The Value of Your Data

The frustration is strong. I am breaking my own rules again. I am allowing myself a rant. The trick now is to avoid being the angry pundit and to keep it readable, though really it’s about venting without turning it into a show of how clever I am.

I have always been sensitive about my data and label myself as paranoid about privacy as a response to eye-rolls about the subject. Why am I ranting? Because it takes a lot of effort to keep my data private. It is tiring plus it keeps on getting harder.

It used to be that simply polluting my data with multiple birthdays, multiple cities of residence, and other random data points was enough. Now I need to use anonymous windows, a VPN and browser add-ons. There are 11 layers of security parameters, 43 clicks to decline different forms of tracking and all sorts of hoops to jump through because you have chosen not to share. All this effort a constant reminder of how much my data is worth to the collectors.

Listing everything that is wrong with Facebook would take many thousands of words, however, as to the subject of my current rant, it requires relatively less effort to opt out because it doesn’t care. Even if you are not using their apps, it is a master at collating data from everyone else who does share. Case in point (seen with my own eyes): A friend who separated from his wife. He is an occasional (reluctant) user with only a handful of friends, privacy settings activated and his relationship status marked Complicated since forever. His wife was not on any of Facebook’s platforms until, a few months after the separation and using her maiden name, she created an Instagram account for her art work. He learned about it very quickly when, despite having no connections in common, he received a suggestion from Facebook to create a matching page on their platform. I told him it they had probably used IP addresses, contacts from their phones and second degree connections to guess at the relationship. The lack of direct connections and low level of use is probably what lead the algorithm to miss that they were no longer together. Unfortunately, you cannot stop other people from sharing so, as an individual, the only way to reduce the value of the data they have is to limit the visits to their platforms because they cannot display advertising when you aren’t there.

GDPR,the EU law on data protection and privacy, has been very informative on just how much data is being collected. It is also responsible for some of the hoop jumping. Ever since it came into effect sites have to tell you what they are collecting, how they are using it, and have to obtain consent for that. I bail out of sites that want too much information and that require you to accept to continue using the site.

However with time, sites have gotten more sophisticated. Instead of locking you out, they now offer options to opt out of some or all tracking options. It is also where reading the notification becomes really important. There are the sites that allow you to opt out of everything and inform you that, regardless, they are going to fingerprint your system (location, operating system, and browser) or in other words gather as much information about you as they can deduce, then sell it to data merchants who will match it and merge it before selling it back to them as well as to all their other clients. All most all have multiple types of tracking to which you have to opt out of individually. They bury long lists (really long lists) of third party advertisers in separate popups/windows that need an extra click to see. Some make you visit more information pages with instructions on how to opt out of each option individually (bye-bye). A lot are labelled as being managed by a third party with trust (as if they earned it) in their name.

This is where you see the value they assign to getting your data. How many users deliberately choose to only accept some types of cookies? It takes money to build these hoops, to slice and dice all the types of data, put them into different buckets. Instead of giving you an in-or-out option or having an accept-or-leave policy they prefer to make you navigate a privacy minefield where in the interest of “transparency” they will have separate options for groups of cookies labeled “legitimate interest.” The remaining (illegitimate) cookies requiring additional individual opt outs. Miss one option once and your fingerprint will keep on giving.

Then there is the do-no-evil empire that keeps on notifying me that I have turned off notifications, asking me if I want to be geolocated, suggests that the do-not-track option (originally invented by a competitor) is useless, gives me local results despite turning off geolocation, tells me my perfectly functioning phone wont work correctly unless I turn this or that option on, and makes me prove I am not a robot, even when only searching, every time I use a VPN. They are a little more helpful when it comes to keeping other people from my data, then again, that gives them exclusivity to the data they are collecting (it’s not for nothing they are starting their own VPN service).

In short, the money and effort being spent to get at my personal data and the net profits the collectors are making shows how much it is worth. With profit margins well above historical averages for traditional businesses the services offered are overpriced and it’s not surprising that instead of giving me accept-or-leave options they keep on trying. All this while constantly reminding how much they care about my privacy when what really want is exclusive access to my data. Not that not-using some services is a true option anymore. It’s like not having a car in a place with poor public transportation: you can get around but… .

If you have made it this far into my rambling rant, I thank you for your indulgence. If you are interested in learning more from real experts, I suggest the sites of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Citizen Lab as excellent resources for information and resources on Privacy

Silent Rant

There is a space in the middle of the communal table and a chair squeezed between two groups. Jake, after confirming it is free, moves the chair to the the opening.

Sat, his attention is monopolized by table mates, two twenty-something women. First noticed while looking for a spot, his first impression was business meeting. Sitting down, he noted they weren’t equals: one with a laptop, the other with a print out. It reminds Jake of the many job interviews he has seen take place in coffee shops and fast food joints. A manager monopolizing a table, going through a corporate checklist with the candidates CV in hand. Now he can hear bits of their discussion.

Jake wonders how a boss can think it is normal to do a performance appraisal in public. He starts doubting that they are employees of the coffee shop. The more he hears, the more he is sure they work elsewhere. This mystifies Jake even more. If they were having the meeting at work then it is a very bad choice but deliberately choosing a public space is beyond Jake’s comprehension.

They are negotiating objectives. As-if you can call a boss’ “suggestions” negotiable. And ones made in public even less so. The setup makes him distrust the boss.

The whole business is hard to ignore. It is not an issue of volume. It is that he is dialed in and the remote control is broken. The longer it goes on, the more Jake is bothered by it. The more Jake is bothered by it, the clearer the signal. Was the employee given a choice?

Occasionally adding a light coat of sugar, the boss starts bad mouthing the methods of her colleagues. It is painted as business theory. A how and why things should be done.

Jake checks himself. He is doing the same thing; being critical, negative, better-than-thou. She spends time thinking about her work. Good intentions, lots of effort. But it is not on the right things nor the right way. What is the rationale for having a private meeting in public?

It is all management guru now. The disciple’s captivity ensuring an audience. Her insecurities are showing. The teacher slash mentor role as a way to elicit validation. Benevolent dictatorship. Dressing up an alpha display as a lesson. An aggressive passive-aggressivity. Neediness signaled by a secret-sharing confidential tone. Engineering the reactions; compliments likely, agreement assured.

Jake gets up and leaves. He is enervated. His quiet journaling session became a silent rant, the too quickly empty cup the only memory of the coffee he had planned on sipping.

A Ten Euro Cure for Aggravation

Traffic ConeMy proboscis is in its place; my face is happy. I did the shouldn’t-have-to.

The parking is at the foot of the building.

The lines are painted yellow — the colour for reserved parking.

There are spots with steel obstacles. Others are marked PRIVATE in big white letters.

I tell the driver they are parked in my spot. They looked surprised. I point out the painted message. They excuse themselves for not having seen it. I pretend to believe them (once I forgot to pretend and a few weeks later my car had key scars).

I go to the local home improvement store and spend ten euros. Now, instead of getting aggravated every time there is a squatter, I am aggravated because I shouldn’t need a traffic cone to make sure I can use my parking spot.

I rant about it here, the aggravation passes.

Bending The Rules

I want to rant, blame television for teaching the wrong values.

I am ironing. I watch the TV cops send a bad guy to face gang-justice because lady-justice was powerless. A few shirts later, another set of TV cops create a nudge-nudge wink-wink probable cause to break and enter into a suspects house.

It is the end justifying the means and TV cops never make a mistake. The real cops fill the news and fuel outrage with their mistakes. My instinct points the finger at the medium with the gullible trying to imitate art but without the screenwriter to guarantee a just ending.

Thinking about it, I remember we get the media we deserve. It is made to sell. It gives us what we want. If a show has unpopular ideas, it will be unpopular and it will disappear.

Dictating the values that are allowed to be shown is useless. There are enough examples of corrupt dictatorships with puritanical media laws to think the opposite is true.

The social commentary on my choice of shows has now added a dose of guilt to my ironing pleasures.

When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought.


Le Petit ParisienI use nicknames in my notebook; It doesn’t live in drawer.

Descriptive, not pejorative; She is always following the news. An addict soothed by humanity’s woes.

She’s told of turning on the news when she wakes up. I think there aren’t enough screens at home for a full evening fix. Probably only the 8 o’clock news.

Behind her desk, she has the radio talking away in her left ear. Yahoo’s headlines go with the post-prandial coffee. At lunch, she steers towards the tables with a view of the wall with the world going by.

Early July, pity and a desire to laugh.

We’re three at the table and she’s searching for something to riff on. We don’t bite at the day’s headlines. She’s trying hard; No conversations start from the week’s highlights. We eat in silence.

A few days ago, another incident. Our colleague hasn’t joined us yet.

“Look! China’s stock markets are melting.” Watching TV while eating is acceptable in some households. A bored yes.

“Look! See the amazing robot.”

I let her drone on. I’m getting angry. I’m looking for a polite way to remind her: “I don’t give a shit about the news!”

My colleague shows up. Saved.

Skeptics! R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

Tugboat Respect“Have I ever heard a skeptic wax superior and contemptuous? Certainly. I’ve even sometimes heard, to my retrospective dismay, that unpleasant tone in my own voice. There are human imperfections on both sides of this issue. Even when it’s applied sensitively, scientific skepticism may come across as arrogant, dogmatic, heartless, and dismissive of the feelings and deeply held beliefs of others.” — Carl SaganThe Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

I like getting my science news from skeptical sources because they are reliable and they love science without sensationalizing it; however, it is a painful exercise when the skeptics are contemptuous of the believers of bad science.

Too many skeptics lack respect for people with questionable beliefs and this is a disservice to advancement of the critical thinking. The teaching of the scientific method is a common cause among skeptics yet their dismissiveness sabotages their mission. Respect begets respect. Disrespecting the believers of pseudoscience will deafen them to scientific evidence.

The most aggravating lack of respect I see is the liberal assignment of negative motives to the actions of the non-skeptics. This contradicts the ideals of skepticism. Where is the evidence of the motives? Science says, that without evidence, they are probably making a fundamental attribution error. The evidence, skeptics’ reports from pseudoscience conferences, supports the case for the attribution effect. Many a time, I have heard the infiltrating reporter remark on the similarity of the ‘we and they’ arguments about motives.

Christopher Hitchens, in his argument for free speech (Be It Resolved: Freedom of Speech Includes the Freedom to Hate” at Hart House, University of Toronto, November 15, 2006), says “Because what he has to say must have taken him some effort to come up with, might contain a grain of historical truth, might in any case get people to think about why do they know what they already think they know. How do I know that I know this, except that I’ve always been taught this and never heard anything else?” Respect for opposing views is listening to what the other person is saying. Listen and think about why you know what you think you know. That is what skepticism is about.

Respect gets you heard. Respect helps advance scientific skepticism. Respect is a fundamental part of skepticism.

Misfortunate Miss by Fortune Magazine

Pro Bowl 2006 cheerleadersI opened my European edition of Fortune Magazine dated December 24th, 2012 and an article categorized ‘Closer Look’  left me wondering how closely they were looking.

The article, The Business of Cheer, was about the cheerleading industry. It presents a quick history including the facts that a safety organization was founded in 1987 and that cheerleading was the second-most-dangerous athletic activity in 2011, after football. In other words, 24 years after the founding of a safety organization, cheerleading remains more dangerous than hockey, a contact sport, and more dangerous than gymnastics, a somewhat similar athletic activity, and more dangerous than many other athletic activities like wrestling, boxing… .

Furthermore, this was an article focusing on a company that “controls cheerleading” and helping the foundation of the safety organization was given as accomplishment of that company’s founder.

I wonder about the efficiency of the safety organization if after 24 years cheerleading remains the second-most-dangerous athletic activity. I wonder about conflicts of interest when the founder of the company that controls cheerleading is a founder of that safety organization. What does the category ‘Closer Look’ mean if these questions remain unasked? I wonder if this article is written in Newspeak…

What Are You Sorry About?

A pet peeve of mine is when people say they are sorry for things they have no control over. I will gladly accept your apologies if you messed-up but please do not apologize for things that are out of your control or I will accuse you of having extra-ordinary powers.

Sorry about a bad phone connection? What are you apologizing for? Did you sabotage the lines?

Sorry because you couldn’t get an answer from someone who lost their home when a tornado blew through town? The tornado was in the news and I really don’t think you were responsible for it.

Apologizing for things you are not responsible for takes away from the impact of apologies for real mistakes and it puts me in position of having to respond to the apology. I will not accept the apology, I will not say “It’s nothing” and I will not acknowledge the apology. If you are a friend, I will give you a polite version of this rant. If you repeat the mistake, I will mention it is a pet peeve. If you persist, I will ask you to apologize for the apology.

If It’s Obvious, Is It Still A Tip?

I started following Lifehacker for a second time a few weeks ago and I have enjoyed a few of the tips I picked up from this site: an extension for Chrome; a CSS hack to speed-up FireFox; and keeping the pigeons off of my balcony using mirrors. Nevertheless, the useful tips were infrequent and I have wondered whether I should remove them from my RSS Reader.

Lifehacker publishes so many tips on getting things done that keeping up with the flow eats more time than you could possibly save.  The fact that many of the tips can be ignored is what makes  it possible to try. Unfortunately, this is a reflection on the quality of the tips. The result is that you are still spending more time keeping up with the tips than you save using them.

Yesterday I saw tip on cleaning the treads of boots with a pencil. I had to look twice to see if there was really anything special about the idea and I saw that the merits of the pencil versus the pen are discussed.

Perhaps I should suggest for their user submitted tips that a really good way to get shoes to shine is to use shoe polish!

I no longer subscribe to Lifehacker with my RSS reader.

Geolocalize Where I Want to Put Your Geolocalization

I grew up in an English Speaking part of Canada, live in France and work mostly with the US. English is my preferred language and I prefer to consume most of my Internet browsing in English on US sites.

I setup my OS in English with the US in my regional settings. I told my browsers that I want to see sites in English before French.

Despite all this, companies are using geolocalization and redirecting me to their French sites.

Showing me French Advertising  makes sense as I am shopping in France.

Redirecting me to French ecommerce sites  also makes sense as I don’t want to go to the other side of the world to shop.

Why anyone else ignores my settings and says, overtly or implied, “we noticed you are in France, so we have redirected you to our French site” is beyond me. These sites are proud of having implemented geolocalisation and, to my  frustration, it is becoming more common. I then have to spend (at least) five minutes trying to force my way back to the US site.

I am willing to bet that they are erroneously redirecting more people like me than helping people who mistakenly went to the wrong site using a browser setup incorrectly. Smart technology used in a way that implies that the user is too stupid to know what he is doing is plain stupid.