A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Never Trust a Surveillance Company

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The parliament of the United Kingdom (UK) decided to pull a Facebook on Facebook by collecting the company’s personal information. Not only did the parliament collect Facebook’s personal information but it’s now airing the company’s dirty laundry. There are a lot of interesting tidbits to be found within the documents posted by the parliament but one in particular shows Facebook’s ruthlessness when it comes to collecting your personal information:

The emails show Facebook’s growth team looking to call log data as a way to improve Facebook’s algorithms as well as to locate new contacts through the “People You May Know” feature. Notably, the project manager recognized it as “a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective,” but that risk seems to have been overwhelmed by the potential user growth.

Initially, the feature was intended to require users to opt in, typically through an in-app pop-up dialog box. But as developers looked for ways to get users signed up, it became clear that Android’s data permissions could be manipulated to automatically enroll users if the new feature was deployed in a certain way.

In another email chain, the group developing the feature seems to see the Android permissions screen as a point of unnecessary friction, to be avoided if possible. When testing revealed that call logs could be collected without a permissions dialog, that option seems to have been obviously preferable to developers.

“Based on our initial testing,” one developer wrote, “it seems that this would allow us to upgrade users without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialog at all.”

If you’re using Facebook on a Google operating system, you’re in the center of a surveillance Eiffel Tower, and I’m not talking about the monument!

The history of Android’s permission system has not been a happy one. Until fairly recently Android had an all or nothing model where you either had to grant an application all the permissions it asked for or you couldn’t use it. Not surprisingly this resulted in almost every app requesting every possible permission, which turned the permissions dialog into a formality. Android 6.0 changed the permission system to mirror iOS’s. When an app running on Android 6.0 or later wants to access a protected feature such as text messages, the user is presented with a dialog alerting them to the attempted access and asks if they want to allow it.

If you read the excerpts, you’ll see that Facebook was concerned about the kind of public relations nightmare asking for permission to access call and text message logs could bring. At first the company was planning to only request permission to access call logs, hoping it wouldn’t cause a ruckus. However, once somebody figured out a way to add the additional capabilities without triggering any new permission requests, Facebook moved forward with the plan. So we know for a fact that Facebook knew what it was doing was likely to piss off its users and was willing to use underhanded tactics to do it without getting caught.

You should never trust a company that profits by collecting your personal information to respect your privacy. In light of the information released by the UK’s parliament, this goes double for Facebook.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 7th, 2018 at 11:00 am

This Neopuritan Internet Is Weird

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Just days after Tumblr announced that it will be committing corporate seppuku Facebook has announced that it too is joining the neopuritan revolution:

Facebook will now “restrict sexually explicit language”—because “some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content”—as well as talk about “partners who share sexual interests,” art featuring people posed provocatively, “sexualized slang,” and any “hints” or mentions of sexual “positions or fetish scenarios.”

[…]

The new Sexual Solicitation policy starts by stating that while Facebook wants to faciliate discussion “and draw attention to sexual violence and exploitation,” it “draw[s] the line…when content facilitates, encourages, or coordinates sexual encounters between adults.” Can we pause a moment to appreciate how weird it is that they lump those things together in the first place? Whatever the intent, it reads as if only content coding sex as exploitative, violent, and negative will be tolerated on the site, while even “encouraging” consensual adult sex is forbidden.

This is a rather odd attitude for a website that recently rolled out a dating service. Does Facebook seriously believe its dating service isn’t being used to facilitate, encourage, and coordinate sexual encounters between adults?

This neopuritan Internet is getting weird. Both Tumblr and Facebook have mechanisms that allow content to be walled off from the general public. These mechanisms serve as a good middle ground that allow users to post controversial content while protecting random passersby from seeing it. But instead of utilizing them, these two services are opting for a scorched Earth policy. It seems like a waste of money to pay developers to create mechanisms to hide controversial content form the public and not utilize them.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 7th, 2018 at 10:30 am

Posted in Technology

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Getting Leadership Ousted in the Minneapolis Police Department

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If officers executing unarmed individuals isn’t enough to get leaders in the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) ousted, what is? Apparently Christmas decorations:

Just days after controversy erupted over a racist Christmas tree on display at the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th Precinct, Chief Medaria Arradondo has assigned a new inspector to lead the north Minneapolis precinct.

Images of a Christmas tree decorated with beer cans, cigarettes and police tape spread quickly on social media Friday. It was condemned by members of the public, activists and Minneapolis City Council members, including Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents the area. Ellison said it’s “the type of thing that always instills fear in the community.

We’ve learned something here. The value of an unarmed person is worth less in the eyes of the MPD than bad publicity generated by a Christmas tree. While that’s not exactly a happy thing to learn, at least we know.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 7th, 2018 at 10:00 am

Intellectual Property Laws are Ineffective

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I’ve enjoyed pointing out the absurdities that the concept of intellectual property enables. Now I want to address the matter from a more pragmatic angle.

Gun rights activists like to point out the fact that gun control laws are ineffective and thus passing them is pointless. Advocates for drug legalization like to point out the fact that drug prohibitions are ineffective and should thus be repealed. Both are sound arguments. Investing resources into enforcing ineffective laws is a waste. Those resources would be better redirected at effective means of addressing problems. Many of the people who make those two arguments are surprisingly inconsistent with their logic when it comes to intellectual property laws though.

Intellectual property laws are ineffective. I can pirate almost any creative work right now with a few keystrokes thanks to numerous piracy websites. The most notorious of these sites is The Pirate Bay. Governments around the world have attempted to use intellectual property laws to shutdown The Pirate Bay for more than a decade but the site remains online. Even when governments are able to shutdown a piracy site, several new ones appear in their place. And those are clearnet sites whose server locations and operators are, for the most part, easily found. There is a whole world of “darknet” piracy sites hidden with Tor Hidden Service, I2P, and similar protocols.

Piracy can’t even be thwarted in the physical world. Everything from counterfeit designer clothing and fashion accessories to counterfeit electronics can be readily had. Even the government of the United States can’t reliably distinguish counterfeit components from authentic ones.

Advocates of intellectual property continue to claim that intellectual property laws protect inventors and authors of creative works but the evidence indicates otherwise.

Intellectual property is a fairly modern concept. Before it came into being inventors and authors came up with other strategies to protect their works. The same is still true today even with intellectual property laws on the books. Coca-Cola, for example, doesn’t have a patent on its formula. Instead it relies on keeping it a secret. Kentucky Fried Chicken relies on the same strategy. Many online content creators make a living on content that they release for free. How do they accomplish this? By urging their fans to support them through services like Patreon. For a fee Twitch viewers can subscribe to the channels of creators they enjoy to support them. YouTube allows creators to monetize videos through advertising. Many inventors and authors utilize crowdsourcing services such as Kickstarter to get paid upfront before releasing their latest product.

Netflix, Spotify, and iTunes Music have also demonstrated that piracy can be reduced by offering a product in a convenient package at a reasonable price. Why bother searching through various pirating sites for a song when you can pay $10 a month to Spotify or Apple to access a vast all-you-can-consume buffet of music? Your time is worth money after all and for many people $10 a month isn’t a lot of money.

None of these strategies would likely exist if intellectual property laws were effective. If gun control laws and drug prohibitions are argued to be pointless because they’re ineffective, then so should intellectual property laws.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 6th, 2018 at 11:00 am

Shooting Yourself in the Foot… with a Machine Gun

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Tumblr has been known for two things: pornography and social justice blogs. After December 17th it will only be known for social justice blogs. The service announced that it was going to commit corporate suicide by remove all pornography from the site. But Tumblr isn’t taking the easy way out. Instead it has opted to prolong its misery, to commit corporate seppuku if you will, by using machine learning to remove pornography from its site:

For some reason, the blogging site hopes that people running porn blogs will continue to use the site after the December 17 ban but restrict their postings to the non-pornographic. As such, the company isn’t just banning or closing blogs that are currently used for porn; instead, it’s analyzing each image and marking those it deems to be pornographic as “explicit.” The display of explicit content will be suppressed, leaving behind a wasteland of effectively empty porn blogs.

This would be bad enough for Tumblr users if it were being done effectively, but naturally, it isn’t. No doubt using the wonderful power of machine learning—a thing companies often do to distance themselves from any responsibility for the actions taken by their algorithms—Tumblr is flagging non-adult content as adult content, and vice versa. Twitter is filling with complaints about the poor job the algorithm is doing.

Machine learning has become the go-to solution for companies that want to make it appear as though they’re “doing something” without taking on the responsibilities. We’re already seeing the benefits of this decision. A lot of non-porn material is being removed by whatever algorithms they’re using and when users complain Tumblr can say, “Don’t blame us! The machine screwed up!” Thus Tumblr absolves itself of responsibility. Of course the three people who post non-pornographic content to Tumblr are likely to flee after tiring of playing Russian roulette with the porn scanning algorithm but I’m fairly certain Verizon, which owns Tumblr now, just wants to shutdown the service without listening to a bunch of people who still use the platform whine.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 6th, 2018 at 10:30 am

Welcome to the Sidelines

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I haven’t mentioned Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez too often on this blog because, frankly, it’s so easy to ridicule her that there’s no sport in it. It’s like hunting sloths. However, I’m going to give her credit for calling out the hypocrites in her party:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a newly elected US House representative, called out her future colleagues in Congress, including Democrats, for paying their low-level staffers salaries below the “living wage” and for employing unpaid interns, even as members of Congress are paid multiple times more than the average American.

The incoming New York Democrat, who took service industry jobs to support herself and her family in the years before she ran for office, tweeted on Monday that she’s met congressional staffers who wait tables to supplement their government wages.

Most of the politicians demanding a minimum wage of $15 per hour have a serious case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” If they pay their staffers and interns at all, it’s a pittance. Much like their demands that individuals be disarmed while they walk around with armed escorts, these politicians believe that they better than the common people and are therefore owed additional privileges.

Unfortunately for Ocasio-Cortez, this is exactly the type of behavior that gets an upstart sidelined in Washington DC. She won’t get invited to the fancy parties hosted by lobbyists, she won’t find support for any legislation she wants to pass, and she won’t receive meaningful press coverage. Make no mistake, she’ll still collected her six figure salary and all of the other lavish benefits of being a representative. But that’s the only thing she’ll do and only until the power players decide to dump their resources into defeating her at the next party primary.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 6th, 2018 at 10:00 am

Posted in Politics

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Changing the Rules Way After the Sale

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Nintendo believes it can use its intellectual property claims to prevent you from monetizing any footage you make of its video games. Restrictions like this are generally only presented in the end user license agreement (EULA) after you’ve purchased the game. But what happens when the restriction is implemented retroactively?

Today it’s understood that when you purchase a software package, you will be presented with pages and pages of legalese when you first attempt to use it. That wasn’t always the case. When you purchased old Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) or Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) games, the boxes didn’t include contracts that you had to sign and send off to Nintendo before receiving an actual copy of the game nor did the games themselves present you with a EULA to which you had to agree before playing.

Nintendo is a notoriously litigious company and a few years ago was using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to have footage of things like altered Super Mario World levels removed from YouTube. Because of the conditions I mentioned above, nobody who purchased a copy of Super Mario World for the SNES agreed to not alter the contents of the cartridge. They didn’t agree to any restrictions whatsoever. But through the magical process of intellectual property, namely the copyrights granted to Nintendo by the government over the characters that appear in Super Mario World as well as the software itself, Nintendo is able to change the rules way after the sales occurred.

This absurdity is compounded by the fact that copyrights can remain valid for the life of the creator plus 70, 95, or 120 years after their death [PDF] depending on the type of work. Compounding the absurdity even more is the fact that copyright terms that were already ridiculously long were extended whenever the copyright for Micky Mouse was about to expire (hence why it is often called the Mickey Mouse Law). If we go by precedent, the stupidly long terms we’re currently suffering under will likely be extended again and again. That means Nintendo could continue adding new restrictions to old NES and SNES games for decades to come.

Imagine if this characteristic of copyright law was applied to physical property. Let’s say you purchased a Ford F-150 today. Now let’s fast forward two decades. You still own the F-150 and have had to resort to having new parts custom fabricated because all of the major replacement parts manufacturers stopped producing new parts. One day you receive a letter in the mail from Ford, which is a cease and desist order for installing custom fabricated parts in the truck. Ford decided to pull a John Deere by claiming its copyrights to the software on the truck grant it the right to restrict you from maintaining your 20-year-old truck. It sounds pretty absurd, doesn’t it? But that’s the reality people are facing with NES and SNES games that they purchased two decades ago.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 5th, 2018 at 11:00 am

Weaponizing Dependencies

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How I miss the halcyon days of the Internet when perceived slights were commonly forgotten after a short period of inconsequential shitposting. Today perceived slights often result in real-world consequences. The most recent example of this is ThotAudit, the result of a bunch of pathetic sexless whiners perceiving women slighting them. In response to their inability to get laid, they have decided to sic the Internal Revenue Service (IRC) and third-part payment processors on online sex workers:

The campaign is called the “ThotAudit,” in reference to the derogatory term “thot,” which stands for “that ho over there.” It began over the Thanksgiving holiday as a grassroots effort to intimidate sex workers and women who sell access to private pornographic social media accounts by reporting them to the Internal Revenue Service for tax evasion—without evidence of wrongdoing. But it quickly morphed into a battle over who has the right to make money on the internet.

The harassers are taking advantage of user reporting tools made available by companies like PayPal, Venmo, and CirclePay, in an attempt to force their targets offline and freeze their finances. The tactic has far-reaching implications beyond adult entertainment. Foreign governments and other groups have abused the policies to silence opponents on platforms like Twitter and Facebook for years. Attacking through the payment processors is a new wrinkle on that approach.

What kind of lowlife piece of shit sics revenuers on people? I mean, come on! That’s below the belt, guys!

Back to the story at hand. There are two aspects that I want to discuss in this post.

The first is the extent individuals will go to avoid acknowledging and accepting their faults. When I was young, I wasn’t exactly drowning in pussy. I didn’t blame women for that though. I acknowledged and accepted my faults, namely my socially awkward nature. I worked to overcome those faults. By the time I hit my mid 20’s, I was still socially awkward but I was at least capable of schmoozing a room full of people and was capable of gaining the attention of members of the opposite sex. While I’m still a bit socially awkward today, I have a smoking hot wife and have little trouble meeting new people and entertaining people at a party (entertaining people is commonly seen as an attractive quality and thus a skill worth cultivating).

The key to my transformation was accepting my flaws and working to overcome them. Most people who call themselves incels suffer from a lack of self-awareness and an unwillingness to overcome their faults. The reason they’re not getting laid isn’t because women are conspiring against them, it’s because they have a number of flaws that make them unattractive. Instead of working to improve themselves, they’re taking actions that make them even less attractive. They’re actually going so far as to exacerbate their faults to avoid acknowledging their faults.

The second thing I want to discuss is something I harp on a lot, the dangers of being dependent on third-parties. Those making themselves part of ThotAudit are trying to convince third-party payment processors to stop processing payments for targeted online sex workers. By doing this, they’re destroying the livelihood of those workers. However, this tactic is only feasible because those workers are dependent on third-party payment processors. The fewer third-parties you depend on, the fewer dependencies exist that can be weaponized against you. While it’s trendy to recommend cryptocurrencies for sex workers, that’s not the only option. Online sex workers could try pooling their resources and establishing a payment processor for their industry, which is a suggestion I made to gun stores that were being blacklisted by third-party payment processors. You might not be able to control the infrastructure yourself but if you have to rely on a third-party, it’s better to rely on one that specifically caters to your industry. After all, if your business is porn, Tumblr might cast you overboard but Pornhub probably won’t.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 5th, 2018 at 10:30 am

Perverse Incentives

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Do you need to mail a letter today? Or buy some stocks? Tough. Almost every federal office, including the United States Postal Service, and the stock market are closed today to celebrate the death of George H. W. Bush:

Wednesday will be an effective federal holiday as the nation mourns the death of former President George H.W. Bush. President Donald Trump declared it a National Day of Mourning, meaning that nearly all federal workers would be excused from work and their agencies would be closed.

The former president will be given a state funeral Wednesday at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. After the ceremony, his body will be moved to Texas, where he will be buried at his presidential library. Mr. Bush died Friday evening at the age of 94.

I didn’t like the man but I still find taking a day off to celebrate his death to be in bad taste. That’s probably just me though.

The precedence this decision sets could lead to interesting places. If federal employees want a day off, they only need to knock off a president. We could have a Praetorian Guard situation where emperors, err, presidents get bumped off on a regular basis (granted the motivations of the Praetorian Guard were usually more than wanting a day off but I’m certain that the average American is lazier than the average Roman was).

Written by Christopher Burg

December 5th, 2018 at 10:00 am

Posted in Politics

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Changing the Rules After the Sale

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As I noted last week, the concept of intellectual property is an oxymoron. Today I want to expand on that by pointing out another absurdity of intellectual property.

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation where I own an electronics store and you just purchased a laptop from me. There was nothing unusual about the transaction. You didn’t have to read any contracts or sign any papers. You handed me cash and I handed you a laptop. The laptop is yours, right? Not so fast.

When you get home and power up your new laptop for the first time, you are presented with a legal contract that says you can’t make any modifications to the laptop’s hardware, install any operating system other than the one that came with the laptop, or install any software not distributed by the manufacturer’s app store. If you don’t agree with the contract, you can’t use the computer.

What I just described is a slightly hyperbolic version of a shrink wrap license. When you purchase a piece of software, you usually aren’t presented with the end user license agreement (EULA), the document that lays out what you can and can’t do with the software, until after the sale. No big deal, you may think, because if you don’t agree with the post-sale EULA, you can just return the software, right? You may find that easier said than done. Most stores won’t take back copies of software that have been opened and if you read the EULAs for online app stores, there are often severe restrictions in place in regards to returning purchases. But even if you can return the software, why should that be considered your only form of recourse? Why should you be bound to any terms presented after the transaction has been concluded?

This is yet another characteristic of intellectual property that I doubt most people would so willingly accept if it were applied to physical property. If you purchased a car and the dealer decided to foist a bunch of restriction on you after you paid for the vehicle but before you drove it off of the lot (i.e. it’s your property but you haven’t gotten into the car since it became your property), would you take them seriously? Most people probably wouldn’t. I certainly wouldn’t. So why is such a practice considered acceptable for intellectual property?

Written by Christopher Burg

December 4th, 2018 at 11:00 am