The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Predictable and sad

Credit reporting agency Equifax reported last week that thieves had made off with 143 million customer records:

According to a person familiar with the breach investigation, Equifax appears to have been targeted initially because the company keeps on file millions of active cards, belonging to people who pay $19.95 or more per month to have Equifax monitor their credit reports and alert them to potential fraud. The hack, which the company says took place in late July, put as many as 143 million consumers -- or half the U.S. population -- at risk.

The person, who requested anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation, said the web application the attackers used to breach Equifax’s corporate network granted access to both the credit card files and back-end systems storing the exhaustive data profiles on consumers. Those profiles include Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers and other sensitive information, Equifax said Thursday in a statement.

Criminals took advantage of a “U.S. website application vulnerability to gain access to certain files” from mid-May through July of this year, Atlanta-based Equifax said. The intruders also accessed dispute documents with personal identifying information for about 182,000 consumers. Credit card numbers for about 209,000 consumers were also accessed, the company said.

“You would expect these guys to have compartmentalized this data far enough away from a web server -- that there would not be any way to directly access it,” said Tim Crosby, senior consultant with security-assessment firm Spohn.

Knowing how large companies work, and knowing about the diffusion of responsibility principle, and having a healthy belief in the power of governments to correct for bad incentives, I can't say I'm surprised. Neither is the Atlantic's Ian Bogost:

There are reasons for the increased prevalence and severity of these breaches. More data is being collected and stored, for one, as more people use more connected services. Corporate cybersecurity policy is lax, for another, and sensitive data isn’t sufficiently protected. Websites and apps, which are demanded by consumers as much as they serve the interests of corporations, expose paths to data that should be better firewalled. Software development has become easy and popular, making security an afterthought, and software engineering has failed to adopt the attitude of civil service that might treat security as a first-order design problem. And hacking and data theft have risen in popularity and benefit, both as an illicit business affair and as a new kind of cold warfare.

Of course Equifax, as would be expected of a normally-functioning American corporation, bungled the response:

On Thursday night, I entered my last name and the last six digits of my Social Security number on the appropriate Equifax web page. (They had the gall to ask for this? Really? But I digress.) I received no “message indicating whether your personal information may have been impacted by this incident,” as the site promised. Instead, I was bounced to an offer for free credit monitoring, without a “yes,” “no” or “maybe” on the central question at hand.

By Friday morning, this had changed, and I got a “your personal information may have been impacted by this incident” notification. Progress. Except as my friend Justin Soffer pointed out on Twitter, you can enter a random name and number into the site and it will tell you the same thing. Indeed, I typed “Trump” and arbitrary numbers and got the same message.

So, yes, your worst suspicions are now confirmed. Equifax may actually make money on this breach. We would expect nothing less from the credit reporting industry, with which few of us would choose to do business but nearly everyone has to sooner or later.

The solution many people recommend is to freeze your credit reports—for a fee, multiplied by 4 to make sure you get all of the credit-reporting agencies. (Everyone has heard of Equifax, TransUnion, Experian...and Innovis. You've heard of Innovis, right? The one that doesn't offer a free annual report?)

Almost immediately, a team of lawyers including a former Georgia governor filed a class-action lawsuit. So have a group of plaintiffs in Oregon. We can also expect an action from the SEC relating to at least three Equifax managers selling their stock right before the announcement.

This situation is why we have government. The incentives for credit-reporting agencies run directly counter to the incentives of the hundreds of millions of people whose data they store. (You're not Equifax's customer; commercial enterprises are.) Without government regulation and higher liabilities for data breaches, this will just keep happening. But that's not "business-friendly," so the right-leaning American and British governments will dither for another few years until someone publishes the leaders' own data. Because their incentives are bad, too.

How to ruin a musical in one letter

A meme is going around Facebook: change one letter of a musical's name to ruin it.

Some of my favorites so far:

  • On A Clear Day You Can Pee Forever
  • Oklahomo
  • Big Liver
  • Legally Blande
  • The Wound of Music
  • Babes in Farms
  • Sweeney Toad

One musician friend posted this on his wall and got over 200 responses.

St Martin destroyed; second hurricane due tomorrow night

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said yesterday that Hurricane Irma caused "enormous devastation," leaving the island without gas or electricity:

Most communications with the outside world are being conducted via the military, he said, adding that there was “no clarity” on victims.

The Dutch navy, which has two ships stationed off the coast of the island, tweeted images gathered by helicopter showing damaged houses, hotels and boats.

French authorities have counted at least eight dead on the French side of the island.

Photo of Princess Juliana Airport, looking south; Dutch Dept. of Defense.

An official said that 95% of the island was destroyed, rendering the island uninhabitable.

Irma's winds, estimated at 280 km/h when it hit St Martin, mean it had the strength of an EF4 tornado.

And Hurricane Jose, with sustained winds of 240 km/h, is forecast to hit St Martin by 8pm AST tomorrow—about 12 hours before Hurricane Irma hits Florida head-on.

Software frustrations

I'm on the Board of Directors for the Apollo Chorus of Chicago, and information technology is my portfolio. Under that aegis, I'm in the process of taking all of our donor and membership spreadsheets and stuffing them into a new Neon CRM setup.

So far, it's going well, and it's going to make the organization a lot more effective at managing membership, events, and donations.

That said, in the last 24 hours I've logged five bug reports, including one of the most frustrating user experience (UX) bugs possible: a broken back button. This UX failure is so well-known and so irritating that we were talking about it when I started developing Web apps in the late 1990s. Jakob Nielsen called it the #1 web design mistake...of 1999:

The Back button is the lifeline of the web user and the second-most-used navigation feature (after following hypertext links). Users happily know that they can try anything on the web and always be saved by a click or two on Back to return them to familiar territory.

Except, of course, for those sites that break Back by committing one of these design sins:

  • opening a new browser window (see mistake #2)
  • using an immediate redirect: every time the user clicks Back, the browser returns to a page that bounces the user forward to the undesired location
  • prevents caching such that the Back navigation requires a fresh trip to the server; all hypertext navigation should be sub-second and this goes double for backtracking

Neon, however, has made some alternative design choices, and even has a FAQ explaining how they've broken the rules.

Seriously, guys. It's a good product, but wow, is that irritating.

Sint Maarten under the weather

I've visited St Martin/Sint Maarten twice, once in 2009 and again in 2014. It's unclear when I or anyone will spend a vacation there in future, because this morning the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic smashed directly into the island.

At 8:43 AST, the Guardian posted these videos.

Twitter user Kurt Siegelin posted this video at 9:12 AST.

As of 9:30 AST,

French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb also said that government buildings on the island of Saint Martin - the most sturdy built there - had been destroyed.

“We know that the four most solid buildings on the island have been destroyed which means that more rustic structures have probably been completely or partially destroyed,” he told reporters.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico is bracing for impact as most models forecast the eye to pass just north of San Juan:

This is the first Category-5 storm to hit Puerto Rico since 1928, and is significantly more powerful.

The forecast track puts the storm in South Florida on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Jose is right behind Irma, but forecast to pass northeast of the Windward Islands over the weekend. And Tropical Storm Katia is about to blow across southern Mexico.

I'll be following all three closely this week.

Replicating climate change denial papers

A new paper in the journal Theoretical and Applied Climatology tries to replicate the most-referenced papers in the 3% minority that find alternate explanations for human-caused global warming. Turns out, the deniers are still looking for their Galileo:

This new study was authored by Rasmus Benestad, myself (Dana Nuccitelli), Stephan Lewandowsky, Katharine Hayhoe, Hans Olav Hygen, Rob van Dorland, and John Cook. Benestad (who did the lion’s share of the work for this paper) created a tool using the R programming language to replicate the results and methods used in a number of frequently-referenced research papers that reject the expert consensus on human-caused global warming. In using this tool, we discovered some common themes among the contrarian research papers.

Cherry picking was the most common characteristic they shared. We found that many contrarian research papers omitted important contextual information or ignored key data that did not fit the research conclusions.

We found that the ‘curve fitting’ approach also used in the Humlum paper is another common theme in contrarian climate research. ‘Curve fitting’ describes taking several different variables, usually with regular cycles, and stretching them out until the combination fits a given curve (in this case, temperature data). It’s a practice I discuss in my book, about which mathematician John von Neumann once said, "With four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk."

This represents just a small sampling of the contrarian studies and flawed methodologies that we identified in our paper; we examined 38 papers in all. As we note, the same replication approach could be applied to papers that are consistent with the expert consensus on human-caused global warming, and undoubtedly some methodological errors would be uncovered. However, these types of flaws were the norm, not the exception, among the contrarian papers that we examined.

You can count the insurance industry among the groups that believe the science is settled. Insurers appear to have started looking at climate change as an inevitability, not a risk, which changes their models radically:

[F]lood insurance was not a lucrative business to begin with. Congress set up the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968 as it became clear that private companies couldn’t profitably provide coverage. Now, nearly half a century later, the program is—ahem—under water by $24.6 billion. As a result, there’s a push to move flood insurance toward the private market. That could mean less building in flood-prone areas, as they become effectively uninsurable thanks to sky-high rates. Says Morningstar’s Brett Horn: “Frankly, that’s not a bad outcome.”

Meanwhile, the second major hurricane of the season is heading for Florida...

The Mindset List, class of 2021

Today is my birthday, which makes this year's Beloit College Mindset List even harder to read:

Students heading into their first year of college this year are mostly 18 and were born in 1999.

2. They are the last class to be born in the 1900s, the last of the Millennials --  enter next year, on cue, Generation Z!

11. The Panama Canal has always belonged to Panama and Macau has been part of China.

12. It is doubtful that they have ever used or heard the high-pitched whine of a dial-up modem.

16. They are the first generation to grow up with Watson outperforming Sherlock.

25. By the time they entered school, laptops were outselling desktops.

38. They have only seen a Checker Cab in a museum.

47. The BBC has always had a network in the U.S. where they speak American.

59. Bill Clinton has always been Hillary Clinton’s aging husband.

Ouch.