Category Archives: Privacy

What we don’t do about phone scammers

Are you a bit amazed that we still deal with phone harassment roughly the same as we did at the advent of caller ID, with no advancements? (We got caller ID in the 1990s, around the time cell phones were still big enough to use as bludgeons.)

If you think about it, our telephone providers in all forms could easily enable us to block calls from any number we wished. Yet they do not; it is treated as almost a constitutional right for any jackass, scammer, charity or freak to bother us at any hour, unless it rises above the considerable threshold for the law to pretend to care. And the only solution our precious government could devise was a new government program called the ‘do not call’ list, which doesn’t work well even on domestic harassers, and has zero impact on foreign harassers. Easiest thing in the world: a law requiring telephone providers to permit a phone number’s owner to block calls from chosen numbers. Wasn’t even up for consideration.

This is a good example of why whether something is legal or illegal is never a factor in my judgment of its morality. It always amazes me when someone confuses the two, as if law were moral. Morality is about behavior; the options we select. Law is about control, and nothing else. Conflate the two, and you let a bunch of people so stupid and/or evil they will not give you a way to block a phone number dictate right and wrong to you.

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The Great Facebook Garbage Patch

You might be aware that the Pacific Ocean contains a Sea of Garbage. No exaggeration (and it’s not the only one of its kind). While it’s nature is popularly misunderstood, the reality is disgusting enough: enough discarded plastic is floating in the North Pacific Gyre for the deteriorated particles to be an environmental problem at best, a disaster at worst. It doesn’t quite resemble the ‘many miles of floating used diapers’ vision many people have, but that actually might be less of a problem. One might gather up and dispose of used diapers, for example. Not so simple with deteriorated plastic particles.

I apply a related philosophy to my Facebook page ‘Likes.’

Why? Because one’s Likes feed the data hydra, which enables the following:

  • Serving suitable ads. I don’t like ads, and even though I block Facebook’s, that doesn’t mean I want to help them create a clear picture of my true preferences. And since we are the product, and we are not compensated nor cut into the profits, I see no reason to cooperate.
  • The collation of a dossier on me, which I expect either will be or is being sold to other people. There’s probably a clause deep in some TOS that says that I authorize that, but here’s a novel concept: I do not recognize those. I don’t care whether the law does or not. To me, anything buried in impossibly legalistic fine print designed to discourage me from reading it simply isn’t morally binding, just as I do not recognize as morally binding any form of coerced oath.

If I cannot prevent the dossier from compilation, I can ruin it by drowning it in trash. Thus, the Great Facebook Garbage Patch, containing at least a hundred spurious Likes for every valid Like. I Like flower shops in Indonesia, restaurants in Warsaw, bands in Chile. I Like a bizarre variety of movies. I Like numerous celebrities I’ve never heard of. I did this by feeding a random word to the search function, then Liking the first couple dozen pages that turned up. Over and over, once a week or so.

Does it bother me what people might think, surfing through my Likes and wondering what a strange creature I must be? No. I wouldn’t be sure what to make of anyone who based a judgment on that, if I was the type to care much about public opinion to begin with. Would it be great if they could be authentic, leading me to points of actual common interest? Sure, but it’s not worth knowing that I’m fleshing out the dossier in accurate manner.

What to mass Like today? Well, the Seagulls play the Broncos in a couple of hours. I think it’s time to bulk Like ‘seagull.’

Fun with collection agencies

This is a new one for me, because I’ve never had anyone need to sick the collection dogs on me in all my life. Either I’m not paying and someone can go to hell because I don’t rightly owe the money, or (99.9%) I’m paying promptly in full–or if I slip up, accepting responsibility and apologizing. (Well, why not, if it was my screwup?) So I do not know much about how it feels to have bill collectors call.

I do know that most of the people they’re after have probably defaulted on multiple debts. Sometimes it’s not their fault; our medical system is like a random fiscal meteorite shower, where a little bad luck can wreck your finances for life. But those who are said to owe, probably do owe, and I am sure that in a majority of cases they would just prefer not to pay that which they fairly owe. If the collecting were done by the party to whom the money was originally owed, I’d have more sympathy for the collecting side, but it’s their duty to get their facts right. Including the correct phone number.

As it is, a couple times a week, I get a robocall from a bill collection agency. Now, the first time, I could see that perhaps it was the former owner of the phone number. However, I don’t recognize the right to robocall anyone on such matters. Want to have a conversation? Call, introduce yourself by full name and organization, and tell me your business in a forthright manner. All civil. Mistaken identity? Glad to clarify. If they robocall me, they get nothing. Robocall me several times, and no matter what they do thereafter, they get nothing. I’m now collecting my own bill from them, and I feel free to determine that new debt is accrued each time they disturb me for any reason. I no longer wish to make nice. After all, I don’t have a problem. I don’t owe any past due bills. I don’t need to take ownership of their problem.

Got one today; saw the caller ID and got my game face on. These days, most companies have someone who speaks Spanish.

“Bonjour ?”

“Hello, may I speak to Mary Dublois?” (pronouncing it dew-BLOYZ)?

“Quoi ?”

“Do you speak English?

“Je ne comprends pas.” (I don’t understand.)

“What language is that?”

“Qui est a l’appareil ?” (Who’s calling?)

“Is that Spanish?”

“Je ne vous comprends pas.” (I don’t understand you.)

“We’ll have someone call back who speaks Spanish.”

“Merde alors.” (Break a leg–my sarcastic way of saying ‘knock yourself out.’ Though the literal meaning, ‘shit, then’ would also work.)

When they call back, I will answer. But not in Spanish or French:

“?שלום. מי שמטלפן” (Hello. Who’s calling?)

They really should not robocall me. And if the excuse were that this was the most practical model for their business, my response is that this is the most practical model for my own business, and that their problem is not my problem, and that I decline to own or accommodate their problems, especially in view of the lack of consideration they show for mine.

I wish more people would stop letting institutions make the rules. That is part of what we have come to as a society. Companies made rules, acted on them to our detriment, and we accepted ‘that’s just our policy’ as a valid excuse. Me, I think I have as much right to make policy for myself as they do for themselves.

And mine is rigorously enforced.

Blogging tip of the day

I’ve been getting a couple hundred spam comments a day. WP catches 99% of them, if not more, but I still have to dump the trash.

If you are getting tired of shoveling out your spam comments, take a moment to look through them and see what post or page the spammer replied to. Then change the URL (WP calls it the ‘permalink’), even by just a character. Bingo. Their old spammable post or page no longer exists.

The only drag is that this will also break any legit links that other sites have made to your page. At this point, it was worth it.

Why credit card fraudsters get to keep trying until they score

I have just experienced one of the bizarrest, stupidest situations I could imagine.

Yesterday, we got a phone call about our Bank of America Visa card. It was from their Fraud Department. Like anyone with more brain cells than his shoe size, I hung up and called the number on the card. Yep, the real deal: someone at a branch of a specified bank (let’s call it Union Bank) had tried to jack a four-figure cash advance from our card, something we’d only do in the gravest emergency. Props to the fraud trigger system. Fair is fair: they agreed to Fedex new cards to Deb and I, in separate states no less. At this point in the story, naturally, I’m delighted with their handling.

After I let Deb know, she suggested I find out where the transaction originated, and what would be done to prosecute it. I hadn’t thought about that, but she was dead right. Where it originated might give us a clue as to where/how the information was stolen. And if it had happened at a Union Bank branch, well, that was investigative gold. Banks video everything, from ATM stuff to standing in line trying not to get caught scratching one’s privates. If I knew where this bank branch was, I could contact the relevant law enforcement, assist them with any evidence I could provide, and maybe we’d snag the crooks doing this. Great idea, dear; I will do it.

I had no idea what I was in for.

I called the BOA Fraud Department again. The first time, I got someone with such a heavy accent it was problematic to communicate. I asked politely to speak to someone easier to understand and was sent to Silenceland; they hate that, but I’m not going to piddle around trying to decipher an extremely heavy accent. I called back, got someone a little more conversant in American English, and was put through to the next level. After they validated that I was the real me, it went something like this:

“Hi. Yesterday there was a fraudulent cash advance attempt on my account. You closed it and are sending me new cards, which I appreciate. The attempt came from a Union Bank. Could you tell me which branch, so I can notify the police?”

“We don’t have that information, sir. Since the transaction was refused, we did not save it.”

“What? Did you provide it to the police, so they can actually catch the goon?”

“No, sir. Since no fraud occurred, we did not.”

“How am I supposed to notify the correct police department if you throw away the evidence of the origin of the crime?”

“There wasn’t a crime, sir, only an attempt which was defeated.”

“Attempted crimes are also a crime. How will you ever stop the sources of crime if you don’t report them to the police?”

“That isn’t the same, sir.”

“Oh, yes, it is the same. If you swung a baseball bat at me, that’d be attempted assault, and the police would consider it an offense. One is not allowed to attempt felonies.”

“It’s our policy, sir. When the transaction is refused, we do not preserve the information. Only our law enforcement department could get it, and you have to be a police officer to contact them.”

“I assume I am not allowed to talk to your law enforcement department?”

“Correct.”

“So let me get this straight. The information is available to your law enforcement department. I can’t talk to them. And since I have no idea whose police have jurisdiction, and your company won’t tell me even though it could, it is impossible for me to initiate an investigation. And you do not see the Catch-22 in this, evidently.”

“That’s our policy, sir.”

“Your bank is the best thing that ever happened to thieves. No wonder so few of them are ever caught. You simply don’t care. Okay, I have all the information I need. Thank you for your hel–”

“Sir, we do care, we just don’t reta–”

“Ma’am, I am trying to get off the phone while I can still be polite. I realize you personally didn’t set this ridiculous policy. Far and away the wisest thing you can do right now is to let me end this call.”

“Knock yourself out, sir, have a nice day.”

===

I don’t fault her for repeating back a stupid policy, nor for being a bit of a wiseass at the end–I was getting pretty frustrated, although it’s not like I was abusive or anything. My issue, as should be clear, is with Bank of America’s Fraud Perpetuation department (as I now choose to call them). Here we are with a recorded environment as the evident point of origin of the felony attempt. The amount was the sort of amount that looks like it was chosen on purpose, to slip below a certain threshold of detection and notification. There’s a chance this was done by a professional criminal who gets information from garbage cans or is an insider at a business.

And you cannot get Bank of America to help the police chase them down, nor will Bank of America give you the information you need in order to do it yourself, unless you are a police officer. And, obviously, since BoA will not tell you the location of the crime attempt, you cannot know which police to notify. How many branches does Union Bank have? Hundreds, probably, in many states. Good luck.

Thus, credit card crooks keep on crookin’, thanks to the benign neglect of Bank of America’s Fraud Perpetuation department. And they evidently know it. Evidently there’s little risk at all. This system practically invites fraud.

I’m so glad we are firing these people as our checking bank. The only reason we keep this card is for the Alaska Air miles, for Deb to take trips now and then to visit family. And I’m not sure it wouldn’t be better just to buy the plane tickets ourselves.

Outing predatory law enforcement in Washington

(Washington, the state. Obviously. Is there another place named Washington that comes to mind when one says the word? If so, I’m not aware of it. I refuse to say ‘Washington state.’ Let other Washingtons, if any exist, add qualifiers.)

This is my farewell gift to the people of the beautiful, diverse state in which I spent thirty-nine years. I plan to update it as I learn more, so if you have experiences to share, please comment.

While it’s no secret that plenty of American small towns depend for a percentage of their revenue on police issuing ridiculous traffic tickets to tourists, Washington seems to be one of the worst in this regard. The Speed Trap Exchange is a great idea, but poorly maintained and organized. Really too bad.

My definition of a ridiculous traffic ticket is one issued for a paltry (<3 mph) violation of a stupidly low speed limit, or for deceptive signage that tends to assure that otherwise safe and careful drivers stand a fair chance to speed by innocent error. Being stopped for 10 mph over the limit on the freeway is not predatory or ridiculous: accept your ticket and pay your fine. Same for failing to heed a school zone, unless they have conveniently concealed the sign.

Town/city (County):

Bingen/White Salmon (Klickitat): quaint sailboarding heaven with a long reputation for persnickety and predatory ticketing.

Black Diamond (King): a fast-growing former rurality with great views of Mt. Rainier–and police who live to issue tickets for going 2 mph over the limit.

Brier (Snohomish): a tiny suburb of Lynnwood/Edmonds with about three police officers and no noteworthy crime. Favorite sport: radaring people on the way down a steep hill for a few mph over the limit.

Cle Elum (Kittitas): a freeway commercial loop town in a gorgeous setting–until you get ticketed for going 1 mph over the limit.

Clyde Hill (King): a wealthy western suburb of Bellevue near the SR 520 bridge with a very long reputation for eagerness to ticket. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that your Camry was likelier to be ticketed than your Mercedes, but I’m thinking it.

Colfax (Whitman): a wheat town at a major crossroads leading to WSU. An otherwise inoffensive place with a plodding speed limit for which you can expect a ticket for even 1-2 mph over the limit. Infamous as Washington’s worst predatory speed trap town. The very worst, most obvious, most blatant, most unapologetic. If you speed through Colfax, either you hail from afar and know no better, or you don’t mind tickets. It is so notorious that TV commentators joke about it on the air during Coug football games.

Naselle (Pacific): part of the whole Pacific County ticket-crazy zone. They won’t bother to ticket the massive RV slowing everyone down in violation of the law, but if you’re doing 58 in a 55, expect to be stopped–State Patrol and county deputies both have this place on lockdown.

Oak Harbor (Island): the primary town of Whidbey Island, but a combination of frequent speed limit changes and reputed different treatment for local addresses vs. tourists make all of Whidbey a ticket minefield. Side note: I once got to be part of completely legal high-speed chases against the Oak Harbor Police in one of the greatest ROTC field training exercises ever (one you couldn’t even consider doing today). They were really annoyed when we won the engagement and the E&E. Helps to be advised by Special Forces, nearly all with Vietnam combat patches.

Raymond (Pacific): Nirvana played their first gig here, and probably got a ticket for playing 2 mph over the limit. One of those towns where it looks like you’re out of town and on the highway again, but until you see a new speed limit sign, you aren’t. Police have nothing better to do than cite Seattleites headed toward Long Beach.

South Bend (Pacific): another joyous center of Pacific County’s predatory enforcement. Watch for signs like a hawk. If you have Oregon tags, or worse, California, you’re even more screwed.

West Richland (Benton): a sprawling suburb of Tri-Cities, and home to its most predatory law enforcement. Speed limits make little sense, unless the purpose is to enable officers to ticket you because, feeling bad about the locals stacked up behind you who are outraged at your respect for their city’s law, you foolishly yielded to their tailgating and decided to speed. Just pull off and let them by, especially if there are five or more–that law will be enforced for the first time on the very day you violate it.

Thank you, Washington, for thirty-nine years. When I first came, you treated me so abominably I believed I would hate you for all my days, and leave you the instant life drew me away, swearing never to return in peace.

Luckily, it got better. Your natives included my best man, some of the finest friends I’ve ever known, people who gave me opportunities and lessons, neighbors most people would ford a river of steaming sewage to have. In the end, on balance, the good far outweighed the horrors, no matter how early and harmful those were.

On balance, in years between the second Nixon and second Obama administrations, you wrought me more weal than woe. I will miss your emerald flag, your silhouette state highway signs, and your delicate curves. I was never a Washingtonian, but I hope what I gave back to you over two generations showed you my full gratitude.

I’ll visit.

How the Google data hydra begins to die

I think I watched a head of the Google data hydra wither and die today–the second one in two weeks. It’s hard to predict the future, but this may have meant something for someone besides me.

What it is

Let’s define what this ‘data hydra’ is all about, and why I call it that. Here’s what Google does. It provides a very useful free service or software product to the public. The idea is to entrench that service to the point where it becomes a need, not a want. Here’s the catch: each of these services will phone home to Google on what you did, helping them to assemble a multi-faceted portrait of you for marketing purposes. Google can then sell advertising targeted at you. Some of it is camouflaged as stuff other than advertising.

You may not resent this. If you do, it doesn’t bother me; the choice is very individual. But if you do not resent it at all, the rest of this post may be of marginal interest. You may consider that it’s a voluntary business transaction in which we use the service in return for fair compensation of surrendering some data for their use. If so, you probably don’t think this whole subject is worth discussing. Okay.

The data hydra has tentacles. These fasten into your system and begin to report back. The best known are cookies, little data bits that can report back to Google from many non-Google sites. I don’t know what all they report, but I know that they want to remain on your machine between sessions. Less known are web trackers, little beacons that also may be on many non-Google sites. Thousands of web advertising companies use them, and most of you have no idea they are there. However, if you wonder how Facebook knows you just went to a site pertaining to travel to Bali, that’s how. Google, of course, uses them as ubiquitously as possible. A tentacle that presents Google with the richest harvest is actual applications and helpers that you download. If the thing is on the web, there are at least ways for you to refuse to let it work on your machine. If it’s on your machine, it can do whatever it wants, phone home any time it cares to. The most common would be Google Chrome (web browser; what’s better positioned to listen at your e-keyhole?) and Google Earth (surface view software). I’ve always loved it when people claimed that Google Chrome gave them better privacy. If anyone honestly believes that a Google application running on his or her computer will not make 100% sure that it has a backdoor saying ‘Google is the exception; Google gets everything’, that’s fine. You’re in the position of Native Americans signing treaties, pretty much, but have fun.

Everyone has to decide where his or her front line is, if there is to be one, in the battle with the data hydra. Or just do what most people do: say “screw it, who cares.”

My battle fronts

If you don’t use anything by Google, you still don’t shut out the data hydra, though Google would have to go further to profit from knowing what you read. I block all Google things that I can on as many sites as I can, selectively enabling some when it’s easier than fighting. Thus, everything from Google presents a decision: will I use it, and what will I tolerate in order to use it?

Google Chrome: will not use. I assume that if I use that, all other privacy efforts are defeated.

Google Earth: tried, uninstalled. Novelty application, but clunky and just isn’t very necessary.

Google Accounts: a key feature of all Google tracking. In their ideal world, you would always be logged into your Google account. Thus, as often as possible, they deny you features unless you login to a Google Account, in which case you are offered a richer experience. I have one, but I don’t use it very often.

Google Search: have long used, blocking all the cookies. Also have several browser add-ins to lie to it about my location, spam it with spurious searches, and otherwise feed it mountains of baloney. Still useful to me, though they are gradually making it worse, and driving me toward others.

Google Documents: probably the smartest trick Google ever pulled, with the potential to make Microsoft irrelevant. Offers cloud computing: ‘here, let us store your data; it will never get lost, and you or anyone you permit can access it anywhere.’ Of course, the big draw here is to make you login to a Google Account. Sometimes, they demand this just to view the document. In most cases, they demand it if you want to modify it. I fear this one the most, because due to my line of work, it’s possible I could be forced into doing Google’s bidding in order to get paid. Employers don’t care about your data hydra concerns–they do what’s easy for them, and if you don’t like it, find another job.

Google Groups: Google decided to simply swallow Usenet whole. Google Groups allow a fairly clunky form of collaboration and discussion, which can be as private as you wish. They were the cause of me creating a Google Account, because my RPG group was run by someone who embraced Google whatever and I wanted to be able to communicate and participate. However, I always hated this in silence, and I’ll admit that (years later) when they waited until I missed a session, turned it into a behind-the-back bitchfest about me, and kicked me out by phone call without the slightest phase of ‘here is what bothers us, we will face you honestly and give you opportunity to change your style,’ one of my consolations was that I never had to use the Google Group again. Easily dispensed with, unless your esoteric interest happens to exist in a Google Group.

Google Translate: will translate to and from some thirty languages, with passable accuracy. I have used it mostly as a dictionary. Bing has one that seems just as good. Recently, Google has been periodically breaking some of its features for people who block as many tentacles as I do. Today, I deleted GT from my toolbar. I wanted to do something, Google was refusing to load GT, and I decided I’d had enough.

Google News: aggregates world and local news, very handy for avoiding mainstream media’s ‘here is the story we order you to care about today’ manipulation. How do they decide what’s local to you? They look at your IP and figure out where you are. GN was the first of my Google uses to begin periodically breaking itself unless I gave it what it wanted. Happily, news aggregators are everywhere. I deleted the toolbar button several days ago, tired of dealing with ‘will it work for me today, or not?’. I don’t like its replacement’s layout as well, but it always works for me, and it gets my current location wrong enough that I can bear it.

Gmail: will not use. Obviously.

Google Toolbar: will not use, same reasons as Chrome. I’d rather comprise my own toolbar.

Google Maps: not needed. Alternatives are just as good.

Google Books: useful now and then in research, long as I can limit what they get.

Google everything else: not relevant to my world.

When you think about it, deciding to resist Google is a formidable task. Look at all that stuff. I don’t even want to use Google Anything ever again if I can help it, and they have even me caving in on some of it. By now, surely, you understand where they get all this information. Most of us give it to them because it’s easier than resisting. Basically, Google is like the annoying guy who has some redeeming features, who keeps subtly pressuring the woman for sex. The woman finally decides to get it over with, since he’s not that gross and she sort of likes him in some ways, and gives in. Google: analogous to the grey area between actual date rape and authentic consensuality.

What happened, then

Last week, I decided that if Google wanted to make News a crapshoot for me, I just didn’t need their version. Today, the same thing happened with Translate. Two data hydra heads, rendered meaningless for me, battle over. And it makes me wonder, because Google is sort of like a giant mudflow with enough weight behind it to seep into just about anything that isn’t solid, watertight and strong. It will continue to push: to offer new services, but exact a privacy toll for their use. When someone decides they just don’t need that particular Google service, Google loses a product. You are the product. You generate evidence of preferences, thus you create Google’s merchandise. Less use of anything from Google is what Google rightly fears. Thus, the day someone just stops using a piece of Google, a data hydra head is vanquished.

Google should pay us

So should Facebook. The default assumption, never questioned by most of us, is that Facebook and Google services represent fair trades for our marketing data. There are a lot of ways to look at this. “That was the deal, and you took it, so don’t renege. By refusing them all possible information, you’re stealing from them.” I guess if you see the world that way, most of my blog posts probably don’t interest you. My own way is simple: while Google and Facebook do the above, and probably specify their rights to do the above deep in the bowels of legalese-laced Terms of Service, they have never frankly disclosed all the data they mine, how they mine it, and how much money each of us makes them. They just kinda sorta did it the backdoor way. That’s not forthright business, so I reserve the right to be less than forthright myself. Telling the truth to deceptive people is a fool’s game; we are entitled to deceive the deceptive.

If they offered us real money for our data, telling us up front what they’d collect, that’d be different in my eyes. They won’t, naturally, because they don’t need to. We’ll give it away to them as the barter toll on the information highway, and since it doesn’t come out of our pockets, it doesn’t register.

What you do is your call. My goal is to use as little Google as I can get away with. If they want my data without resistance, they can make me an offer. Until then, I fence with the heads and tentacles of the data hydra, and for the most part, I think I win.