Well, we’ve had quite a run of high-profile breaches in information security over the last week or so. While each case carries its own tawdry details, I think it’s worth pausing to consider them as a group for just a moment, lumped into the general category of “snooping.”
To recap for the benefit of anyone not keeping score at home, the Justice Department has been snooping on the Associated Press, Bloomberg News has been snooping on Goldman Sachs, and the IRS has been snooping on the Tea Party.
There’s something missing in that mix, though. Did you notice?
There is nary a public consumer-oriented tech company in sight in any of these stories. No Facebook. No Google. No Amazon. No Apple. Not even a Yahoo.
I don’t point this out to claim that Silicon Valley’s practices regarding snooping in its various forms are or have been perfect. But I do think this recent flurry of blowups is an opportunity to reconsider the frequent coverage of “privacy” that we see see directed at consumer Internet companies. Perhaps the way that issue has been framed in the popular imagination the last few years is doing the public a bit of a disservice, discounting other online risks that should also be considered serious.
The more I look at it, I think “privacy” is actually too narrow of a frame to encompass all the potential downsides from the rise of ever more powerful computers and ever more pervasive connection to the Internet. What we really need is a series of conversations about several issues that are loosely related but also somewhat distinct from one another. Just for starters, there’s free speech, data security, business ethics in general, and checks and balances on governmental power, which is much more vast than anything a business can exercise.
It’s also worth remembering that non-tech companies collect a lot of data on people as well, sometimes with more haphazard data practices precisely because they don’t have the expertise that tech companies do. Banks. Insurers. Airlines. For-profit education providers. Brick-and-mortar retailers with ancient computers they maintain like old manual cash registers. How does the information you share with these entities compare to what you give to Facebook?
Finally, as important as it is to point out risk factors, we should also focus more keenly on actual harm when we talk about any form of online snooping. Otherwise it’s too easy to veer into paranoia and miss out on the good aspects of all the amazing technology now at our fingertips.
There is actual harm in every one of those recent stories I mentioned up top in this post. By contrast, you know where there isn’t any? How about in all the preemptive hand-wringing over Google Glass. The new wearable, camera-equipped device is a prototype in the hands of only a few thousand people so far.
Maybe we should all just wait a little while and see how the Glass launch goes before freaking out about it. In the meantime, there are forms of snooping that we can be certain are much more worthy of the time and attention.
Salon’s Joan Walsh castigates the political press today for waaaaaaay premature coverage of the next presidential election. She writes:
Welcome to the surreal kickoff to the 2016 presidential race, which began in earnest only days into Barack Obama’s high stakes second term. Sequester, Syria, Afghanistan, the unending Benghazi story; all matter less than, or only in terms of, 2016 politics. High-minded journalists have been complaining about horse-race politics for my entire professional life, but our 2016 obsession is without precedent this long before the first primaries – and it’s destructive to the country.
This strikes me as a great Monday-morning topic, following on the heels of the Sunday political shows, which have really turned into weekly 2016 fests of late. I was ranting at my TV just yesterday about that, much to my wife’s amusement. In fact, I’m beginning to think this little meta-entertainment is the only reason she still reminds me to turn her “favorite” political show on every week.
Don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this on the blog, but I’m a real Evernote junkie. One of the many things I use it for is as a “read later” app, clipping and saving interesting-looking stories I encounter on the Web but don’t have time to read in the moment.
I was just clearing out my “read later” queue a bit today and stumbled across a Harvard Business Review blog post that I now wish I’d read a lot closer to its publication date almost a year back. Mentioning here for the sake of anyone else who’s interested in entrepreneurship, as I am. Ditto for anyone doing any sort of job hunt or career planning.
Writer Greg McKeown starts with a simple premise — that success is a catalyst for failure for both organizations and individuals — and then he offers some insights about why this paradox exists and how to deal with it better. Extremenly useful stuff, I think.
Again, the full post is available here.
The first Web server began operation 20 years ago today. One of the better commemorations I’ve seen today is on the TED Blog, which summarized some general lessons on innovation from the “eureka” moment inventor Tim Berners-Lee had working on the first Web server.
Berners-Lee gave a Ted Talk of his own in 2009. First third or so in particular covers his early work on the Web, with fascinating stuff further in about the future of “linked data.”
I think Quartz’s Gideon Lichfield has given us by far the most insightful analysis yet of media mistakes during coverage of the recent Boston bombing. Offhand, it brought two things to mind for me that I’ve been meaning to write about here for some time anyway.
First, situations like the Boston coverage give the lie to legacy media organizations’ frequent posturing during non-crisis times as the great defenders of editorial standards versus the rampant irresponsibility of the Internet. The reality is much more nuanced than that. Any means of transmission of information — ink on a page, television, the Web, whatever — is neither inherently good nor bad. There’s good stuff and there’s crap to be found in any medium. The technology itself, old or new, is never inherently good or bad; it’s just there. It is what creative people make of it.
Second, transparency needs to be a core value within news organizations on par with old standbys like objectivity, accuracy, et cetera. Legacy media orgs simply don’t “get” that people are now inherently mistrustful of institutions to some degree, and that includes the media orgs themselves. I don’t think that’s an insurmountable problem, but I do think it has to be acknowledged and dealt with in much more consistent, robust way, including a lot more openness about how news orgs work internally.
Though this is unspoken, transparency is one of the obvious premises — and thus a great strength — of Gideon’s post. He critiques Quartz right along with everyone else, knowing this adds to his credibility. Bravo.
I’m belatedly catching up today on a hilariously cheeky stunt by a couple of engineers from the startup Sencha attempting to debunk a claim by the mighty Mark Zuckerberg.
After Zuck criticized the technical capabilities of HTML5, the basic building block of the open Web, the Sencha guys thought: “No, Facebook, you’re just doing it wrong. A good mechanic never blames his tools.” So they built a demo version of Facebook that runs better in browsers than the real thing. Then they blogged about it.
My geekier friends will appreciate the nitty-gritty of this. For the non-geeks, hey, maybe you want to try out the demo, humbly dubbed Fastbook, out of curiosity. It’s mobile-oriented, since that was a crucial context to Zuckerberg’s earlier remarks. Fastbook will also display all your actual posts and news items from your friends, so you won’t miss any FB action.
Curious to hear people’s impressions in the comments.
The sports press is abuzz about the pending announcement of baseball’s annual Hall of Fame vote, which will likely exclude Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens due to their use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Of course, there are a lot of opinions on this stuff, and a lot of ink is being spilled in particular by the baseball writers who covered the steroid era. They claim expertise as firsthand witnesses, but the subtext any fan should read between every line of all this recent journalism is that the writers’ own credibility is also at stake in baseball’s post-steroid reckoning. After all, the writers’ credulity in chronicling certain steroid-fueled feats was a major enabler of the whole charade for public consumption in the first place.
In this context, I have to say, Allen Barra’s* latest piece in Salon deserves special mention. He trots out two old arguments for letting steroid users into the Hall:
1. We’re still not sure if steroids even affect performance on a baseball diamond at all.
2. Steroids weren’t against Major League Baseball’s rules during what we now call “the Steroid Era,” so using them didn’t really constitute cheating to begin with.
At this point, the first argument is so absurd it’s not even worth debating. Even Barra allows that Barry Bonds’s late-career surge was clearly fueled by steroids, but that was only because Bonds had some magical concoction that the NASA-caliber geniuses at one particular private laboratory were able to devise. As for the rest of the guys using Brand X stuff, hey, maybe they could’ve all hit 50 or 60 home runs a season without it for all Barra knows.
By the way, that lab Bonds used was run by this guy:
As for Barra’s second point — the rule-based defense — I think that calls for more serious debunking. As a fan, I still hear it a lot in the stands at games, in sports bars, et cetera.
The crucial flaw is that steroid use has been illegal under U.S. federal law since 1990, around the dawn of what we now consider baseball’s “Steroid Era.” Obviously, federal law trumps the MLB rulebook. We could just as easily rephrase the steroid defenders’ argument like this: “Hey, those players never broke any league rules, just federal law. What’s the big deal?”
Sounds kinda stupid when you put it like that, doesn’t it? And you know what, even that interpretation is a bit charitable because it allows for some innacuracy that works in the steroid apologists’ favor.
In fact, MLB has long had rules against using any drug that’s illegal in society. Ergo, if steroids and other performance enhancers were illegal, they were automatically also against MLB’s rules, even if the league didn’t have a specific list of banned PEDs of its own.
This is why MLB commissioner Fay Vincent sent a memo in 1991 to all the clubs outlining the league’s anti-drug policy, including a specific section on steroids. Up high in the document, he writes: “The basic drug policy for the game is simply stated: There is no place for illegal drugs in Baseball.”
This policy was in effect more than a decade before baseball was able to establish a steroid testing program via collecutive bargaining with the players’ union, which is what the supposedly expert sportswriters really mean when they say “steroids weren’t banned” by MLB. However, a far more accurate characterization of history is that Vincent did indeed enact a steroid ban in 1991, echoing federal law. That initial ban didn’t have good enforcement “teeth” at the time because of union obstructionism, but the league added better teeth later as it became possible.
Looking back, Vincent’s do-the-best-you-can approach in 1991 makes a lot of sense when you consider that MLB is a multibillion-dollar business. Such an enterprise simply can’t condone illegality in its midst. That’s especially true if the illegality direcly affects production of the product, which in MLB’s case is the play on the field.
It should also go without saying that if both the commissioner and Congress tell you not to do something, but you do that thing anyway, you’re most definitely cheating by any reasonable meaning of the word.
*DISCLAIMER: I was a markets reporter at the Wall Street Journal for several years during the period when Barra wrote a sports column for the paper analyzing sports statistics — and rarely mentioning the possible effects of PEDs on such. Since we were in different departments, I had no firsthand dealings with Barra at the time, good or bad, though I did read his column regularly.