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December 26, 2008

Apologies not accepted

It's Christmas, time of peace, goodwill, and all that jazz. So my contribution: please stop apologizing. Yes, this means you. All of you.

You, whose company policies are badly drafted and annoying but are not your fault. Instead of apologizing in a maddeningly neutral tone of voice, I'd rather you said yes, the policy is insane, yes, it drives everyone crazy, but no, there's nothing I can do about it because I'm not allowed to depart from this script here on this computer that says to tell you I apologize.

You, who are staffing the airplane that's late. We know it's late. We know it's late because we've been in the plane circling Philadelphia waiting to land for the last 20 minutes, and now we've just flown away and landed at Atlantic City. No one wants to go to Atlantic City on a flight from London to Philadelphia, not even the most intrepid gamblers. But you should not be apologizing. The people who should be apologizing are the beanheads at US Airways' Phoenix headquarters, who have gambled with their passengers' time and patience, and have decided that saving money by not carrying enough fuel across the ocean to hold if necessary is a more important goal. In 2008, I got caught this way twice on the London-Philadelphia route. The first time, we diverted to Boston and were four hours late. The second time, Atlantic City - that saved us a half hour. The staff shouldn't be apologizing. You should be saying, "We're getting screwed, too."

You, in the anti-fraud department at the credit card company. The problem is the algorithms behind the way the computer is programmed. I know - and you know - that it's not your fault that the system keeps kicking out my card every time I try to make a transaction. Of course, it's not my fault either, which is why it would be nice if once in a while your company wrote to me and indicated that it understood that its computers are badly programmed and that the intransigence of its anti-fraud detection is costing it customer goodwill. After all, what good is an emergency credit card if you can't use it in an emergency because putting through a transaction from a foreign country without warning will cause your card to be suspended?

It shouldn't be your job to apologize; you'd be giving better customer service by sympathizing, passing on the complaint, and helping customers figure out how to get the company to improve a bad situation. Telling us to call first before putting through a charge probably is just adding fuel to the ire fire. Being unable to give any indication of what might constitute a high-risk transaction versus one the system would accept doesn't help either. Security by obscurity is bad enough; it's worse when it's so obscure to a system's users that they can't begin to tell when they're taking a risk and when they're not. Pushing me on to the sales department to confirm my replacement card so they can try to sell me card protection insurance is a further insult.

If you're going to apologize for something, what you should be apologizing for is acting all surprised and hurt when you call me up and demand my security information and I say, "You've got to be kidding me. How do I know who you are?" Given the troubles with phishing scams, I'd have thought you'd be pleased any customer has the nous to refuse to disclose such information. What the credit card companies need to do is put together a two-way handshaking authentication scheme so that we take turns disclosing bits of information we know about each other. But don't apologize! Change something! Fix something! Or if you can't, just be really, really efficient about getting the business of the call done as quickly as possible.

A friend of mine once commented that he didn't like apologies because "People only apologize because they want you to like them."

It makes sense. Look who's not apologizing: Bernie Madoff, a victim of the credit crunch. Yes, because you see, the downturn is exposing malfeasance that remained hidden in more prosperous times because you could keep getting new money to hide the absence of the old. Madoff's $50 billion steal would have eventually been exposed anyway, but I bet he wishes he could have timed things so he vanished to a country with no extradition first.

And look who else is not apologizing? Yes, Dubya, this means you. In the eight years he's been in office, the Bush administration has supported torture, pursued an unpopular and dangerous war, squandered much of the world's goodwill towards our country, rolled back freedom of information, vastly expanded surveillance at the expense of civil liberties, and played the policy laundering game with the EU at our expense. He won't apologize for any of it, of course; instead he'll probably spend the next ten years building a presidential library designed to prove he did everything right.

See? The guys who do the damage don't care if we like them. The people who are apologizing? All the wrong people.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

December 19, 2008


There's a sense in which you haven't really arrived as a skeptic until someone's sued you. I've never had more than a threat, so as founder of The Skeptic, I'm almost a nobody. But by that standard Simon Singh, author with alternative medicine professor Edzard Ernst of the really excellent Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine, has arrived.

I think of Singh as one of the smarter, cooler generation of skeptics, who combine science backgrounds, good writing, and the ability to make their case in the mass media. Along with Ben Goldacre, Singh has proved that I was wrong when I thought, ten years ago, that getting skepticism into the national press on a regular basis was just too unlikely.

It's probably no coincidence that both cover complementary and alternative medicine, one of the biggest consumer issues of our time. We have a government that wants to save money on the health service. We have consumers who believe, after a decade or more of media insistence, that medicine is bad (BSE, childhood vaccinations, mercury fillings) and alternative treatments that defy science (homeopathy, faith healing) are good. We have overworked doctors who barely know their patients and whose understanding of the scientific process is limited. We have patients who expect miraculous cures like the ones they see on the increasingly absurd House. Doctors recommend acupuncture and Prince Charles, possessed of the finest living standards and medical treatment money can buy, promotes everything *else*. And we have medical treatments whose costs spiral every upwards, and constant reports of new medicines that fail their promise in one way or another.

But the trouble with writing for major media in this area is that you run across the litigious, and so has Singh: as Private Eye has apparently reported, he is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. The original article was published by the Guardian in April; it's been pulled from the site but the BCA's suit has made reposting it a cause celebre. (Have they learned *nothing* about the Net?) This annotated version details the evidence to back Singh's rather critical assessment of chiropractic. And there are many other New Zealand. And people complain about Big Pharma - the people alternative-medicine folks are supposed to be saving us from.

I'm not even sure how much sense it makes as a legal strategy. As the "gimpy" blog's comments point out, most of Singh's criticisms were based on evidence; a few were personal opinion. He mentioned no specific practitioners. Where exactly is the libel? (Non-UK readers may like to glance at the trouble with UK libel laws, recently criticized by the UN as operating against the public interest..

All science requires a certain openness to criticism. The whole basis of the scientific method is that independent researchers should be able to replicate each other's results. You accept a claim on that basis and only that basis - not because someone says it on their Web site and then sues anyone who calls it lacking in evidence. If the BCA has evidence that Singh is wrong, why not publish it? The answer to bad speech, as Mike Godwin, now working at Wikimedia, is so fond of saying, is more speech. Better speech. Or (for people less fond of talking) a dignified silence in the confidence that the evidence you have to offer is beyond argument. But suing people - especially individual authors rather than major media such as national newspapers - smacks of attempted intimidation. Though I couldn't possibly comment.

Ever since science became a big prestige, big money game we've seen angry fights and accusations - consider, for example, the ungracious and inelegant race to the Nobel prize on the part of some early HIV researchers. Scientists are humans, too, with all the ignoble motives that implies.

But many alternative remedies are not backed by scientific evidence, partly because often they are not studied by scientists in any great depth. The question of whether to allocate precious research money and resource to these treatments is controversial. Large pharmaceutical companies are unlikely to do it, for similar reasons to those that led them to research pills to reverse male impotence instead of new antibiotics. Scientists in research areas may prefer to study bigger problems. Medical organizations are cautious. The British Medical Association has long called for complementary therapies to be regulated to the same standards as orthodox medicine or denied NHS funding. As the General Chiropractic Council notes NHS funding is so far not widespread for chiropractic.

If chiropractors want to play with the big boys - the funded treatments, the important cures - they're going to have to take their lumps with the rest of them. And that means subluxing a little backbone and stumping up the evidence, not filing suit.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

December 12, 2008

Watching the Internet

It is more than ten years since it was possible to express dissent about the rights and wrongs of controlling the material available on the Net without being identified as either protecting child abusers or being one. Even the most radical of civil liberties organisations flinch at the thought of raising a challenge to the Internet Watch Foundation. Last weekend's discovery that the IWF had added a page from Wikipedia to its filtering list was accordingly the best possible thing that could have happened. It is our first chance since 1995 to have a rational debate about whether the IWF is fulfilling successfully the purpose for which it was set up and the near nationwide coverage of BT's Cleanfeed, despite the problems Cambridge researcher Richard Clayton has highlighted (PDF).

The background: the early 1990s was full of media scare stories about the Internet. In 1996, the police circulated a list of 133 Usenet newsgroups they claimed hosted child pornography, and threatened seizures of equipment. The government threatened regulation. And in that very tense climate, Peter Dawe, the founder of Pipex, called a meeting to announce an initiative he had sketched out on the back of an envelope called SafetyNet, aimed at hindering the spread of child pornography over the Internet. He was willing to stump up £500,000 to get it off the ground.

Renamed the IWF, the system still operates largely like he envisioned it would: it operates a hotline to which the public can report the objectionable material they find. If the IWF believes the material is illegal under UK law and it's hosted in the UK, the ISP is advised to remove it and the police are notified. If it's hosted elsewhere, the IWF adds it to the list of addresses that it recommends for blocking. ISPs must pay to join the IWF to subscribe to the list, and the six biggest ISPs, who have 90 to 95 percent of the UK's consumer accounts, all are members. Cleanfeed is BT's implementation of the list. Of course, despite its availability via Google Groups, Usenet hardly matters any more, and ISPs are beginning to drop it quietly from their offerings as a cost with little return.

The IWF's statement when it eventually removed the block is rather entertaining: it says, essentially, "We were right, but we'll remove the block anyway." In other words, the IWF still believes the image is "potentially illegal" - which provides a helpful, previously unavailable, window into their thinking - but it recognises the foolishness of banning a page on the world's fourth biggest Web site, especially given that the same image can be purchased in large, British record shops in situ on the cover of the 32-year-old album for which it was commissioned.

We've also learned that the most thoughtful debate on these issues is actually available on Wikipedia itself, where the presence of the image had been discussed at length from a variety of angles.

At the free speech end of the spectrum, the IWF is an unconscionable form of censorship. It operates a secret blocklist, it does not notify non-UK sites that they are being blocked, and it operates an equally secret appeals process. Some of this is silly. If it's going to exist the blocklist has to be confidential: a list of Internet links is actions, not words and they can be emailed across the world in seconds, and the link targets downloaded in minutes. Plus, it might be committing a crime: under UK law, it is illegal to take, make, distribute, show, or possess indecent images of children; that includes accessing such images.

At the control end of the spectrum, the IWF is probably too limited. There have been calls for it to add hate speech and racial abuse to its mandate, calls that as far as we know it has so far largely resisted. Pornography involving children - or, in the IWF's preferred terminology, "child sexual abuse images" - is the one thing that most people can agree on.

When the furor dies down and people can consider the matter rationally, I think there's no chance that the IWF will be disbanded. The compromise is too convenient for politicians, ISPs, and law enforcement. But some things could usefully change. Here's my laundry list.

First, this is the first mistake that's come to light in the 12 years of the IWF's existence. The way it was caught should concern us: Wikipedia's popularity and technical incompatibilities between the way Wikipedia protects itself from spam edits and the way UK ISPs have implemented the block list. Other false positives may not be so lucky. The IWF has been audited twice in 12 years; this should be done more frequently and the results published.

The IWF board should be rebalanced to include at least one more free speech advocate and a representative of consumer interests. Currently, it is heavily overbalanced in the direction of law enforcement and child protection representatives.

There should be judicial review and/or oversight of the IWF. In other areas of censorship, it's judges who make the call.

The IWF's personnel should have an infusion of common sense.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

December 5, 2008

Saving seeds

The 17 judges of the European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously yesterday that the UK's DNA database, which contains more than 3 million DNA samples, violates Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The key factor: retaining, indefinitely, the DNA samples of people who have committed no crime.

It's not a complete win for objectors to the database, since the ruling doesn't say the database shouldn't exist, merely that DNA samples should be removed once their owners have been acquitted in court or the charges have been dropped. England, the court said, should copy Scotland, which operates such a policy.

The UK comes in for particular censure, in the form of the note that "any State claiming a pioneer role in the development of new technologies bears special responsibility for striking the right balance..." In other words, before you decide to be the first on your block to use a new technology and show the rest of the world how it's done, you should think about the consequences.

Because it's true: this is the kind of technology that makes surveillance and control-happy governments the envy of other governments. For example: lacking clues to lead them to a serial killer, the Los Angeles Police Department wants to copy Britain and use California's DNA database to search for genetic profiles similar enough to belong to a close relative .The French DNA database, FNAEG, was proposed in 1996, created in 1998 for sex offenders, implemented in 2001, and broadened to other criminal offenses after 9/11 and again in 2003: a perfect example of function creep. But the French DNA database is a fiftieth the size of the UK's, and Austria's, the next on the list, is even smaller.

There are some wonderful statistics about the UK database. DNA samples from more than 4 million people are included on it. Probably 850,000 of them are innocent of any crime. Some 40,000 are children between the ages of 10 and 17. The government (according to the Telegraph) has spent £182 million on it between April 1995 and March 2004. And there have been suggestions that it's too small. When privacy and human rights campaigners pointed out that people of color are disproportionately represented in the database, one of England's most experienced appeals court judges, Lord Justice Sedley, argued that every UK resident and visitor should be included on it. Yes, that's definitely the way to bring the tourists in: demand a DNA sample. Just look how they're flocking to the US to give fingerprints, and how many more flooded in when they upped the number to ten earlier this year. (And how little we're getting for it: in the first two years of the program, fingerprinting 44 million visitors netted 1,000 people with criminal or immigration violations.)

At last week's A Fine Balance conference on privacy-enhancing technologies, there was a lot of discussion of the key technique of data minimization. That is the principle that you should not collect or share more data than is actually needed to do the job. Someone checking whether you have the right to drive, for example, doesn't need to know who you are or where you live; someone checking you have the right to borrow books from the local library needs to know where you live and who you are but not your age or your health records; someone checking you're the right age to enter a bar doesn't need to care if your driver's license has expired.

This is an idea that's been around a long time - I think I heard my first presentation on it in about 1994 - but whose progress towards a usable product has been agonizingly slow. IBM's PRIME project, which Jan Camenisch presented, and Microsoft's purchase of Credentica (which wasn't shown at the conference) suggest that the mainstream technology products may finally be getting there. If only we can convince politicians that these principles are a necessary adjunct to storing all the data they're collecting.

What makes the DNA database more than just a high-tech fingerprint database is that over time the DNA stored in it will become increasingly revealing of intimate secrets. As Ray Kurzweil kept saying at the Singularity Summit, Moore's Law is hitting DNA sequencing right now; the cost is accordingly plummeting by factors of ten. When the database was set up, it was fair to characterize DNA as a high-tech version of fingerprints or iris scans. Five - or 15, or 25, we can't be sure - years from now, we will have learned far more about interpreting genetic sequences. The coded, unreadable messages we're storing now will be cleartext one day, and anyone allowed to consult the database will be privy to far more intimate information about our bodies, ourselves than we think we're giving them now.

Unfortunately, the people in charge of these things typically think it's not going to affect them. If the "little people" have no privacy, well, so what? It's only when the powers they've granted are turned on them that they begin to get it. If a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged, and a liberal is a conservative whose daughter has needed an abortion, and a civil liberties advocate is a politician who's been arrested...maybe we need to arrest more of them.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).