Home > data science, rant > Fighting the information war (but only on behalf of rich people)

Fighting the information war (but only on behalf of rich people)

December 11, 2012

There’s an information war out there which we have to be prepared for. Actually there a few of them.

And according to this New York Times piece, there’s now a way to fight against the machine, for a fee. Companies like Reputation.com will try to scour the web and remove data you don’t want floating around about you, and when that’s impossible they’ll flood the web with other good data to balance out the bad stuff.

At least that’s what I’m assuming they do, because they of course don’t really explain their techniques. And that’s the other information war, where they scare rich people with technical sounding jargon and tell them unlikely stories to get their money.

I’m not claiming predatory information-gatherers aren’t out there. But this is the wrong way to deal with it.

First of all, most of the data out there systematically being used for nefarious purposes, at least in this country, is used against the poor, denying them reasonable terms on their loans and other services. So the idea that people will need to pay for a service to protect their information is weird. It’s like saying the air quality is bad for poor people, so let’s charge rich people for better air.

So what kind of help is Reputation.com actually providing? Here’s my best guess.

First it targets people to get overly scared in the spirit of this recent BusinessWeek article, which explains that cosmetic companies have gone to China and started a campaign to convince Chinese women they are too hairy so they’ll start buying products to remove hair. From that article, which is guaranteed to make you understand something about American beauty culture too:

Despite such plays on women’s fears of embarrassment, Reckitt Benckiser’s Sehgal says that Chinese women are too “independent-minded” to be coaxed into using a product they don’t really need. Others aren’t so sure. Veet’s Chinese marketing “plays a role that is very similar to that of the apple in the Bible,” says Benjamin Voyer, a social psychologist and assistant professor of marketing at ESCP Europe business school. “It creates an awareness, which subsequently creates a feeling of shame and need.”

Second, Reputation.com gets their clients off nuisance lists, like the modern version of a do-not-call program (which, importantly, is run by the government). This is probably equivalent to setting up a bunch of email filters and clearing their cookies every now and then, but they can’t tell their clients that.

Finally, for those rich people who are also super vain, they will try to do things like replace the unflattering photos of them that come up in a google image search with better-looking ones they choose. Things like that, image issues.

I just want to point out one more salient fact about Reputation.com. It’s not just in their interest to scare-monger, it’s actually in their interest to make the data warehouses more complete (they have themselves amassed an enormous database on people), and to have people who don’t pay for their services actually need their services more. They could well create a problem to produce a market for their product.

What drives me nuts about this is how elitist it is.

There are very real problems in the information-gathering space, and we need to address them, but one of the most important issues is that the very people who can’t afford to pay for their reputation to be kept clean are the real victims of the system.

There is literally nobody who will make good money off of actually solving this problem: I challenge any libertarian to explain how the free market will address this. It has to be addressed through policy, and specifically through legislating what can and cannot be done with personal data.

Probably the worst part is that, through using the services from companies Reputation.com and because of the nature of the personalization of internet usage, the very legislators who need to act on behalf of their most vulnerable citizens won’t even see the problem since they don’t share it.

Categories: data science, rant
  1. JSE
    December 11, 2012 at 8:36 am

    “There is literally nobody who will make good money off of actually solving this problem: I challenge any libertarian to explain how the free market will address this.”

    How confident are you that libertarians think there’s a problem?


    • December 11, 2012 at 10:35 am

      Pretty confident. Most libertarians I talk to agree that there shouldn’t be a systematic underclass. But they argue that market forces will keep it from happening. But I could be wrong.


      • libertarian by default
        December 11, 2012 at 1:53 pm

        How does the information in question become searchable by nefarious agents in the first place? I believe the primary market mechanism to “fix” this is for consumers to favor competitors that don’t leak the information and/or pay a premium for an explicit agreement re: privacy. The supermarket discount cards are a good example of a market solution: lower prices in exchange for letting them track your purchases.


        • December 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm

          Yes but even if we knew exactly who sells our info and to whom, which we don’t right now because a lack of transparency, it’s exactly the people who can’t afford to pass up a discount who should be protecting their data. Again you’re asking for people to pay for privacy.


  2. JSE
    December 11, 2012 at 8:39 am

    “So the idea that people will need to pay for a service to protect their information is weird. It’s like saying the air quality is bad for poor people, so let’s charge rich people for better air.” Some people say the reason that clean air regulation has been so successful is related to the fact that it’s hard to keep rich and poor people from breathing the same air.

    Maybe better is to say “It’s like saying that terrible public schools are bad for poor people, so let’s charge rich people for better schools.” Which may or may not be weird, but in many parts of the country it’s the system we actually have.


    • December 11, 2012 at 9:30 am

      yes, that’s even better, thanks. But the problem with both examples is how easy it is to see if air is bad or if education is bad, but how individual experiences on the web are harder to measure.


      • JSE
        December 11, 2012 at 10:20 am

        Actually, I think the air analogy is a good one in this respect — SOME kinds of air pollution are easy to see, but others are not, and the invisible ones are dangerous, too. Some invasions of privacy are visible to the victim, too, but not all.


  3. Mo
    December 11, 2012 at 10:57 am

    I challenge any Statist to explain how “policy” and “legislation” will fullfil a supposed need of ignorants that intentionally and voluntarily uploaded data into the public domain and wish it would not be used by third parties for forming an opinion about those individuals.

    For example,
    1 – A hypothetical “Cathy” uses {Twitter/Facebook/Blogs/pick your favorite} to tell the world about her appetite for gallons of booze / how much she’s losing on poker and the stock market / how she broke her collarbone for the nth time while skateboarding.
    2. A potential employer / loan shark / health insurer uses above data from the public domain to form an opinion about our hypothetical “Cathy”.
    3. The potential service provider refuses service based on that opinion.

    So what’s the proposed “policy”? Unleash violence against any party that tries to form an opinion about someone else based on public data? Unleash violence against any service provider that refuses to provide a service based on public data about the service requester?

    Oh wait, I think I got it: let’s create a new government agency called the “Ministry of Truth” for “fixing” everyone’s online reputation, “for free” of course…

    Sry for being in a sarcastic mood, usually appreciate this blog


    • December 11, 2012 at 11:02 am

      Good question. I don’t think we will ever be able to keep individuals from googling people’s names and seeing what shows up. And even teenagers nowadays realize that what they put up on the web is there for good.

      What I’m more objecting to is systematized and statistically-driven classism and racism. If I grew up poor, and minority, I should still be able to apply for and receive a loan based on my personal merits, not the statistical properties of people like me. But there’s no regulation for how online data (like zip code etc.) is used, and loans decisions are increasingly made based on those data and patterns.


      • libertarian by default
        December 11, 2012 at 2:59 pm

        I strongly disagree that we need regulation regarding “zipcode” in a loan decision.

        It seems like a creditor is naturally incentivized to figure out the best possible variables to predict loan default (all regulation can possibly do is distort this pretty natural problem of wanting to loan money to those most likely to pay it back). If we suspect e.g. racism plays a role here, then presumably BigData will only help that problem by eventually showing that the “race” variable is marginally useless given a bunch of other factors that it’s (in our flawed world) unfortunately correlated with (also probably removing more and more of the “human judgement” in a loan approval).

        To the extent some banks use things like “zipcode” as a filter (perhaps because they learn it’s too expensive to dig deeper, which isn’t so much evil as just pragmatic) it should open opportunities for a “leaner, smarter” bank to find an underserviced population.

        Finally, if there are variables considered unsavory in loan applications, nothing prevents a competitor from explicitly ignoring them and advertising as such. To the extent they were truly unsavory variables (i.e. not useful predictors given the rest of the available data) this is another avenue for market forces to solve the “zipcode” problem without government intervention.


      • Mo
        December 11, 2012 at 3:47 pm

        I Agree that being misclassified by a racist predictive model is not exactly something that you can be held accountable for as an individual (as opposed to the examples I provided in my previous comment). However, let’s zoom in on such a racist predictive model – which is either:

        1. Inaccurate because of its racist bias. In that case, there is a huge business opportunity for those who are able to produce a more accurate predictive model. There’s our free market solution.
        2. Reasonably(*) accurate, with no significant room for optimization. What do you propose to do for the few unlucky ones that could have received a loan based on personal merits? Does being unlucky give you (or any entity representing you) the right to force a third party into providing you the service you feel being entitled to?

        (*) “Reasonable”, as in providing the employer of the model a positive expected value on bets such as loans or insurances.


        • December 11, 2012 at 3:55 pm

          Or a third option. Namely that the model reinforces racist history and therefore effects it. It’s a feedback loop people. We should know that by now.


        • Mo
          December 12, 2012 at 11:16 am

          Talking about feedback loops, here’s another one: politicians have a huge incentive to maintain poverty. Would they be of any use in a prosperous society where most people can take care of themselves without needing any entitlements? As a politician, how will you get votes or find cannon fodder for overseas military adventures without a “poor class” in society?

          I have a strong gut feeling that the business of politics itself has a stronger weight in reinforcing poverty or racism than some biased predictive models used by insurers or loan sharks…


  4. December 11, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    I can’t solve the data problem, but this brings to mind the NoCoat Tongue Scraper story from Infinite Jest. It’s pretty much the Veet story.

    “It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.” -DFW


    • Mo
      December 12, 2012 at 11:54 am

      Marketeers abusing anxiety is just a symptom: the anxiety itself is the problem that should be solved in society.


  5. GD
    December 11, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    The solution is fairly straightforward and goes back how this problem started in the first place. It turns out that was way before the days of the Internet. The first landmark was using Social Security Numbers as unique financial identifiers (breaking the usual political promise that SSNs would never be used as a national identifier). The second was Congress’ invention of the credit reporting biz in the 1970s. Since then practically all info is bought and sold based on SSN’s and it is the reason that identity theft is a cottage industry. Even victims of identity theft are prevented from dealing effectively with that problem when they are given a time limited “credit freeze”.

    Allow people to be removed form the credit reporting data banks and you will have a whole new ball game. And don’t get me started with how crucial that is for getting loans and doing business. Believe me there are plenty of people out there who don’t care. I am one of them.


  6. Brian
    December 12, 2012 at 10:43 am

    For all the scenarios of ‘private’ information being compromised by individuals self-posting info on their own Facebook pages, the more interesting issues of privacy revolve around indirect sources of information, covert collection, and fusion of separate sourcs.

    If a family member or acquaintance stores your phone, email, home address, employers name, etc on their own Cloud service provider app, do you mind it getting out, or being sold to third parties? Do you feel you have any right to control or mitigate sharing of your private data?

    Suppose a storefront decides to use a wireless sniffing service to log the dates and times of cell phones in their proximity; which is an available service for marketing research. Do you mind having your movements made available? What if the establishment is an adult bookstore that is near, or on the path to, where you often eat lunch? Would you like your name and other data made available in a marketing list for likely adult store patrons? Such a list can also be filtered to generate pairs or groups of people that are often together, do you want you and your coworker to be in that list? Do you feel any need or desire to know that it is there, or to be removed from it?

    These are just a few very simple scenarios that can illustrate the legitimate questions regarding privacy that are very possible with technology and services available today. Society needs to work through these types of issues, so please try to focus the discussion on possible scenarios where legitimate differences of opinion exist rather than sticking with overly simplistic discussions of people being upset that their public presence was viewed improperly.


    • Mo
      December 12, 2012 at 11:52 am

      Good points, I generally agree with the suggestion that society nowadays cannot keep up with technological advances, it’s clear that many service providers have issues with data security and privacy. However, the “free-market solution” asked for is quite simple: nobody is forced to use the advanced technological devices that endanger one’s privacy.

      If one chooses to use such devices or services (e.g. Facebook or a modern cell phone), it’s one’s responsibility to understand the terms of use and the risks involved. Maybe we can even come to the conclusion that usage of modern data-driven (and data-spreading) devices and services together with a guarantee of privacy has a price, as compared to the existing “cheap” (or even “free”) versions.

      It all comes down to the matter of well-defined contracts between service providers and consumers. Only when a contract is breached, one can speak of a “crime” that gives the right to any authority to intervene in the situation.


  7. blur blaster
    December 13, 2012 at 5:36 am

    Wouldn’t it be ironic if they couldn’t clean their own reputation?


  8. Karen
    December 10, 2013 at 11:51 pm

    Don’t know if anyone will see this so long after the first appearance, but one use for this service is to make it hard for an ex-wife to track the father of her children for unpaid child support. My ex purged his presence off the Internet (whether himself, or with help–he’s a computer guru) to make locating him difficult. It took 6 years.


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