Who’s Watching You?

"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads"

Jeff Hammerbacher

Brick and mortar retailers like Target have been tracking you for years, rapidly improving their statistical methods to make educated guesses about how to advertise at you more effectively, but as the internet becomes more and more ubiquitous the practice is moving online and getting bigger than ever.

Almost all of your favourite companies are gathering data on your surfing habits in a massive interconnected web of ad trackers. The primary goal is to serve more effective advertising, but these companies now hold enough data on you to bring privacy concerns to the fore. A Wall Street Journal investigation a year and a half ago found a burgeoning industry with millions of dollars flowing through it holding detailed records on you, making increasingly precise predictions about your behaviour, and a recent investigation by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic takes a philosophical look at your anonymity among the machines.


Think Again: Cyberwar →

With the advent of viruses like Stuxnet, cyberwarfare is upon us according to Businessweek and a string of other commentators. Thomas Rid for Foreign Policy disagrees, arguing that it’s all hype. So far, any cyberwarfare we’ve seen doesn’t fit the description of an act of war.


The promise of Teletext →

Jim Romenesko shared an article from the University of Alabama student newspaper in 1977 about Teletext, one of the earliest technological advances to concern newspaper execs: “If we think of newspapers as being the printed object that is delivered to our homes we may be talking about replacing newspapers with an electronic signal.”


Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Online dating is in the spotlight again with a study to be published later this month arguing that the methods of online pairing are unlikely to be as effective as the dating sites would like you to think. The authors’ column in the New York Times’ Sunday Review says that the past 80 years of research into compatibility suggests the most useful factors determining success in a relationship emerge only after two people meet; factors like communication patterns, sexual compatibility, and problem-solving. Arbitrary similarity, therefore, is a relatively poor indicator of future success in a relationship.

This is well-trodden ground: as of 2009 the internet was the third most common way to meet new people and the pros and cons of online dating and algorithms like Match.com’s have been debated endlessly since at least then. Even the New Yorker saw fit to go long on the subject last year.


The War on Spam

Experienced email users often wonder why they get so much spam — all but the most subtle emails are immediately deleted or quarantined in a spam folder — but the millions of less savvy users make email spam a highly profitable enterprise, and are probably unwittingly part of the problem.

Most spam operations control the torrent of email they send — up to 44 billion a day — with botnets, which are huge networks of computers used to send spam that can be almost impossible to trace. When Microsoft teamed up with FireEye recently to take down Operation Rustock, a spam operation pushing fake viagra and lotteries, they deactivated a botnet of over 1 million unaware users and put a stop to 47.5% of all spam sent. Closer inspection reveals Operation Rustock probably generated over $2 million in profit in about three years.

These days, most people with email accounts are probably more familiar with the 419 scam, where a “prince” or “sultan” or some other farfetched figure claims to be able to send you large amounts of money in return for a smaller sum to help them get it to you. Many people have fallen for these scams and made it extremely profitable. More savvy people instead find them to be a good source of entertainment, since, rather than botnets, there are real people sending the emails, and they’re willing to engage with you if they think it will help their chances of getting money out of you.

This scam came about when poor, unemployed Nigerians saw their public officials and politicians embezzling large amounts of money with the aid of Westerners. With the rise of email, Blackberrys and 24 hour cybercafes in Nigeria, the scam became anyone’s game. Amusingly, they hit a slight bump in productivity recently when much of Nigeria’s infrastructure, including the Western Unions they funnel money through, went on strike.

Further Reading

  • The Zombie Hunters — the internet-security company helping companies defend against botnet-controlled attacks and cyberextortion
  • On Russia’s Spam King, a Russian spam overlord whose sleaziness and bad reputation got him murdered


The Demise of American Manufacturing

The Atlantic has a great article in this month’s issue on the demise of the manufacturing industry in the U.S. Although America’s manufacturing output has risen by a third in the last decade (when adjusted for inflation), the decade prior to that saw employment in manufacturing collapse to levels not seen since the Depression. The article takes a close look at how some manufacturers have managed to survive in such dire circumstances and what might be done to reverse the trend.

The main problem is that Americans are rapidly shifting their manufacturing into Asia, as the New York Times reported this weekend, using Apple as a case study. Most of Apple’s products were built in the U.S. until as recently as 2002, but in 2004 they became one of the last American companies to move their manufacturing into Asia and Europe. Part of the problem was that the labor over there was so much cheaper when compared to the cost of buying parts and managing supply chains from hundreds of foreign — mostly Asian — companies.

The other side of the problem is that there aren’t enough workers with the necessary skills in the U.S., according to the NYT’s sources. Apple’s iPhones are assembled at Foxconn in China, where 40% of the world’s electronics are assembled. Overseeing the 200,000 assembly line workers putting iPhones together requires 8,700 engineers; Apple’s analysts guessed it would take 9 months to find that many workers in the U.S., whereas it took only 15 days in China.

The other advantage of outsourcing production to China became clear last year when a string of 17 Foxconn employees committed suicide. Chinese workers, by and large, appear willing to put up with much worse working conditions than Americans are accustomed to. Most of their employees work 6 days a week for less than $17 a day, they sleep in company barracks, and as of last year’s events, are required to sign contracts forbidding them from committing suicide.

Further Reading


The Pseudoscience of Internet Addiction

The Independent is reporting that Chinese scientists have yet again shown that internet dependency alters the brain, but are things like internet and video game addiction real? Vaughan Bell says probably not; it’s the result of “a perfect storm of pop medicine, pseudo-neuroscience, and misplaced sympathy.” The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders also says no, and it has no plan to include the media-friendly addictions in the next version, although it will suggest more research in the area.