Privacy–Protecting it in our Web World

The current controversy over Safeway’s scanning of licenses for all alcohol purchases in Rohnert Park and Petaluma will resolve itself one way or the other.

For the moment, I would like to turn to some of the larger questions it has raised in my mind. I will come back to Safeway at the end of this article.

For Better or Worse…The web is with us

Most people (including our household) have histories and data stored in an almost infinite number of data bases and computers. Frankly, it is unavoidable, unless you are living in a cave…

  • We shop online
  • We pay bills online
  • We e-mail
  • We blog
  • We Facebook
  • We can even pay our taxes online
  • We give out our e-mail addresses to stores, retailers, banks, and financial institutions
  • We use GPS

Even for those who elect to live in a cave, there is a good chance that Google has taken a picture of the entrance and posted its location on the Internet.

Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems most likely described the situation best when he said, “You have no privacy. Get over it.”  The simple fact is that records have been generated by us or kept on us for a very long time. 

What is different now is the ability to pull it together and distribute it digitally around the world in mere seconds.  Therefore, what is critical is the management and protection of that information so that it is not used in a harmful or criminal manner. That, of course, requires legislation that keeps up with the technology and enforcement of laws regulating the use and distribution of information. On this front, I believe we are way behind the curve.

It is a cliché, but the “Computer Web” is clearly a two-edged sword. For example, GPS is a wonderful tool, particularly when emergency services personnel are trying to reach you.  If your car or cell phone has GPS, they know where you are and can get to you quickly.  On the other hand…remember, they know where you are…

How to Cope…Living on the Web

There are a few things an individual can do to reduce the risk of fraud or identity theft.

  • Regularly review all bills and bank statements for unauthorized charges
  • Carefully review credit card or debit card statements to make sure that someone has not submitted unauthorized charges. Also make sure that automatic charges have ended if, in fact, you have cancelled the service or product.
  • When paying a bill in a restaurant with a credit card or a debit card, make sure that your card is returned to you.  In a busy restaurant, it is possible for the server to mix up the cards.
  • Consider not giving out personal information and your e-mail address to secure future coupon and discount offers from a retailer. It has been our experience that all we receive are offers for things we don’t purchase, not to mention the daily e-mail ads. If you still wish to do so, consider setting up a separate web e-mail to receive the advertizing/promotional e-mail.  I think you will find that you will rarely open it.
  • To better identify potential credit card fraud problems, use one card for online transactions and a separate card for “real world” transactions.
  • If you use public Wi-Fi or public computers, do not connect with your bank, credit card, or brokerage accounts.
  • If you receive a call from someone purporting to be from your credit card company, bank, or brokerage to report a problem on your account, do not give out information without first verifying they are in fact who they say they are. A usual clue is if they start asking for account numbers, social security numbers. The best procedure is to terminate the conversation and call the company on a number that you have to verify the call.

If there is a single overall caution I could offer– be careful about giving out personal information.  Granted there are legitimate reasons and legal requirements to do so in the course of our daily lives when establishing bank accounts, financial records, etc.  However, one should question other requests for your identifying information such as street address, social security number, driver’s license number.

This brings us back to the Safeway policy of scanning a driver’s license to purchase alcoholic products…

  • While it may be permitted under California law, there is no mandate that it be done. 
  • While there are legal limitations on how the data is to be used, violations are difficult to detect and if detected, the penalties are not particularly severe. 

I said in an earlier article that I accept Safeway’s assertion that they are complying with California law. I accepted it largely because I have elected to do my shopping elsewhere.

However, in researching this issue generally, I noted that the creators of the scanning hardware and software tout its data storage and data mining ability.  One company is even pushing a scanner that not only records the data on the magnetic strip but also images both sides of the card during the scan. Let that feature spin around in your mind for a few minutes.

In closing, the Safeway system is far from foolproof.  For $20 or less, one can buy a card reader/writer and create any date they want on a magnetic data strip. I am sure that it would be a simple task for a 19 year old to adjust his or her license.  



1. First, a  twenty minute film, ” Smart Card”  which, while painting an extreme future, may give you a different perspective on today. If you view nothing else on this page, be sure and check out this film.  Links below:

2.  Information from the  California Office of Privacy Protection

3. For an industry article on the problems of scanning see Retailers Caught in the Middle on ID Checks

4. Also See Driver’s license scanning reduces fraud, but may alienate shoppers


Claques For Bloggers…Blogging For Claques


In previous posts, I attempted to discuss how the Web and communications technology have become pervasive in our lives and of the need to set human boundaries for their use. See The Web Is Too Much With Us? and Petaluma’s Brave New Google World?

A recent experience taught me that while the Web may be relatively new, it is also a medium for one of the oldest scams in the world…fans for hire–Claques.

First, A Little “Techno” Background…

WordPress has an extremely effective (not to mention well-regarded) spam program to protect bloggers from having to deal with rogue or spam comments. In my case, an average of 775 spam comments/month.

The Akismet program does sort out a few for review by the blogger to determine whether they are valid comments.

When I opened up my WordPress a few days ago, I noticed that Akismet set aside three comments for my consideration. I also noted they were all from a site offering a prepaid computer generated comment service… 

“We gather 1000 blog posts and submit 1000 general comments to all of them. Usually the acceptance ratio is 20-30% so a total of 200-300 backlinks.”
“This is an automated process and we can therefore not guarantee a certain amount of blog comments but our experience tells us that app. 20%-30% goes through.

This will give you a boost in traffic and rankings. We use more than 100 premade comments that are all very general and will fit into all blog posts.

We also run our software through proxies. This is a perfect booster for a new started website or a great way to gain lots of links to your established sites quick and cheap.

Please make sure you are not banned by the Akismet wordpress spam filter otherwise very few comments will go through.”

SAMPLE COMPUTER GENERATED COMMENT–“omg a number of the feedback most people make are such stoner remarks, now and again i question whether they honestly read the content pieces and reports before posting or if perhaps they basically skim the titles and publish the first thing that comes to mind. anyway, it’s pleasant to read through clever commentary now and then compared to the exact same, outdated post vomit which i usually notice on the internet.”

Claques For Bloggers…Blogging For Claques…

Hiring favorable audiences or claques is an ancient tradition.  It is a well known practice in many opera houses to this day. In fact, claques may be hired to boo as well as to applaud a particular performer.  Not unlike current American politics, now that I think about it.

I suppose somewhere out there in Cyberspace, there is a program that also writes generic blogs to be matched up with computer generated page hits and comments. In theory, a blogger could sign up for both services, solicit advertisers and voila!–an instant money machine without any human involvement.  (Warning! Don’t give up your day job!)


A Tweet from Ogden Nash…

I asked Mr. Wordsworth to provide a few lines of poetry to close this epistle, given his donated wisdom to my earlier posts. Unfortunately, his computer was on the fritz and his mobile device had lost its charge.

I close instead with a 21 Century Tweet from Ogden Nash…

When surfing the Web, don’t you be Bait

When surfing the Web, Discriminate

Be aware of the Claques

Beware the Quacks

When Elephants

Dance with Sycophants


Don’t let the Cons

Put you On


Petaluma’s Brave New Google World?

The story about Petaluma’s efforts to become a test city for Google’s new super high-speed Internet service was breaking about the time I was absorbing the reactions and comments to The Web Is Too Much With Us?

A few quotes from the March 4, 2010,  Argus article by Philip Riley illustrate the potential scope and size of the Google effort:

“Google says that its new ultra-high-speed network could revolutionize what is possible on the Internet, so when the company announced that it would test that network in one or more communities across the country, Petaluma jumped at the opportunity.”

“It’s almost unimaginable what types of benefits it would have,” said Tim Williamsen, the city’s information technology manager. The technology would create Internet speeds 100 times faster than the average connection, with speeds up to 1 gigabit per second. Besides blazing download speeds, if the network comes to Petaluma it could bring high-tech companies, jobs and tax revenues with it, Williamsen said.”


If Petaluma is successful with its Google application, it will be a powerful and significant event for the City and for individual citizens. 

As an aside, I can now envision the jockeying for position by neighborhoods and businesses to be the first to be connected. It does not take too much imagination to conjure up several future stormy Council Meetings coping with this process. 

After all, let us not forget we are talking about Petaluma…

Whether or not Petaluma’s application is accepted, the Internet speeds contemplated by Google will eventually arrive here and elsewhere–sooner rather than later…quicker than a kitten on the keys…

  • When ultra high-speed service becomes generally available, will we have the collective and individual wisdom to use it to enhance rather than control our lives?
  • If Petaluma is selected as a Google test city, will the way we adapt and adopt it serve as a model for others?

On one level, these are more difficult questions to answer than the “hows” of the engineering,  technical, and construction work required to install it.

Remember the cautions offered in the comments to The Web Is Too Much With Us?

  • “… I have learned that in today’s world it is almost impossible to have “private” and “special” moments…”
  • “…there is more to life than virtual reality and trivia overload, that there is strength and grace and understanding in reflective solitude.”
  • “…It is imperative that everyone multitask at all times. The thought of “quiet time” is actually frightening to many. The idea of having to come to grips with their inner self by spending time reflecting is not on the radar of activities.”
  • “…(We have to know when to) Turn it off. Disconnect from the web of chatter and noise and indulge your soul in the absolute bliss of silence. You can always plug in again later.”
  • “…I need a regular dose of good, old-fashioned interpersonal communication and eye to eye contact to keep me on track and in touch.”
  • “…Technology is a tool, not a lifestyle.”

Playing off the last comment, I turn now to another cautionary 21st Century tweet from William Wordsworth…

If needs must

The Web is too much with us

If  tools

 make the rules…

The Web Is Too Much With Us?


This article is the product of my efforts to elevate my understanding of the impact of communications technology to a higher level of confusion.  

For convenience, I use the term “Web” to encompass all forms of communications and entertainment technology and software–the Internet, social media, cable, satellite, new media, e-mail, mobile devices, laptops, desktops, notebooks, cell phones, mobile networks, ipods, etc.




Clearly one of the largest impacts of the Web has been on how we get our news. 

With a few clicks of a mouse or a search from a mobile device, we can access news sources from around the world. Moreover, it is a bilateral exchange if readers post comments to what they read, making traditional letters to the editor somewhat archaic. Add the proliferation of online equivalents of classified ads (e.g. eBay or craigslist) and you have a print newspaper industry struggling to survive and traditional radio and TV scrambling for multiple outlets on the Internet and mobile services.  

I’ll leave the future of the print industry and electronic news media to others to explore, except to note that the forces of the Web are affecting not only how we get our news, but from whom. 

Blogs and community bloggers (paid and unpaid) have been a growing source of news at all levels.  

In recognition of this trend at the community level, the Knight Digital Media Center at the University of California, Berkeley is conducting a workshop in March “… for journalists and others who are…becoming independent publishers of specialty blogs and hyperlocal community news sites that play a central role in the emerging news and information landscape.” (See Changing times in journalism and media!‏)

Petaluma’s Frances Rivetti  (Sonoma Country Life) will be one of the participants in the UC workshop.*


The Web has extended the reach of our human experience… 

  • If you have a question, you GOOGLE it. 
  • If you need to research a service provider or contractor, you check with ANGIE.
  • If you want to sell or buy something, you go to the AMAZON or check with CRAIG.
  • If you have a few moments to reflect, you can read your FACEBOOK.
  • If your tooth turns blue, you see a dentist. If your BLUETOOTH malfunctions, you go to RadioShack.
  • If you go out to eat, you may TEXT your friends or send TWEETS on your TWITTER between courses.
  • When you get home, you may YELP about your experience–if you did not already do so during desert.
  • Even better, if you go to a SPEED DATING session, you may do all the above in ten minutes or less!
  • If you get lost coming home from your speed date, you can GPS.
  • After arriving home, you may turn on your 50-inch LED flat screen and watch four shows simultaneously on one screen courtesy of ATT&T U-verse TV .

I wonder, however, if ordinary mortals don’t need a workshop on how to cope with the avalanche of information and communication. By my observation, it has become an all-consuming task for many, if not a lifestyle.  

Many, if not most, coffee shops I frequent have free Web access and are often filled with people communing with their laptops or mobile devices. Few are conversing with each other.

The “need” to communicate and to be constantly connected to the Web has almost become pathological based on examples from my experience… 

  • Cell phone calls from stalls in public restrooms
  • Calls to the office from a trail in Arches National Park while complaining about the lousy signal
  • Two men on a trail in the Muir Woods (cyborg phones in their ears), texting away and muttering, “I can’t get a signal!”
  • Teenagers in any size group walking down the street with their eyes fixed on their mobile screens

Our job as “consumers” of media is to sort through it all–or to ignore it if we so elect. It would be helpful to have some guidelines to assist in this sorting process–with perhaps a touch of instruction on the use of  practical critical thinking in judging what we see and hear.

This is all well and good for those of us who know, or should know, when to turn it off and return to the “real” world.  However, what about those whose life experiences and reference points are only Web based?  Endless streams of information and data do not produce understanding, much less wisdom. 

Many years ago, Marshall McCluhan commented on the societal impact of television with his famous–The medium is the message. However, what I fear now is a Web medium that is fracturing into an infinite number of voices–infinite until each and every soul on this planet has a Facebook page.

  • Could it be that we are headed for a society where relationships with avatars are more important than relationships with humans?
  • Is virtual reality the coming reality? 


If  William Wordsworth were alive today instead of the 19th century, perhaps he would have expressed his famous lament about materialism in a tweet such as this… 

The Web is too much with us, late and soon   

Our hearts now gone for a downloaded tune!  

Texting & Tweeting, we lay waste our perceptual

For little we see that is not simply virtual

When we have gone too far and virtual is actual!


(Alternate Tweet)

The Web is too much with us…

When Avatars

Drive Our Cars

To the Bars


*Update 3:48 p.m. March 1. 2010. Frances Rivetti posted Revelations of an Ever Evolving Web News Frontier, which addresses many of the issues raised in this article. 

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