Author Archives: Jeremy

US Builds Iraqi Biometric Database

Under the guise of security, the Iraqi people are being cataloged into a US database. First, I want to make it clear that I do not necessarily oppose this move in that it's possible that it will be used properly to target terrorist while leaving innocent people alone. As with all the various privacy concerns here, though, the problem is in what else they plan to do with the data. And let's face it, the US governement has a sad, sick, history of abusing our data and privacy.

(H/T to Privacy.org for the link)

A Blurb About Manhunt 2

I don't know a lot about this game other than it's very violent and has been banned from the UK. Reading about it doesn't make it any better:

“In Manhunt 2, players can mutilate their enemies with an axe; saw their skulls in half castrate them with a pair of pliers; or kill them by bashing their head into an electrical box, where a power surges eventually blows their head apart, ? the letter charges. “On the Nintendo Wii, players will actually act out the violence. One review of the game describes using a saw blade to "cut upward into a foe's groin and buttocks, motioning forward and backward with the Wii remote as you go. ?

Wow, you couldn't make it more real if you tried. Parental groups in the US aren't necessarily determined to ban it and would be satisfied with just giving it an Adult rating. While this is a completely reasonable request and, as far as I'm concerned, a blatantly obvious decision, Take-Two (the game's producer) is fighting this for purely monetary reasons:

An Adults Only rating, however, could be a death blow to the game, since Nintendo and Sony, maker of the PlayStation platform, currently have policies that bar AO-rated games for their systems. That would limit sales for use only on personal computers.

Beware Microsoft “Try before you buy” Deal

A Slashdot user warns us not to use the "Try before you buy" deal based on his experience with the same deal and Office 2003. He said it changed all the file types to 2003 so when the trial was over, he wasn't able to access any of his files.

Usually, the program will warn you before updating the format, but it won't warn you that anything you create from scratch during the trial will be locked into the newer program.

And as you can read in the comments, most people agree that it's ridiculous that Microsoft refuses to make the files backwards compatible.

Criminal Probe at FBI Over Patriot Act Violations

The Patriot Act should never have been passed. We all saw the potential for abuse, but our "trust us" government assured us that it would never happen. Yeah, right.

Now that the inevitible abuses have come to light, it would be nice if someone would face some consequences for a change. Like maybe Alberto Gonzales who lied to congress saying that there were no abuses during the hearing for the reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

(H/T to Slashdot for the link)

Maryland Gets Credit Freezes!

I feel pretty dumb for not noticing this new law, but now Maryland residents will get credit freeze protection! It doesn't go into effect until Jan 1st, 2008, but as soon as it does, people in Maryland will no longer have to worry about most ID theft or data breaches.

Here's a link to the PDF describing the process for implementing the freeze: Consumer's Union Writeup of Maryland Credit Freeze procedures.

New Firefox 3 Feature Makes it Easier to Spot Phishing

The Firefox team has decided to include a user-written plugin into the standard release of Firefox 3. This plugin highlights the domain name making it easier for normal users to see and understand what site they're actually on versus what they think they're on.

For example, most people think that just because the url says yourbank.com anywhere means that's the site they're on. The reality is that it must be in this format:

http://[anything at all].yourbank.com/[anything else]

to be valid. Any other arrangment is a phishing attack:

http://yourbank.loans.com
http://12.293.28.18/yourbank.com

etc.

This plugin will make it easier to spot by highlighting the valid part of the URL which is the domain (which is easily confused by less techie users who don't understand that the domain section of the URL is backwards).

Banks Make More on Overdraft Fees than Loans

Consumeraffairs has been watching the banking industry with increasing shame. Banks realize how easy it is to "encourage" customers to make banking mistakes that end up in costly fees:

Common banking practices, such as clearing high-dollar debits before subtracting smaller debit amounts, holding deposits longer than necessary, and failing to decline overdrafts or warn customers at the checkout or ATM if they have insufficient funds, increase the number of overdrafts suffered by consumers

Note that these are concious, purposeful acts designed to bring more debt to the consumer. Let me explain one of the scenarios above:

You make the following purchases during the day:

Your account balance: $70 (It's almost payday, you're running low)

  • Sandwich: $5
  • Starbucks Coffee: $10
  • Socks, Flowers, and a DVD movie (you're at Walmart… One stop shopping): $35
  • Eggs and Milk: $5
  • Little do you realize, your wife has decided to go ahead an fill up the SUV for the weekend trip.

  • Gas: $65
  • Now, assuming that the bank takes care of all transactions at the end of the day, what's the most advantagous way for them to do this? Easy! Apply all debits in order of size. Watch what happens:

    Your balance: $70
    -$65 (Gas)
    Your balance: $5
    -$35 (Walmart)
    Your balance: -$30 (plus $20 overdraft)
    Your balance: -$50
    -$10 (Starbucks)
    Your balance: -$60 (plus $20 overdraft)
    Your balance: -$80
    -$5 (Grocery store)
    Your balance: -$85 (plus $20 overdraft)
    Your balance: -$105
    -$5 (Sandwich shop)
    Your balance: -$110 (plus $20 overdraft)
    Your balance: -$130

    And to add insult to injury, maybe you got paid that day and deposited the money, but the bank held the deposit until the next day for no reason that you can think of (also part of their bag of tricks).

    So in this case, the bank's artificial policy of applying drafts in size order has hurt you plenty. If you complain (if) then there's a chance they'll reverse one charge as a matter of customer service. That still leaves you with a $60 debt to the bank. Compare it with this scenario where it was done in the order the drafts occured:

    Your balance: $70
    -$5 (Sandwich shop)
    Your balance: $65
    -$10 (Starbucks)
    Your balance: $55
    -$35 (Walmart)
    Your balance: $30
    -$5 (Grocery store)
    Your balance: $25
    -$65 (Gas)
    Your balance: -$40 (plus $20 overdraft)
    Your balance: -$60

    Think I'm full of it? Check out this eerily appropriate Consumerist article posted today about a guy who's overdraft woes cost him $134 for a granola bar.

    In this case you have one overdraft fee due to a simple mistake. Chances are the bank will credit it and you and your wife can make sure you don't make the same mistake twice when the balance is low. Life is happy and birds sing…

    Anyway, you see how banks, who know a whole lot more about money management than you, can make very little and innocent csounding policy changes that will screw you royally. Let's hope that the bill that Consumeraffairs mentions in the article passes to end this kind of crap.

    Lastly, a freebie for you. If you are the kind of person who frequently finds themselves paying overdraft fees, try this trick I learned in my more "cash desperate" days:

    Have two accounts: your main and a second. When you know you're short for the month and need a few hundred dollars to prevent the main account from going under, "borrow" against your other account instead of going to the Payday Loan scum. Go to an ATM and withdraw $300 (or whatever your overdraft amount on the other account allows). You'll get a one-time fee (usually $18-$25). Use that to keep your main account current.

    When you get paid, put money back in the other account to keep it at about $0. This is way cheaper than paying a bunch of over-draft fees or using a payday lender. Just make sure your bank doesn't charge any monthly fees or "inactivity" fees on the second account.

    Update

    More on the topic from Consumerist.com.

    Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) of the House Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit is holding a hearing today on unfair bank overdraft fees and their impact on consumers

    There's really a lot of news about this today, wow.

    Mandatory Arbitration to Go the Way of The Ethical President?

    Public Citizen with it's ever-watchful eye on congress, brings us news of a bill to try and kill mandatory arbitration in clauses in employment, consumer, franchise, and civil disputes. Mandatory arbitration is used to preemptively prevent you from ever suing the company by forcing you to agree to let a "nuetral" third party decide and and all disputes between you and them.

    Being that it completely prevents you from utilizing the court system for redress of wrongs, I'd say that this bill is a pretty good thing.

    Software Reads Fleeting Expressions to Know What You’re Really Thinking

    It's well known that body language is very difficult to control and often gives away your true thoughts and feelings for those capable of looking for the signs. Now a German company is trying to make software that understands those slight signals in order to produce superior quality ads.

    "With this type of technology there are always going to be significant questions," Ngo said. "People should have the right to say 'no' as well."

    In the case of the IIS technology, the software doesn't identify individual people and then store the information for later. Instead, it compiles information and offers it as statistics, Küblbeck said.

    "We do not store any patterns and try to re-identify the person," he added.

    And with all such technologies, they must be banned or strictly controlled to prevent them from being turned against us at the flip of a switch.

    TSA Continues to Fail Random Tests

    The TSA is failing more tests:

    In one test, TSA inspectors hid the components of a fake bomb in carry-on luggage that also contained a bottle of water. The screeners at Albany International confiscated the water bottle but missed the bomb.

    To which the TSA replied that the tests are unnaturally difficult and whine that it paints an "innacurate" picture of their work force. To which I wonder if the terrorists will not be so sneaky and mean as the TSA auditors. Perhaps they won't use every dirty trick. They wouldn't want the TSA to look bad after all.

    Last October, the Star-Ledger newspaper of Newark, citing unnamed federal security officials, reported screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport flunked 20 of 22 tests, including failing to detect bombs and guns in luggage at checkpoints.

    The TSA responded to the report by launching an internal investigation in which federal employees were interrogated about whether they had leaked the results, the newspaper said.

    That sounds like a perfect Bush-era response.

    "These statistics are horrible!"
    "Yeah, what should we do to fix them?"
    "Fix them!? We should cover them up!"

    Too bad the TSA doesn't get Nation Security as an excuse.

    (Thanks to The Consumerist for the link)

    Cell Phone Unlocking to be Next FCC Mandate?

    Most people don't realize that in many cases, the only thing that prevents you from keeping your phone when switching to another carrier is corporate greed and a bit of non-obvious industry collusion. Everyone seems refuses to take customers unless they sign a new contract and buy a new phone.

    The FCC chairman is proposing a new rule that would, in effect, do away with this sad state of affairs. Granted, that's only for the new 700Mhz band that will be opening up once TV is forced to go digital, but any company that wins the rights to that band will have to follow the new rules.

    Now, what are the odds that all those big, bad cell companies will allow that kind of rule to go through? And isn't it pathetic that a company can even control what the head of the FCC does?

    Current DoJ Employee Bravely Speaks Out Against Bush Administration

    In an act of extreme courage and dedication, a current Department of Justice employee wrote a devastating op-ed in the Denver Post which has been picked up by Crooks and Liars.com, Digg.com, and hopefully others.

    Calling him a "National Disgrace", John S. Koppel, a 26 year veteran of the Department of Justice blasts Bush and his tenure as president.

    The sweeping, judicially unchecked powers granted under the Patriot Act should neither have been created in the first place nor permanently renewed thereafter, and the Act – which also contributed to the ongoing contretemps regarding the replacement of U.S. attorneys, by changing the appointment process to invite political abuse – should be substantially modified, if not scrapped outright. And real, rather than symbolic, responsibility should be assigned for the manifold abuses. The public trust has been flagrantly violated, and meaningful accountability is long overdue. Officials who have brought into disrepute both the Department of Justice and the administration of justice as a whole should finally have to answer for it – and the misdeeds at issue involve not merely garden-variety misconduct, but multiple "high crimes and misdemeanors," including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

    Wow. This guy is my new hero.

    In the Mind of Bush, Cognitive Dissonance At Work

    In a somewhat humbling article of human nature, Shankar Vedantam explains how people tend to villify wrongs done to them while minimizing wrongs done by them. What does this have to do with Bush? It explains why he can be so wrong but believe he's so right.

    Spoken about the Libby pardon:

    He sees no inconsistency, just as we cannot see our own inconsistencies even though they are strikingly clear to everyone else," Tavris said. "He is protecting one of his own, but his reasoning is consistent with the way the mind works to preserve consistency."

    Very true. I am sorry if I ever called him evil and despicable (which, for the record, I never have). But as I've said before, it doesn't matter what he believes. He's a lead weight that is sinking our country and the rest of the world along with us.

    US Top Spam Country in the World

    However, as the data shows, CAN-SPAM hasn't changed the United States' rank as the number one producer of spam e-mail. Despite a few high-profile arrests, CAN-SPAM is not getting the job done, much to the surprise of no one.

    No kidding. This is what happens when Congress listens to businesses and lobbyists instead of people and people organizations.

    The number one issue with the CAN-SPAM act is common in bad federal laws: it preempts stronger state laws which makes the federal law a maximum instead of providing a minimum bar of protection. Now that the act has been proven by time to be completely worthless, I wonder what congress will do.

    Actually, no I don't, I think I know exactly what they'll do.

    New E-Card Scam

    Beware of the new scam that spammers have thought up. Now they're sending fake e-cards which can trick a recipient into opening a website or even downloading a virus without realizing it. The problem with e-cards is that people are already used to receiving these randomly (since you never know when you might get an e-card) and they have always required that you click the link in the e-mail to get your actual card.

    It looks like e-card companies are going to need to address this by only putting the card reference number in the e-mail and making people come to their site directly and enter it instead of using in-email links. Chances are that the e-card companies will be reluctant to do so since any added steps or difficulty will reduce the number of users willing to look at the cards, but they may not have a choice if this scam gets out of hand.

    Update

    It looks like Consumer Affairs has this story too.