An unexpected visit from the Karma Police
Not long after last week's Weekly went streaming its way to your inboxes, the doorbell rang. It was a pleasantly uniformed official.
"Pardon the interruption, sir," he said politely. "I'm Officer J___ K_____ with the U.S. Department of Positivity. May I have a moment of your time?"
"Well," I replied, "you ask so nicely, it's difficult to say no."
"That's the idea exactly," he said. I asked him in, and once he was seated, he got right to the point. "We have reason to believe your last newsletter may not have been to your usual standard, vis a vis, takeaway."
"Takeaway?", I asked.
The officer smiled weakly. "You write tech tips, mostly, correct?"
"Mostly," I agreed.
"But last week -- no tips. How come?"
"I wrote about a couple of services, one a freebie called Hooks for managing iPhone alerts, and another called EverSafe that monitors bank accounts for fraud. That one costs $5 a month."
"Duly noted," the officer said as he removed a small pad from his uniform pocket. "But only after more than 1,000 words on--" he scans the pad's pages. "Here it is: 'A dystopian fielder's choice.' That's rather dire, don't you think?"
"It's a scary world, wouldn't you agree?"
"Always has been." The officer's smile was just a bit threatening. "But something was missing last week, wasn't it?"
"What you can do about it," the officer explained patiently.
"I don't know what you can do about it."
"Precisely," the officer said. "You know such dire predictions about the future never come to pass. Things turn out okay, somehow. Right?"
"They do," I admitted. "But maybe that's because people are warned in time to do something to prevent the predictions from coming true."
"Thank you for seeing things our way," the officer beamed.
"You neglected to tell your readers what they can do to avoid the calamitous future you described."
"Like I said, I don't know how to avoid it, or if it can be avoided at all."
The officer laughed pleasantly. "Of course it can be avoided. And it will be, with your help, their help, everybody's help. That' why I'm here."
"Indeed. We're suggesting that you keep things upbeat for the next few weeks. Try not to be so... spooky." He smiled. "Leave that to Stephen King. That's what he's good at."
He's good at making money, too, I thought.
The officer continued: "Your specialty is giving people tips on how to use technology. It's okay to point out the storm clouds, just don't forget to mention the silver linings." His smile was beginning to wear thin.
"So when I find a February 17, 2015, article in Foreign Policy written by Janine R. Wedel describing the corrupt political and economic systems that keep crooked power brokers in power 'legally,' I should emphasize that people are slowly realizing their powerlessness? That young people in particular are losing faith in political and economic systems? That the people charged with fighting corruption are beginning to redefine the term, from 'abuse of public office for private gain' to 'violation of the public trust'?"
"Well, I don't know if that's--"
"Or should I tell folks about the Am I Being Tracked? service that lets them determine whether their cell phone service provider is tracking the sites they visit on their phone?"
"That sounds more like it," the officer grinned.
"Sure, all they have to do is open the site in their phone's browser, disable WiFi on their phone, make sure they're on a 3G, 4G, or LTE cell network -- which they almost certainly are -- and then press the Test Now button. It took me only a couple of minutes to find out my provider wasn't recording the sites I visited on my phone."
"So what do people do if their carrier is tracking their phone browsing?", the officer asked.
"Um, well, they can enable SSL/TLS encryption (HTTPS) on all the sites they visit. This prevents the Unique Identifier Header, or UIDH, from being 'injected' in the connection, according to the service. There's a version of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's free HTTPS Everywhere plug-in available for the Android version of Firefox, but not for the iPhone or Windows Phone."
"That's a start, anyway. I think you're getting the idea," the officer said as he started to rise out of his chair.
"Correct me if I'm wrong," I started. The officer evinced only slight irritation as he sat back down. "The Positivity Department would prefer I not write about the sharing of personal health information by nine out of ten health-related pages people visit, according to a February 23, 2015, article on Phys.org. Shouldn't people know that the data they enter about themselves at health sites is sold to online ad networks and data brokers?"
"Well, that might be helpful, sure," the officer offered.
"But there's more. The information they've already entered could be made public and tied to them personally, or the data might be used to disqualify them for special discounts on health products and services," I added. "And they have no way of knowing about it."
"I can see how that might be a problem for some people," the officer admitted. "But can you tell them about it positively?"
"Well, you mean like, 'You should positively avoid supplying personal health information to a health site'? Or like 'You should positively know that the personal health information you provide to such sites becomes that business's private property, including your identity'? That's according to Timothy Libert, the University of Pennsylvania researcher who wrote the study, Privacy Implications of Health Information Seeking on the Web, which was published in the Communications of the ACM in March 2015."
"That might not be the kind of positivity we were hoping for, actually," the officer said.
"I think I might have something more to your liking, officer. There's a new service starting up that promises to use our personal information to serve the public. It's set up as a member-owned co-operative called The GoodData, and it offers a browser plug-in based on Disconnect that promises to do just that. The service claims to block any trackers you haven't explicitly allowed, and to let you see all the information that's being tracked about you. (I first wrote about Disconnect back in 2012, in a CNET article entitled "How to prevent Google from tracking you.)"
"Now you're talking!" The officer once again started to rise from his chair.
"It gets better," I added. "The co-op sells the 'anonymized' data you've allowed to be collected and then donates half the proceeds to the Zidisha micro-credit lender (the other half is spent on product development, according to the service). You can read more about it in this January 12, 2015, article by Anya Skatova and James Goulding on The Conversation site."
"It doesn't get much more positive than that," the officer said.
"But I should avoid mentioning the great infographic in a March 13, 2015, article on Forbes written by Gordon Ritter that shows which industries are most susceptible to being Uber-ized, correct?"
"Disrupted, economic models turned on their heads, the way Uber has affected the transportation industry and AirBnB has hit the hospitality industry," I explained.
"Sounds rather negative," the officer said. "Anything upbeat you can offer along those lines?"
"Well, some industries are protected by regulatory barriers, according to Ritter. So they may actually be able to keep the disrupters at bay until they can imitate them enough to take their place without losing their strangleholds on markets."
"'Strangleholds' doesn't sound very positive."
"How about 'to remain viable players in the new markets'?"
"Much, much better."
"And what could be more positive and upbeat than a mobile app that lets you make your March Madness picks?"
"Is there such a thing?", the officer asked.
"According to David Lariviere in a March 13, 2015, article on Forbes there is. It's called Realtime Brackets, and it's free, although it requires that you register or provide your Facebook ID."
"Now, that's the way to get people all positived up," the officer laughed.
"Positively," I offered, "although I'd be remiss not to mention the bracket backlash that has surfaced this year."
"'Backlash.' I don't like the sound of that at all."
"Don't worry," I offered. "The idea isn't likely to gain much traction, at least not this year. Nik DeCosta-Klipa of Boston.com wrote in a March 15, 2015, post that once you've filled in your NCAA basketball tournament brackets, you tend to cheer for the teams you selected. But then you miss out on the fun of rooting for the tournament's underdogs."
"The more fun, the better, right?", the officer tries.
"But it's fun making your bracket selections, too. You get to pretend you have actually heard of all 68 schools in the tournament, not to mention that you possess unique insight into the relative merits of their basketball teams. I mean, Wofford? Hampton? Coastal Carolina?"
"Still fun, right?"
"Here's a tip: Save yourself a lot of time and trouble by putting Kentucky in that last box in the very middle of the brackets, and then enjoy three weeks of exciting games between the also-rans."
The officer's smile was beaming as he made for the door. "No also-rans in the Positivity Department," he said. "Everyone's a winner."
"Right as rain," I replied. "Like the song says, 'What a wonderful world.' Always leave 'em laughing."
"Hmmm. 'Right as rain,'" the officer mused as he walked down the stairs. "Since when has rain been right? We'll have to check into that."