TOC The rule of three Your Turn

January 8, 2008

My faithful readers know how much store I put on recommendation mechanisms (1). It is therefore my pleasure to recommend here an article by Adam Liptak about borderline behavior by the US government (*). "The border seems a privacy-free zone", he concludes after reporting on several cases of custom agents finding pornographic material on laptops. This is hardly surprising given other well known instances of the unquenchable quest of the US government for international confidential data. What is novel is the debate about when searching becomes invasive.

For better and for worse, lawyers wage war on words for a living. They make a spectator sports for those who, like me, love both logic and words. I have already put out a challenge for the legally inclined. May I offer a two-step solution to help the US Government? Whether it involves bags or body, a search is not invasive when it is a simple scan, i.e. electronic image taking. The Government needs only to argue it is entitled to take a disk image of all hard drives passing through custom and, why not, anywhere. Domestic airline passengers routinely submit to such procedures.

Such a disk scan of course will not reveal child pornography, no more than body scans can show criminal intents. One has to process the data, even perhaps to send it to the NSA to crack its encryption scheme (2). So here is my second bit of free advice. Once in possession of a copy of the digital data, the Governement can argue that it can do with it as it wishes. No US company has ever been fined for processing private information it happens to possess for its own benefit. What Google will do with the FTC blessing, the US Government may surely do. Every day is Halloween.

Speaking of the FTC, I fault its hope in self-regulation over its proposed privacy principles (3). Self-regulation works well if it creates a barrier to entry against new competitors, e.g. when the medical professions raise standards in licensing new physicians. Otherwise one should not rely on the wolf's word that it will take care of the sheep. Refresh past observations with Charles P. Pierce's recent update on truth extension (**).

When two parties need to exchange information, good recommendations work instead by introducing a third party known to both. If A knows that, each time A uses C's recommendation to gain B's favor, B can quickly and reliably verify A's claims with C, A's honesty will rise. This simple "rule of three" is why well known college professors and company executives play an essential role in job markets by getting their admirers to hire their protégés. This is what ePrio's technology supports.

We have observed that search engines and targeted advertising networks are but recommendation schemes. It is instructive to compare them to our ideal. The issue is mainly one of scale. Past a certain threshold, increasing the number of recommendations compells one to resort to automation. But who will believe such a mechanism unless its author explains precisely how recommendations are made? By making obvious its forced enrollment of hapless users, Facebook invited open rebellion against its Beacon process. By keeping secret its result ranking formula to defeat manipulators, Google has created an opening for the Wikia search initiative, as reported by Richard Waters (***) (4).

Analysing of how current weather patterns may be (mis)interpreted to prove global warming (****), John Tierney illustrates a more subtle issue. Implicitly or not, most automated recommendation schemes rely on popularity, a source of truth which tends to obscure responsibility. Even in the absence of willful manipulation, John Tierney warns us, popularity can decrease the value of recommendations by drowning better authorities.

Although, come to think of it, I would not hold his popular following against Adam Liptak if he were to recommend my site.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......... If Your Hard Drive Could Testify, by Adam Liptak (New York Times) - January 7, 2008
  • (**) ...... Rules? What Rules, by Charles P. Pierce (Boston Globe Magazine) - December 30, 2007
  • (***) .... Wikipedia founder launches search engine, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - January 7, 2008
  • (****) .. In 2008, a 100 Percent Chance of Alarm, by John Tierney (New York Times) - January 1, 2008
  • (1) for a more complete review, check Recommendation Mechanisms in the "theme index" for Philippe's fillips
  • (2) see more on the National Security Agency in Wikipedia
  • (3) see FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection staff statement on behavioral advertising, December 20, 2007
  • (4) this important initiative merits a fuller examination in a future fillip.
January 2008
Copyright © 2008 ePrio Inc. All rights reserved.