The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

A timeless hoax by a government agency

NPR and other outlets reported earlier this week that the far-north Norwegian island of Sommaroy planned to abolish timekeeping:

If the 350 residents of Sommaroy get their way, the clocks will stop ticking and the alarms will cease their noise. A campaign to do away with timekeeping on the island has gained momentum as Norway's parliament considers the island's petition.

Kjell Ove Hveding spearheaded the No Time campaign and presented his petition to a member of parliament on June 13. During the endless summer days, islanders meet up at all hours and the conventions of time are meaningless, Hveding says.

Only, a subsequent press release admitted the whole thing was a marketing campaign:

NRK.no revealed today that the initiative to make Sommarøy a time-free zone was in fact a carefully planned marketing campaign, hatched by the government-owned Innovation Norway.

The story has been covered in more than 1650 articles in 1479 different media, including CNN, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Independent, Time, El País, La Repubblica, Vanity Fair and Der Spiegel, potentially reaching 1.2 billion people. The value of the coverage is estimated to 11.4 million USD - a pretty good return on investment for Innovation Norway, which spent less than 60,000 USD on the campaign.

Paul Koning, one of the moderators of the IANA Time Zone group--the group that maintains the Time Zone Database used in millions of computers, phones, and applications worldwide, including The Daily Parker--was not pleased:

That's very disturbing. It's problematic enough that not all governments give timely notice about time zone rule changes.

But if in addition we have to deal with government agencies supplying deliberately false information, the TZ work becomes that much more difficult.

Difficult indeed. The group has to deal with dictators changing time zones with almost no notice, political groups attacking the spellings of time zone identifiers, and all sorts of hassles. For a government agency to do this on purpose is not cool.

Significant website update

Today I released a new version of the Inner Drive Technology brochure/demo site. The release includes:

Now that I've got that out of the way, I'm going to start working on the next full version of the site, using (probably) a commercially-available design. The Inner Drive website last got refreshed visually sometime in 2011, or possibly earlier, so it's due.

The last update was 497 days ago, on 9 February 2018. Updating the IDEA took most of the intervening months. (That, and everything else in my life.)

Rethinking the surveillance society

Via Bruce Schneier, San Francisco-based "computer guy" Maciej Cegłowski put up a cogent, clear blog post last week showing how we might better regulate privacy:

Until recently, ambient privacy was a simple fact of life. Recording something for posterity required making special arrangements, and most of our shared experience of the past was filtered through the attenuating haze of human memory. Even police states like East Germany, where one in seven citizens was an informer, were not able to keep tabs on their entire population. Today computers have given us that power. Authoritarian states like China and Saudi Arabia are using this newfound capacity as a tool of social control. Here in the United States, we’re using it to show ads. But the infrastructure of total surveillance is everywhere the same, and everywhere being deployed at scale.

Ambient privacy is not a property of people, or of their data, but of the world around us. Just like you can’t drop out of the oil economy by refusing to drive a car, you can’t opt out of the surveillance economy by forswearing technology (and for many people, that choice is not an option). While there may be worthy reasons to take your life off the grid, the infrastructure will go up around you whether you use it or not.

All of this leads me to see a parallel between privacy law and environmental law, another area where a technological shift forced us to protect a dwindling resource that earlier generations could take for granted.

The idea of passing laws to protect the natural world was not one that came naturally to early Americans. In their experience, the wilderness was something that hungry bears came out of, not an endangered resource that required lawyers to defend. Our mastery over nature was the very measure of our civilization.

But as the balance of power between humans and nature shifted, it became clear that wild spaces could not survive without some kind of protection.

Read the whole thing. He makes a compelling case for regulating privacy the same way we regulated the environment.

Incomprehensible privacy policies

Kevin Litman-Navarro, writing for the Times, analyzed dozens of privacy policies online for readability and brevity. The situation is grim:

The vast majority of these privacy policies exceed the college reading level. And according to the most recent literacy survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, over half of Americans may struggle to comprehend dense, lengthy texts. That means a significant chunk of the data collection economy is based on consenting to complicated documents that many Americans can’t understand.

Despite efforts like the General Data Protection Regulation to make policies more accessible, there seems to be an intractable tradeoff between a policy’s readability and length. Even policies that are shorter and easier to read can be impenetrable, given the amount of background knowledge required to understand how things like cookies and IP addresses play a role in data collection.

“You’re confused into thinking these are there to inform users, as opposed to protect companies,” said Albert Gidari, the consulting director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.

As data collection practices become more sophisticated (and invasive), it’s unlikely that privacy policies will become any easier to comprehend. And if states continue to draft their own data protection laws, as California is doing with its Consumer Privacy Act, privacy policies could balloon with location-specific addendums.

Litman-Navarro called out the BBC for its readable, short policy that explains to normal people exactly how the Beeb will use their data. He also called out AirBnB for the opposite: a lawyerly document of incredible length that tells users nothing.

Here at the Daily Parker, we only collect your personal information (specifically, your email address and name) if you give it to us through the Comment form, and we don't show your email address to anyone. Sometimes we will use it to get in touch with you directly about a comment you've left. Otherwise we treat it as we treat our own private information. Clear?

Today's reading list

If only it weren't another beautiful early-summer day in Chicago, I might spend some time indoors reading these articles:

Time to go outside...

What to teach new coders

Scott Hanselman recommends teaching systems thinking over technical coding:

I told this young person to try not to focus on the syntax of C# and the details of the .NET Framework, and rather to think about the problems that it solves and the system around it.

This advice was .NET specific, but it can also apply to someone learning Rails 3 talking to someone who knows Rails 5, or someone who learned original Node and is now reentering the industry with modern JavaScript and Node 12.

Do you understand how your system talks to the file system? To the network? Do you understand latency and how it can affect your system? Do you have a general understanding of "the stack" from when your backend gets data from the database makes anglebrackets or curly braces, sends them over the network to a client/browser, and what that next system does with the info?

Squeezing an analogy, I'm not asking you to be able to build a car from scratch, or even rebuild an engine. But I am asking you for a passing familiarity with internal combustion engines, how to change a tire, or generally how to change your oil. Or at least know that these things exist so you can google them.

This is why I'm a fan of Hanselman. He's right. Learning technical skills is easy; learning how to think is hard.

How to protect your data from being stolen

Sadly, you can't. But you can protect yourself from identity theft, as Bruce Schneier explains:

The reality is that your sensitive data has likely already been stolen, multiple times. Cybercriminals have your credit card information. They have your social security number and your mother's maiden name. They have your address and phone number. They obtained the data by hacking any one of the hundreds of companies you entrust with the data­ -- and you have no visibility into those companies' security practices, and no recourse when they lose your data.

Given this, your best option is to turn your efforts toward trying to make sure that your data isn't used against you. Enable two-factor authentication for all important accounts whenever possible. Don't reuse passwords for anything important -- ­and get a password manager to remember them all.

Do your best to disable the "secret questions" and other backup authentication mechanisms companies use when you forget your password­ -- those are invariably insecure. Watch your credit reports and your bank accounts for suspicious activity. Set up credit freezes with the major credit bureaus. Be wary of email and phone calls you get from people purporting to be from companies you do business with.

At the very least, download a password safe (like the one Schneier himself helped write) and make sure that you use a different, random password for everything.

Is it time to break up Facebook?

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes thinks so:

America was built on the idea that power should not be concentrated in any one person, because we are all fallible. That’s why the founders created a system of checks and balances. They didn’t need to foresee the rise of Facebook to understand the threat that gargantuan companies would pose to democracy. Jefferson and Madison were voracious readers of Adam Smith, who believed that monopolies prevent the competition that spurs innovation and leads to economic growth.

A century later, in response to the rise of the oil, railroad and banking trusts of the Gilded Age, the Ohio Republican John Sherman said on the floor of Congress: “If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life. If we would not submit to an emperor, we should not submit to an autocrat of trade with power to prevent competition and to fix the price of any commodity.” The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 outlawed monopolies. More legislation followed in the 20th century, creating legal and regulatory structures to promote competition and hold the biggest companies accountable. The Department of Justice broke up monopolies like Standard Oil and AT&T.

For many people today, it’s hard to imagine government doing much of anything right, let alone breaking up a company like Facebook. This isn’t by coincidence.

Starting in the 1970s, a small but dedicated group of economists, lawyers and policymakers sowed the seeds of our cynicism. Over the next 40 years, they financed a network of think tanks, journals, social clubs, academic centers and media outlets to teach an emerging generation that private interests should take precedence over public ones. Their gospel was simple: “Free” markets are dynamic and productive, while government is bureaucratic and ineffective. By the mid-1980s, they had largely managed to relegate energetic antitrust enforcement to the history books.

This shift, combined with business-friendly tax and regulatory policy, ushered in a period of mergers and acquisitions that created megacorporations. In the past 20 years, more than 75 percent of American industries, from airlines to pharmaceuticals, have experienced increased concentration, and the average size of public companies has tripled. The results are a decline in entrepreneurship, stalled productivity growth, and higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.

The same thing is happening in social media and digital communications. Because Facebook so dominates social networking, it faces no market-based accountability. This means that every time Facebook messes up, we repeat an exhausting pattern: first outrage, then disappointment and, finally, resignation.

Hughes makes excellent points. Just because the industries look different than those in the 1890s doesn't mean they haven't consolidated too much. History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Azure DNS failure causes widespread outage

Yesterday, Microsoft made an error making a nameserver delegation chage (where they switch computers for their internal address book), causing large swaths of Azure to lose track of itself:

Summary of impact: Between 19:43 and 22:35 UTC on 02 May 2019, customers may have experienced intermittent connectivity issues with Azure and other Microsoft services (including M365, Dynamics, DevOps, etc). Most services were recovered by 21:30 UTC with the remaining recovered by 22:35 UTC. 

Preliminary root cause: Engineers identified the underlying root cause as a nameserver delegation change affecting DNS resolution and resulting in downstream impact to Compute, Storage, App Service, AAD, and SQL Database services. During the migration of a legacy DNS system to Azure DNS, some domains for Microsoft services were incorrectly updated. No customer DNS records were impacted during this incident, and the availability of Azure DNS remained at 100% throughout the incident. The problem impacted only records for Microsoft services.

Mitigation: To mitigate, engineers corrected the nameserver delegation issue. Applications and services that accessed the incorrectly configured domains may have cached the incorrect information, leading to a longer restoration time until their cached information expired.

Next steps: Engineers will continue to investigate to establish the full root cause and prevent future occurrences. A detailed RCA will be provided within approximately 72 hours.

If you tried to get to the Daily Parker yesterday afternoon Chicago time, you might have gotten nothing, or gotten the whole blog. All I know is I spent half an hour tracking it down from my end before Microsoft copped to the problem.

That's not a criticism of Microsoft. In fact, they're a lot more transparent about problems like this than most other organizations. And having spent a lot of time trying to figure out why something has broken, half an hour doesn't seem like a lot of time.

So, bad for Microsoft that they tanked their entire universe with a misconfigured DNS server. Good for them that they fixed it completely in just over an hour.