Assange/Wikileaks/Trump

It will be interesting to see how they play out under Trump.

The first, and perhaps least important is that of the position of Julian Assange, the erstwhile editor-in-chief of the organisation WikiLeaks. Assange has been holed up in the Ecuador’s embassy in London trying to avoid questioning in Sweden over an alleged rape charge. Assange asserts that this is a thinly veiled first step in extraditing him to the US for trial on much more sinister charges.

I debated, aka argued, with my own son that you couldn’t take anything that Assange is now doing at face value. That when wikileaks first arrived on the Internet, it was about the leak and the injustice and not the personalities. My son, remained convinced that it was about the global banking system, and their ties with powerful politicians. I disagree, for too long, wikileaks has been about Assange.

Given the timing, and manor in which the wikileaks disclosure of the DNC/Podesta emails came about, I believe this was nothing more than an attempt by Assange and wikileaks to undermine the US election. They succeeded.

It’s almost certainly no coincidence that it was announced that Assange would finally be questioned by the Swedish authorities next week. The only question that remains, irrespective of the outcome, is will a Trump Presidency go after Assange in the same way either Obama or Clinton Presidency would?

If not, does that leave wiggle room for the return to the USA of Edward Snowden? Wikileaks can and will go on without Assange. Snowden is the real hero for exposing the secret mass survailance system that Presidents Bush/Obama had setup, and now will come under control of President Trump.

Feeling had America, you should. Don’t forget the emails, the only thing we learned from them for the mot part was how the DNC set Hillary up to fail, and they gave the chattering classes something to focus on that wasn’t policy, and wasn’t difficult.

China, still not big or bad enough

The primary difference being, as the updated NY Times article on Tianjin chemical storage shows, there were public records about chemical storage in China, not so much Texas. Freedom is an illusion.

china chemicals

Back on August 14th, the Austin American Statesman carried an article from the NY TImes about the dangers of Chemical storage on it’s front page. It did so without even a footnote highlighting the fact there is little in Texas that, in 2015, prevents the same thing happening. You can read an updated NY Times article here, or the one highlighted above here.

Of course, we had the total disaster in West, Texas in April 2013. Since then there has been little to prevent the same thing happening. When he was Texas Attorney General, Governor Abbott restricted any information about Chemical Storage held by the State, as posted over a year ago.. He said at the time, you can always show up and ask what chemicals are stored on a site near you. A fine example of what the Tianjin residents would call “shuǎzuǐpí“.

Of course, as we are always being told, “everything is bigger in Texas“,  and when it comes to chemical explosions, China has a long way to go to match Texas. Consider the pictures below, pretty similar.

Chemical Explosion

The pair on the left are from the 1947 Texas City Disaster, where 581 were killed, and over 5,000 injured, with more than 500 homes destroyed. Believed to be the USA largest ever and most destructive industrial accident. It ranks among the worlds largest man-made disasters. The pictures on the right are from the Tianjin explosions which killed 147 people.

The primary difference being, as the updated NY Times article on Tianjin chemical storage shows, there were public records about chemical storage in China, not so much Texas. Freedom is an illusion.

Privacy as an abnormal condition in America

I’ll get the gloating out of the way first, last week both Edward Snowden and Julian Assange appeared live by video at SXSW here in Austin. Given SXSW is one massive geekfest there was bound to be social media coverage, and some news coverage depending on what either of them said, or which way the wind was blowing in the mainstream media.

Assange on the 55-inch TVHowever, due to the successful Texas Tribune kickstarter campaign, tens of thousands of us were able to watch it simultaneously live via livestream.

I contributed just $250 to that kickstarter, I more than got my moneys worth from just those two livestreams, forget the tour of the Trib offices with Chief Innovation Officer Rodney Gibbs, a private review of the livestream equipment, and iof course all the Governors race coverage that signed up for in the first place.

Typical of the coverage was this Tweet: https://twitter.com/jeremywaite/status/443071488615141378

Snowdown on the laptopApparently, the count was up around 50,000 for Snowdon. I could go on for hours about what both Snowdon and Assange said, or didn’t say, but that wasn’t the point of this blog. Both discussions focused around the individual right to privacy, both explicit and implicit privacy.

Explicit privacy are those things that you have a right to expect will be kept private. These include those personal details, which if revealed, can cause you harm; Your social security number, your bank account details and balances, your medical records and a number of other items. Implicit privacy are those things which, no one really has a right to know, even if they feel they can use that information. This week I’ve realized finally, not only is there no boundary between the two here in America, but for the most part no one has any expectation of real privacy.

This is primarily because here in America corporations have relentlessly abused our privacy, sharing data to the point where, societally, people have no real expectation or understanding of privacy.

I’m sure its my background, maybe my English upbringing and/or family. However, I find it intolerable to get letter after letter from what are borderline scams to re-finance, using variously Presidential decrees, acts and so on. Each and everyone of these has the precise amount of the loan I have. Except I don’t have a loan, so each and everyone of those letters not only has the amount of my Home Equity line of credit, they also have the name of the lender. How did they get this? Disgusted I called my FCU, why had they given this out or sold it? They hadn’t, it was public record at the credit agency they use.

At least from my upbringing, one didn’t boast about the amount of money one did, or didn’t have. When it came up in discussion, you mostly let it go without answering, it was none of their business.

Another example of a violation of implicit privacy is my leased car. I received a call from yet another company using a dressed up, pseudo scam approach to extended the warranty on my 2010 VW CC. Except again, I don’t have a 2010 VW CC, I sold it 13-months ago. That doesn’t make it ok though. The tele-sales person that called me had enough information to make a pass at convincing me this was an official call. Just a few (social engineering) questions about the mileage(the last record the have was…), why I had purchased the car rather than taken a new lease…

The caller actually had very little real information, again no more than could be gained from the credit agency(lease) and some additional information from the VW Leasing or Dealership. However, what they were trying to do was to convince me they were the official leasing, extended maintenance dept. and they were using social engineering. While that may not be illegal, it’s certainly deceptive and immoral.

And there is the problem. When it comes to privacy in the US, for the most part people do not complain because they’ve been subjected to years of relentless commercial exploitation which has both worn them down, and taken away their will to fight back. At the same time, companies have automated their systems to the point where you just can’t talk to a human about privacy, and the relentless push for outsourcing, contractors, sub-contractors has made it incredibly difficult to even find out who knows what, much less stop it.

Assange and Snowdon in their ways have bought these massive government data breaches to our attention. They’ve highlighted how this data collection is going on at a massive scale. Eventually the information will leak to these scam-like commercial companies, you won’t hear about that, because they will just use the information to increasingly financially, socially, and morally to attack you.

A friend posted on facebook recently something to the effect of “which is worse the government or a private company when it comes to collecting data? – The government because they can take away your liberty.” – I would say, private companies are far worse, you have no privacy, liberty, no freedom and increasingly, no choice.

Cancer, the Radiolab edition.

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Henrietta Lacks famous cells

This podcast is possibly the most informative, scary, disgusting, weird and inspiring podcasts I’ve ever heard. Like most people cancer has had a growing impact on my family. My Mum is a survivor; I’ve lost Aunts, my ex-wife, and just last week, a good friends husband.  I’m heading for my 3rd surgery for nonmalignant skin carcinoma removal. Yet I know nothing about cancer.

I didn’t set out to learn, “Famous Tumors” was just next up on my drive time podcast list. Well worth the listen. The main story is about Her name was Henrietta Lacks, scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the land. Her cells, taken without her knowledge, became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. She remains virtually unknown, hear her story, and that of the march of her cells.

You can’t kill an idea

The Atlantic has a chilling review of pretty much everything we know about the UK Governments arrest and holding of David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter whom Edward Snowden trusted with many of his NSA documents.

Arrest One

Increasingly the whole thing is starting to look like an operation that belonged Sutler and Creedy from V for Vendetta.

One of the key scenes(NWSF) in the film featured Creedy and armed men trying to kill V. Creedy demands, “Why won’t you die?” To which V replies, “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh Mr Creedy. Beneath this mask there is an idea. And ideas are bulletproof.”

At the end of the Atlantic article, writer Bruce Schneier, says of the attempt to intimidate

“This is only the beginning. The media will not be intimidated. I will not be intimidated. But it scares me that the NSA is so blind that it doesn’t see it.”

Mark 5:9: “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.”

More mail scam

Here is another classic of its genre. Note the very serious threat in the middle of the envelope. This is totally unnecessary,  it is there simply to intimidate and frighten the receiver.  It also demands on the front of the envelope “to be opened by addressee only.  PEASE RESPOND WITHIN FIVE DAYS”

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So what can be so important? It’s nothing more than a car warranty scam. Importantly,  I don’t even own the car anymore,  it was sold some 7-months ago.  Yet the letter warns me of all the dire consequences of breakdown and unexpected Expenses.

Another clue it’s a scam,  is unlike the norm in the USA of including a return name and address,  the only address present is the paid for address,  no company  name. In fact,  having opened it,  it doesn’t contain the company name anywhere,  unless the company name is “Vehicle Administration Center”.

This is a disgrace, purely to intimidate the elderly and less aware into buying something they don’t need. If it really were a good idea, well priced and useful, it could be packaged up in a much more positive, less threatening way.

Shame on VW Leasing for selling my details to these scam operations. I will not do business with VM Leasing again.

Hate Mail

One thing I’ve grown to hate in my last 9-years in the USA, and increasingly in Austin as I’ve lived at the same address for 7-years, is the scam and fake mail that arrives at regular intervals.

There are those “official” looking envelopes that include seals, official government like crests and demand attention and immediate opening and often a response. I got a letter today from the Worth Finance Corp. They apparently have offices all over central Texas. They at least got my information from Transunion Credit, who pre-screened me.

Right at the top of the letter it says “It’s true, You are holding a real check for $800.00” and goes on empathise with me and my need to be ready for the “expenses the new school year can bring”. Which only goes to show they know absolutely nothing about me.

19895_10151794977230915_1445898368_nThe letter, with attached $800 check, helpfully included pictures of good looking kids. Inside the horror of the letter and the scam is revealed. You can borrow $800, at a staggering 81.26% interest rate.

Which means it will cost you a minimum of $396 in interest almost half of what you borrowed. If you pay everything on time, you’ll pay back $1194. This is total daylight robbery at a time when interest rates are at record lows. The worst you can do from the credit union I use is 9.5% and I consider that 3x what I’d pay, and certainly for much more than $800.

These letters are no more than scams and fishing trips to lure poor, uneducated , the elderly and needy people in America into into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise do. The sorts of information in these letters includes details which are in most civilised societies considered private, like the amount of the mortgage you have on your house; the status of your insurance etc. In many cases the types of information included is not only private, but would be subject to data protection laws in the UK, Germany, France etc. Not just because it is private information, but exactly to stop this sort of high pressure scam and selling which can frighten those who don’t know better.

I would call Transunion at 1-888 567-8688 but took the risk of doing it via the web http://www.optoutprescreen.com – I’m also going to spend some time in the morning tracking down the CEO and send him/her a fake Cease and Desist letter with a fake crest on the envelope.

Someone knocking at the door

We had a spirited discussion over coffee today about the whole NSA data collection fuss  and sparked by the continuing refusal of the UK Government to accept there is a case to be concerned,  even if you have “nothing to hide”.

Think of it this way.  You are sat at home,  there is a knock at the door.  You answer  it’s that nice man from the NSA,  he says “excuse me,  we’d like a few minutes of your time,  can you just write down every phone call you’ve made in the last 3-months, what time of day you made the call,  what number you called,  how long the call lasted.”. –  you say why,  they say,  dunno,  may make some sense in the future.

Going to give it to them?  Going to call a lawyer?  Done anything wrong?  –  well good news,  you don’t need to,  they won’t come knocking,  they’ve got all the data anyway.

Then,  remember that phone call you had?  You know,  the crazy guy that your cousin thought would be a an interesting match up,  he called you? No?  Well never mind,  the NSA does. 

He called you from his Walmart cellphone,  me they want to  know what you discussed.  At the time when he ranted on about the PM of Saudi Arabia you never gave it a 2nd thought,  turns out a couple of years later the PM was assassinated by some nut job who had that phone on him…  You remember what you said?

Dam right the NSA shouldn’t have any of your digital data unless they get permission from you,  before collecting it.

Still confused?

Facebook socialgraph

facebook socialgraph bar

Yesterday the menu bar on my browser facebook page changed. I realized I’d been given access to their new SocialGraph feature but didn’t immediately realize the power of it. I tried it out a few times, did some obvious searches and went back to work.

Then late yesterday evening I came back to it, tried a few more things out and then suddenly, it was 3:05 a.m. The power of this is truly awesome. With power comes responsibility, in this case the responsibility lies with facebook users. Remember, when you are not paying for something, YOU are the product.

So, socialgraph is really helpful when you want to find a picture of you and a friend at an event, that either you, your friend, or someone else took. If you don’t get the query right, facebook will even give you helpful suggestions on how to search. The more information you put in the description, update, tags etc. the more specific the result will be. It’s really powerful.

Great. Well hold on. Remember YOU are the product. Turning to the dark side, it became really interesting to search for things, for example:

  • photos from 2006 of friends at college < Facebook was mostly still just emerging from “the facebook” back then. It was only colleges that could get access before that. Trust me, some of my friends need to seriously go back and delete their pictures, and especially pictures they are tagged in.
  • friends who are single women < Yes, facebook has gone from a psuedo dating hookup platform to a full blown competitor for match.com. Queries can be much more extensive, you can search for people who like something, that are single, live in a specific place and are between age and age.
  • People at work who like triathlon < I’ve been toying with the idea of running a small event to get feedback from a few people. So I decided to try people who work at xxx in yyy and like triathlon. Sure enough a massive list of specific people, with often there actual job titles, locations, etc. and of course, since they are on facebook, you can send them messages etc. Yes, messages to non-friends now charge if you want them to show up in their inbox, put I cut-n-paste 60 names into Outlook, pressed alt-k and yammo, resolved through the corporate name and address book.
  • People who like dance music and live in austin < now you don’t even have to like a page to give away your data. It’s available to mine for free. Again, the only gate here is that if they want to message you, they either have to pay or it ends up in your “other” inbox.

In general this has to be seen as a huge step forward in what you can do with facebook. It’s also hugely revealing in ways I’d never thought about that open us all up to commercial exploitation. Using this harmless question, I was really surprised at the results. My friends who are between 50 and 55 and like Jack and Adam’s Bicycles.

Definitely time to double check what information you’ve given facebook, especially in your profile, where you check-in and especially what businesses and hobbies you like. If you are a friend and noticed yesterday that I added an employer for the first time since I joined facebook, now you know why.

Doing who is searches is also included, but just retrieves information from bing. Amongst other things who is mark cathcart retrieved the following “Mark Cathcart read classics at Cambridge. He published as a City analyst with his innovative style earning him a top rank in international surveys for a number of …” < True, but not me. More on this problem up next.

Can’t get enough Fiber

So, it’s formally announced, Google Fiber is coming to Austin in 2014.

This is potentially a great announcement. The focus will be on the speed, which in my view is wrong. It should be on the affordability and open access. For the most part, as I’ve blogged numerous times, Time Warner Cable is more than fast enough for most homes, its just uncompetitively priced for most, and not affordable for many.

I’ll be especially interested to see how they do this, right down to if they lay new cables underground, using existing or new carrier pipes; hopefully it wont just be more optical cable strung between poles. Obviously what will also bet interesting is the plan, which neighborhoods first etc. The devil is in the detail though, here are some of my first thoughts on it.

  1. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but there is nothing revolutionary about google fiber. Many communities already have this sort of speed, it’s just not from google
  2. When and if it arrives in the ’04, it will come with a bunch of infrastructure that will require users to give up more data on themselves and what they do, what sites they visit etc. How much should google know about you?
  3. On the plus side its competition for TWC, which if you’ve been following along, is what I’ve been campaigning for, writing letters, making calls.
  4. They have a free offering. How this is used, who it is made available too is key; with more and more services going online we can’t afford a class of citizens who are denied access. Should we look for ways to subsidize the install/sign-up fee?
  5. If they just string fiber optic cable between existing polls, boooo. On the other hand, if they do it right and runs the optical fiber(glass cable) underground, are you ok with them digging up the streets. I am. We need to get all the cables underground to improve service, reduce maintenance costs, and get rid of the visual mess it creates.
  6. If you just have a one or two wireless devices, you are unlikely to notice the speed-up, and thats OK. Sure there are new standards that will enable a wireless device connect to the Internet at a theoretical speed that matches your Internet connection, as others have pointed out, Wireless N can already exceed the basic TWC services. Except for multiple people gaming, a couple of HD movies streaming though, you’ll be hard pushed in most homes to notice the difference.
  7. Start downsizing your TWC services now, I effectively shaved $60 off my monthly total bill for TV, HBO, Internet access, TWC need to understand that they can’t depend on the fact y’all have too much money and are too apathetic to go through the change. Lets create some real competition…

It’s no coincidence then AT&T, apparently smarting from the widely leaked google announcement, I can’t even get their service on my urban, less than a mile from city hall street, despite the fact they have two poles and cables on my block, responded by saying “we invest more than any other public company.”. Not here you didn’t.