07 July 2010


From Nicholas Shakespeare's review of Murray Bail's Fairweather (Sydney: Murdoch Books 2009) in today's ALR -
when he was six months old, his father was recalled to India as medical adviser to the maharaja of Kapurthala. With reluctance, his parents left Ian in the care of two pious, alcoholic spinster aunts. He would not clap eyes again on his mother until he was nine.

The aunts took him to live in Brechin, Sydenham and Jersey. It is likely that he experienced the same traumatic incident as his siblings. One morning, says Geoffrey [Fairweather's nephew], the aunts thought that the world was coming to an end and dressed the children in Sunday clothes. "The blinds were drawn and they had to wait for the end of the world, and it didn't come." When one of the aunts fell out of a window, Ian's mother made him go and see her body in its coffin.

Vetting college students

Inside Higher Ed features an item on criminal history checking of US college students -
In a recent AACRAO [ie American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers] survey, 66 percent of responding institutions reported having any mechanism to collect criminal justice information from students. Private and four-year institutions were more likely than public or two-year institutions to conduct some kind of screening.

The most common means of getting that information, the survey found, was through questions on self-disclosure questions on their own applications or on the Common Application. Of the 144 institutions that reported collecting criminal justice information from all applicants, only ten said they used criminal background checks. ...

Patricia Leonard, Wilmington's vice chancellor for student affairs, said that the applications of fewer than 10 percent of students raise red flags that lead to scrutiny by the university's Campus Safety and Investigations Committee and a request that the student order a criminal background check from one of several approved vendors. (The student pays the fee; it's usually about $20, Leonard said.)

Half the students asked to submit to checks never do and take themselves out of the running for admission to the university. Among those who do undergo checks, Leonard said, 92 percent are cleared without further examination. The screening process, she said, "clearly sends a message about the campus culture - its priorities."
The AACRAO survey appears to that reported in 2009 [PDF], covering responses by 273 institutions out of AACRAO's 3248 member institutions. AACRAO describes its "key findings" as -
• 66% of the responding colleges collect criminal justice information, although not all consider it in their admissions process. Private schools and four-year schools are more likely to collect and use such information than their public and two-year counterparts.
• 38% of the responding institutions do not collect or use criminal justice information. [The overlap between 38% and 66% is unclear]
• Self-disclosure through the college application or the Common Application is the most frequent way that institutions collect the information. A small minority of schools conduct criminal background checks on some applicants, usually through a private contractor.
• Most institutions that collect and use criminal justice information have adopted additional steps in their admissions decision process, the most common of which is consulting with academic deans and campus security personnel. Special requirements such as submitting a letter of explanation or a letter from a corrections official and completing probation or parole are common.
• Less than half of the schools that collect and use criminal justice information have written policies in place. Only 40% train staff on how to interpret such information.
• A broad array of convictions are viewed as negative factors in the context of admissions decision-making, including drug and alcohol convictions, misdemeanor convictions and youthful offender adjudications.
• If it is discovered that an applicant has failed to disclose a criminal record there is an increased likelihood that the person will be denied admission or the admission offer will be rescinded.
• A bare majority of schools that collect information provide support for admitted students who have criminal records, usually in the form of counseling or ongoing supervision.
• The most common restriction placed on students with criminal records is exclusion from campus housing.


150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Mahler.

06 July 2010

Prince of Darkness

Having got rid of a submission to ACMA about the Do Not Fax regime as part of consultation about the Fax Marketing Industry Standard under the Do Not Call Register Legislation Amendment Act 2010 (Cth) I've been pointed to 'Unveiling Satan's Wrath: Aesthetics and Ideology in Anti-Christian Heavy Metal' by Jonathan Cordero in 21(1) Journal of Religion & Popular Culture (2009). Wonderful what your friends find for you on a cold grey Canberra day.

Dr Cordero reports that -
Unlike many heavy metal bands that utilize blasphemy, sacrilege, and evil images for superficial shock value, the wrath of anti-Christian heavy metal bands is rooted in authentic sources. The anti-Christian aesthetic within the Black Metal and impious Death Metal scenes derives from the ideology of popular satanism and the subordinate structural position of the scene. In addition to the defiance engendered by the scene's resistance to Christianity, the masculine imperative within the genre of heavy metal influences the extreme nature of the anti-Christian aesthetic. ... The homology among the aesthetic, ideology, and social structure suggests an authentic form of resistance rooted in the subordination of a deviant music scene. The anti-Christian aesthetic resonates with the supporting ideology of popular satanism and with the subordinate structural position of the scenes. In addition, the sensationalistic nature of the anti-Christian aesthetic derives from an additional ideological influence — the masculine imperative within the genre of heavy metal.
Oh dear.

Cordero goes on to explain -
In the end the majority of band members construct philosophies that mirror the general perspective of Black Metal and impious Death Metal—popular satanism. At the heart of popular satanism is the idea that individuals should be able to think for themselves and to follow their own desires. This form of popular satanism or the self-as-god philosophy derives from the Satanic Bible's Law of Thelema (i.e., "Do what thou wilt") and is indicative of the perspective of most Black Metal and impious Death Metal band members. The combination of independent thinking outside the constraints of authority and the pursuit of human passion are based in part on the nihilistic beliefs that the only reality of life is death and that human beings are inevitably fallible creatures.
We certainly can't have people thinking for themselves.

And on and on it goes, albeit without warnings about the strangling of kittens and shocking lack of personal hygiene among those very naughty satanists -
The development of the genre of heavy metal music attests to the continual progression of shock in alignment with masculine codes. Since the early 1980s, the genre has become more extreme in all its aesthetic dimensions, with emerging sub-genres outdoing its predecessors on all counts. Sub-genres of heavy metal alter the conventions of previous genres' music in a typically more masculinized fashion — that is, by continuing to take heavy metal musically, lyrically, and visually to the extreme. The recent rise of Death Metal and Black Metal illustrates the movement toward more brutal musical forms and a more sinister and grotesque content. Dismemberment, blasphemy, and necrophilia represent only some of the lyrical and visual content of extreme heavy metal. Inevitably, the masculine defiance endemic in adolescent subcultures converges with the cultural impetus toward perpetual innovation to produce extreme music. Extreme metal is not for the weak.
Should we all head for the hills, pausing only to gather our shotguns, Mel Gibson DVDs and RFID-detectors as we go? Cordero concludes with reassurance -
The radical freedom advocated by the ideology of popular satanism and indicated in its critiques of Christianity point to an alternative vision for social life; however, recent research shows that the ideology's influence appears to be limited to the scene and that the anti-Christian aesthetic appears to have little impact upon institutionalized religion.

05 July 2010

Stealth profiling?

The New York Times reports on complaint [PDF] by the Center for Democracy & Technology to the US Federal Trade Commission regarding the Spokeo.com 'people-search' site, a service that is presumably a delight to stalkers, recruiters, marketers and the curious alike.

The CDT alleges that Spokeo - promoted as "not your grandma's phone book" - violates the US Fair Credit Reporting Act by publishing financial information on millions of residents without allowing them to see who has accessed their data or informing them of potential adverse determinations made from the data. CDT also claims that Spokeo's profiles feature "significant inaccuracies", of concern given that the site is promoted to human resource professionals and that there apparent impediments to correction of faulty data.

In an illustration of regulatory problems, Spokeo has indicated that it is not covered by that statute because it does not issue credit reports (instead providing credit and wealth estimates) and because it uses only publicly available information. Spokeo reportedly "does not access Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, or bank accounts used by credit reporting agencies", complaining that the CDT has made "an unwarranted and unsupported claim".

What does the site provide? The Times reports that Spokeo "appears to have renamed a 'credit estimate' indicator to an 'economic health' indicator since the CDT complaint was filed. You say potatoe and I say potato ...

A Spokeo search draws on 'public information' that may result in a listing that identifies an individual's -
  • address (inc aerial photo of residence)
  • phone number (landline and mobile)
  • email address
  • marital status
  • ethnicity
  • approximate age
  • occupation
  • approximate house value
  • whether home has pool, fireplace, central heating
  • status of the neighbourhood (inc ethnicity)
  • hobbies and other information of a person.
Pay a subscription and those in search of enlightenment about a target's financial wellbeing can access information (accurate or otherwise) on that individual's -
  • star sign
  • educational level
  • offspring
  • political leanings
  • length of residence
  • length of home ownership
  • pet ownership
  • car ownership (inc type of vehicle)
  • "economic health"
  • "wealth level".
Spokeo appears to be relying on the traditional 'some care but no responsibility' model, with warnings that warn users its data is only as good as the public sources - "We are a reference - we cannot be a definitive source for every bit of information. Our product is constantly evolving and getting refined. We can aggregate only so many sources". Quite.

The Spokeo site boasts that -
How is Spokeo different from Facebook? Facebook is a social network on which users shares their personal data, whereas Spokeo is a search engine that aggregates data from various third-party sources. The difference between Facebook and Spokeo is analogous to the difference between You vs. Google Map taking a picture of your house. Data originated from you can be more detailed and accurate, but you also have the liberty to lie about it. Data pieced from public domains may not be complete, but it gives an objective, third-party perspective, which is valuable for people research purposes.
The CDT has, reasonably, commented that data from public sources is "very clearly" protected under the statute, which covers any communications that have a -
bearing on a consumer's credit worthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living, which is used or expected to be used or collected in whole or in part for the purpose of serving as a factor in establishing the consumer's eligibility for credit or insurance [or] employment purposes
Employment reports are also covered, with businesses being required to tell consumers what information they hold and take steps to verify the accuracy of the data when disputed by a consumer.

The report notes that Spokeo has targeted recruiters and HR professionals -
Earlier this week, a Spokeo blog post listed, among the site's top uses, searches on prospective or current business associates or research on prospective employees. That blog post, apparently written by a Spokeo employee, has been changed, with the suggestions to search for information on business associates or prospective employees eliminated.

Spokeo's blog still contains a post listing a customer's top uses of the site, including doing research on potential employers and employees.
Spokeo is reported as responding that it "in no way endorses" those uses of its site, prompting CDT's rejoinder that it is "not entirely sure" how provision of "wealth estimates and other financial information" helps "friends find each other".

Spokeo reportedly allows people to delete their information, a process that hopefully is more meaningful than the deletion that has been offered in the past by Facebook. Only a "tiny" percentage of people do so. The CDT comments that there are problems with the deletion process - In some cases, a profile is deleted, then Spokeo creates a new profile of the same person later. Spokeo appears to have multiple profiles on some people, with suggestions that deleting one profile will not delete the others.

Just as significantly, there are crucial inequalities in data collection. If Spokeo doesn't comply with the statute by notifying people of adverse decisions based on its data, people may not realize the site has information about them -
People wouldn't know to go to Spokeo to delete their profile in the first place. "There are lots of other Spokeos out there; creditors, employers, or other decision-makers may be using those sites to evaluate me, and I wouldn't know to go to those sites to see if my data was accurate unless they told me.

Confections and collectibles

A week or so ago a collector paid around $15,000 for a lock of Napoleon's hair (we won't know whether the hair is genuine, of course, without DNA testing, given that there was a thriving pre- and post-mortem trade in Bonaparte hair clippings, clothing, letters and even splinters from trees at Longwood). Earlier this year a half-smoked cigar abandoned by Winston Churchill sold for $8,138. A collector recently paid US$45,000 for three chest x-rays of Marilyn Monroe.

The trade in memorabilia - and in murderabilia - has a long history, with the devout attributing magical properties to relics of the saints. That attribution, commercial exploitation and uncertainty about provenance and ease of forgery meant that sceptics have had fun inventorying holy nails, cross fragments, the one true Spear, the Holy Sponge, swaddling clothes, cradles, robes and other items that had supposedly been in close contact with The Son of God and that - o miracle - managed to manifest themselves in numerous places at the very same time to confound the unbelievers, edify the faithful and incidentally aid revenue generation by the custodians.

Don't even think about the multiple survivals of the one, the true and of course miraculous Holy Prepuce, the residuum, if that is the word, that features in Peter Goldsworthy's mordant Honk If You Are Jesus (Angus and Robertson 1992) and that so far has escaped exploitation by Dan Brown. (The prospect of Tom Hanks and assorted homicidal albino monks tearing around Europe in search of what's left by the mohel is alarming.)

It is not too surprising to see today's news item, courtesy of Derridian, reporting the production of "occult jam" -
JAM made from one of Princess Diana's hairs has been selling well at an art exhibition in London.

Sam Bompas, who founded catering company Bompas and Parr, says a tiny speck of the late Princess of Wales' hair has been infused with gin, then combined with milk and sugar to make the preserve, which tastes like condensed milk.

Mr Bompas says he bought the hair off eBay for $US10 ($12) from a US dealer who collects celebrity hair.

He said today that the product, called "occult jam", aims to provoke people into thinking about food marketing and what they eat.
With Jurassic Park in mind, why, I ask, stop there? Why not energy drinks infused with just a little bit of Napoleon? Love potions with something from Rudolph Valentino or Erroll Flynn? Cupcakes sprinkled with some reconstituted HLA Hart? Sausages - blood sausages of course - with essence of Carl Schmitt? Althusser salve (a hit among WWF fans)? Judy Garland fruit-n-genome vodka cocktails in a can? Phar Lap Burgers!

Alas, it's been done before. Over a decade ago US-based Stargene was reported as planning to market jewellery, watches, pens and other trinkets that incorporated DNA from the hair of notables such as Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, James Dean and Albert Einstein.

I'm more impressed with 'The Kaiser's tooth' by Pfeiffer, Benthaus, Rolf and Brinkmann in 117 International Journal of Legal Medicine (2003) 118–120 -
A tooth attributed to the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859–1941) and stored in the museum Huis Doorn, The Netherlands, where the Kaiser lived in exile from 1918 until his death, had to be investigated for two objectives: firstly, possible paternity in relation to a woman who died in 1952 and secondly, to verify its authenticity.
Alas for CSI fans, the lower molar ("extracted at the beginning of the twentieth century" and presumably displayed on a silken cushion) failed to provide the requisite DNA -
The tooth had two golden inlays, extensive carious defects and mummified granulation tissue fixed between the roots. Due to extensive dental manipulation the pulp chamber was largely destroyed and could not be used for DNA recovery
'Tales from the Crypt: Scientific, Ethical, and Legal Considerations for Biohistorical Analysis of Deceased Historical Figures' by Jordan Paradise & Lori Andrews in XXVI Temple Journal of Science, Technology and Environmental Law (2007) 224-299 notes that -
Aside from jewelry, functional products have also been marketed that claim to incorporate celebrity DNA. An advertisement from Airline International touts the Krone Limited Edition Abraham Lincoln Pen, allegedly containing crystallized DNA of Lincoln replicated from hair strands of the former President removed on the night of his assassination, set in an amethyst stone. ...

Even living historical figures are now being faced with issues of commercialization of their bodily tissue and DNA, which exceeds the scope of this article but raises similar ethical and legal questions. In an effort to have a piece of their favorite celebrity, people have forked over thousands of dollars at internet auctions for clippings of Neil Armstrong's hair gathered by his barber, Britney Spears's used pumice stone, Kelly Clarkston's discarded water bottle, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's chewed cough drop. John Reznikoff, a private owner of the largest collection of human hair at 135 different people’s locks, purportedly including hair purportedly from Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Napoleon, Elvis Presley, King Charles I, and Charles Dickens. Reznikoff describes the hair collection as a "unique card catalogue of DNA of the most famous people in the world," of which he is the custodian.

04 July 2010


In a plenary session paper at the Victorian Privacy Commissioner's 2010 Watch This Space: Children & Privacy conference [full version PDF] I noted parental use of 'nannycams' and services that claim to provide parents with lists of what minors have been surfing or copies of what the minors have been texting (ie transcripts rather than merely contact numbers).

I was thus interested to see 'Now Parents Can Hire a Hall Monitor for the Web' by Brad Stone in today's New York Times, describing US services - presumably available in Australia for those with the requisite credit card - that profile what minors are doing online by scraping information from blogs, social network services and other parts of the web.
it comes as no surprise that, after years of headlines and horror stories about predators, cyberbullies and other dangers to children online, a crop of subscription services has emerged to help parents monitor their child's activities on social networks.

These start-ups aim to distinguish themselves from the older category of software products like NetNanny. Such products sit on a user's hard drive, primarily to block various Web sites.

The new companies include SafetyWeb, based in Denver; SocialShield, of San Mateo, Calif.; and MyChild, a service of ReputationDefender, in Redwood City, Calif. These services scour the Web to create easily digestible reports for parents of everything a child is doing online.

The companies charge for subscriptions; the lowest costs $10 a month or $100 a year.
Everything? Not quite. Presumably the 'scouring' can be subverted in much the same way that other electronic handcuff services can be subverted.

Stone asks "For harried parents, the question is: Are they worth it?" and responds -
Certainly not for people who are Web-savvy. The services gather data that can be freely collected with a bit of ardent Web searching.

But many parents are overworked and generally overwhelmed by the rapid pace of technological change and the continuing introduction of social Web sites. For these people, a simple Internet cheat sheet on their child — even at $100 a year — could be a useful tool.

I tested two of the monitoring services, SafetyWeb and SocialShield, on myself, various family members and a baby sitter and found the reports to be a bit unpolished. Both start by asking for a few pieces of information about a child, including his or her e-mail address and the family’s physical address. Then they look through various social networks, checking to see where the child has accounts and, where possible, monitoring what the child writes and what others write about the child.

Long lists of a child'’s online activities emerge, some marked as safe, some as potentially dangerous. Other items are explicitly red-flagged, like a Facebook friend who is considerably older, or a posting with a keyword like "kill" or "suicide".

As you can imagine, there are plenty of reports about innocuous accounts on sites like Amazon and false alarms (“the band killed last night”), for which the companies do not apologize.

"If it's good, we'll tell you about it and if it's something to be concerned about, we will tell you as well", said Geoffrey Arone, chief of SafetyWeb.
That is consistent with disavowals by the service providers of a commercial interest in "stoking exaggerated fear about child safety" in order to sell more subscriptions.
"We are not trying to do any fear-mongering", said Roger Lee, a partner at Battery Ventures, which recently invested in SafetyWeb. "Parents don't need SafetyWeb and anyone else to scare them. They hear about these heartbreaking situations already. We are just trying to give them a product to help solve the problem."
Stone argues that
the services look only for material that is publicly available, which is part of their value: many kids, especially teenagers, need constant reminding that what they post online may be viewed not only by their parents but later by colleges and employers.
There's no indication of whether the services share their surveillance with third parties, a concern given Stone's note that -
Because SocialShield is in the business of finding red flags, it is worth noting that the firm has something of a red flag itself. The company said that one of its consultants is Robert Maynard Jr., a co-founder of LifeLock. Mr. Maynard resigned from LifeLock in 2007, after it became known that he had previously agreed to be banned for life from the credit repair industry amid Federal Trade Commission allegations of deceptive practices at one of his past companies. Arad Rostampour, a co-founder of SocialShield, said that Mr. Maynard was not an investor or a board member but had helped the company to market the service over radio and television.
Are children aware that they are being surveilled? Stone indicates that -
When it comes to Facebook, often the center of children’s online lives, SafetyWeb takes a more discreet and privacy-respecting approach. It asks parents to link their Facebook account to the service, assuming that they are friends with the child on the site. If a parent is not a Facebook friend of the child, SafetyWeb can do little more than record the existence of the child’s account.

By contrast, SocialShield asks the child, not the parent, to link his or her Facebook account to the monitoring service. That gives SocialShield constant access to a child’s Facebook account, even if the child and parent are not friends.

That ends up being a more thorough approach, but it may also be more intrusive. The service collects more information, but the child typically knows about the monitoring.
That knowledge erodes trust, which as indicated in my paper is a foundation of resilience online. It potentially encourages children to evade the surveillance, for example by using a pseudonym and a friend's device, unsurprising given that much of childhood is a process of identifying and testing rules.

The same surveillance models can and of course are being used to monitor the activities of untrusted partners, employees and employers.