Tag Archives: recording

NSA what?

knife-backI don’t know things. I just like to posit The Possible with the most negative spin. I guess in my world that makes it The Probable. As you’ll see, I have an active imagination. Imagine the worst to avoid surprises on down the road. -Ed

Have you been worried about what the NSA is up to since the big Snowden season finale reveal? Allow me be the first to say you ain’t worried about nothin’ yet. Or something like that.

That’s the one thing about technology. It’s a curse but it’s also a bigger curse. It’s funny that way.

Tom’s Law #42

Every leap in technological prowess is accompanied by an exponential leap in the Machiavellianism of human beings.

I know that sounds complicated and confusing and chock full of jargon. In layman’s turns it simply means that technology is the means by which we get to be extra shitty to each other. Like always, this can take many forms.

The government, it turns out, likes to make secret arrangements known as “Gentlemen’s Agreements” with the innovators and makers of technology. The public is generally not privy to these manufacturer deals.

In one case, “tiny yellow dots” were generated by color printers and added to printouts. The dots were invisible to the naked eye and could only be seen using a “special kind of flashlight.” These dots are used to watermark the print and encode information specific to the printer like serial number and date and time. The program reportedly existed during the 1990s and was discovered and cracked by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in 2005.

Officials at Xerox said that the encoded dots were added at the request of the United States Secret Service which had asked for help and that the program was designed to provide information useful to law-enforcement authorities in tracking down criminals. (Source: Washington Post.)

The process required the involvement of a U.S. consumer (known as the “sucker”) and worked like this:

  • Sucker buys a printer.
  • Sucker fills out the warranty “registration” card with factual information and sends it in.
  • Sucker prints a document using an MS-Word template with help from a paper clip: “It looks like you are writing a death threat and/or extortion demand. Would you like help?”
  • Law-enforcement cracks the code and is led to the sucker like Hansel and Gretel following a trail of bread crumbs.
  • Sucker is transformed into a criminal and gets free meals and lodging for a long time to come.

In this particular example, we get a fairy tale outcome and everyone is happy. But the moral, so obvious to you and me in this jaded age, is that the program could have been applied to any of us at any time and for any reason.

Another moral of this story: “Registration” is not required for full warranty eligibility. (In some cases a manufacturer can require it for limited warranty.)

So what’s the deal with those cards often euphemized with adorable names like: Warranty Card, Warranty Registration, Product Registration, etc.

Product registration and warranty cards don’t do very much for the consumer, but they are a gold mine for marketing companies. Notice that many cards go way beyond asking for your name, address and the serial number of the product. Questions such as your age, marital status, salary, education, do you own or rent and what kind of car you drive are common.

“Product warranty cards are information collected under the pretense of a benefit where the information goes straight to marketers. The purpose of a product warranty card is not to protect you, it’s to collect marketing information.”

Source: Bankrate.com – Product registration: A gold mine for marketers

Voluntarily filling one of these cards out when you don’t have to is the proper procedure for earning the “sucker” moniker. And, for bonus points, you’ve also signed up as a participant in a secret government program. Congratulations.

So that covers one example. What else ya got?

You know those blank CD-ROMs you buy to burn your stuff? Did you know that when you do you’re paying a “royalty” to organizations like the RIAA with the federal government acting as the gatekeeper? The theory goes that you couldn’t possibly want blank CD-ROMs for any other purpose than the illegal sharing of copyrighted content, therefore intellectual property holders are entitled to a piece of the action. Yeah, just like that episode of Star Trek.

Initially, in the United States, there was a market separation between “music” CD-Rs and “data” CD-Rs, the former being several times more expensive than the latter due to industry copyright arrangements with the RIAA. Physically, there is no difference between the discs save for the Disc Application Flag that identifies their type: standalone audio recorders will only accept “music” CD-Rs to enforce the RIAA arrangement, while computer CD-R drives can use either type of media to burn either type of content.

Source: Wikipedia – CD-R

17 U.S.C. § 1008 bars copyright infringement action and 17 U.S.C. § 1003 provides for a royalty of 2% of the initial transfer price for devices and 3% for media. The royalty rate in 17 U.S.C. § 1004 was established by the Fairness in Music Licensing Act of 1998. This only applies to CDs which are labeled and sold for music use; they do not apply to blank computer CDs, even though they can be (and often are) used to record or “burn” music from the computer to CD. The royalty also applies to stand-alone CD recorders, but not to CD burners used with computers. Most recently, portable satellite radio recording devices contribute to this royalty fund.

Source: Wikipedia – Private copying levy

The moral of this story is really fun. If you’re the sad sack, that one poor son of a bitch who actually obeys the law, you still get to pay the royalty fee. In essence, for being a good person you are rewarded by subsidizing everyone else’s criminality. Of course, if your only use of blank recordable CD-ROMs is backing up your weekly Quickbooks file, you pretty much deserve what you get. Because, what a shitty piece of software.

For a long time the makers of CD-ROM burners secretly installed “generation” controls. This basically prevented people from burning “copies of copies.”

Apple TV We're Sorry

No doubt about it. Apple makes getting screwed look good. That screen is so elegant and well designed.

I went to the store to buy an Apple TV. It’s a device, like a Roku, that streams content from an internet connection to a television. I asked the salesperson if it could be used to send content from the iPad to the TV. “Yep, it does that! Airplay makes it easy as pie! Airplay allows you to share anything from your iPad and project it onto your TV. Your TV essentially becomes a monitor for your iPad.”

“Golly, gee,” I said, forking over my money. “That sounds good to me!”

At no time was I informed that some restrictions may apply. The box (which I still have) said nothing of this. It wasn’t on the store receipt. I don’t recall seeing it on the instructions inside when I finally got home and opened it up. To this day I have no knowledge of ever participating in an “informed consent” decision. Yet, there it sits, on my TV. The message that says, “No, we will not do what you ask. Your TV does act like a monitor, only that it also has the power to refuse requests, albeit politely.”

It’s like a car that won’t drive you to a strip club. Actually, to be honest, it’s like a car that will happily drive you to the Apple Store but suddenly displays a friendly apology when you try to go to the Microsoft Store. (Not that anyone would ever try that.)

The moral here is that the concept of “informed consent” in a retail context is bullshit. You can’t consent to that which was deliberately concealed. “Gotcha,” exclaims Apple. “All your money belong to us.”

What else is going on? Lots and most of it (or all?) takes place without court orders or subpoenas.

  • Location tracking via mobile phones.
  • DNA databases.
  • Social media compliance with government requests.
  • Collection of phone call records.
  • Eavesdropping on international conversations.

It doesn’t have to be secret and it doesn’t necessarily always come from the government, either. Researchers recently did a study where, using only publicly available “like” information on Facebook, they could deduct, with amazing accuracy, things like an individual’s “intimate personal attributes.” Things like “race, age, IQ, sexuality, personality, substance use and political views.” And that’s using only the Facebook “like” button. Information that Facebook users make publicly available by default. Researchers refer to this sort of data as a “generic class” of digital record. (Source: University of Cambridge.)

Hell, even Pandora, the online music streaming service, recently got in on the act claiming that it can determine the political leanings and voting preferences of its members based on their up/down votes on songs. (Source: Wall Street Journal.)

Data is being collected. And, as incidents like Target and Kickstarter tell us, data is being successfully hacked on a massive scale at an alarming rate. Assuming we trust the collectors to always take our best interests to heart (which we shouldn’t) what about the interests of the people who steal it away? I wonder how much regard they’ll have for us? Dangers like these used to be esoteric thought experiments. Now they are here and growing routine.

If you know me, you know that I like to take what is knowable, that which is established, and treat it like the tip of a giant iceberg. I like to ponder. What else is out there? What else might be going on? Take what is known and extrapolate. Deduct. Guess. Use your imagination.

How would you feel if you went into a job interview and they could pull up a history of everything you had ever search for on the internet? Including phrases like “rubber hose plumpie porn” and what not? Technology makes that scenario not only possible but probable. Don’t forget that computing power is expected to continue to double on a regular basis until it will exceed the combined thinking abilities of every human brain on Earth. That power is going to be used for something.

Police cars currently have the ability to drive through parking lots and scan, in real time, all the license plates. If a car is stolen or the drive has wants and warrants the computer immediately lets them know. What if this scanning technology was extended beyond parking lots and didn’t require a human to operate the system? What if a technology was developed so these types of scanners could be cheaply and easily deployed everywhere that cars go?

I’m also the guy who predicted the NSA Masturbation Database. Imagine if that ever got in the wrong hands? (Meh!) Hackers steal the database, sell it to the Catholic church, and next thing you know, your entire block is being denied holy communion, is excommunicated, or worse!

A lot of people have worried about the day humans will be bar-coded or have RFID-style devices implanted under their skin. But what if the reality turns out to be much more subtle and nefarious than that? “Devices? That hurts. We would never do that to you. You wound us.” What if technological advancement makes it possible to do that, and so much more, using non-invasive means that the individual is literally helpless to prevent?

What then? What will that society look like?

Today’s homework exercise: What else can you imagine? What might be out there right now? Or in the near future? Can you think of any specific examples? Please share them in the comments section below. The NSA will automatically receive a carbon copy.

And now your daily serving of cheeseballz:

Operator, this is an emergency!

Blog subscriber, reader, follower, friend, phone nerd, countryman, lend me your ear!

I come not to praise U.S. Cellular, but to bury it. The evil that companies do lives after them…

“That’s really great service,” I said. “Now let me assure you of something. At the earliest possible moment when my contract is up, which isn’t too far away now, I will be terminating my service with your company and you’ll never see another penny from me as long as I live. Is that enough quality for you?”

Source: Shouts from the Abyss – We disconnect with you

At last the circle is complete. Now I am the Master.

Maybe it wasn’t the “earliest possible moment” but at long last, the long dark nightmare of the Abyss is over. I am no longer a U.S. Cellular customer!

I called U.S. Cellular recently to cancel my account. Oh God, this was gonna feel so good! Even so, I decided to take the high road, keep it mature, and, of course, no gloating!

I think I started off the phone call with, “Neener neener neener!”

Note: U.S. Cellular “quotes” in this post are paraphrased from memory and may not be 100% precise.

The greeting message seemed to have changed. “Your call may be randomly monitored for quality assurance.” Interesting! Nothing about “recording” calls? Perhaps they had changed their policy?

The customer service person on the other end of the line was downright cheery. “How can I make your day better?” she asked in the way of a greeting.

Oooh. This was gonna be good.

I informed her I was calling to close my account. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “And you’ve been our customer for X number of years, too.”

I had resolved not to bring up the past, but she really wanted to know why I was contemplating such a crazy course of action. I may have mentioned something about how U.S. Cellular did nothing for me when I originally called about being charged a different rate than their sales rep had said to my face. And that we’ve been paying that higher rate ever since then.

We went over a few details, then she said she had to transfer me to someone else to finalize the termination. This person was even more cheery!

She was nice enough. As I would expect from a retention specialist. But she had met her match. Short of sponsoring my blog to the tune of $79,500 a year, there was nothing she could do to change the outcome. Yes, I can be bought. Nike? Call me! Well, maybe not call. I no longer have a phone! Maybe you could have Tiger stop by with a check?

She practically groveled for a reason. I may have mentioned the whole recording incident, too. She said brightly, “Oh, we never know when a call will be recorded. The people on the phone are unable to control that.”

What the hell? The automated message said nothing about even the possibility of this call being recorded. Are they being up front about that? I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they reserve the right even if they don’t announce it. (That’s just my hunch, not a factual statement.) Either way, that’s the sort of thing that should be against the law. And, by no small coincidence, a reason why I no longer have a phone. Heh.

In the wholesome pursuit of voluntary simplicity I will not be getting a new phone. Perhaps, maybe, a prepaid track phone for the singular function of keeping in touch with Mrs. Abyss. Hell, no one besides bill collectors ever tried to call me, and why should I pay $70 a month to enable that?!?!?

One step closer to living off the grid… Victory!

Rigged for silent running

Bless the torpedoes!

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t big bags of puss.”

This is just a short advisory to let my online friends know that starting this week my interactions with the online world have changed. Due to my paranoia.

One of the precious few perks I used to enjoy in my current job was that I could pop over to my blog and twitter a few times a day and interact with you all. Come to think of it, that was probably the only perk.

I’ve always felt uneasy about engaging with my secret identity from work, since they could legally monitor me on company equipment at any time. I know that. And if they knew about the blog, I’m pretty sure the gig would be up, to say the least. If one is going to badmouth one’s employer, even anonymously, it is probably extremely dumb to do it from work.

Then an employee decided to take some money from the cash register. Without permission. To crack the case the boss revealed that he had been stealthily using a web cam to record video of the office and he had the culprit on tape. Jesus Christ! Does the fun ever end around here? In addition to all of the other goodness that rains down like shit now we have to worry about being recorded?

Personally I think his claim about the video was a bluff. It was a bluff that worked, though. The culprit confessed. And that was a good thing for the rest of us to get out from under the cloud of suspicion. Five years of honest work doesn’t stop the great red eye from immediately considering you a suspect. We were all investigated.

Then, last week, I overheard the office manager fiddling around in his office. He was clearly testing the audio on something. “Can you hear me now? Nope. I can hear you but you can’t hear me.” A lot of stuff like that. Later I noticed that the web cam in his office had been moved. I examined it closely. Does that thing have a microphone on it? I think it does. And that web cam is only about 8 feet from my office.


The wheels in my head immediately started to turn. “Is that son of a bitch using a web cam to record audio in our offices?” Amazing as that sounds I would not put it past him. I highly suspect that doing so would be illegal, but what the hell does “illegal” mean? In my experience it means they shove it in you and then nothing ever happens. No doubt that would be true in this case.

So I sat in my office trying to recall what I had said since the office manager split for the day. I could only remember two things. One was a criticism of the boss. Any time something goes wrong he always blames the employee, even when we have it in writing that the employee was doing what the boss told him to do. I briefly bitched about that phenomenon. Secondly, I mentioned to the other employee who sits in that space that I was submitting a job application that day. (This is the same employee who was recently told to increase his production by 20 percent or he’d be fired soon.)

Not exactly the kind of informations I wanted my boss stealing from me. If I wanted my boss to know what I said then I’d say it to his face.

And then, as the paranoia worked its way in deeper, I realized that it would be a small step to install a key logger software on my workstation. If true, that would give the boss all of my passwords and access to all of my most private thoughts.

So, starting this week, I no longer use my work computer for anything private. It’s a big sacrifice but it is something I feel I have to do. All hail paranoia! And I’m also no longer speaking in the office. When I feel the need to interact with my fellow employees I pull them aside to a place I feel is safe and whisper.

I have rigged myself for silent running. That means no blog comments during the day and a whole lot less Twitter. I’m going to miss that.

We disconnect with you

You can go to cell!!!

Yes, I ventured forth and interacted with yet another business. And as you can imagine, it went as swimmingly as always. It is almost like these outcomes are preordained.

I’m going to tell this story in a roundabout way.

The other day I had the misfortune of calling my cell phone provider, in this case, U.S. Cellular. I was expecting it to be a quick and easy call. I wasn’t calling to complain or fight about my bill or anything like that. I just had a quick question. Little did I know I was about to enter the Twilight Zone and that in a few short minutes my head would plonk on my desk and blood would be leaking out of my ears.

Six years ago…

The company I worked at purchased a cell phone for me from U.S. Cellular. I was going to be on call for technical support to our customers. I now had a cell phone for the first time in my life. I had joined the 21st century.

Five years ago…

The company where I worked closed up shop in my town. I was given the choice to keep the phone by switching it to my own personal service contract. I opted in.

Three years ago…

Here is where it starts to get good. My wife and I visited our local U.S. Cellular store to get my wife a phone. The visit went great and we were told that the phone would be an additional $10 a month on our bill. When the first bill arrived we were charged $15. I called in to inquire about this and was told, “We don’t offer a $10 option for that.” When I explained that I had been promised $10 right to my face by their employee I was called a liar and told, “tough shit.” (I’m paraphrasing here. But as you’ll see, this is an oft-repeated theme with this company.) The bottom line, I was told, was either produce proof in writing or go eat the big one. Since I had trusted their employee I was shit out of luck. We’ve been swallowing that bitter pill (aka paying that fee) ever since.

Last week…

If you’ve read this blog much, you might know how much I hate phones. I basically leave the phone turned off 24/7 except for when my wife has no other way to get ahold of me. Then I leave it on.

Most of my peeps know that if they get my voice mail greeting they had better hang up before a message is recorded. I’ll see they called and call them back. I hate voice mails.

Last week I had a bright idea. What if I could delete my voice greeting from the phone? I tried it and it worked. Somehow, though, it still said my name (and in my voice) when my number was called. I figured out how to delete that, too. Good times!

Then, when calling a customer the other day, I heard this. “You have reached 555-555-5555. This user has not set up their voice mail box yet. Goodbye. [click!]”

ZOMG!!! I wanted that. I wanted that bad.

After getting home from a particularly gruesome day in the shithole, I decided to call U.S. Cellular and ask them if they could help me get my phone set up that way, too. Sure, I was in a bad mood, but I wasn’t spoiling for a fight with U.S. Cellular. They were not in my sights at that particular moment in time. I wasn’t expecting any problems.

I called in and eventually pressed enough of the right buttons that I found my way to a human being, and hopefully the right one. Before she picked up, though, a recorded announcement told me, “Your call may be randomly recorded for quality assurance.”

I have absolutely no beef with “monitored” because that seems reasonable. But I draw the line at being recorded. I personally don’t like it. It is not my preference. So whenever I hear something like this, I ask to opt-out. In my experience most requests like that are no problem at all. Either they are happy to do it or they lie to me and record me anyway. Either way at least I have their verbal assurance I’m not being recorded.

My request to opt-out of recording at U.S. Cellular was not going to go well.

“Hi, this is so-and-so. How can I help you?”

“Hi so-and-so. I just have a quick question for you today. But before I ask it, may I please request that this call is not recorded?”

“Oh that’s just random.”

“OK. I understand that. It told me that. Can I opt-out please?”

“You see, they only record some of the calls. Not all calls are recorded.”

Uh oh. My spidey-sense is tingling and I’m beginning to sense danger.

“Yes, you said that. Again, I am requesting that this call is not recorded. I would like your assurance of that before I ask my question, which should be a very quick and simple one.”

“I’m not sure what you are asking for. I’ve told you that it’s random.”

Houston, we now have one mother-fucking ape shit of a problem.

“Listen up,” I said. If I had known it was going to go down like this I would never have called while in a bad mood. But now I was committed and this was going to be bad. “You don’t seem to be able to process information. Your system just told me my call may be recorded. I don’t want that. Can you turn it off or not?”

“Well no one has ever asked me that before. I don’t know.”

“Gee whiz. Maybe you’d better find out, eh? How about we get a nice little supervisor on to help me? Maybe she’ll know more than you.”

“I’ll have to put you on hold.”

“Obviously. Get on it.” (Yeah, I was livid.)

I then had about five minutes to reflect on all of my glorious history with the wonderful organization known as U.S. Cellular. I remembered in vivid detail how they fucked me over and called me a liar all over $5 a month. Greedy motherfuckers. That’s $5 on top of their already horribly overpriced and mediocre service. It occurred to me that not once did they even offer to call their employee who had told me the plan was $5 less than what they charged me. They just called me a liar and told me to go suck eggs.

Finally I was graced with presence of The Supervisor.

“Hi there!” she said brightly in a syrupy sweet voice. “How is your day going today?”

“Not too good,” I assured her. “I just want to ask a simple question but I don’t wish to be recorded. Can you handle that for me?”

“Oh, I assure you, only a small percentage of calls are ever recorded.”

Oh. My. God.

“Yes, I covered all that interesting information with so-and-so. I’m opting out of being recorded. You do not have my permission to record this call. As an American citizen if I do not give my consent then any recording that is made is illegal. Can you assure me this call is opted-out from recording or not?”

We repeated the “it’s all random” cycle two more times. Finally she said, “No. We can’t do that. We don’t have that ability in this office.”

“Is there any way I can talk to U.S. Cellular and be guaranteed that I won’t be recorded?”

“No,” she admitted.

“What options does that leave me with?”

“You can visit a U.S. Cellular store or write a letter.”

“That’s really great service,” I said. “Now let me assure you of something. At the earliest possible moment when my contract is up, which isn’t too far away now, I will be terminating my service with your company and you’ll never see another penny from me as long as I live. Is that enough quality for you?”

“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

“Nope. [click]” Yeah, I enjoy getting the last word.

So, there you have it. A company that takes money from you monthly is not willing to talk to you on the phone unless you give them your consent to be recorded. And I never did get an answer to my quick question. This is the same company that demanded proof of a verbal conversation from me. I guess that explains their mindset. That’s just their simpleminded worldview.

“Quality assurance.” I highly doubt that. I think they want the all important “proof” they so highly prize and they want it for the sole purpose of using it against you if something should go south? Why else deny recording opt-out requests?

Is that customer service or what?

You know that as a company you must be doing something right when your customer service department interacts with a customer and it is by far the worst thing that happened to them all week.

So, what do you think?

  • Was my request that out of whack?
  • Should their customer reps know how to respond to recording opt-out requests?
  • Do you believe they really couldn’t turn off recording? (Yes, I know it is done remotely by some third-party.)
  • Have you ever made a similar request and if so, how did it go?

I searched the U.S. Cellular web site and couldn’t find a mission statement. Do they have one? Seems like an odd thing to forget.

U.S. Cellular slogans include:

  • We connect with you
  • Believe in something better
  • Wireless where you matter most

U.S. Cellular has made The List and with extreme prejudice. (Yes, that means they can eat my ass.)

Please enjoy the musical selection that our chef has paired with this article.

Hoarding recordings

The House Recording Studio control room overseeing footage of the House Chamber. Image courtesy of the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives.

Today’s quickie questions of the day:

Have you ever called in for customer service and been subjected to the automated system and not been told “please listen carefully – our menu has recently changed?” Due to overuse that phrase has absolutely no meaning.

More importantly, have you ever been told that your call may be “monitored or recorded” for the biggest bullshit reason of all time, “quality assurance?”

Here’s what I really want to know. Have you ever thought to say, “I prefer not to be recorded?”

Have you ever attempted this? And if so, how did it go?

First of all, “quality assurance?” What a line of bull. They are not going to invest in a recording system and everything that entails because they care about the quality of “service” they are providing to you. The reason is simple: To cover their ass and provide documentation that could be used against you further down the road if any sort of dispute should ever come up.

I have an idea. How about I record everything on my end, too. “Hey, Julio. That’s for taking the time to talk to me today about my account. Just an FYI, bro. This call may be monitored and/or recorded for quality assurance. Since you’re already doing that to me I’m sure your company will have no problem with that, right?”

So, have you ever tried to opt-out of being recorded? I have. The poor sap on the other end of the phone could not have been more confused or befuddled. His scripts obviously didn’t cover that sort of unforseen scenario. A customer not wanting to be recorded? Horrors!

If you’ve ever attempted to not be recorded, please reply and let me know how it went. I’d really, really like to know. This could be interesting. Thanks!