Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-26


Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-07


How is your private data getting used?

I read the Red Tape Chronicles over at MSNBC on a regular basis, and one of their latest posts really struck a chord with me. We really have become a nation where everything gets tracked, whether we like it or not. To some extent, I don’t really care. If the government wants to tap into my phone calls, fine. Been there, done that. I grew up in communist Romania, and our phone was tapped. There’s nothing of real interest to strangers in my phone calls anyway. And besides, you’d have to be a sort of a peeping tom to want to listen in on strangers’ conversations, anyway. Not my type of job.

What really irks me is that every little footstep off the beaten path gets documented somewhere. Not that it’s happened to me, but say I get in a brawl and get locked up overnight, then sort things out in the morning. That little brush with the law may affect me for years to come, even though that’s not the type of person I am. I may regret it, I may not usually do those things, it may be that it just sort of happened, but it’s going to stay on my record. And the payback’s brutal. I may not get new jobs, and if I want to attend classes at some school, I may not be able to get in. It may even affect my credit history. It’s all because of a stupid system that tracks one’s every legal move with no discernment.

This whole mess wouldn’t be a bad thing if there were only one system, and updates to that system were handled properly. But no, there are hundreds and thousands of various government databases, and data from those databases flows into private background check databases and clearinghouses, until there are copies of that single incident all over the place. I may be able to get the government to edit out that little troublesome incident, but there’s no way to track down all of the other digital copies of that record and make sure they get changed. That’s VERY disturbing.

Just do a search on Google for background checks. There are a ton of websites where you can check details about anyone. It used to be that only law enforcement officials were able to conduct such searches, but now any Joe Blow with a credit card can find out information about anyone. That really gets my goose! What right does some freak somewhere have to know stuff about me? Exactly how have our public officials let this happen? You can find out anything: properties, debts, criminal record, demographic information and possibly income, address, phone number, marriage and birth information, anything. I find this VERY DISTURBING.

What’s worse, who knows where these businesses get their data from, and how often they update their information? Looks to me like most are fly-by-nite operations that only care about having a record about someone, not the record. If they list bad information about me, how do I go about changing it? I can’t possibly contact every single one of these shady operations. Yeah, I call them shady, because I think they have absolutely no right to my private information. Only licensed law enforcement officials (read certified and cleared government employees) ought to have the right to view my aggregated private information. Yet these people profit from MY private information by selling it to whoever wants to get it. This disgusts and angers me.

Anyway, what got me started down this warpath? Those of you who know me know that I like old movies. Remember scenes from those movies where people would get into brawls, or there’d be some misunderstanding, and they’d get booked? They’d spend the night in jail, get out in the morning, and be done with it. Everyone would laugh about it. That’s how it should be for the occasional offense. It should NOT affect one’s career, education and finances. Everyone messes up here and there. These mistakes should not be recorded for posterity, or if they are, they should not be made available to every idiot that wants to look at them. It just isn’t right. And no, I’m not talking about serious or repeat offences.

We may have modernized our data storage and retrieval, but we’ve lost our good, old common sense about how to use it.


Oldies, but goodies

As news go, these are weeks, and even months-old, but they sure are good. Stumbled onto them in a folder full of bookmarks. Enjoy!

  1. Full of nostalgia for the 80’s? Try Engadget, cca. 1985.
  2. Want to donate your old computer? Better wipe that drive first!
  3. The generational gap can be seen in the workplace, too. Seriously, it’s rude to get up and walk out in the middle of a conversation.
  4. Kawaii Not – the web comic for cute gone bad! Cute indeed, and witty to boot!
  5. Want to get a small PC?
  6. The 25 worst tech products of all time, according to PC World.
  7. Ever thought of public spaces as dance floors? “You’ve got to move it, move it… MOVE IT!”
  8. Check out photos of Chicago from the 40’s to the 90’s.
  9. Want to get the scoop on classic movies? Then check out Reel Classics.
  10. In love with USB? Check out this list of flashy USB accessories, like a bra with a USB clasp.
  11. Want the latest in wiretapping devices?
  12. How will the newspaper look in just a few short years?
  13. You thought invisibility cloaks were a sci-fi thing, right?
  14. Great advice on advancing your career as you start over, move, take a part-time job or have money problems.
  15. Video sites, comically analyzed and summarized.

Someone's reading your email at work

This is a bit of old news, but the NYT is running a story on how companies read their employees’ email at work. The bottom line’s worth repeating, because people just don’t seem to learn: don’t use work email for personal messages!

I say this from experience. I’ve been an IT Director twice in my career, and I read people’s emails on both occasions. I didn’t and I don’t relish it – as a matter of fact, I hate it. But I had to do it, in order to see if activities that could incriminate or damage the organization were taking place.

Now I understand that my IT policies were actually pretty relaxed. I didn’t read email all the time, only when someone or something aroused my suspicion or that of the executives, and it was then that I went searching for evidence. I understand that in other places, this sort of a thing is automated, and happens routinely. Every email going out of the company is either scanned by a machine for keywords, or read by an employee, or even worse, every piece of email, internal or external, is scanned and flagged for further review as needed.

People, learn from this! It was not seldom that I stumbled onto emails where employees were flirting with each other at work, or talking about their supervisors in demeaning language. These sorts of things result in disciplinary action! If you’ve got to talk about those things, get a personal email account, and do it there, but don’t use company email for that sort of a thing! But I guess if you’re ignorant enough to badmouth your boss with a co-worker while you’re at work and supposed to be working, you’re ignorant enough to talk about it on company emails that can and will be used against you.

It’s time people realized the whole of their work activities is a permanent record, and this includes emails, and pretty soon will likely include voicemails. Make sure your email record is squeaky clean, and reflects your work ethic. If you talk the talk, walk the walk! If you say you’re a professional, let your email reflect that. Ask yourself this: if someone were to go through your work email now, would you be ashamed of what they’d find there? Is there something you could be disciplined or lose face for? If you work in a company that deals with secret/classified information, are you leaking company secrets, knowingly or not? If there is, cut it out! Put a stop to it! It won’t do any good to go back and delete emails, the company probably keeps a backup of the messages anyway. Just change your behavior and move on.

If you must get personal emails at work, use your personal account, or get a free webmail account from Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail, and check that. Tell people to SMS you on your cellphone instead of emailing you. But for goodness’ sake, and for the sake of your career and bank account, don’t use your work account! It’s just plain dumb.


It pays to do your homework

Most political protest these days has boiled down to blanket accusations, and what’s more unfortunate is that the people that spout them are fairly clueless about the details.

A couple of weeks ago, I read about protesters who marched up to the AT&T headquarters because it collaborates with the NSA by sharing phone call data. They were disheveled, and they weren’t even on the same page. Some were talking about Net Neutrality, and all had some pretty clueless looks on their faces. I wonder, if someone had asked them of the details of both of these issues, if they could have answered cogently. I doubt it. Now I read about the Marc Jacobs store in San Francisco, which has a big sign in their window which says “Worst President Ever”. If I were to walk in and ask one of their clerks why they think that, I bet they’d be clueless, and they’d point me to the manager, who’d point me to the district office, etc. Or, they’d give me an accusatory look, to blame me for not knowing the answer already. Signs like these only serve to alienate instead of proving a point.

I believe people simply can’t get their point across unless they do their homework about what they stand for, and they’re able to express their opinion clearly and convincingly. I don’t care what your stance is on something as long as you can truly stand for it. If there’s something I don’t like, it’s parrots who spout catchphrases but can’t explain them.


The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Wired News picked up an interesting article from the Associated Press about the NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency), which describes the purpose and capabilities of this youngest of government intelligence agencies. Its director, Lt. Gen. James Clapper (Ret.) is stepping down next month, and he is proud of the work NGA is doing.

Their capabilities are rumored to far exceed those of commercial satellite imagery, and they’ve become very useful in the aftermath of last year’s hurricanes. That’s when they set up mobile stations in the backs of Humvees and provided displaced and worried people with satellite images showing the condition of their homes.

They also work together with security staff in public places, like hotels, to tap into lobby cameras and combine that footage with mapping and graphical data to help secure events or take action in case of a hostage situation or other catastrophe.

My reaction to this is mixed. On the one hand, it’s nice to see a government agency actually helping out when a natural disaster occurs, and on the other hand, I have to wonder about people’s privacy given their serious capabilities.


The NSA wire-tapping scandal

I wrote about the wire tapping issue back on the 8th of April, and it looks like the it’s resurfaced big time. Just today, I read this USA Today article. Senators Leahy and Specter picked up the stoy, then CNN picked it up as well. Now the Washington Post published the results of a telephone survey that says most americans (60% or so) support the NSA’s collection of information on telephone calls.

It seems like all that’s happening is that massive amounts of data are getting crunched at the NSA, for statistical purposes, in an effort to try and determine patterns in terrorist communications, but the NSA (including Gen. Hayden) and the Bush administration have been going about it all wrong. As the USA Today article details, they used strong-arm tactics on the phone companies in order to get them to cooperate. When Qwest wouldn’t, they accused them of compromising national security and told them they wouldn’t get any more classified contracts… Is that the way to treat someone who has legal and understandable doubts about its customers’ privacy? I think it’s shameful.

So let me see if I get it straight. The government gives you classified contracts if you jump through their hoops, and once you get used to the taste of steady government money, threatens to yank them from your plate if you won’t compromise on your ethics. It looks to be a pretty good tactic, which works great on most executives. After all, every one of the phone companies but Qwest capitulated and handed over their data.

It’s all very sad. The NSA’s methods are classified, but I for one have a hard time seeing how one can gather real data about terrorists (people who are, for the most part, already flagged and monitored) by crunching through the phone calls of the average law-abiding citizen, unless you’re trying to make sure this same average citizen isn’t a terrorist.

Maybe it’s about establishing a “noise floor”, and that’s why they need a statistically-relevant mass of data? Once they’ve compiled a database of the common conversations of regular folks, anything out of the ordinary will spike above the “noise floor”, raising a flag for further examination. Just my uneducated guess. The method sounds good, but the manner in which they’re going about securing the data is, as I’ve said above, wrong.