Social Media and Politics: Truthiness and Astroturfing

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a column I wrote back in November. I’m repeating it here because of connections to astroturing in the HBGary/Anonymous case.)

Just how social is social media? By which I mean: Can we trust it as a measure of what people think, what they may buy, how they may vote? Or is it as easy a place to manipulate as the real world.

The answers to these questions aren’t of academic interest only. They go right to the heart of what may be our future. More and more of our world is online. And more and more of our online world is social media: A quarter of web pages viewed in the U.S. are on Facebook. So it’s not been lost on those who care about such things that a) what we say online may add up to be a useful predictor of what we may do at the shops, the movies, at the polling booth. And b) that social media is a worthwhile place to try to manipulate what we think, and what we do at the shops, the movies—and at the ballot box.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the former. Counting the number of followers a candidate has on Facebook, for example, is apparently a pretty good indicator of whether they’ll do well at the ballot box. The Daily Beast set up something called the Oracle which scanned 40,000 websites—including Twitter—to measure whether comments on candidates in the recent U.S. elections were positive, negative, neutral or mixed. It predicted 36 out of 37 Senate races and 29 out of 30 Governors’ races and nearly 98% of the House races. That’s pretty good.

Dan Zarrella, a self-styled social media scientist, counted the followers of the twitter feeds of 30 senate, house and governor races and found that in 71% of the races, the candidate with the most Twitter followers was ahead in the polls. And Facebook found that candidates with more Facebook fans than their opponents won 74% of House races, and 81% of Senate races. More than 12 million people used the “I Voted” button this year, more than double that in 2008.

Why is this interesting? Well, social media, it turns out, is quite a different beast to even recent phenomena such as blogs. Social media, it turns out, really is social, in that more than previous Internet methods of communication, it reflects the views of the people using it. It is, one might say, democratic.

A study by researchers from the Technical University of Munich of the 2009 federal parliamentary elections in Germany, for example, revealed that, in contrast to the bulletin boards and blogs of the past, Twitter was reflective of the way Germans voted. Unlike bulletin boards and blogs, they wrote, “heavy users were unable to impose their political sentiment on the discussion.” The large number of participants, they found, “make the information stream as a whole more representative of the electorate.”

In other words, social media is as much a battleground for hearts and minds as the rest of the world. Even more so, perhaps, because it’s easier to reach people. Forget knocking on doors or holding rallies: Just build a Facebook page or tweet.

And, maybe, hire some political operators to build a fake movement, aka astroturfing?

Astroturfing, for those not familiar with the term, is the opposite of grassroots. If you lack the support of ordinary people, or don’t have time to get it, you can still fake it. Just make it look like you’ve got grassroots support. Since the term was coined in the mid 1980s it’s become popular activity by marketers, political operators and governments (think Chinese 50-cent blogging army). Astroturfing, in short, allows a politician to seem a lot more popular than he really is by paying folk to say how great he is.

Whether social media is ripe for astroturfing isn’t clear. On one hand, we know that the Internet is full of fakery and flummery: Just because your inbox is no longer full of spam doesn’t mean the Internet isn’t full of it—87%, according to the latest figures from MessageLabs. You don’t see it because the filters are getting better at keeping it away from you. Twitter, by contrast, is much less spammy: the latest figures from Twitter suggest that after some tweaks earlier this year the percentage of unwanted messages on the service is about 1%.

So Twitter isn’t spammy, and it broadly reflects the electorate. But can it be gamed?

We already know that Twitter can spread an idea, or meme, rapidly—only four hops are needed before more or less everyone on Twitter sees it. In late 2009 Google unveiled a new product: Real time search. This meant that, atop the usual results to a search, Google would throw in the latest matches from the real time web—in other words, Twitter and its ilk. So getting your tweets up there would be valuable if, say, you were a political operator and you wanted people to hear good things about your candidate, or bad things about your rival. But were people doing this? Two researchers from Wellesley College in Massachusetts wondered.

Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj studied the local senate race and found that they were. They looked at 185,000 Twitter messages which mentioned the two competing candidates and found that there was plenty of astroturfing going on—where political supporters were creating fake accounts and repeating each other’s messages, and sending them to likely sympathizers, in the hope of their messages hitting the mainstream.

The researchers found one group, apparently linked to an Iowa Republican group, was sending out one tweet a second linking to websites “exposing” their rival’s missteps and misstatements. Overall, the message they sent reached more than 60,000 users. The researchers concluded that “the fact that a few minutes of work, using automated scripts and exploiting the open architecture of social networks such as twitter, makes possible reaching a large audience for free…raises concerns about the deliberate exploitation of the medium.”

The point here is not merely that you’re propagating a point of view. That’s just spam. But by setting up fake Twitter accounts and tweeting  and then repeating these messages, you’re creating the illusion that these views are widespread. We may ignore the first Twitter message we see exposing these views and linking to a website, but will we ignore the second or the third?

This discovery of Twitter astroturfing in one race has prompted researchers at Indiana University to set up a tool they call Truthy—after comedian Stephen Colbert’s term to describe something that someone knows intuitively from the gut—irrespective of evidence, logic or the facts. Their tool has exposed other similar attacks which, while not explosive in terms of growth, are, they wrote in an accompanying paper,  “nevertheless clear examples of coordinated attempts to deceive Twitter users.” And, they point out, the danger with these Twitter messages is that unless they’re caught early, “once one of these attempts is successful at gaining the attention of the community, it will quickly become indistinguishable from an organic meme.”

This is all interesting, for several reasons. First off, it’s only in the past few months that we’ve woken up to what political operators seem to be doing on Twitter. Secondly, while none of these cases achieves viral levels, the relative ease with which these campaigns can be launched suggests that a lot more people will try them out. Thirdly, what does this tell us about the future of political manipulation in social media?

I don’t know, but it’s naïve to think that this is just an American thing. Or a ‘what do you expect in a thriving democracy?’ thing. Less democratically minded organizations and governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the way they use the Internet to control and influence public opinion. Evgeny Morozov points to the Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “whose suave manipulation of cyberspace was on display during the 2006 war with Israel”; my journalist friends in Afghanistan say the Taliban are more sophisticated about using the Internet than the Karzai government or NATO.

The good news is that researchers are pushing Twitter to improve their spam catching tools to stop this kind of thing from getting out of hand. But I guess the bigger lesson is this: While social media is an unprecedented window on, and reflection of, the populace, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for shysters, snake oil salesmen and political operators to manipulate what we think we know.

It may be a great channel for the truth, but truthiness may also be one step behind.

Social Media and Politics: Truthiness and Astroturfing

(This is a longer version of my syndicated newspaper column)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Just how social is social media? By which I mean: Can we trust it as a measure of what people think, what they may buy, how they may vote? Or is it as easy a place to manipulate as the real world?

The answers to these questions aren’t of academic interest only. They go right to the heart of what may be our future. More and more of our world is online. And more and more of our online world is social media: A quarter of web pages viewed in the U.S. are on Facebook. So it’s not been lost on those who care about such things that a) what we say online may add up to be a useful predictor of what we may do at the shops, the movies, at the polling booth. And b) that social media is a worthwhile place to try to manipulate what we think, and what we do at the shops, the movies—and at the ballot box.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the former. Counting the number of followers a candidate has on Facebook, for example, is apparently a pretty good indicator of whether they’ll do well at the ballot box. The Daily Beast set up something called the Oracle which scanned 40,000 websites—including Twitter—to measure whether comments on candidates in the recent U.S. elections were positive, negative, neutral or mixed. It predicted 36 out of 37 Senate races and 29 out of 30 Governors’ races and nearly 98% of the House races. That’s pretty good.

Dan Zarrella, a self-styled social media scientist, counted the followers of the twitter feeds of 30 senate, house and governor races and found that in 71% of the races, the candidate with the most Twitter followers was ahead in the polls. And Facebook found that candidates with more Facebook fans than their opponents won 74% of House races, and 81% of Senate races. More than 12 million people used the “I Voted” button this year, more than double that in 2008.

Why is this interesting? Well, social media, it turns out, is quite a different beast to even recent phenomena such as blogs. Social media, it turns out, really is social, in that more than previous Internet methods of communication, it reflects the views of the people using it. It is, one might say, democratic.

A study by researchers from the Technical University of Munich of the 2009 federal parliamentary elections in Germany, for example, revealed that, in contrast to the bulletin boards and blogs of the past, Twitter was reflective of the way Germans voted. Unlike bulletin boards and blogs, they wrote, “heavy users were unable to impose their political sentiment on the discussion.” The large number of participants, they found, “make the information stream as a whole more representative of the electorate.”

In other words, social media is as much a battleground for hearts and minds as the rest of the world. Even more so, perhaps, because it’s easier to reach people. Forget knocking on doors or holding rallies: Just build a Facebook page or tweet.

And, maybe, hire some political operators to build a fake movement, aka astroturfing?

Astroturfing, for those not familiar with the term, is the opposite of grassroots. If you lack the support of ordinary people, or don’t have time to get it, you can still fake it. Just make it look like you’ve got grassroots support. Since the term was coined in the mid 1980s it’s become popular activity by marketers, political operators and governments (think Chinese 50-cent blogging army). Astroturfing, in short, allows a politician to seem a lot more popular than he really is by paying folk to say how great he is.

Whether social media is ripe for astroturfing isn’t clear. On one hand, we know that the Internet is full of fakery and flummery: Just because your inbox is no longer full of spam doesn’t mean the Internet isn’t full of it—87%, according to the latest figures from MessageLabs. You don’t see it because the filters are getting better at keeping it away from you. Twitter, by contrast, is much less spammy: the latest figures from Twitter suggest that after some tweaks earlier this year the percentage of unwanted messages on the service is about 1%.

So Twitter isn’t spammy, and it broadly reflects the electorate. But can it be gamed?

We already know that Twitter can spread an idea, or meme, rapidly—only four hops are needed before more or less everyone on Twitter sees it. In late 2009 Google unveiled a new product: Real time search. This meant that, atop the usual results to a search, Google would throw in the latest matches from the real time web—in other words, Twitter and its ilk. So getting your tweets up there would be valuable if, say, you were a political operator and you wanted people to hear good things about your candidate, or bad things about your rival. But were people doing this? Two researchers from Wellesley College in Massachusetts wondered.

Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj studied the local senate race and found that they were. They looked at 185,000 Twitter messages which mentioned the two competing candidates and found that there was plenty of astroturfing going on—where political supporters were creating fake accounts and repeating each other’s messages, and sending them to likely sympathizers, in the hope of their messages hitting the mainstream.

The researchers found one group, apparently linked to an Iowa Republican group, was sending out one tweet a second linking to websites “exposing” their rival’s missteps and misstatements. Overall, the message they sent reached more than 60,000 users. The researchers concluded that “the fact that a few minutes of work, using automated scripts and exploiting the open architecture of social networks such as twitter, makes possible reaching a large audience for free…raises concerns about the deliberate exploitation of the medium.”

The point here is not merely that you’re propagating a point of view. That’s just spam. But by setting up fake Twitter accounts and tweeting  and then repeating these messages, you’re creating the illusion that these views are widespread. We may ignore the first Twitter message we see exposing these views and linking to a website, but will we ignore the second or the third?

This discovery of Twitter astroturfing in one race has prompted researchers at Indiana University to set up a tool they call Truthy—after comedian Stephen Colbert’s term to describe something that someone knows intuitively from the gut—irrespective of evidence, logic or the facts. Their tool has exposed other similar attacks which, while not explosive in terms of growth, are, they wrote in an accompanying paper,  “nevertheless clear examples of coordinated attempts to deceive Twitter users.” And, they point out, the danger with these Twitter messages is that unless they’re caught early, “once one of these attempts is successful at gaining the attention of the community, it will quickly become indistinguishable from an organic meme.”

This is all interesting, for several reasons. First off, it’s only in the past few months that we’ve woken up to what political operators seem to be doing on Twitter. Secondly, while none of these cases achieves viral levels, the relative ease with which these campaigns can be launched suggests that a lot more people will try them out. Thirdly, what does this tell us about the future of political manipulation in social media?

I don’t know, but it’s naïve to think that this is just an American thing. Or a ‘what do you expect in a thriving democracy?’ thing. Less democratically minded organizations and governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the way they use the Internet to control and influence public opinion. Evgeny Morozov points to the Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “whose suave manipulation of cyberspace was on display during the 2006 war with Israel”; my journalist friends in Afghanistan say the Taliban are more sophisticated about using the Internet than the Karzai government or NATO.

The good news is that researchers are pushing Twitter to improve their spam catching tools to stop this kind of thing from getting out of hand. But I guess the bigger lesson is this: While social media is an unprecedented window on, and reflection of, the populace, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for shysters, snake oil salesmen and political operators to manipulate what we think we know.

It may be a great channel for the truth, but truthiness may also be one step behind.

The Predictable Human (and a Privacy Issue)

A study of mobile phone data shows that we are extraordinarily consistent about our movements. Mobile phone data, unsurprisingly, provides rich pickings for researchers since we carry one around with us all the time, and, unlike dollar bills, it’s more likely to stick with one person. But some have questioned the ethics of such a study.

The BBC reports that the study, by Albert-László Barabási and two others, shows we are much more predictable in our movements than we might think:

The whereabouts of more than 100,000 mobile phone users have been tracked in an attempt to build a comprehensive picture of human movements.

The study concludes that humans are creatures of habit, mostly visiting the same few spots time and time again.

Most people also move less than 10km on a regular basis, according to the study published in the journal Nature.

This is fascinating stuff, and perhaps not unexpected. But appended to the Nature news article on the study are two signed comments by readers alleging that the authors of the study didn’t follow correct ethical procedure. Someone calling themselves John McHaffie says

What is particularly disturbing about this study is something that the Nature news article failed to reveal: that Barabasi himself said he did not check with any ethics panel. And this for an action that is, in fact illegal in the United States. Disgusting lack of ethics, I’d say. And the statement from his co-author Hidalgo isn’t much better: “We’re not trying to do evil things. We’re trying to make the world a little better”. The old “trust me, I know better” argument. Maybe this two should take a basic graduate-level ethics course.

I’ve not yet confirmed it, but it’s likely to be John G. McHaffie of the University of Wake Forest. Another commenter, Dan Williams, calls for a federal investigation of the school involved in the study.

I don’t have access to the original Nature article, so I can’t explore this further right now. But the Nature news item itself says that “Barabási and his colleagues teamed up with a mobile-phone company (unidentified to protect customers’ privacy), who provided them with anonymized data on which transmitter towers had handled the calls and texts for 100,000 individuals over the course of 6 months.”

This is clearly gold. The article suggests that others have long sought to get their hands on mobile phone data. It quotes Dirk Brockmann of Northwestern University in Illinois, as saying that he had not been able to expand a study he did using dollar bills because of privacy issues:

Strict data-protection laws prevented Brockmann from carrying out his own version of the mobile-phone study in Germany, where he was based until recently. Mobile-phone data have the potential to reveal information about where individuals live and work. “I’ve been trying to get my hands on mobile-phone data but it isn’t possible,” he says.

Privacy issues aside, the study is fascinating, and could be useful in monitoring disease outbreaks or traffic forecasting. (I wrote about one using Bluetooth a couple of days ago.) And how about riots? Unrest? Shoppers?

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Mobile phones expose human habits

Satellites to the Rescue

Satellite image of Muzaffarabad region of Pakistan showing landslides caused by the 2005 south Asian earthquake. Map created on 13 October 2005

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation on how satellites and space technology are helping, and might help, in the case of big medical emergencies, from earthquakes to Ebola. It’s a slightly different tack for me and perhaps not the usual fare for loose wire blog, but I thought I’d throw it in here anyway.

When former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was seen leaving a conference in Geneva in November 2005 clutching maps of the south Asia earthquake disaster, it was evidence that satellites – as a key weapon in humanitarian emergencies – had arrived.

In the hours and days after the October 8 quake struck killing more than 73 000 people and injuring some 150 000, experts from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United Nations scrambled to gather and interpret images data from satellites to assist rescue workers on the ground from local authorities to nongovernmental organizations (NGO), like Télécoms Sans Frontières.

WHO | Space technology: a new frontier for public health

Soccer 2.0

image 

Photo: The Offside

In Soccer 1.0 the manager is king. But an Israeli football team is experimenting with a sort of crowd-sourcing, wisdom-of-the-Kop type approach, where fans monitor the game online and suggest starting line-up, tactics and substitutions.

Reuters reports from Tel Aviv that “diehard football fan Moshe Hogeg was so upset when star striker Lionel Messi was left off Argentina’s side for a World Cup match against Germany last year that he teamed up with an online gaming company to buy a club where fans decide over the Internet who will play and in what position.” Hogeg’s company, an Israeli social network for sports fans called Web2sport, teamed up with online backgammon website Play65 to buy Hapoel Kiryat Shalom, a team in Israel’s third amateur division.

Fans log on to the team’s website and make suggestions and vote in poll which are monitored by an assistant to the coach. Ahead of the season’s opening match some 6,000 people tried to log on to make suggestions. The team lost 3-2 to Maccabi Ironi Or Yehuda in injury time.

Needless to say, I have mixed feelings about this. I don’t think crowd-sourcing is going to replace the genius of Wenger, Mourinho or Ferguson. On the other hand, as a Spurs fan, I certainly think manager Martin Jol could do with some help.

Press Release: The First Web 2.0 Football Club in the World

Google Isn’t Evil, It’s Just Misunderstanding Me

Is Google evil? This video makes a convincing case. But I say: Not as much as it used to be, if my extensive research is anything to go by.

In 2004 a friend of mine stopped using Google Mail (Gmail) when she emailed a friend about getting over her ex and how her kid still talked about him, and the accompanying ads went like this:

Get Your Ex Back
Get a powerful plan for restoring your relationship with your ex. $24
www.exback.com

I Used to Miss Him
But My Aim is Improving: Not Your Ordinary Breakup Survival Guide
www.improveyouraim.com

How Can I Help My Child Deal With a Breakup?
Recovering from a breakup is not easy. If your child has gone …
www.kidshealth.org

Things nowadays are not so creepy. I wrote to my Gmail account “I think i’m over my boyfriend now that he’s my ex but my daughter still talks about him a lot. Should i be worried? “ and got these matches:

15.000 used machines
ex-stock. More than 85 dealers from Germany, Swiss, Austria
www.MachineStock.com

Stempel 24 uur bestellen?
on-line, met preview, op rekening, verzending dezelfde dag!
www.stempeltempel.com

Mom’s Lip Sore Cure
My daughter Discovered how to heal my Lip Sores. Report Here
www.coldsores.scienceofmagic.com

buzz off clothing
ex officio bugs won’t bite free shipping
bugsource.com

All very useful stuff, I think you’d agree. I’m not quite sure what kind of machines the first one is offering — a memory eraser? — but I do love the second one. StempelTempel. Sounds like a nightclub. While I’m very happy for the mother in ad three, I can’t quite see what word the advertisers must be trying to match. And why would someone coping with a breakup need  Insect Shield Repellent Apparel from BUZZ OFF™? To keep off unwanted advances?

Indeed, one might argue that Google’s contextual ads are not as helfpul as they used to be. I sent a few more emails going into a bit more detail about my problems:

Since my wife left me for our 15-year old pool boy I’ve become increasingly depressed. And my libido is shot to shreds. Sometimes I feel nausea, headaches, chest pains and even my little toe is feeling blue. What should I do?

and I got nothing. No ads at all. Is there nothing in there that might prod an advertiser into trying to sell me something? One on money problems (“Since I got fired from my job flipping burgers in Florida, I’ve become increasingly worried financially. I have an overdraft and credit card debts that are clogging up the sink. What should I do?”) brought up a rather predictable array of investing ads. This one proved a bit more enticing: “I’m thinking of becoming a burglar. What do I do exactly? How do I know what to look for when I case a joint? Insurance? Broken windows?  Vulnerable old people with heart problems?”

But once again the ads were more baffling than helpful:

Potty Training In 3 Days
Potty Training Secrets That Work Say Good Bye To Diapers Forever
ThePottyTrainer.com

5 Indigo Child Secrets
Learn the 5 Important Secrets Every Indigo Child’s Parents Should Know.
www.DaVinciMethod.com

Better Than Boot Camps
Wilderness Works. Get your teen on track for the next school year.
www.outbacktreatment.com

Devices to beat children
Petition against devices being sold in the U.S. to beat children.
www.stoptherod.net

Where did they get the idea I had teenage kids with potty problems whom I was beating with ‘devices’?  So I thought I should sound more positive, and see whether that served up better ads. I wrote “I’m looking for some serious loving, baby. I’m thinking of going out nights, having fun and looking for a suitable partner of the right gender persuasion. It’s time to start dating again. What should I do next?” and got this:

What Is The Secret
The Law of Attraction in Action What Is The Secret
www.superconsciousmind.com

V&O Metal Stamping Equip
OEM V&O Press Distributor of metal stamping equipment
www.ServotecUSA.com/

Travel Iguazu
Enjoy iguazu falls & national park 2, 3 and 4 nights packages trips
www.argentinaoutdoors.com

GoToAssist Free Trial
Exclusive Offer for Remedy Users! Try Citrix GoToAssist For 30 Days.
www.GoToAssist.com

While the first one could prove useful, the second sounds like more and heavier equipment than one would really need under the circumstances. Iguazu might be a bit far to go on my first big night out, although thanks for the tip. Given GoToAssist doesn’t explain itself very well, it could be more or less anything in this context; what kind of assistance are they offering? And what, under the circumstances, is a remedy user? (Somewhat anticlimactically, GoToAssist is software to remotely assist someone with their computer, which has a few romantic possibilites, I suppose.

I think we should stop being worred about Google knowing too much about us, and worrying that they don’t enough. In my case, they seem to have gotten the impression I’m some child hitting, coldsore ridden, machinery loving diaper wearer. Time to start sending myself some emails lauding my abilities, looks, experience and lack of facial blisters.

Guerrilla Marketing Via Lederhosen

I’m getting a bit cheesed off with all the advertising/sponsorship shenanigans at the World Cup, and I’m not even there. The idea that you can only buy tickets using the sponsor’s credit card, that food like McDonalds and drink like Coke can somehow be an official partner of a sport, all seem to indicate a world gone mad, but all that is eclipsed by the fact that you can’t enter a stadium wearing a rival sponsor’s attire: Hundreds of — one report suggested more than 1,000 — Dutch fans had to watch the Ivory Coast game in their underwear after stewards ordered them to remove their orange lederhosen.

The story, as far as I can work out, goes like this. The idea is the brainchild of a Dutch brewery called  Grossbrauerei, which produce a beer called Bavaria. The brand marketing manager is one Peer Swinkels (“Bavaria is beer with guts, for men with guts”), who has launched several elaborate ploys to market the beer. One involves, er, sponsoring a motor racing event, along with a “Burning Rubber” Gala Night. (Event organiser: “We assure you that the name of this gala night is not a joke”). Another involved relaunching the career of Albert West, a slightly over the hill Dutch singer in towns with the word “West” in its name — Amsterdam West, Rotterdam West, Utrecht West, Leiden West, Hengelo West, etc: (“This sort of subtle humour is always combined with down-to-earth realism in the Bavaria-campaign. Albert liked the idea. He can laugh at himself. That is what makes Albert such a nice guy.”)

You had to be there, I guess.

Anyway, the lederhosen. This is an inspired idea and goes to the heart of some already controversial sponsorship over the most important item at the Cup: the beer.  The lederhosen, you see, sported the name of Dutch brewery Bavaria, which is not the official beer of the World Cup. (Anheuser Busch’s Budweiser is the official beer.) The lederhosen are orange, carry the regulation braces, as well as a tail. They come free with a 12–pack of Bavaria, and have become something of a cult item among Dutch fans, who wear orange from birth, although there are reports that they are just being handed out for free too:

Leeuwenhose

Briliiant. You get your product into the stadium and onto the world’s television without having to pay a dime. As a marketing ploy they are somewhat less subtle than the use of an aging Dutch rock star but they do deserve some credit: taking the mickey out of those German beerfests, selling a beer called Bavaria, right in the heart of Germany. And, to boot, embarrassing the U.S. beer partner Budweiser, who like other sponsors paid between $45 and $50 million for the privilege of having only their brand on display. In fact, Bavaria has already been making trouble: Heineken, the official sponsor of the Dutch national team, ordered fans to leave their lederhosen outside the ground at a friendly game against Cameroon. (A Dutch court has since ruled that fans should be allowed to wear the trousers, apparently, although this won’t wash in Germany.)

This explains why stewards are ordering fans to strip. FIFA spokesman Markus Siegler: “Of course, FIFA has no right to tell an individual fan what to wear at a match, but if thousands of people all turn up wearing the same thing to market a product and to be seen on TV screens then of course we would stop it.” The issue might be particularly sensitive because Anheuser Busch has its own problems, being forced by longstanding trademark issues to settle for merely Bud brand (not the full Budweiser brand, which is in dispute in Germany) in return for allowing local brewer Bitburger to sell its beer in unbranded cups outside the grounds.

Peer, of course, sounds suitably outraged but must be loving it. Officially, this kind of activity is appalling and the offline equivalent of subdomain spam, but so much more imaginative. At the same time it raises lots of interesting dinner party discussions about the rights of the individual against the rights of a sponsor (if I chose to wear those pants and wasn’t paid to do so, then does it constitute advertising, and should I not be allowed to wear what I choose so long as it does not appear to be a deliberate effort to advertise?); what constitutes a group, whether orange is an acceptable colour for a national soccer team, and whether people should even be allowed to wear lederhosen. T

Another Ratchet Up in the Phishing War

I must confess I’m not sure how it works, but it seems like an interesting, but potentially flawed, approach in the battle against phishing. German bank PostBank, IDG reports, has launched a new system to combat phishing, extending the existing German practice of using transaction numbers, or TANs:

Until now, Postbank customers transferring money from their account to another electronically have had to type in their PIN followed by a TAN from a list provided by the bank for each transaction. In Germany, most banks providing online services offer a similar PIN-TAN service.

Under Postbank’s new iTAN service, online customers are told by the computer which TAN to use, and only with this TAN can they complete a transaction at that very moment.

Alongside each five-digit TAN appears an index number, which the computer uses to point customers to the TAN they must use to activate the transaction.

The IDG piece doesn’t explain further how this works. I believe that banks in Europe that use transaction numbers either supply them as a printed list which customers select from when they do a transaction, or else they receive a transaction number via SMS for each transaction as it happens. This former approach has only limited safety, because phishers can and have been trying as part of their attacks to request not just PINs and passwords, but transaction numbers too. So although this is another layer of security, it remains as vulnerable to social engineering attacks as ordinary one-factor transactions.

So how are iTANs different? I’m guessing here, but it sounds as if the bank itself randomises the selection of TANs and then instructs the customer about which one to use (‘the second on the list’, I suppose, or pehaps ‘the one ending in X’). This certainly does make it harder for the phishers unless they already have the full list of TANs held by the customer.

If this is all correct, then expect the next round of phishing attacks in Germany to involve something like ‘we are sorry there has been a data error at our bank and we need to recall all your TANs. Please enter them into the form at this web page in the order they are listed on your sheet. We will then issue you a fresh list of TANs.’ And so the game continues.

Wikipedians, And Why They Do It

For Wikipedians, and folk wanting to understand why they do what they do, here’s a survey that aims to explore  the motivation of contributors to Wikipedia:

Joachim Schroer writes “We are a research team at the University of Wuerzburg (Germany) interested in the reasons and motives why participants are involved in Wikipedia as authors, administrators, or software developers. We hope this study will provide statistical data and insight about Wikipedia which go beyond previous reports in the media, encourage a helpful discussion between participants and reveal best practices for Wikipedia as well as related Open Content projects.

We would like to invite everyone who contributes to Wikipedia at least once in a while to take our online survey. The questionnaire will be available until August 3 at http://www.unipark.de/uc/wikipedia/.

Should be interesting to see the results.

Skype Cuts Some Rates

Skype has lowered rates of its SkypeOut service to some destinations as part of its first anniversary celebrations. Here are the details:

Six major new countries have been added to the SkypeOut Global Rate, a fixed, low-cost rate of 1.7 Euro cents per minute to popular calling destinations. China, Greece, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Poland and Switzerland have joined more than 20 additional destinations in the Global Rate. Skype has also significantly lowered SkypeOut rates for calling numbers in Armenia, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bulgaria, the Cook Islands, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Korea, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland (mobile), Portugal, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka and Turkey.

I’m not quite clear from the press release, but it sounds as if this is an average reduction of 15%.

It’s not all good news: Prices for SkypeOut calls to Saudi Arabia, Papua New Guinea, Oman, Lichtenstein and Haiti numbers will increase slightly.