Tag Archives: Caribbean

The Privacy Myth

If there’s one myth that endures in this age of online participation, blogs, shared photo albums and Web 2.0, it’s that we’ve overcome our concerns about privacy. It sounds on the surface, logical: We must have gotten over this weird paranoia, or else why would we share so much online? Why would we bother about privacy issues when there’s no real evidence that people, companies, governments and the NSA are out to get us? This, for example, from Web 2.0 blog TechCrunch guest contributor Steve Poland:

I’m sure there’s data to back me up on this, but today compared to 10 years ago — people are way more comfortable with the Internet and have less privacy concerns. Or at least the younger generations that have grown up with the Internet aren’t as concerned with privacy — and spew what’s on their mind to the entire world via the web.

I can’t speak for the younger generation, having been kicked out of it some years ago. But if we’re talking more generally about folk who have embraced the Net in the past 10 years, I’d have to say I don’t think it’s that we don’t care about privacy. We just don’t understand it. In that sense nothing has changed. I think what is happening is the same as before: People don’t really understand the privacy issues of what they’re doing, because the technology, and its liberating sensuality, are moving faster than we can assimilate to our culture. This is not new: Technology has always outpaced our intellectual grasp. If you don’t believe me think radio, TV, cars and cellphones. We were lousy at predicting the impact of any of these technologies on our environment. Lousy.

Usually, it’s because we just don’t stop to think about the privacy implications, or we don’t stop to ask deeper questions about the sacrifices we may be making when we buy something, give information to a stranger, register for something, accept something, invite someone in to our digital lives, install software, sign up for a service, or simply accept an email or click on a link. The speed of communication – click here! register here! — makes all this easier. But I don’t really blame the reader. Often it’s us journalists who are to blame for not digging enough.

Take, for example, a new service called reQall from QTech Inc in India. On the surface, it sounds like a great service: phone in a message to yourself and it will appear in your email inbox transcribed with 100% accuracy. Great if you’re on the road, on the john or at a party and don’t want to start jabbing away or scrawling the note on the back of your spouse’s neck.

Rafe Needham of Webware initially enthuses about it on his blog. But then he later finds out that

Update: I’m told that ReQall’s speech-to-text engine isn’t wholly automated. “We use a combination of automated speech recognition technology and human transcription,” a company co-founder told me. Which means there may be someone listening to your notes and to-do items. Yikes!

Yikes indeed. Who would record a message knowing that a stranger is going to be transcribing it, and a company storing it on their servers? To be fair to Rafe he’s not the only one not to initially notice this privacy angle. And at least he bothers to write it up. Dean Takahashi didn’t mention it in his (admittedly) brief Mercury News piece, for example. The company’s press release makes no mention of it either, saying only that

reQall is patent-pending software technology that uses a combination of voice interface and speech-recognition technology to record, log and retrieve your tasks, meetings and voice notes.

(The same press release appears on Forbes’ own website, which I always think looks a bit odd, as if there’s no real difference between a story and a press release. But that’s another rant for another day.) That, frankly, would leave me thinking there was no human interaction either.

But then again, there are clues here and if we (by which I mean us hacks) were doing our job we should probably follow them. Any Google search for reqall and privacy throws up an interesting trail. A CNN report on memory quoted Sunil Vemuri talking about reQall but says issues about privacy and keeping such records free from subpoena have yet to be worked out. When a blogger called Nikhil Pahwa quoted CNN on ContentSutra someone from QTech wrote in:

Please note that there is an inaccuracy in the post. QTech is not “currently working on sorting out issues related to privacy laws, and how to prevent these recordings from being subpoenaed.” Can you correct this?

The text was duly crossed out, so now it reads:

According to the report, they’re currently working on sorting out issues related to privacy laws, and how to prevent these recordings from being subpoenaed are still to be worked out.

So we’re none the wiser. Are there issues? Are QTech working on those issues? Or are there issues that other people are working on, not QTech? Their website sheds little light. There’s nothing about human transcription on any of the pages I could find, nor in the site search. Their privacy policy (like all privacy policies) doesn’t really reassure us, but neither does it explicitly scare our pants off. A brief jaunt through it (I’m not a lawyer, although I sometimes wish I was, and I think John Travolta in “A Civil Action” makes a good one) raises these yellow flags:

  • QTech can use your location, contact details etc to “send you information related to your account or other QTech Service offerings and other promotional offerings.” I.e. the company knows where you are, your phone number and home address and could spam you.
  • QTech may “include relevant advertising and related links based on Your location, Your call history and other information related to Your use of the Services.” I.e. The company could send you stuff based on what information you’ve given in your messages, and any other information you carelessly handed over during the course of using the service.
  • QTech can use the content of your audio messages (and your contact information) for, among other things, “providing our products and services to other users, including the display of customized content and advertising,  auditing, research and analysis in order to maintain, protect and improve our services … [and] developing new services.” I.e. the company can mine the contents of your messages and other stuff and spam other customers. Somehow this seems more scary than actually spamming you.
  • QTech will hold onto those messages “for as long as it is necessary to perform the Services, carry out marketing activities or comply with applicable legislation.” I.e. don’t think your messages are going to be deleted just because you don’t need them anymore.

Privacy documents are written by lawyers, so they’re about as weaselly as they can be. And QTech’s is no different. But there is some cause for concern here, and we journalists should at least try to explore some of these issues. I looked for any acknowledgement that there’s a human involved in the transcription, and some reassurance that the content of those messages is not going to be mined for advertising purposes, and that it would be possible for customers to insist their messages are deleted. I couldn’t find anything, although to their credit QTech do say they won’t “sell, rent or otherwise share Your Contact Information or Audio Communications with any third parties except in the limited circumstance of when we are compelled to do so by a valid, binding court order or subpoena”. But if QTech are doing their own advertising then does that really make any difference?

I’m seeking comment from QTech on this and will update the post when I hear it. And this isn’t really about QTech; it’s about us — citizens, readers, bloggers, journalists — thinking a little harder about our privacy before we throw it away for a great sounding service. Do you want, for example, your personal memos (“Calling from the pub. God I really need a holiday. I think I’m cracking up”) mined for advertising (“Hi! Can I interest you in Caribbean cruise? I hear you’re cracking up!” “Hi, need psychological counselling? I’m told you do” “Hi! Need Viagra? I hear from that last message you left you probably do”)?

News: The Explanation Behind All Those Attacks?

 It seems that there’s a purpose behind the viruses we’ve all been getting: old-fashioned extortion. Reuters reports that extortionists — many thought to come from eastern Europe — have been targetting casinos and retailers, but one recent high-profile victim was the Port of Houston. The attacks, which can cripple a corporate network with a barrage of bogus data requests, are followed by a demand for money. An effective attack can knock a Web site offline for extended periods.
 
Online casinos appear to be a favorite target as they do brisk business and many are located in the Caribbean where investigators are poorly equipped to tackle such investigations. Police said because of a lack of information from victimized companies, they are unsure whether these are isolated incidents or the start of a new crime wave.
 
Last week, the online payment service WorldPay admitted to suffering a major DDoS attack that lasted three days. WorldPay, owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, has been fully restored. The NHTCU spokeswoman said the investigation into the WorldPay is ongoing.

News: Dodgy Viral Marketing

 The folks at Sophos antivirus are drawing attention to something I think is going to pose a real problem for more sincerely motivated companies: Dodgy Viral Marketing or DVM. It’s nothing new, but it’s back, and it works like this: receive an email which invites you to visit a website to view comedy video clips, such as one of Bill Gates being hit with a custard pie by Belgian anarchists. (Gratuitous picture of Bill Gates being hit with a custard pie by Belgian anarchists now follows):
 
 
Follow the link in the email, and you are invited to install an application called “Internet Optimizer” (IO) from a website run by Avenue Media NV, based in the Caribbean island of Curacao. An end-user license agreement (EULA) for IO is displayed, stating that by viewing the movie you are giving permission to send an invitation to view video clips to all addresses found in the user’s Outlook address book and via instant messaging systems: “In consideration for viewing of video content, Avenue Media may send email to your Microsoft Outlook contacts and/or send instant messages to your IM contacts offering the video to them on your behalf. By viewing the video content, you expressly consent to said activity.”
 
Whoa! Back up the cart a bit, Alfie! And that’s not all. The EULA continues: ”For your convenience, [IO] automatically updates itself and any other [IO]-installed software to the latest available versions at periodic intervals. In consideration for this feature, you grant Avenue Media access to your machine to automatically update [IO], add new features and other benefits, and periodically install and uninstall optional software packages.” Great, excellent! Come on in!
 
Needless to say, Sophos is not happy about all this, and warns folk to read EULAs properly, and look carefully at what they may be installing. Sad thing is, folk like Plaxo, which I’ve talked about at length here, don’t seem to get that they have to work really, really hard not to play similar tricks in their yearning to get viral. Lesson to marketers: Don’t treat customers like idiots, just because, confronted by free software and the chance to see software billionaires being hit by Belgian desserts, we behave like them.

Loose Wire: War Games By

Loose Wire: War Games
By Jeremy Wagstaff

01/10/2002 Far Eastern Economic Review (Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

I’m not going to venture an opinion on the state of the war against terror, but I’m probably the only one. Think you can do better than the military? Try your hand at Real War, which isn’t just another warfare strategy shoot ’em up-well OK, it is, but it does have the added kudos of being “the commercial version of the official military Joint Forces game being used to train the United States armed forces.” This may actually explain more than I’d care to know about the U.S. armed forces: if they’re training on this then they’re in trouble.

For one thing, the units — tanks, aircraft, and ships — tend to run over one another quite regularly. For another, they don’t always do the logical thing when encountering an enemy, like opening fire on them. (Instead, the tanks move around aimlessly in the vicinity, a bit like dogs checking each other out.) Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun game, and it extends the genre considerably. It’s just, well, I don’t like thinking the world is being saved for democracy by a bunch of guys whose training consisted of playing games like this.

A better bet, in my view, is World War III from JoWood, which has a bunch of features that raise the bar. First is the possibility of moving your point of view from high above the battlefield to right down next to the tanks you’re controlling. The terrain is beautiful, including snowfall and clouds. The tanks sport headlights that flick on after about 7 p.m., depending on whether you’re fighting in snowbound northern terrain or in the sand-spattered Middle East. Trains trundle disconcertingly past, even while you’re in the middle of a battle. All in all, the game’s worth it just for the view.

If you’re looking for a less violent way to prove your worth, then you might want to try Tropico, which makes you president of a poor Caribbean island. Your task is to make people happy and become popular, but most importantly to stay in power. This shouldn’t be too hard, given what a nice person you are, but as in any happy-go-lucky country there are always possibilities of violent overthrow — from popular uprisings to guerrilla attacks to coups d’etat by your own soldiers.

Ominously, the instruction manual is peppered with short biographies of illustrious leaders like Nicolae Ceausescu, Manuel Noriega and Ferdinand Marcos, which serve either as cautionary tales or role models, depending on what kind of mood you are in.

For the less political, there’s a welcome addition to games which are offshoots of Monopoly, that timeless board game that’s bound to cause ruptures in even the happiest family gathering. Monopoly Tycoon, from Infogrames, matches the best of Monopoly, the game, with what computers have to offer. It has great graphics — which actually show the sun going down over your town and street lights casting their pallid glow over the city — and configurability. As a would-be tycoon you must beat your opponent to build a chain of shops and apartment blocks and juggle distribution, pricing and location to woo the city’s fickle populace.

One that’s definitely not for the kids: Dope Wars, from Beermat Software, now into its second version, is a kind of Monopoly game for drug dealers. Despite its somewhat tasteless premise, it’s actually quite good fun, and there are enough warning flags for you to realize this is not an attempt to glamorize the seedy world of narcotics. Instead, you get a feel for the fact that, were it not illegal and highly destructive, drug dealing is a business like any other.

For glamorizing the tasteless, you’ll have to wait for Hooligans — The Game, a real-time strategy game where your objective is to become the most notorious group of soccer supporters in Europe. Designed by Dutch software house Darxabre, it was due for release in November but at the time of writing shows little sign of life.

That may be no bad thing: While their argument that games that involve killing, maiming and destroying your opponents are legion, there’s something pretty sad about soccer fans causing mayhem in real life, let alone on a computer. Unless of course, the graphics are so good that the police cars have got cool headlights and you can see individual flakes of snow as they drift down across the finely detailed city, in which case perhaps the U.S. army could use the program for urban guerrilla training.

Write to me at jeremy.wagstaff@feer.com