Friday, February 11, 2011

the mouse barks, the caravan passes

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.

Or grudge.

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, 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.

Since the majority of bloggers operate non commercial sites, and are therefore not legally obliged to carry a Privacy Policy, the temptation is to absolve oneself of all responsibility to inform as to how that information is handled.

Consider this.

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.


Anonymous said...

Not everyone can be trusted.
This is because not everyone tells the truth; truth is, at times, what we desire it to be, therefore our perception of trust may change during our course to parley on equal terms: engaging in capricious acts of civil disobedience.

Intrinsic to every human being, no corporation should have the right to intrude upon that for whatever reason underlying the goals to profit.

My brief time as a participating member ...
Funny thing about circles is they seem to always come around. With your sword and your plume and your helmet, you've proffered insight both humorous and wise - a fresh face upright in the crowd - not sitting on the bleachers where blood can settle, turn to stone.

In the spirit of The Beverly Hillbillies
Y'all Come Back Now, Ya Hear?


ib said...

Good to see you here, g7w.

If "engaging in capricious acts of civil disobedience" can be loosely interpreted to level a charge of general lack of civility, I am guilty.

It is a sad fact that, for the most part, my innate antipathy is largely misdirected.

Divide and rule is the received order of things. Others have made a better job of challenging that than I have.

"Intrinsic to every human being, no corporation should have the right to intrude upon that for whatever reason underlying the goals to profit."

Absolutely. Not just regards privacy, I feel, but as to the - constantly undermined - right to inform; engage in debate. Without prejudice. Or malice.

Not everyone tells the truth. But some, I have seen, make a better job of pointing in its direction. With clarity. And good intent.

Well. I have neglected sweeping up my own front step of late. The bleachers. The corners have cobwebbed and mouldered.

To the tune of an incredible string band. May the circle be unbroken.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who can quote Harlan Ellison is alright in my book

"engaging in capricious acts of civil disobedience"
reference was made: "Repent, Harlequin!'' Said the Ticktockman (PDF)

Divulging but a partial:

But because it was the very world it was, the very world they had allowed it to become, for months his activities did not come to the alarmed attention of The Ones Who Kept The Machine Functioning Smoothly, the ones who poured the very best butter over the cams and mainsprings of the culture. Not until it had become obvious that somehow, someway, he had become a notoriety, a celebrity, perhaps even a hero for (what Officialdom inescapably tagged) "an emotionally disturbed segment of the populace," did they turn it over to the Ticktockman and his legal machinery. But by then, because it was the very world it was, and they had no way to predict he would happen possibly a strain of disease long-defunct, now, suddenly, reborn in a system where immunity had been forgotten, had lapsed he had been allowed to become too real.

Now he had form and substance.

ib said...

And an undeniably cryptic eloquence.

It has been a while, certainly, since I last read "Repent, Harlequin!" In all its variegated colours. Thanks for that.

The smoke has always been as much out as in the bottle. Too much volatility. The cork won't settle.

Ellison's narrative, written under pressure in one six hour sitting in 1965, is allegedly "one of the most reprinted short stories in the English language."

There exists a reading of it - by its author - issued on vinyl, and strangely out of print. I have never heard it. If I do come across it, I will gladly post it here.

In a minute.

Nonlinear, jumping endlessly back and forth, it shares much in common with Burroughs. The fevered shadows of Interzone. And Hubert Selby Jr.

"The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailors, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones..."

- Thoreau.

"the end will take care of itself."

ib said...

Anto. Your comment came through via email - always good to hear from you - but didn't publish automatically to here.

A blogger bounce, for some reason that defeats me.

Yes, chill I need to. "O Caminho Do Bem". All right. The path to goodness is littered with bruises.

A cavalry baton charge outside the Tithe an Oirechtais ? Maybe.

Given all those horses turned loose around Dublin to fend for themselves, perhaps the Garda Síochána will import camels from Cairo.

Tim said...

Jesus H Christ. I'm sure the fleas hiding in my cats anal canal are listening devices for the FBI now, more than ever..Fucking bugs. The lightbulbs have ears. Plus, now I have to worry about Irish horses again. I need some ether. I'll bet I misunderstood the entire post, except about maybe Ellison, Hubbard and Steinbeck. Probably, this is the first time those three were ever linked in print. This is print, right?

ib said...

You'll get no sense out of me. My incipient paranoia has been ratcheted up a gear, from underlying to full blown, in less time than it takes a Kawasaki to lurch between zero and seventy-five.

I mean. I am naturally cautious, but more often than not unheeding of the consequences.

There are two schools of thought.

The first - the one with by far biggest roll of mouse clickers - thinks fuck it, tracking cookies and spyware are no big deal. A natural extension of having access to all those nice, shiny free things scattered across the web.

The second is more suspicious. Wait just a minute, is the philosophy, just what is it that's going on here ? And do I really need it.

Well. I still have Feedjit installed on the bleachers. And it does seem to employ an LSO. I first saw it over at Jon's place and thought, why not, that looks pretty useful. It's visible. Nothing remotely secretive. Jon thought about getting rid of it some time ago - for ethical reasons - but it's still up there too.

Now. There are three trackers on my site, and I have no intention of sharing personal data with anybody. I don't engage in any sales, so the personally identifiable information is very limited. My site scans clean for malware and viruses. Google Friends Connect - which I don't use - is another tracking cookie. As is Facebook. And Google Ad Sense. Or Doubleclick.

Advertising. There is not such thing as a free lunch.

There is one site I know of, and I am good terms with the person who runs it, which sets seven tracking cookies. And more Flash content than you could shake a stick it.

There is a very popular Firefox plugin which reports back to a site which has just been hacked and infected with a virus. They people who operate it knew all about it, but had planned on simply keeping it to themselves.

The Quantcast shit really made me think.

Had UC Berkeley not blown the lid on their 'covert surveillance', they would no doubt have upped the ante. Implanted tracking devices behind the eyeballs of kids surfing the Disney Chanel. Just to monitor their activities between going to the toilet and logging back in.

I don't know. Many of those perceived threats are negligible. Some are not.

Pass me that ether. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

Tim said...

I just bailed out of facebook, too. I know those sharp little minds have me under the gun. Some fucker gave me something when all I wanted to do was listen to The Doors on youtube. I bet Pandora and Grooveshark are listening to ME. I hope they can't see me cavorting with my kids guitar. Where do you get the Boomerang app that bounces everything you didn't ask for back at the sneaky little bastards? I'm telling you, computers are terrifying devices for ignorant old insurgents like me.

ib said...

See. But I don't want to invite accusations of scaremongering either.

I think Facebook is probably quite safe, providing one thoroughly acquaints onself with its terms of service. Its 'do's and 'don'ts'. I just don't have the time - or inclination - to put in the effort. This damn blog eats quite enough time as it is.

Most people, I think, just dive straight in. And repent later. When two or three 'friends' in Croatia have access to the entire family photo album. And their boss in local government has enough evidence on their activities at that G8 summit to cash in the chips and put them away for a few years.

"Import your GMail contacts now and send an invitation to a friend!"

What the fuck is that all about ? Why not upload one's credit score while one's at it ?

Shit. I forgot to hit that privacy button disguised as a speck of dust in the lower corner of my monitor. I wonder if that might cause me any problems ?

There is a raft of precautions you can employ. Firefox addons. Flashblock is a good place to begin. Adblock Plus. There is Ghostery which will reveal what tracking cookies are set and information on what dark purposes they serve; Beef Taco; Privacy Choice.

Click on the Privacy Policy just under the grinning skull at the top of my page for a bit more information. My Privacy Policy might not be the most concise, but it's a start.

ib said...

One of the worst things about this move is that I can no longer prance about in front of my monitor in my undershorts. Or better still, skulk around commando.

I am not one for web cams. So there is nothing to be lost there. But. The neighbours across the street have a clear view into our living room, and I feel obliged to be more circumspect.

I originally wanted to set up the workhorse in the bedroom, but Rosa was having none of it. What, with the baby.

Late at night the noise of my fingers hitting the keys is deafening. An old age pensioner tapdancing in the kitchen sink.

God forbid I steal my stepdaughter's guitar. I grudgingly gave her my old faux fur lined flightcase. The stratocaster has gone to the pawnbroker in the sky.

Tim said...

I have a no name purple half and a quarter sized bass and a pignose amp with no lead, plug, charging system, et al. I like to think I know exactly how to play it and since no one can hear it no one can say I don't. I can't exactly cavort anymore but I can still wobble. I am still tempted to present the old "pressed ham" now and then, but I just don't. I'm supposed to be setting some sort of an example. I still visit the church of the subgenius now and then, though. Those guys get it.You can claim to be in any sort of condition and receive the honor due it. We get an eighteen hour Grateful Dead marathon starting today to raise money for Pacifica Radio, David Gans presents. I will be wobbling. If I am ever discovered to be wobbling while wearing anything under my robe in the middle of the night, it will be only the tattoos my mother hated. I also have a blues harp, key of c, which I don't play because I can't.