Friday, February 11, 2011
Or. Tracking the ongoing ballad of a part time rating agency assistant.
"Köpek ürür, kervan yürür." In Turkish.
"ha kla-vim novchim, v'ha-shayarah o-veret." In Hebrew.
"Wot ? Wot ? Wot ?" Nathan NØ.
Have mouse, will travel.
"But what has been entrusted to one's care one does not laugh at; to do so would be a breach of duty; the utmost spite that the most spiteful amongst us can vent on Josephine is when they sometimes say: 'When we see Josephine it is no laughing matter."
- Kafka, "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk", published 1924.
Let me begin by explaining, yet again, my protracted absence from the bleachers. This time around, it has less to do with those recently accumulated factors in stress - a birth; moving home; a death in the family - than a spurious addiction. My voluntary exposure to WOT in the course of the past two weeks has brought me out in rash. A belt of welts. From collar to cuff.
The Web of Trust did not impose itself. I actively sought it out.
A hive activity governed by Bayesian inference; or rejection of hypothesis based on the posterior probability.
Confused ? Well. I am too.
The Web of Trust is nothing remotely approaching a secret order. On the contrary, WOT currently has two million registered users as of January, 2011, and an online participating community estimated in the region of 17, 000, 000.
That adds up to a lot of contributing fingers.
A tad more than those swords employed by the Knights Templar.
"Browsing the Web with the Web of Trust extension gives a completely different sense of security. Instead of browsing alone, you have millions of people helping point out what sites are trustworthy, are safe for your children, and respect your privacy. No matter how you use the Web, Web of Trust is an essential tool to browse safely in today's sometimes uncertain environment."
That is the central premise.
The reality underpinning the notion of trust is a good deal more impenetrable. Perception is just that, if one goes no farther than blind faith in those coloured ratings returned in one's browser. Or the default splash warning.
From WOT Wiki:
"Users are rewarded activity points for rating websites and writing comments. All users have an activity score, which is visible on the add-on's rating window and the profile page for registered users."
For every rookie there is a platinum plated wannabe. The popular misconception is that level 'ranking' somehow equates with rating reliability. This is not the case.
"The rating reliability is a computed estimate based upon demonstrated talent and ability, aka: merit."
Deduce from this that a rater with a higher reliability carries more weight in his or her ratings, that the resulting evaluation is that much harder for any casual rater to overturn. WOT is not so much democratic, as a firm proponent of meritocracy. This is valid, when one considers that an especially active participant might not necessarily be driven by egalitarian motives; but, on the contrary, might be galvanised by personal agenda.
In fact, it has been the case - in my short spell as active participant on WOT forums - that I have witnessed factions fighting up and down the flanks when opinion has been polarized. And rational debate disintegrates into something far more partisan.
A rain of neckties all along the lonesome trail.
This was never more so than in one particular instance where the submitting party to a graphic design site was publicly dissected on the grounds of the domain proprietor's alleged association with Scientology. This, in spite of there being no trace of evidence that said site espoused values demonstrably sympathetic to L. Ron Hubbard's 'spiritual' auditing.
"Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party ?"
No flying saucers. But enough light sabre rattling to implicate Tony Manero in a rhumba with Darth Maul.
In these trying circumstances, the forums run red and green in turn where the high ground is pursued.
Unsecured. Fought to a bloody stalemate.
And yet. Through it all runs a thread of prevailing sanity, even though rating reliability remains undisclosed. Guessed at. Whispered.
"...reliability estimates aren't public to make gaming the system more difficult and to encourage everyone to rate honestly. Also, even though the estimates are automated and perfectly objective, I'm sure some users would take them personally and publishing them would create all kinds of unwanted friction in the community. I don't think anyone wants that."
- Sami 18 January, 2010
Often, the process employed to arrive at an equitable rating is painstaking. And quite transparent to anybody following a submitted topic. It involves more than just a rudimentary grasp of any single technical process: virus checking; the routine examination of PTR records to resolve IP addresses into hostnames; the exposure of malicious redirects.
The whole nine yards.
A closer inspection of any one unravelling thread more often as not reveals something approaching forensic science. All of this conducted by volunteers.
In the space of two short weeks, and some 200 posts - typically 'comments' in blogging parlance - I have observed quite severe threats exposed and rated accordingly. Activities ranging from blatant Phising scams to deeply unethical corporate practices. And this is one area where WOT collectively excels.
The reasons for my initially coming into contact with the WOT community are fairly pedestrian and well enough documented in a previous post. The impact of a negative rating cannot be underestimated. Equally, not nearly enough consideration is given to the various motivations which govern a rating. The community, in common with any community, is populated by disparate individuals harbouring equally disparate ideals.
Not everyone can be trusted.
Still. One of the fundamentals I have taken from this is how readily privacy is overlooked. Less, protected.
Many bloggers originating on blogspot.com, or a wordpress equivalent, do so because the platform eliminates the necessity to understand CSS and HTML; to design - or commission the design of - a website from the ground up.
As a result, many bloggers appropriate code from third party sources with no acute sense of how that code impacts on privacy. I am no less typical in this regard.
The most innoccuous byproduct of this behaviour is the inadvertent setting of cookies.
Given that many bloggers employ some form of traffic monitoring as a means of assessing their site's popularity - Google Analytics, Statcounter, etc - setting cookies is a prerequisite. The information gathered includes IP addresses, browser details, timestamps and referring pages. This is the primary function of traffic analysis.
In 2010, Quantcast settled out of court to the tune of $2.4 Million after UC Berkeley published findings disclosing that it knowingly employed 'zombie' cookies in to gather Personally Identifiable Information in a"pattern of covert online surveillance".
Quantcast advertises itself thusly:
"... a new breed of measurement service helping buyers and sellers quantify the characteristics of digital audiences against which they can activate addressable advertising solutions."
A commercially optimised form of traffic analysis, in other words.
Wikipedia asserts that:
"...the Quantcast code causes the user's browser to access Quantcast's servers, at which time they can log the user's IP address and information Quantcast places in cookies that are stored in the user's browser. The cookies significantly aid in making inferences. Quantcast also provides affinities revealing other popular sites that the average viewer browses. This is possible by tracking "referrer" information that is normally included as part of every HTTP request made by the user's browser."
The terminology - 'zombie' cookies - is deliberately pitched for maximum effect. The reality is that flash cookies - Local Shared Objects, as utilized through all versions of Adobe Flash Player - share the characteristic to surreptitiously 'respawn' after user deletion. In short, the facility to be deployed as Spyware.
I have come across several blog sites which utilize Quantcast to monitor traffic. Feedjit, likewise, employs an LSO.
To date, MTV, ESPN, MySpace, Hulu, ABC, NBC and Scribd have all appeared before a federal court in the US on Quantcast related charges. Ustream, SodaHead, Warner Bros. have faced similar charges, in utilizing a Clearspring Technologies widget to clandestinely monitor children's online activities.
And. Lest we forget, let's hear it too for good old uncle Walt.
It's heartening to know one's kids are in safe hands.
My brief time as a participating member on these forums should in no way be regarded as an attempt to infiltrate, or deliver the skinny. We are not riding with Angels here - not even the Finnish Chapter - and while I have witnessed prescriptions for Snake Oil change hands along the trail, I am nobody's Doctor.
Besides. I don't have the stamina to stay upright in the saddle for the long haul.
My loitering on the forums, I suspect, has been more tolerated than embraced. That is the way of it with these clubs. The one percenters. If one wants to don the patch, one has to put in the miles. Prepare to get a little bloodied. I have met some interesting characters along the way, a handful of especially righteous members. I started out kicking against the pricks. I end it now without grudge.
A little respect is overdue. Retrospectively. I have intentionally picked out those last few words in bold; for those with tired eyes.