Posts Tagged ‘Facebook’

Warning: This Column May Be Bugged

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

By Bob Gaydosstock-photo-eye-spying-trough-a-computer-monitor-85320868

Hi there. Thanks for clicking on this article. I feel obliged to warn you right off that you and I are probably not alone in this seemingly intimate connection. Odds are this interchange is being monitored by some government or private computer for the purpose of, well, maybe for the sole purpose of demonstrating that it can be done.

And it is done, routinely, to anyone and everyone who uses a computer, lap top, tablet or cell phone. Privacy has become a quaint concept, an anachronism, in the computer era. The very tool that has freed us to a world of instant information and communication has also stripped us of something we cherish, our privacy.

Let me amend that. The tool is not to blame. It’s the people using it. They have entered our lives — admittedly often at our initial invitation — to such an extent that savvy technicians can put together accurate profiles of us in short order. Mostly, these people work for private companies that want to sell us something based on our computer behavior. Of course, those with malice in their heart can and do use their skills and the gathered data for nefarious purposes such as identity theft or simply installing a computer virus for no apparent reason.

This is not news to you, I’m sure. What’s perhaps new and most troubling to me is the extent to which our own government is involved in spying on us. Recent revelations by Edward Snowden of a massive cell phone data collection program run by the National Security Agency targeting average American citizens has been followed up with revelations of the extent to which the NSA also has used popular Internet service providers such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Bing, AOL, Apple, Facebook and YouTube, to compile information on private citizens.

Why?

Why national security, of course. There could very well be potential terrorists lurking out there among those cute cat photos and it is part of our eternal war on terrorism to try to find them among the billions of clicks per day on computers.

That’s the company line and there is a small element of truth in it. But we can’t assess how valuable the snooping has been because the government (the White House and Congress) won’t tell us anything that can be verified by uninvolved parties. (And the head of the CIA lies to Congress without getting fired.)

Mostly, though, I have come to believe (and this is why I warn you this column may be bugged) that our government snoops do this kind of thing because they can and they really don’t see it is an invasion of privacy and most certainly do not consider the massive potential for abuse it presents. This is scary. When the computer spies forget that they, too, are American citizens and also suffer from any erosion of individual privacy along with the rest of us, the slippery slope to total control of the citizenry has begun. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness lose their meaning.

Too alarmist?

Well, consider the reaction of President Obama when Snowden subsequently revealed that the United States was snooping on countries in the European Union and elsewhere. These are our friends, mind, our allies. The EU folks erupted with indignant surprise. They were outraged, etc. Obama said, in effect, what’s the big deal? Everybody does it.

Which is in large part true. The EU huffing and puffing was largely for show. They knew they were bugged and some of them also bugged official United States locations for the purpose of … what?

The nonchalant nature of the practice on an international scale bespeaks an inability and/or unwillingness to trust friends at their word or to get some kind of edge on them in international diplomacy. So I ask, why would this attitude not translate into domestic spying? It’s no big deal. Everybody does it. National security, you know? Trust us, we mean you no harm.

Really? Well then, why is the entire process sealed in secrecy, with a special court granting rubber stamp warrants for the government bugging private citizens? Why is the court answerable to no one in the public? Why are its rulings free from challenge? Why are private contractors (Snowden was one), not actual government employees, given access to such highly classified information? What happens to the data collected on U.S. citizens who turn out to be really just “average” Americans connecting with friends or venting frustration on Facebook? Why are most of our political leaders focusing on Snowden’s release of “classified” data rather than on the enormity of the spying effort on private citizens?

And why should we not be concerned that instructions are available on line on how to turn computer cameras (yes, Skype, too) and cell phone cameras into devices that can spy on their owners, a weapon that obviously could be used by serious government computer spies? And probably is. (Put tape over the lens without actually touching it. Shut it off in the bedroom.)

We “average citizens” have definitely been complicit in creating this situation, but most of were also a bit naïve: I have nothing to hide, so why should I worry about putting personal information on line? That may have been a valid view at one time, but it ignored the reality that those with a certain amount of power inevitably seek to expand their power.

Our government is supposed to protect us from this. When it is the offending party, we need to challenge it. We have no choice. We must do this peaceably, but vigorously, through public demonstrations (as the Occupy movement tried), petitions, messages to elected officials, support for candidates who want to shine light on such programs and eliminate abuses, rejection of candidates who support the spying, protest to and boycott of companies that cooperate with spying efforts, And by voicing opinions of protest on line.

Which is where I came in. Thanks for reading this. Don’t bother deleting; Big Brother already knows you were here.

bob@zestoforange.com

$2 billion here, $2 billion there …

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg married girlfriend, Priscilla Chan. AP photo

… pretty soon you’re talking about real money                                                                                                By Bob Gaydos

Mark Zuckerberg lost $2 billion Monday, the second day after his company, Facebook, raised $16 billion in an initial public offering. Maybe you didn’t notice because Mark is still a long way from visiting the soup kitchen.

Facebook sold 421.2 million shares at $38 a share on May 17, a Friday, the biggest technology IPO in history. By Monday, the share price had dropped below $34, delivering that “blow” to Zuckerberg’s wallet. By the close of business Tuesday, Facebook shares had dropped to $31, but the founder, whose financial interest in the company stock was estimated at $17 billion, was reportedly enjoying his honeymoon and not fretting about the public’s judgment that his wildly popular social media enterprise was also wildly overvalued. He actually got married after the IPO, which to me implies true love.

At roughly the same time, JP Morgan Chase, the bank that is too big and too smart to make an investment mistake, much less fail, announced it had blown $2 billion — there’s that number again — on something called synthetic derivatives. This is what we make in America today instead of shoes and cameras and tires and auto parts. Jamie Dimon, the Zuckerberg of JP Morgan, was uncharacteristically embarrassed and apologetic about the loss, which, as with Zuckerberg, barely put a dent in the JP Morgan bank account, although it did get some people fired.

The problem with the JP Morgan fiasco, though, is that it is a bank as well as an investment company and $2 billion is still a lot of money to lose. It tends to weaken people’s trust in your judgment and maybe even make them put their money elsewhere.

Even worse, nobody, not even supposed experts on complicated investment schemes, can seem to explain what the heck a synthetic derivative is in the first place. I asked a college business professor to explain it and all I got was a blank stare. As far as I can tell, a synthetic derivative seems to be something akin to a fantasy baseball league for bored stock traders looking to hedge their bets on other investments. Whatever that means. I think they make it up as they go along. The main requirement seems to be that not even the people who create it know exactly what they’ve created. Maybe Mary Shelley would understand.

Once upon a time, banks weren’t allowed to take such risks with clients’ money, but that was before all the smart Wall Street guys and gals convinced their bought-and-paid-for members of Congress that really, really, really, really, really big banks didn’t need to be regulated and could be trusted to deal responsibly with complex investments as well as mortgages and savings accounts. Why? Because they were really big and really smart and could make a heap more money for the people who were bankrolling congressional campaigns — and for themselves. And because most politicians were too embarrassed to admit they didn’t have a clue what the big banks were up to.

I don’t venture into the world of high finance often because, like most Americans, never mind politicians, I don’t understand it very well. But at least I admit it. Plus, I get depressed hearing about $25 million golden parachutes for CEOs who mess up, lose other people’s money, but still somehow deserve to be handsomely rewarded for their service. It seems to me if you can’t hit a curveball anymore, you get released. Period.

I also find it had to understand why anyone these days would trust the same bankers who mortgaged this country’s future with phony baloney home loans to people who didn’t have a prayer of repaying them, then gobbled up federal bailout money to make profits, and then foreclosed on all those people to whom they gave bad mortgages — often without bothering to do any real follow up on the loans and their clients to see if they could maybe work out a way to pay.

These are not honorable people. These are people who see only the need to make more money, in any way possible, including conjuring synthetic derivatives. I’d rather invest in a crystal ball factory. The people who work at these super banks are this way because no one has paid the price for their greed. They say they are merely applying the principles of a free market to their trade — a market that returns less than 1 percent on savings accounts and charges fees every time someone answers a customer’s question.

This change in the approach to banking began at the end of the Clinton administration with repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which prohibited banks from co-mingling commercial and investment accounts. Risking clients’ savings by creating exotic investment packages and selling them to other clueless investors was forbidden.

In the wake of the 2008 banking crisis, the Dodd-Frank Bill was enacted, to return some modicum of regulation over the super banks that were created when Glass-Steagall was repealed. Part of that bill is the so-called Volcker Rule, which prohibits proprietary trading by commercial banks in which bank deposits are used to trade on the bank’s investments. The rule is named after former United States Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who was named chairman of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board by President Obama when he inherited the banks’ financial mess in 2008. Things being what they are in Washington these days, the Volcker Rule is not scheduled to go into effect until July 21 of this year. And no one expects that deadline to be met.

What’s more, some economists feel the rule is still too weak because it is full of exceptions and would not have prevented the JP Morgan Chase fiasco. (Volcker himself warned about the risks of derivatives.) All of this has, predictably, led to a lot of calls for stricter regulations on these super banks.

But Morgan’s Dimon, chagrined and embarrassed as he may be, isn’t ready for a return to the old days, when banks were banks and investment companies were investment companies and people knew their money was safe. In fact, he wants Volcker weakened so his minions can try to create even more exotic investment thingamajigs. Apparently, he just plans to watch his help a lot closer from now on and wants us to trust that he will do it. Shame on him.

Most likely, given the political climate, nothing is going to change. Democrats will argue for more regulation as they have for years. Republicans, who lately seem to believe only the rich should get richer, will demand no regulation at all. Meanwhile, these 20 or so super banks that now control the U.S. economy will continue to try to create billions out of nothing because sometimes it works. No one knows quite what they do, but everyone involved at the bank winds up with tons of money when it works and a chunk of that money finds its way to congressional campaigns. So it apparently doesn’t matter that none of it seems to create jobs or promote economic development or entrepreneurship. The derivatives just keep feeding the same overstuffed mouths over and over again.

Too big to fail? Too big to regulate? These banks are really too big to exist, but no one except the Occupy movement is making this argument publicly and persistently these days.

Which brings me back to young Mr. Zuckerberg. I don’t feel sad for him that his IPO didn’t cash in as big as some had predicted. (Some of that, by the way, was due to bad calculations by the NASDAQ and the big banks that handled the initial offering.) He and his partners made their millions or billions and one of them (not a native American) even renounced his U.S. citizenship to protect his profits from the IRS.

But hey, the way I see it, they’re entitled. Heck, they created Facebook with their own brains and there is nothing synthetic about it. They made it into the closest electronic version of a living, breathing organism. It has a pulse. It is a vehicle for people around the world to communicate instantly with each other at any time. Their product is useful, portable, entertaining, ubiquitous, optional — and free. In our economic system, that should equate to profitable. It may just not be as profitable as its creators thought it was.

But that’s what happens when people have even the slightest understanding about what they’re being asked to buy.

 bob@zestoforange.com

Enough is Enough from Rush!

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Rush Limbaugh … 30 years of vile attacks

By Emily Theroux

Earlier this week, a Facebook acquaintance posted a comment under one of my recent political rants that absolutely astounded me. Following Rush Limbaugh’s recent three-day “slut-shaming” of law student Sandra Fluke for daring to testify before a House subcommittee about the high cost of birth control for uninsured women, I stayed up very late Sunday night, venting about Limbaugh’s galling hypocrisy in the face of his own infamous excesses. The next morning, I discovered a single reply from a woman who had never posted anything more controversial on my page than occasional praise of my dog or my grandchildren.

“As a journalist,” she offered, “wouldn’t it be good research to go back and actually listen to his show and hear exactly what was said, rather than repeat what people thought he said? He made his point with humor, albeit he took it to the extreme. Like it or not, it made for some GREAT radio.” She then added a rhetorical question: “When did having babies become considered a disease?” and ended her reproach with a snarky personal remark: “And speaking of babies, post more photos of your beautiful grandbabies. That we can all agree on.”

After letting her post simmer on my Facebook wall for most of that day, she inexplicably deleted it just as I was about to post a heated reply. That gave me time to ponder whether to make any kind of retort at all. I decided in favor of responding because I really don’t think anyone who has listened to the degrading, vicious, defamatory things that Rush Limbaugh has said about women and minorities for the past 30 years can let his lies, grandstanding, and verbal projectile vomiting — or his apologists’ weak excuses for his behavior — go unchallenged this time.

I always research whatever I’m planning to post on a public forum, I wanted to tell her. I listened to what Limbaugh said so many times that it’s some trick I didn’t puke all over my keyboard. He repeatedly lied that Fluke testified about her own sex life and that she said she was having so much sex, she couldn’t afford to pay for her own birth control pills — indeed, so much sex that he didn’t see how she could still walk. I didn’t find this to be anything approximating “entertainment” or “great radio.”

I also carefully listened to Sandra Fluke’s testimony before Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s House subcommittee. Fluke never once mentioned her own sex life; she actually devoted most of her testimony to explaining the difficulty many Georgetown students have paying for birth control pills they are prescribed to treat medical conditions that have nothing to do with pregnancy. Fluke described at length the plight of another Georgetown student who had been paying out of pocket for oral contraceptives prescribed to treat polycystic ovarian syndrome and eventually lost one of her ovaries when she could no longer afford to pay for the medication.

I heard exactly what Limbaugh said for three days — every lie, every vile taunt, every nonsensical mathematical “calculation” (suggesting, for example, that by dividing his hugely exaggerated “cost” figure for birth control pills by the number of “coeds” enrolled at Georgetown University (all of them promiscuous, of course), he would arrive at an estimate that each female student who took birth control pills must be having sex at least three times a day! Never mind the fact that you don’t take any more birth control pills if you have sex three times a day than if you have sex once a month — or never).

I sat through every vile taunt, every slander, every obscenity, every ad hominem attack, every cruel characterization of women who use birth control, whom he portrays as slavering nymphomaniacs. Limbaugh’s “remarks,” if you want to call them that, were in no sense humorous, nor were they ambiguous. Whether he rattled on for three days to boost his ratings or to give the Republican war on women a “plug” — or whether he even actually believes the things he says — is immaterial. I say it’s high time he shuts his big fat mouth. I signed a petition yesterday to that effect; if I can find it again, I’ll post that on Facebook, too.

As for the mystifying bit about how liberals consider having babies “a disease” (which Limbaugh himself said on his radio show later that day), that’s disingenuous hooey. I certainly never defined the “diseases” birth control is used to treat as human embryos, simply because certain kinds of birth control function by preventing implantation of fertilized ova. What I said is that, in addition to preventing pregnancy, oral contraceptives are also prescribed to treat women who have any of a wide range of real diseases or medical conditions that have nothing to do with the prevention of pregnancy.

I also said that employers who refuse to provide health insurance coverage for oral contraceptives because they are opposed to birth control for reasons of faith or conscience do not appear to take their non-contraceptive applications into consideration. Maybe we need some new names for these drugs that would differentiate their various uses, so that while politicians and “entertainers” are lobbing this issue at their opponents for electoral or monetary gain, the rest of us would at least know what they were really talking about.

Finally, being advised to post more photos of my grandchildren on Facebook struck me as a little condescending. It felt like being told to hie myself back to the kitchen and keep my nose out of the business of menfolk — although my Facebook friend was probably just trying to end her criticism on a positive note by paying me what she considered a compliment.

Women, like men, may originally have been put on earth by God or nature to reproduce; if that is so, I think I have done an admirable enough job of it. But I was also born with a brain and have elected to use it. Rush Limbaugh made a point of punishing a woman who dared to do exactly that by spending three days “putting her in her place.” The problem with me — and I suspect, with Sandra Fluke — is that some of us don’t tend to stay put very well.

Emily Theroux, a Middletown resident and former magazine editor at The Times Herald-Record, writes occasional political commentary on social media sites.