TOC Farewell to the middle class Your Turn

November 9, 2010

Last week, we showed that lack of eprivacy imposes a hidden tax on us all. Since they neither have to send money nor see any deduction from their paycheck, even the most tax adverse Americans gladly contribute. One can even increase this kind of taxes without opposition. Remarkable!

Such trends do not affect our daily lives overnight. Still when Google deploys its cash on windmills (1) and self-driving cars (2), you can already see your hidden taxes at work. If elected governments are too weak to force the new data lords into compliance, the logic of power pushes these very mighty lords to progressively take over the duties of the state. Weren't the Middle Ages a true case of "small government"?

Google is keen on Energy and Transportation. Shouldn't Social Services be a natural for Facebook, provided, that is, it hides its taxes a bit better?

The new Middle Ages need not mimick the past in all aspects. But whenever a central authority, no longer able or even willing to protect ordinary citizens, lets a plunder economy take root and develop, what van Gulik (3) liked to call "the brothers of the green woods" are sure to take a cut.

Such a cut is not unknown to the public, by now well aware ID theft is rampant. But let us not get carried away. Assuming the law does not simply express a lobbyist's dream, Western governments can still uphold Justice today with the help of capable law enforcement officers. Indeed, in her analysis of the underworld which thrives on so-called "data breaches" (*), Kimberley Kiefer Peretti shows she is well aware of its total complexity.

"Harm often results in little or no economic loss for the individual because consumer liability for unauthorized credit or debit card use is limited by law". When a company like TJX ultimately suffers "costs amount[ing] to $256 millions" because of a data breach, consumers are only taxed collectively through higher prices or by paying the credit report agencies for a credit watch the agencies ought to offer for free unconditionally.

Were the levy on consumers limited to this! Adds Ms Peretti, "nevertheless, the individual may suffer significant non-monetary losses such as invasion of privacy, inconvenience and reputation damage". These losses are unfortunately difficult to fathom. For one who has found out how inconvenient it can be to spend countless hours repairing a stolen identity, how many may never realize they are charged a small increase in interest on their personal debts because of some slight and inconspicuous "reputation damage" to their credit ratings?

As for privacy invasion and reputation damage, they have been a focus of these fillips. We saw last week how the information contained in a personal profile can be used to cheat the individual concerned of the value added by each transaction entered into by the latter. And reputation is but the basis upon which recommenders issue their recommendations, a perennial theme of ours (4). How about a personal anecdote?

As I send no more than a few dozen emails a week, I hardly qualify as a spammer and have never been accused of propagating any virus. Yet my mails to French addresses have been refused delivery several times in the past. Contrary to some other postmasters, Windows Live Hotmail was kind enough to inform me "reasons for rejection may be related to content with spam-like characteristics or IP/domain reputation problems".

In the instance I solved my problem by reaching my correspondent through another address of his. But last week a McAfee vendor assured me the recommendation site run by his company,, had a real redress process. As this feature is as necessary as it is commonly found to be a weak point of recommendation systems, I decided to put McAfee to the test. Naturally it asked for my IP, which my local cable company sets arbitrarily and resets at will from time to time. No difficulty there. To learn one's IP, one only needs to consult (5).

Grokster does report one's IP, but in the minatory tone so characteristic of the music industry. "Don't think you can't get caught. You are not anonymous." Yet don't data aggregators per force link each profile to its IP address in order to deliver their clients' targeted ads to the right people, while swearing to anonymize all personal data? How then can an IP address be anonymous at Google and not at Grokster? Strange, isn't it?

I digress. Having copied my IP from and pasted it into, I found to my surprise this IP was "high risk". If Microsoft gets its recommendations from McAfee, no wonder I had been ostracized. I immediately requested an explanation from McAfee. I must say its corresponding redress process was fast and efficient. I received an answer before closing for the day and now my IP is deemed "minimum risk".

Still this test illustrates three very worrying flaws in current Internet practices. One is obvious. They are hundred of recommendation systems out there, not all as polite as McAfee. Pray tell who has the time to ask redress from them all even if one knew where to find them? Second, notice McAfee never told me what stained my reputation in the first place. They only raised it. What prevents it from dropping once again behind my back? Third, why, a site which has spammed me several times a day for more than a year, is not blacklisted (6)?

When a recommender is not picked by mutual consent by the two parties to a transaction, nor works under the explicit responsibility of the party for whom it acts as an agent, expect isolated individuals to be treated like the idiots they etymologically are (7).

Once again I play Cassandra, but please remember Troy did not fall in a day. The brothers of the green woods are capitalists to the core and loath to invest too soon lest profits lag behind. While there is potential in harvesting personal profiles to better extort money through reputation "management", I do not say when this opportunity will trigger their interest on a wide scale, although it brings immediate benefits to terrorists.

For now Verizon is content to present "social tactics" which "employ deception, manipulation, intimidation, etc. to exploit the human element, or users, of information assets", as an up and coming tool for implementing data breaches (**). So there is time still. But the signs are unmistakable.

What characterizes the middle class is to enjoy the social and economic freedom which escapes the downtrodden while lacking the autonomous power which is the privilege of the mighty. My avowed inability to manage my own reputation in a satisfactory way is proof there is little room for a middle class in our Information Age. Either I must rise at least to the petty nobility represented by a Phil's Stock World, who spams because it can, or I must sink to the point of depending on some benevolent baron, my one acknowledged recommender.

Could I at least play one protector against another? Lords do not become mighty by giving away their power base. Richard Waters reports "Google has blocked Facebook from "scrapping" [...] lists of contacts kept by Google's Gmail users" (***). Expect more such "skirmishes over automated access to data [...] as rivals seek to build walls around [it]". Lo! Wasn't this data ours to begin with? See how alienated our lot has become.

Wait! According to Stephanie Kirchgaessner, the recent switch of the US Congress towards Republican control may boost prospects for eprivacy and "mark a challenge to Google and other Internet groups that collect user information" (****). Shall we rejoice? Perhaps but if "the Republican victory is good news for AT&T and other telecommunications and cable providers", are we only exchanging one set of lords for another?

And didn't the Middle Ages came about to avoid total anarchy as the central government became smaller and smaller? What a taxing prospect!

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ....... Data Breaches: What the Underground World of Carding Reveals, by Kimberly Kiefer Peretti
    ..............(The Santa Clara Computer & High Technology Law Journal) - Vol 25, issue 2, 2009
  • (**) ..... 2010 Data Breach Investigations Report, the Verizon RISK Team in cooperation with the United States Secret Service (Verizon) - 2010
  • (***) ... Google block on Facebook heats up war, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - November 6, 2010
  • (****) . Corporate America welcomes power shift, by Stephanie Kirchgaessner (Financial Times) - November 8, 2010
  • (1) for more details see this official communication by Google itself.
  • (2) Look Officer, No Hands: Google Car Drives Itself, by John Markoff (New York Times) - October 10, 2010
  • (3) for more details, see van Gulik in the wikipedia
  • (4) look up under the theme "recommendation mechanisms" in the index of these fillips
  • (5) for details on how fell under the spell of the music industry, see the case study in my lecture about Copying
  • (6) at no time did I enter into a so-called business relationship, let alone any relationship, with Phil's Stock World nor with Philip R. Davis, its founder
  • (7) idiot comes from the Greek word for "private person".
November 2010
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