The FTC and our online privacy

This is a really fascinating story, which points out the FTC, while motivated, is ill-equipped to track online privacy breaches. (Their technologists can’t get unfiltered computers to use for web surfing, for one.) Although they of course would like the tech industry to think they’re watching everywhere, the FTC has “just a handful of iPhones and Androids that are kept under lock and key in the basement,” the report says.

Kudos to ProPublica for digging out this story:

Jonathan Mayer had a hunch.

A gifted computer scientist, Mayer suspected that online advertisers might be getting around browser settings that are designed to block tracking devices known as cookies. If his instinct was right, advertisers were following people as they moved from one website to another even though their browsers were configured to prevent this sort of digital shadowing. Working long hours at his office,Mayer ran a series of clever tests in which he purchased ads that acted as sniffers for the sort of unauthorized cookies he was looking for. He hit the jackpot, unearthing one of the biggest privacy scandals of the past year: Google was secretly planting cookies on a vast number of iPhone browsers. Mayer thinks millions of iPhones were targeted by Google.

This is precisely the type of privacy violation the Federal Trade Commission aims to protect consumers from, and Google, which claims the cookies were not planted in an unethical way, now reportedly faces a fine of more than $10 million. But the FTC didn’t discover the violation. Mayer is a 25-year-old student working on law and computer science degrees at Stanford University. He shoehorned his sleuthing between classes and homework, working from an office he shares in the Gates Computer Science Building with students from New Zealand and Hong Kong. He doesn’t get paid for his work and he doesn’t get much rest.

If it seems odd that a federal regulator was scooped by a sleep-deprived student, get used to it, because the federal government is often the last to know about digital invasions of your privacy. The largest privacy scandal of the past year, also involving Google, wasn’t discovered by federal regulators, either. A privacy official in Germany forced Google to hand over the hard drives of cars equipped with 360-degree digital cameras that were taking pictures for its Street View program. The Germans discovered that Google wasn’t just shooting photos: The cars downloaded a panoply of sensitive data, including emails and passwords, from open Wi-Fi networks. Google had secretly done the same in the United States, but the FTC, as well as the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees broadcast issues, had no idea until the Germans figured it out.

Weather report

Local weather kept saying it was supposed to be clear tonight, but the MASSIVE storm that struck D.C. area tonight was clearly headed our way on the weather radar and shortly after midnight, they finally agreed we would get hit. Finally, it’s here. Not as bad as D.C., thank God, where they had 80 mph winds and hail.

Lots of D.C. friends without power tonight, although they’re bravely carrying on with the Twitter. The power company says it will take “days” to get it back on. How the hell will they survive in this heat?

Insufferable in Aspen

Via Ryan Chittum at CJR, a good look at how our elite sees the rest of us:

CNBC’s John Carney finally heard an idea that intrigued him at the Aspen Ideas Festival: Ending universal suffrage:

His argument had two parts. The first was that some people simply are not ready for democracy. They have no functional conception of the state in their minds, much less an understanding of representative, deliberative democracy. Some are so poor that they can be bribed to vote this way or that for “five dollars,” he said. The application of the principle of universal suffrage was not a recipe for successful government in these circumstances, the speaker argued…

This pretty much runs against the grain of everything decent and serious people think. In fact, in a place like Aspen — which is dominated by progressives of various sorts — it felt like he was standing athwart history yelling “Go back!”

There’s something truly gross about the elite gathering in Aspen, of all places, at the behest of The Atlantic, of all institutions, to talk about how some people are too stupid to vote (a notion advanced by the Wall Street Journal editorial pages last week).

Because what the world needs now is more power concentrated in the hands of Aspen Ideas Festival elites like Alan Greenspan, Pervez Musharraf, and Larry Summers.

— Here’s the headline of Agnes Crane’s Reuters Breakingviews column:

Libor rigging look like victimless crime

If somebody was making money off this, somebody was losing money. It’s a zero-sum game. The argument, I suppose, is that it’s “victimless” if you steal relatively small amounts from large numbers of people (emphasis mine):

The numbers just don’t look large enough to matter. In one documented example, a derivatives trader put in a request to lower the input for three-month Libor, among the most popular benchmarks for floating rate debt, and it dropped by half a basis point, 0.005 percentage points. Libor was 5.365 percent at the time. Borrowers would hardly notice the difference.

That was the point, wasn’t it?

Remember, it was the “smart” people who got us into this mess. They’re the ones who shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

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