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Thursday, May 18, 2017


While we may have been preoccupied with political firestorms ignited by President Trump's efforts to curb immigration, repeal and replace the Affordable Healthcare Act ("Obamacare"), repeal the estate tax, build a wall on our border with Mexico, bomb Syria in retaliation for using chemical weapons and  posture over North Korea's nuclear capability (or lack thereof), your personal privacy may have been eroded and you likely have not noticed.

On April 4, 2017 PCMag reported:

As expected, President Donald Trump on Monday signed a bill that overturns a Federal Communications Commission rule requiring ISPs to get permission before selling consumer browsing history and other data.

Trump's signature comes after both houses of Congress voted to pass the resolution, which means Internet service providers could have an easier time selling their customers' data.

What does this mean for the average person?  If the average person is not someone "connected" by technology, probably it means very little.  If, however, you are a person who, in a few common examples:

  • a cellphone
  • a computer connected to the Internet
  • a GPS device in your vehicle
  • a cable or WiFi connection for you television or telephone or game system at home, or
  • a device that tracks your daily physical activity and workouts,

you probably generate a whole lot of cyber-data every day, whether you realize it or not.  Think about the data generated by using such devices to make online purchases or view movies and videos, take pictures, or make appointments or reservations for meals or travel.  The list goes on and on.

You think that data is yours, locked inside your device, safe --- something only you can access.  Well, you are wrong, at least when you are connected to networks for access to information and products and to share information with others, and particularly when you make commercial transactions.

Bit, by byte, by byte, those activities reveal who you are, what you like, what you do.   You do not need to be posting on public service like Facebook or Twitter (although many of us do).

Who cares about all these personal details?

 First of all, you probably get a benefit out of creating this cyber-portrait  of yourself.  Here is a personal example:  I buy a lot of things from Amazon:  dog food (five dogs, a lot of dog food), books, compact discs, other household items and gifts for others.  In addition, I pay for Amazon Prime, so I get free shipping on most purchases and access to free movies through Amazon online.

Amazon keeps track of those purchases.  When I want to re-order something like dog food, it is easier to click through a re-order of prior purchase and order it again.  Also, Amazon suggests other products that I might want to consider and alerts me of new items related to prior purchases.

Amazon sometimes takes this a bit further.  Amazon also sells products from other vendors.  Amazon is the broker.  So, Amazon is matching up my interest in purchasing something with another retailer who sells it, brokering my information to better serve me.  It also helps smaller retailers sell products.  I am pretty sure Amazon has smart lawyers and somewhere in the pages and pages of its terms of service, I agreed to let them use my data for these purposes.

What if Amazon could go further and sell all my buying information and habits to anyone who wanted them?  The purchasing party could start soliciting my business, trying to sell me whatever they had to offer, whether I was interested or not.  (Think about the telephone sales calls or solicitations you get on your land line, if you still have one, or now on your cellphone number.)  You may be comfortable with Amazon having your personal profile, but very uncomfortable with anyone being able to buy it.

That, of course, is what Trump's bill overturning the Federal Communications Commission rule does.  It lets the companies who have gathered your information sell it to someone else without your consent.

To illustrate the consequences, let's look at another PCMag story that appeared April 24, 2017: Sells Your Anonymized Email Data to Uber.  The New York Times ran an article on April 23 profiling Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber and his aggressive tactics to achieve success, including his data raid on competitor Lyft through the email productivity service

Using its application, "Slice collected its customers' emailed Lyft receipts from their inboxes and sold the anonymized data to Uber," the report notes. "Uber used the data as a proxy for the health of Lyft's business."

For those who need some translation here, Uber and Lyft compete with each other in provide "ride hailing" services.  Unregulated ride hailing services compete with regulated taxi cab services.  You use an app on your phone to arrange a ride with Uber or Lyft.  A private driver appears at your location and takes you where you want to go. is an application that scans your email as it comes in and sorts it into categories.  The objective is for to separate your "junk" mail so you can discarded and unsubscribe easily.  It is email triage designed to clean up your inbox and let you read mail that you really want to receive.  In this process, however, sees all your email and analyzes for classification purposes and it knows a great deal about what you have been doing.  It can identify receipts for Lyft and Uber, thus knowing if, when and where you are using those services.  That anonymize this data is some comfort with respect to personal privacy.

By stealing Lyft's receipts through, Uber could determine how well Lyft was doing in given markets and plan ways to compete against them.  Kalanick has made other attempts to obtain data that was protected.  As the New York Times reported, Apple CEO Tim Cook once threatened Kalanick with banishment from the Apple App Store for hiding unscrupulous activities from Apple.

Your data is being used already by many websites.  I use Google frequently for searches.  From those searches it knows my interests. A while ago, I searched for car dealers for servicing my car.  I went to websites for these dealers.  Now, when I search on Google advertising appears on the pages that I view for the exact brand of car that I own.  I wonder how that happened.

The change in the Federal Communications Commission's rule on requiring ISPs have your consent will result in many ISPs selling your information and targeted advertising will increase.

Fortunately, some ISPs sense customer backlash and are pledging not to sell your information. I use a web-based application called Evernote.  I use it to take notes of all kinds and to draft these Reality Byte columns before moving them to Word for final edits.  Evernote also has a feature called “Evernote Clipper” that allows you to save copies of webpages and links to information you find on the Internet.  I use this frequently, not just to clip articles I later want for research, but also for wide range of personal reasons such as saving receipts for online payments (saving the screen acknowledging payment).

Through using these features, Evernote ends up with a very large bank of information (data) on the user.  If it looks at what I write, save or clip, it will see recurring patterns of interest and significant information about me.  It could package and sell this information to others who could use my data for commercial or other purposes.

I was searching online with Google recently for contact information on a college classmate. Google displayed box indicating that it could search my Evernote account for information on my friend.  This seemed useful, but also scary --- that Google could have access to all of my Evernote information.  I decided to see what would happen and launched Evernote so that Google could search it.  This prompted a somewhat reassuring message before displaying Evernote results on Google:
Evernote does not track your search terms or results, or share any of your information with search engines.

Results did appear from Evernote on Google’s page, but only after I launched Evernote (thus consenting to the search).  If the above statement is true, only I can see those results through Google’s search.  What is uncertain here is whether Google “harvests” the information it gets each time it searches an Evernote user’s account.  (And, in during this search, Google displayed another car ad!)

I hope that the custodians of our data can withstanding the temptations presented by change in the FCC rule.  We may want to pay more attention to what we do online, the trail of data that it leaves, and what consent to use and disclosure we have already given through existing terms of service agreements.



Truth is a high ideal, but a fragile one.  Describing "unnamed man", Winston Churchill supposedly said:  "Occasionally he stumbled over the truth but he always picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened."  A bit earlier, in The Examiner of November 9, 1710, Jonathan Swift wrote: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

Truth's fragility is understandable.  It is an idealistic notion that presumes truth can be empirically determined and then remain inviolate.  The fault, dear reader, is not in our stars, or Facebook posts or Tweets, but in ourselves, that we are imperfect.  Scientific or mathematical findings and the like --- findings that can be subjected to demonstrable proof, may come close to realizing the ideal, although new knowledge may one day alter such conclusions. Even mathematical or scientific proof, however, cannot withstand those in denial, e.g. those who disregard evidence of global warming.

When we venture beyond a disciplined logic, when we shape the truth with our subjective thoughts, our ever diverse thoughts, truth becomes something in the eye of the beholder.  Our intellectual discipline to question and prove breaks down.  We fall too easily into a willing suspension of disbelief --- ready to set aside "hard" truth for a creative variation.

In earlier times, a remark like Churchill's above likely would have been spoken first to an individual or to an audience of a few or many.  Each listener might take away a different recollection, variations of what the speaker actually said. Readers here may have participated in an exercise where a sentence or two is spoken in confidence to one person who is instructed to repeat that expression to another person and so forth, each person telling the next  what they heard until the expression has passed around the room.  Most often the last person to receive the message ends up with something entirely different from the first.  As observers, most of us are not trained listeners or observers, so our recall  of what we hear or see is subjective.  Or, we just may try to improve on the original with our own variation.

So, we have come to rely on "trained" observers --- writers, reporters, photographers, etc. --- who, like scientists and mathematicians, strive for disciplined observation and verification for the purpose of delivering the observation to others.  Once there were courtiers who carried information and other communication between royal courts (and from time to time became part of court intrigue). There were town criers who spread the news to the general public.

The distribution of "news" (information) has evolved with technology.  The printing present allowed us to receive information through publications: newspapers, magazines, books, and scholarly journals.  Radio and television added the broadcast of information over radio and television.  Now we have the Internet with its wild bazaar of expression from a wide spectrum of sources – traditional news organizations online, Facebook and Twitter, blog posts, personal webpages, business websites, etc.

It would be naive to say that these prior and current methods reporting and delivering information were pure and entirely reliable.  Often, governments control the media and distribution of information. In such societies, there often is no alternative -- no competing sources of information to correct or rebut the official message.  It has not easy for the truth to come forward.  It is actively suppressed.  People seeking truth must quietly look for it elsewhere, often fearing discovery and persecution.

In response, free societies like ours have encouraged open sources for distribution of information.  In 1791, the Bill of Rights was added to the United States Constitution.  The First Amendment squarely addresses freedom of expression in three forms, freedom of religion (and religious expression), freedom speech (individual expression) and freedom of the press (dissemination of information and opinion):

Freedom of Religion, Speech, and the Press

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Having a right to free expression does not guarantee that such expression will be truthful.  The right to free expression has not prevented, and often may encourage, false expression.  The right to free expression does provide, however, a mechanism to refute false information.  Unlike totalitarian states, we all have the right to speak out and assemble and to petition the government to correct or oppose false ideas.  The constitutional guarantee of free speech seeks to foster truth through diversity of expression, by which, eventually, the truth will surface.  This approach calls upon us to evaluate differing views and determine their merit, to distill the truth from competing ideas.

In his Supreme Court opinion on free speech, Schenck v. United States, Oliver Wendell Holmes famously stated: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” Commentary on this opinion notes the importance of the word "falsely":

That “falsely” is what’s doing the work, both in Justice Holmes’s hypothetical, and in how such a false shout would be treated by First Amendment law today. Knowingly false statements of fact are often constitutionally unprotected — consider, for instance, libel, fraud, perjury, and false light invasion of privacy. That would presumably apply to knowing falsehoods that cause a panic.

 . . .

No, political advocacy harshly critical of a country, urging a severing of ties to that country, or supporting a war to destroy that country is not analogous for free speech purposes to deliberately lying about a building being on fire. If you want to argue that political advocacy on a subject that’s deeply important to democratic decision-making about foreign relations, about business ethics, and more should be punishable, you can do it. Just don’t rely on unsound analogies to a supposed “shouting fire in a crowded theater” doctrine, and don’t omit the qualifier — “falsely shouting fire” — that makes the doctrine work.

Note that the First Amendment covers three interrelated freedoms: religion, speech and press.  All three involve expression of beliefs and opinion.  All three are likely to overlap from time to time. Religious conviction, political spin and editorial commentary often clash.  The border line may be hard to define.  Holmes' "falsely shouting" embodies an element of intent --- the intent to intentionally mislead by knowingly expressing a falsehood.  Religious belief and editorial opinion involve personal or institutional beliefs --- ones that may not be universally shared nor empirically proven, but may be sincerely held.

Freedom of expression depends on the recipient having the freedom and capacity to accept or reject what is expressed.  Expression is not one-sided, it is interactive, not theoretical.

Today we have an unprecedented outpouring of expression.  We have so many sources for receiving information.  At the same time, we have much confusion over whether such received information is true. The death of truth is widely proclaimed. The recent Presidential election illustrates how "social media" (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) has become more widely used than ever before. Technology and social media not only delivered information, they became an issue in the campaign.

Hillary Clinton's private server and hacked mail became campaign issues.  WikiLeaks released several installments of hacked email, making headlines and influencing the election.  Such leaks sparked controversy, debate and continuing investigation.  How were servers compromised?  How did WikiLeaks obtain this material?  Were the Russians behind all of this?

This election produced a President fond of tweeting at all hours about whatever is on his mind. We are still embroiled in questions of cyber security, hacking, wiretapping, and spying.  Donald Trump may not have coined the phrase, but "false news" seems to be one of his favorite talking points.

The media has gone after Trump for his loose references and lack of facts.  Time Magazine did a cover story in March: Is Truth Dead? Can President Trump Handle the Truth?   Bill Moyers declared "Gibberish is the White House's New Normal:

. . . Now we have a president who, when he speaks, spatters the air with unfinished chunks, many of which do not qualify as sentences, and which do not follow from previous chunks.

Much, if not all, of this is "speech" protected under the Constitution.  Under the shelter of political expression, even comments closer to "falsely shouting fire" in a crowded theater may be protected.

The point is not how inarticulate Trump can be and often is.  It is not that he relies on misdirection and mischaracterization with little or no effort to provide factual proof.  It is not that he seemingly cannot muster thoughts longer than 140 characters.  The point is that many, many people simply accept his expressions as "truth" without thinking about their substance or going beyond and asking questions about their meaning and veracity.

We have an unparalleled array of information delivered to us every day.  We are shifting away from a society that largely relied on established media with proven credibility, standards and practices, and reputations.  You may not always agree with such media on the issues, but most follow a framework for analyzing stories and opinions and reporting.

Today, if you have a computer or a cellphone, you can use the Internet and social media and find comment on whatever you want and make comments on whatever you want. Anyone and everyone can be pundit and there is no requirement for disciplined thought or fact checking or experience.

No doubt some of us still get (or at least see) one or more daily newspapers (real paper, delivered to your door).  Of course, the paper versions increasingly are "timed out" --- good for recipes and movie reviews and obituaries, but usually out of date in the ever churning twenty-four hour news cycle by the time they hit the doorstep.

Established print publications have web portals (e.g., The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Economist).  Increasingly, however, these established media must capsulize their posts to catch attention of Internet viewers with limited attention span.  Not only does this dilute the analysis in the information distributed, but such established news outlets must compete in an environment built on brief attention spans of those browsing through headlines and stories and unwilling to pay for in-depth journalism. The online dilemma arises:  the expectation that everything should be “free” on the Internet.  In response, many of these professional new sources offer limited coverage on line (e.g. a certain number of stories per month and then require you to buy a subscription to receive full cover.  This is call hitting the “pay wall”, which cuts the reader off from reaching more detailed and informed reporting.

Online sources can still be enormously important in reporting reliable, up to the minute news coverage.  A personal example was the recent terrorist attack on the British Parliament.  Waiting at a doctor' office in mid-afternoon, my cellphone sprung to life with bulletins and direct reports --- from established news sources and ordinary citizens.  (Meanwhile, the television in the waiting room only infrequently interrupted the mind numbing babble of Access Hollywood with news bulletins.)

Online access gives you a far wider range of reporting.  International sources are widely available.  With the London terrorist attack, I could follow online The Guardian newspaper's frequently updated live feed as the situation developed.  (The Guardian does not have a pay wall, but does ask readers to contribute to support online coverage.)

The Internet also provides more choices, making it difficult to sort out what is real news, "fake news", social interaction, general information or just cyber-babble (“gibberish”).  Beyond the reports on social life, recent trips, the concert last night and pictures of pets, sunrises / sunsets, social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) can provide person to person reports and debates.  In theory, we have much more information available to us than ever before.

The abundance of information, however, is as much a part of the problem as it is the solution.  Because we have so much information and anyone can comment and spin the information, we have information overload.  We are left to try to process it.  As discussed above, many established journalistic enterprises simplify their initial distribution of information online to capture audiences through social media, but if you go to their website for more in-depth reporting, you hit the “pay wall” cutting off further information unless you pay.

The Internet has sparked keen competition for readers/viewers.  Many of these information portals may have excellent, detailed reporting behind the initial cellphone or web page screen, but the first challenge is getting us to click further.  The second challenge is getting us to stay long enough to read the details.  Most of us have a nervous cyber-twitch to move on, to browse further rather than read further.

Then there are the less reputable provocateurs, sensationalists and amateurs trying to attract viewers / readers to sites that are largely advertising or sites trying to be the "next big thing."  Finally, add the dark side -- those sites that clearly care little about the quality or truth of what they post, who are exercising the freedom of expression to gather attention, to tear down someone or something, or just fabricate material with little or no factual basis (the true "fake news" or "hate news").

As the audience, we are left to find our way through this explosion of information. Taken far enough, it can become something like Dante's journey through Hell. (I will leave for another time the truly "Dark Web" with its illegal activity (trafficking in stolen identity, credit cards and passwords for sale and worse).

"Well, now time passed and now it seems

"Everybody’s having them dreams

Everybody sees themselves

Walkin’ around with no one else

Half of the people can be part right all of the time

Some of the people can be all right part of the time

But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time

I think Abraham Lincoln said that

“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”

I said that"

We are not going to turn off all the tweets and Facebook posts and other voices.  Some of these voices are clearly false --- luring us not homeward toward truth, but to a rocky shore.  Some of these voices indeed may be "falsely shouting fire in a theatre" and the law one day may reach out and mute them.

Meanwhile, we need to exercise better judgment and a strong dose of skepticism.  We need to judge the sources providing the information.  When major newspapers across the country determined what news was, we came to identify news sources that we found reliable, that applied some standards and practices in their reporting.  Sources that could be trusted.  They may have had a "point of view", e.g. liberal or conservative, but that usually could be identified through the paper's editorial positions and you could take that into account.

There are still major media enterprises that apply standards to reporting and still have a point of view.  The New York Times is different from the Daily News.  The National Review is different from The New Yorker.

These established publications are now promoting themselves as a reliable sources of news. Here is a recent pitch from the Wall Street Journal: "As accusations of facilitating the spread of fake news continue, our readers can draw comfort and confidence from content that is created, curated and checked in a real newsroom." This appears on Facebook above a sales pitch to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal at a 50% discount in the subscription price.  A comment received from a reader reflects skepticism: "Baaaahahahaha, yeah right! What an aloof statement. You people must be pretty detached from the rest of society if you think people are going to buy THAT load of BS."

 During the election last year, a "truthfulness" chart of "news" sites went viral on the Internet.  It attempted in single page to show the political spectrum of mainstream media. It is a helpful chart, but ultimately subject to debate and criticism.  What it does not address is the ever growing number of publications and web enterprises that run the gamut from journalist endeavors to personal soap boxes.

So what are we to do if we value something approaching "truth"?  How do we make sense of all this?

We start by thinking for ourselves.  Read past the initial headline or web caption.  Where did this post come from?  Does the writer have a background that enables an informed discussion of the subject?  Are verifiable facts presented?  Is there a different point of view, expressed elsewhere, that you can check and compare?  Whether you agree with the main point of the article or not, question its reasoning, its sources, its conclusions.  (If you have read this far, please feel free to apply this criteria to this article.)

This sounds like a lot of work.  It is.  Would you be skeptical if you were paying for the information?  If you were buying a car or a house, would you stop and buy the car or house after only seeing a picture online and a short sales pitch from the seller?  Would you want to know more?  Would you want to see the car or house, test drive it or walk through?  Would you want an inspection?  When you voted for President last year, did you really investigate the candidates with the same care you would have used in making a major financial investment or purchase?

In the end, if we do not think for ourselves, someone else will.  The fault will not be in our stars, but in ourselves.  As the Russian proverb favored by a former Republican President says: "Trust but verify."