August 28, 2009

Warning! Wells Fargo Bank Will No Longer Password Protect Business Accounts

Greetings. This is just a quick heads-up. I've been informed, and have verified through multiple sources, that Wells Fargo Bank will now refuse to password protect business banking accounts. Callers punching directly through to an agent without entering identifying information may be able to obtain full account access using only an account (e.g. checking account) number, and last four digits of taxpayer ID or SSN -- all data elements that tend to be widely available in the course of doing business for many entities. Note that Wells Fargo phone agents do not routinely ask for PINs, either.

In theory, Wells claims that if a business already has a password assigned it will still be honored for now -- but in practice it appears that many phone agents are simply ignoring the passwords, and will refuse to set a new one. Nor can businesses even go into a branch to assign a password (as, supposedly, consumer account holders still are permitted to do).

Wells' explanation for this change is that supposedly too many people forgot their passwords, and that the passwords could be bypassed anyway with other easily obtainable information.

In fairness, all Wells Fargo representatives I've spoken to about this agree that's it's a dangerous and stupid (their words!) policy. After all, just because some people lock themselves out of their cars, and it's possible to break in through windows, we still expect auto manufacturers to provide locks.

Businesses with their accounts at Wells Fargo may wish to reevaluate their situation in light of this information. I'll update if and when I learn more about this significantly outrageous policy change.


Posted by Lauren at 03:25 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 25, 2009

California Spamming: When "The Governator" Seems to Spam

Greetings. When those e-mails arrive from "Barrister Nitwit" informing you (and 100K other recipients) that you've inherited $50M courtesy of the late Dr. Terwilliger (who built a fortune over the years stealing money from the pocketbooks of unsuspecting mothers) you know immediately that you're dealing with a "419" crook who knows full well what he's doing, and that it's very, very wrong.

But there's a perhaps even more insidious type of spam as well, sent by persons who somehow feel that if their message is important enough (as they see it), then their UBE (Unsolicited Bulk E-mails) -- whether blatantly commercial or not -- somehow aren't really spam.

We all know about this sort of spam, but I was still surprised this morning when I received a message with the Subject: line proclaiming in all caps:


This was then followed by a fairly long press release, noting twice the involvement of Chevron Corporation and Accenture, and ending with a line promoting the fact that Comcast is the "exclusive multimedia partner" for the event.

While that e-mail was perhaps not blatantly commercial in nature, it certainly contained commercial elements. And why did I receive it at all? Was it sent by some "renegade" public relations firm? Or was it some sort of scam after all?

In fact, inspection of the message headers revealed that the message actually did come from servers associated with the asserted From: line -- the Office of the California Secretary of State itself. The message contained no To: line -- pretty much a sure indication of a bulk mailing.

The next question -- why did I receive the message? I've never knowingly provided that e-mail address to the State of California in the course of any personal or other business, and certainly not for their press release mailings.

I sent a quick query off to the author of the message (apparently in the office of the California Secretary of State) asking where she had obtained my e-mail information.

A prompt reply arrived within a few minutes. My e-mail address had been obtained from the "Cision" media database, and I had been included in the mailing as a technology blogger since one of the event inductees was Intel CEO Andrew Grove.

In a response, I suggested that the mere presence of my "harvested" e-mail address in a commercial database did not in any way represent my permission to use that address for commercial or non-commercial unsolicited bulk e-mails, and that when government (such as state or federal) entities are involved in such abuses the issues are even more acute.

In a followup note to me, the author then explained that she was not actually part of the Secretary of State's office, but that "The California Museum is a 501c3 non-profit that just happens to rent space and IT equipment from the government."

Notably though, her e-mail address as shown on the original and all subsequent messages was a straightforward "" address, and the message headers showed only State of California servers involved in processing the messages before they reached my local e-mail gateway.

In other words, every aspect of her messages were so arranged as to appear to be official State of California e-mails, with no indication that the state was acting as an agent for a particular non-profit organization.

Spam issues aside for the moment, the use of official State of California e-mail addresses and servers in such manners seems highly problematic, especially when even detailed header inspection suggests official mailings.

And obviously, whether from official sources or not, unsolicited e-mails of that sort are not only unacceptable, but also not the kind of mailings one would expect the State of California would want to sanction under their official e-mail "banner" -- so to speak.

While I very much appreciate the quick responses I received to my queries about this matter, the entire situation, both the sending of the original spam e-mail press release and the use of State of California e-mail addresses and servers in such ways, strike me as most definitely inappropriate.


Posted by Lauren at 12:36 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 24, 2009

AT&T to Smartphone Users: Get a Data Plan. Or Else!

Greetings. A Washington Post story from 8 July notes that AT&T and other carriers have been increasingly concerned about cash-starved subscribers dropping (or not taking in the first place) data plans with their smartphones.

However, ever resourceful AT&T has apparently divined a solution to this problem, revealed by a leaked e-mail -- simply require that new or upgraded smartphone owners subscribe to data plans -- whether they like it or not -- starting 6 September, all to "ensure an extraordinary customer experience."

But of course, whoever said that an "extraordinary customer experience" necessarily
means a good experience, eh?

This move by AT&T wins the "lemons into lemonade" award for the month.
AT&T gets to savor the lemonade, and their subscribers get ... well ... you know.


Posted by Lauren at 07:23 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 19, 2009

Must See Video: Rep. Barney Frank Socks It (Verbally) to Wacko Questioner at Town Hall Meeting

Greetings. There's a new, simple, short video clip that made my day. It shows Rep. Barney Frank responding to a health care town hall meeting wacko who was comparing Obama's efforts at health care reform with Nazi extermination atrocities. Please pass it on.

I have no additional comment, other than "It's about time! Three Cheers for Barney!"


Posted by Lauren at 01:55 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 16, 2009

Lying Bastards and the Health Care Debate

Greetings. There's a phrase that's often incorrectly considered to be an ethnic slur these days: "Calling a spade a spade." Look it up -- you'll find it has nothing whatever to do with race, and dates to at least the 16th century. I now invoke that phrase in relation to the ongoing U.S. health care debate.

I've been sitting here for weeks, watching the drama of "politics as usual" as the boys and girls in power play their usual political games with our health care -- or rather, for so many of us, our lack of health care. And the more I watch, the more I see a parade of lies that should cause every American to feel ashamed.

Let's start with Big Lie #1 -- the claim that the U.S. has the best health care system in the world, so we don't dare "break" it. Falsehood. Lie. If we had the best health care system, we wouldn't rank so low globally in so many measures -- infant mortality, average age at death, and so on. And we'd hover somewhere around 100% medical coverage for all citizens and legal residents. By all of these measures, we're little more than third-world wannabees.

Oh sure, if you've got the money, you can get top rate care -- whether you need it or not, and whether or not it makes financial sense. For the rest of us, it's too damn bad, screw you, get the hell out of my waiting room!

Almost as bad in key respects are the various lobbyists for the elderly. Medicare is a wonderful program, but let's be honest -- according to current statistics, related expenses for this age group are eating up an enormous percentage of health care dollars. And, I'm sorry, what I see coming from many of these groups is nothing but unmitigated greed. Don't you dare touch our government funded health care Medicare system! Who cares how much it costs? Who cares about unfunded drug benefits and unnecessary tests and all the rest? Let everyone else just die already! Protect us, let everyone else go to hell. Greed. Plain and simple.

And the insurance companies. Ah yes, the insurance companies. All the crying from both sides of the aisle about how we need to protect the insurance companies, how a public option would destroy them and how horrible such an outcome would be.

Here's my opinion. Do to the insurance companies what they've been doing to us for decades. Four letter word -- starts with F. Especially for those of us without employer sponsored health care -- a larger and larger percentage of the population. The medical insurance companies have been telling us to go to hell for years.

More than that, they kill people. Kill. Just like with a gun. They deny coverage when it's most needed, refuse payments, order doctors not to perform needed procedures, retroactively cancel coverage, and basically have most people who are stuck with lousy coverage in perpetual terror of even using what they're paying for, in fear that they'll be cancelled or their rates raised even catastrophically higher.

What the blazes have these companies done for us that couldn't be done better, with more accountability, by a government program operating in the sunlight? Medicare sure seems to keep the elderly pretty happy, overall.

Yes, without infinite resources, there does need to be some form of health care rationing. And no, computerized medical records aren't going to solve the problem, and they bring their own complex risks to the table as well But I'll take a public plan operating under clear rules and regulations any day, over a few uber-powerful private firms scheming in darkness like feudal lords -- complete with the power to garrote their serfs on a whim.

If a public health insurance option causes the private insurance companies to whither and die, so be it. Good riddance. If we can't get a public option on a bipartisan basis, that's OK by me -- Obama should stand firm for a public option no matter what it takes. If the GOP leadership wants to hang out with Palin and similarly deluded opportunists that's their choice, just don't drag the rest of us down into your hallucinatory, lying hell with you.

Just two more points for now. First, the politicians and others spreading lies suggesting that there are "Obama death panels" in the health care legislation are beneath contempt. Rush Limbaugh tries to draw parallels between health care reform and the Nazis. You want to invoke Nazi comparisons? Fine, let's see who is in bed with Rush and his ilk. Let's quote the well-known philosopher and murderer Joseph Goebbels - "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."

We're Americans. We deserve better than Rush Limbaugh, greedy insurance companies, and Sarah Palin's supplicants. Now is the time to call a spade a spade, to call out the lying bastards for what they really are, and to start caring about more than winning the next election. Every day many of our fellows drop dead from a lack of medical services that make the U.S. a humiliated laughingstock when it comes to caring about its population.

Enough is enough.


Posted by Lauren at 06:29 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 14, 2009

Confidential AP Memo Surfaces: Google, Wikipedia, Twitter Targeted

Greetings. As I've noted in the past, I have a great deal of respect for the Associated Press. My interactions with their reporters over the years have always been top-notch. But you can add me to the column of observers who have viewed AP's new "protectionist" activities as beyond baffling, trending into the bizarre, and something of a declaration of war against Internet users globally.

Little by little though, the fog is beginning to clear regarding what AP has in mind. Their apparent goals? Bypass Google. Rival Wikipedia. Drive Web traffic directly to AP, even apparently at the expense of their newspaper and other media subscribers. Is AP concerned about protecting their members? Or is the ultimate goal to obtain an SEO-based "stranglehold" on a significant portion of Web news content?

Such a "go for the jugular" approach might not be surprising from, say, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. But what many people may not realize is that the Associated Press is supposed to be something very different. In fact, AP is organized as a nonprofit cooperative!

AP recently clammed up and stopped releasing new details about their upcoming Web control initiatives. But thanks to the continuing efforts of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, many new details have now been revealed, including a confidential AP internal memo (reportedly from July) titled, "Protect, Point, Pay" -- that provides invaluable insight into AP's thinking.

I'll have more to say about all this, but for now, you might wish to take a few minutes to read over the memo, and think a bit about what the concepts therein might mean not only for the Web, but for the broader aspects of news and other information dissemination as well.


Posted by Lauren at 08:48 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 09, 2009

What the Hell Did We Just Download? (1957)

Greetings. Have you ever gotten a, well, creepy feeling when downloading data from a third-party source? Ever sort of stared at the boxes, the cables, and the blinking lights and found yourself wondering if all that data flinging by almost impossibly fast was totally on the level?

I've known this feeling a number of times over the years, with more intensity as increasing amounts of data could move in ever shorter intervals. Unless you wrote the code and generated the data yourself, there's often some "leap of faith" aspects involved.

Amusingly, a relatively little-known 1957 Sci-Fi film captured the essence of this emotion exactly and rather dramatically. Called The Invisible Boy, it was -- in a bizarre sort of way -- a sequel to the much better known and classic Forbidden Planet -- in that our friend Robby the Robot, not just in body but in spirit and voice as well, plays a major role.

The plot basically involves a computer who is so devious that it makes the Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey seem like an Eagle Scout. When Timmy, the boy who manages to reassemble Robby (don't ask ...) becomes irritated with Robby's unyielding protection (courtesy of "Asimov laws"-like basic directives), the computer offers to update Robby's firmware. The results are predictably not pretty.

But the scene where Timmy plugs Robby into the evil mainframe for the data transfer process captures (for me, anyway) the essence of the "What the hell are we really downloading?" feeling that can tickle the back of the brain from time to time.

I think that's pretty neat for a 1957, youth-oriented, low-budget sci-fi flick.

And here's the scene.

You gotta love those light panel props, which showed up in various films and TV programs over the years. I've always wondered how noisy their control units might have been, since they were surely based on relays and stepping switches.

Now play nice, Robby.


Posted by Lauren at 06:56 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 08, 2009

Yahoo! R.I.P.?

Greetings. I've never been one to promote premature burials. But occasionally a single quote by a highly-placed corporate executive crystallizes (often in hindsight, sometimes prophetically) the factors behind the ultimate failure of a firm.

In the early days of the ARPANET/Internet and the Unix OS, the minicomputers manufactured by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) ruled the roost. DEC's legendary central R&D facility ("The Mill") in Maynard, Massachusetts was a wonder to behold. DEC sported facilities that even Google doesn't (yet) match -- like their own helicopter service and a private digital gate at (Logan) airport. It seemed inconceivable that DEC could vanish.

But in 1977, when DEC founder Ken Olsen -- a frequent "debunker" of personal computers -- told a convention audience that, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home!" the fate of DEC was effectively sealed, and its slide into oblivion was already well underway. Fundamentally, Olsen just "didn't get it."

Fast forward three decades. When recently explaining a new deal that effectively ends Yahoo's own search engine activities in favor of Microsoft's Bing, Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz told the New York Times that "We [Yahoo] have never been a search company."

While Ken Olsen's quote showed a profound lack of foresight, Bartz's comment seems to be something else -- a painful case of denial. But it seems likely that her statement nonetheless presages Yahoo's own road to ultimate absorption, obscurity, and extinction -- except perhaps as a disembodied brand name operating in lockstep under orders from masters in Redmond.

Yahoo played a major role in the rise of the Internet as we know it today, and it is with considerable sadness that I predict these events. Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps Yahoo will find a way to continue and thrive in the long run. If so, more power to them -- competition is a good thing.

However, when I saw Bartz's quote, a "ghost of DEC" feeling of "deja vu all over again" was unmistakable. When I shop at the (beautifully sci-fi themed) Fry's in Burbank, a Yahoo!-branded office building stands prominently nearby. I wonder how long that logo will remain so ensconced.

I don't recommend replacing the white cemetery plot map pins with black ones while the associated bodies are still warm. But it's difficult to see how Yahoo can pull itself out of the maelstrom in which it now finds itself.

I do wish Yahoo the best of luck. But I fear that in the march of Internet time, Yahoo's clock is rapidly winding down. Time and tide wait for no man -- nor will they wait for Yahoo.


Posted by Lauren at 01:57 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 05, 2009

Confusion or Ripoff? T-Mobile is "Hiding" Available Minutes from Subscribers

Greetings. Why would a major cellular carrier want to "hide" available usage minutes from their subscribers?

This is a question I've been forced to ask during months of runarounds with T-Mobile, after their their Web site redesign completely obliterated (at least from the standpoint of my account) the concept of "conditional call forwarding minutes" (CCFM).

If you use third-party Internet-integrated voice services in conjunction with your T-Mobile phone, such as Google Voice or YouMail (I use both), you probably really do care about CCFM. Subscribers who program their phones for forwarding to such services -- to replace the seriously defective T-Mobile voicemail system if nothing else -- for call reject, call no answer, or called party unavailable, are likely using up CCFM for the duration of each such processed call.

For the typical G1 phone T-Mobile account that I use, I have a monthly "bucket" of 1000 T-M "Whenever" minutes for normal use making and receiving calls. But I also have a bucket of 500 CCFM, that are only used during conditionally call-forwarded calls (e.g., to Google Voice and/or YouMail in my case). If I use up my 500 CCFM, those calls start eating Whenever minutes.

But how do I even know about the 500 CCFM bucket? Because on the old T-M Web site, there was a clearly displayed line item on an account management page that showed both the Whenever and CCFM minutes in terms of their bucket sizes and current usages.

However, when T-M redesigned their site some months ago (again, from the standpoint of my account at least), several strange things happened. One issue is that they completely broke my text messaging capabilities, due to bugs in their message filtering configurations. This took a bunch of calls and effort to fix.

Another problem is that their new site generally requires plowing through about five pretty pages to get basically the same information that you used to be able to see on one fairly utilitarian page.

Most interesting to me though, was that all mention of CCFM vanished. No mention of the 500 bucket, no explicit summary of current CCFM usage.

When I started talking to T-M about this months back, I was assured (multiple times) that this was just a short-term transitional issue and that the site would soon clearly show CCFM usage again. But today I was told that -- oops -- nothing like that is in the current site redesign road map, apparently because "too few customers care about CCFM."

I find this explanation to be unacceptable, particularly in light of the rapid increase in people using conditionally forwarded third-party services. One wonders why T-M suddenly wants to keep CCFM as such a secret?

Now, to the observant browser of the T-M site, it's possible to figure out some aspects of this situation. On your call usage record, CCFM calls will be flagged as forwarded calls if you manually decode their status designations. However, it's worth noting that they are not separately indicated as CCFM or unconditionally forwarded calls -- and the latter always use your Whenever minutes, not your CCFM minutes.

It's also possible to discern your current CCFM usage (though not the size of your CCFM bucket -- only the reps can now tell you that). In the account usage area of the T-M site, you'll see a listing of your current total usage of Whenever minutes, followed by an itemized call list. If you go to the very end of the final page of itemized calls, you'll see a value for the total number of minutes used. If your account is like mine, and you're using CCFM, this number will be larger than the listed total of Whenever minutes used to date in the current account cycle. The difference between the two, in my case anyway, is the current CCFM usage.

Note that this applies to the T-M bills as well. There is no explicit mention of CCFM, so no listing of a CCFM bucket size, and the only method available to discern CCFM usage is via the same sort of calculation method as described above.

I'd like to think that T-M is being truthful when they tell me that they no longer wish to list CCFM on their Web site since it may somehow "confuse" customers. On the other hand, for persons who might consider using third-party voicemail and other enhanced services in conjunction with T-Mobile, knowing about the CCFM bucket and related usage could be crucial to their decision-making processes.

One might also note that most Internet-integrated third-party services allow for voicemail message retrieval via unlimited data connections rather than by using up standard Whenever voice minutes, so perhaps, just perhaps, T-Mobile has a possible financial incentive for not encouraging users to take advantage of such third-party services.

In any case, services such as YouMail and Google Voice are the wave of the future, and CCFM are a key part of the usage of such systems for many subscribers.

T-Mobile should immediately return to their old Web site's policy of clearly displaying all users' CCFM bucket sizes and current total CCFM usage, without any more excuses attempting to justify the removal of this information.


Posted by Lauren at 06:27 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

The Decline of CNN: CNN Attempts to Censor Anti-Lou Dobbs Ad

Greetings. CNN is reportedly attempting to pressure cable operators into blocking an anti-Lou Dobbs ad produced by "Media Matters for America" -- related to Dobbs' continuing ranting about President Obama's supposed birth certificate illegitimacy.

The brief spot that CNN is apparently attempting to block (which will no doubt get far more publicity now thanks to CNN's efforts!) is viewable here.

I've watched the plummeting of Lou Dobbs' legitimacy for years, and with some pain -- given that he was once a pretty fine reporter. But in CNN's continual search for an evening ratings booster against FOX News' politically skewed opinion programming masquerading as news, CNN has found the "reinvented" Dobbs to be an effective pull at a key (largely right wing) demographic.

Lou now unfortunately routinely bumps shoulders with concepts and characters who range from semi-racist to outright racist -- occasionally sort of "apologizing" when a guest is later revealed to be "too deeply" in the racist camps. His tirades against illegal immigration have become legendary. It was unfortunately to be expected that he would veer into the anti-Obama wacko camp (e.g, the birth certificate war).

However, there is still some value to watching Lou Dobbs, since his nightly viewer polls continue to be highly amusing. Generally structured in such a way as to guarantee a 95%+ agreement with his premise by his self-selected audience, they tend to be worded something like:

Do you feel that it's time that the U.S. government starts caring about its own citizens instead of everyone else in the world (who incidentally all hate our country and want to see us all dead), and should our government immediately take steps to eliminate the deadly and massive threat posed by illegal aliens who steal our jobs and bring massive crime into our country and who might break into your home and kill you while you're watching this very program? Yes or No?

Like I often say, that's entertainment. And CNN, an organization for whom I've had a great deal of now rapidly declining respect over the years, understands this dynamic all too well.


Posted by Lauren at 09:10 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 04, 2009

Google Street View Explained -- and an Outer Space Alien Exposed?

Greetings. I'm a big fan of Google's Street View, and some new "Behind the Scenes" pages that Google's now launched usefully bring together a variety of facts regarding how Street View functions -- including key privacy issues -- and answer a number of questions that I'm frequently asked about Street View itself.

However, in the process of looking over their new material, I couldn't help but notice that the Street View Pegman character -- the little guy that you drag onto maps to trigger Street View -- bears a startling resemblance to the space-suited aliens in the classic 1956 Sci-Fi epic Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

Alien technology conspiracy fans may have a field day, and Street View technology is pretty advanced, but one assumes that this physical similarity is merely a coincidence. OR ... IS ... IT? [Insert creepy theremin music.]


Posted by Lauren at 09:15 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein