gator

I recently signed up for – and promptly dumped – Host Gator.  The QOS (Quotient of Suckage) was off the chart but in this post I’ll focus on a surprising security exposure that was revealed in the process.

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Roadie further blurs the lines between atoms and bits

The business model behind Roadie sounds simple enough: fill all that unused cargo space in commuter cars with goods for delivery.  But look a bit deeper and it is potentially transformative.

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The Newtrain Manifesto

Next month Deborah Schultz will be presenting a keynote called Smart Data: The Struggle to Enhance Customer Experience in a Digital World at the Direct Marketing Association’s upcoming Marketing Analytics Conference.  In preparation she bounced the topic off of the VRM mailing list asking how the crowd there would challenge this audience.  Naturally, I had a few ideas.

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