What do fake internet metrics have to do with privacy?

… was a question someone asked in response to this article quoting Ellen Pao, Reddit’s former CEO. She had written on Twitter confirming, in turn, this article in NY Mag (definitely, heart-sinkingly worth a read) about how website engagement stats are almost entirely untrustworthy.

But anyway, back to the question. I realised that fake internet stats are merely one inevitable symptom of the entire incentive structure of the internet, one that is weaponised in every way against privacy online. So I wrote:

“It’s relevant in that belief in these metrics has led to the ad-based model of the web – even the internet as a whole. It’s led to complicated licensing agreements about the use of our privately identifiable information. It’s led to large databases of personal information that then become targets for theft, and in fact have been repeatedly stolen, leading to – almost certainly identity theft. The network effects of amassing data has led to the consolation of the web in the hands of a few giants, who entities like WhatsApp then feel tempted to sell (sell out?) to, ostensibly to free them from the distractions of running a sustainable business (!) but ultimately betraying the privacy-centric promise they originally made to their customers. It’s led to the proliferation of super-cheap devices like Google Home that are subsided by the ability to monetise – yes via ads. And if you’re in a room with someone else’s Echo or Home, you’re exposed to second-hand data leakage. It’s led to the acceptance of real-world surveillance, because we’ve grown to used to being tracked online.

That’s just the bits that have directly to do with privacy. This doesn’t even include how the assumption that ads will pay for everything has led to the normalisation of unsustainable business models for services that people end up depending on, but which ultimately fold. That nearly all web pages are now bloated because of ad delivery engines and trackers. Then there is the opportunity cost of hundreds of millions of man hours of some of our most brilliant minds that are spent engineering data collection. That it’s led to design practices that are optimised for data collection than for actual functionality. 

We may be witnessing that entire model starting to crumble before our eyes. The ad giants had already lost the trust of us in /r/privacy, but when they start to lose that of advertisers and publishers, that is the beginning of the end.”

“If you want to put an always-on microphone in my home, then protect me at the border”

Maciej Ceglowski:

"... searches don't just involve agents skimming through your contact lists or photos—the border police can use software to rapidly dump the contents of your phone, and download your full history from every social media site you use."


Companies that have maneuvered billions of people into storing their most personal information on their servers, and worked aggressively to insert themselves into every facet of social and family life, owe it to their users to fight, and fight hard, for their safety.

No they don’t, and they won’t. The profit motive is too strong.

Let’s be clear. The person on social media is the product. The product serves the needs of its users, the advertisers. This’ll be clear to anyone who’s run a paid ad on social media or seen a social media analytics dashboard. Complying with authorities either on data requests at the borders or otherwise is but a risk-return decision: will compliance with such orders result in enough people leaving to hurt profits significantly? Is building a ‘travel mode’ for social media accounts that locks sensitive data away from border agents worth the trouble with governments? The answer in each case is almost always no.

So. Expect nothing from companies you entrust your data with, beyond the service itself. In general, own your data and make your decisions on where to store your data, what to carry and how to conceal or encrypt it. There are no easy answers, and social media/cloud storage companies are certainly not going to provide any.

Knuth and presence

From the NYT article profiling him for the 50th anniversary of the first publishing of The Art of Computer Programming:

When Knuth chooses to be physically present, however, he is 100-per-cent there in the moment. “It just makes you happy to be around him,” said Jennifer Chayes, a managing director of Microsoft Research. “He’s a maximum in the community. If you had an optimization function that was in some way a combination of warmth and depth, Don would be it.”

Which reminded me of this page on his website I read years ago:

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively

Which itself features a quote from Umberto Eco:

‘I don’t even have an e-mail address. I have reached an age where my main purpose is not to receive messages.’ — Umberto Eco, quoted in the New Yorker

What looks like cryptoanarchism but is really just a tired hustle

Four Days Trapped At Sea With Crypto’s Noveau Riche” • This well written article on a typically bizarre ‘blockchain’ conference cruise:

After his event, the attendees mob the aisles to get closer to their heroes—entirely ignoring the “beautiful ladies” who the host tells us have just taken the stage for the “women in blockchain” panel. It’s a shame, because they miss moderator Olga Feldmeier’s summation, delivered in a pitch-perfect Russian lilt: “Being a woman in blockchain,” she says, “is like riding a bicycle. Except the bicycle is on fire. And everything is on fire. And you are going to hell.”


…it’s clear this is not the Burning Man-style celebration of the liberatory potential of decentralization I was promised. This is a locked-room, hard-sell pitch session to a literally captive audience of high-roller crypto investors, whose only escape is the lifeboats. The whole place smells of aftershave and insecurity. 

Exhibit A for why people will welcome the inevitable overbearing regulation and market capture by the same too big to fail incumbents of the existing financial system. Because the alternative, they think, is this sort.

But of course it’s a simple, old world hustle. A paid event not unlike those selling Amway or time-shares.