12 December 2017

Bad guys are tracking you. Here is how to stop them.

Most of the world is aware that there are various mechanisms in standard web browsing that allow a company to track you on the web. These mechanisms allow companies to know your location, your operating system, your web browser, what sites you have recently been to, your computer address and all sorts of other exciting details -- all without you being any wiser. Unfortunately, that power is also being used by criminals.

As a refresher, here are some popular corporate examples of tracking:
  • Google compiles tracking datas anonymously for ad sales and for delivering focused ads individually.
    • Google rightfully got into hot water recently when it was determined they could know location data through tracking mechanisms, even when users had turned location notification off. Naughty!
  • Facebook uses this to track just about every possible thing they can about every Facebook user, including having it monitor every website you visit.
    • In particular, I must spotlight how nasty their phone/tablet messenger, Facebook and Instragram apps have become at trying to track everything you do on your phone. A conversation for another day. Very naughty!
  • Amazon also tracks everywhere you go and everything you do so they can make certain they are getting Amazon ads and emails to you.
    • Their requirement of installation of the Amazon store app that tracked countless phone elements of phone usage to get access to Prime Videos is an egregious example. Top of the naughty list!
When you purchase or download a product from a company, they will do whatever they can to track everything you do so they can make your information their new product. They all do this: Microsoft, Apple, Google and even your neighborhood Big Pie Pizzeria.

Web or phone application tracking happens because you personally decided to visit that website or install that software. Email tracking can occur without you making any conscious choice at all. They simply put a transparent image or tiny script in an HTML (web style) email so that, when you open that email, it sends countless details about you back to their database. By the time you delete the email, they already have what they wanted.

On the company side, I recommend picking one (Google or Apple or Microsoft) for all of your primary information and then lock down everything else. I genuinely trust Google, Microsoft and Apple to mostly do the right thing with only occasional lapses in judgment.

While we might have concerns about Facebook or Comcast holding our information, they are "just" evil by corporate standards. Unfortunately, the big problem is that criminals are starting to collect all of this same data so they can deliver you personalized theft.

Criminal Email Tracking
A bad guy might send you a piece of junk mail occasionally that you delete. Unfortunately for you, your email program is displaying HTML emails so it is collecting all of that information for them. In a matter of a couple of weeks, they can know everywhere you go, what you are using, what you are doing and numerous other details. Since they know your name, email address and device usage locations, they can pin down where you live through countless online databases, or by purchasing that information from another source (Comcast, Verizon, etc.) to know where you live. They can know when the boss is in the office or out with a client. They know when you are far away on holiday. They could know your computer type and what phone you are carrying.

What can they do with that? Well. Whatever they like:
  • You are on holiday, so why not rob your home?
  • The tech guy is out, so I am going to call the office and get login information.
  • They are using Windows, so maybe I will call because I know they have a virus.
  • I see you use Bank of America, so I am going to send you a phishing email.
  • Heck, I know so much about you, I can call a company and break into your account.
  • ... Or I might just rob your identity.
And, frankly, my imagination for criminal activity is limited to what I have heard might be happening. The best criminals are going to think of ways to use this that no one even considered. All from occasionally sending you a piece of junk mail.

Now, perhaps you think this all sounds like the menu at a tinfoil hat restaurant. Reasonable conclusion. You might also run Microsoft Windows without antivirus and not worry about clicking links in emails, too. Maybe you will be okay.

For those of us that like to play it safe, here are some suggestions to reduce your potential harm from these tracking techniques:
  • Turn off all images and HTML scripting in emails.
    • You may need to turn it off in multiple locations:
      • Website access (if applicable) - Example: Gmail
      • Software application - Example: Outlook
      • Phone - Example: Gmail App, Built-In Mail Application
  • Never click a link in an email to view it since that will activate the tracking mechanism.
    • If you do click a link in an email and it wants you to enter information - close that website immediately. Manually browse to the company site and ask for support directly.
  • Need to see email images? Install an application to block tracking:
  • Always ask to receive "Plain Text" emails from vendors - not HTML.
    • Turn off email notifications from any company that only has HTML emails.
    • Amazon Examples
      • Advertising Preferences
        • Select "Do Not Personalize Ads from Amazon for this Internet Browser"
        • Do this for each device you use.
          • This is an example of antagonistic approach toward customers.
      • Your Browsing History
        • Clear your browsing history.
        • Switch "Turn Browsing History On/Off" switch to OFF.
        • Do this for each device you use.
    • Facebook Examples
      • Turn off all email notifications from Facebook.
      • Avoid installing Facebook Messenger, Instagram and Facebook on your phone.
      • Better yet - if you can do it, just don't use Facebook.
  • Use an internet service provider (ISP) you trust.
    • Your gateway to the internet (Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, etc.) has the ability to track enormous amounts of data and some have stated (Comcast, Verizon) that they may begin using this information for financial gain.
    • If you do not trust your ISP, try to use only HTTPS sites.
    • Even better - use a VPN service to hide your traffic.
  • Do not trust/use any company that supports eliminating Net Neutrality.
This are just a few of the ways you can start protecting yourself from online tracking mechanisms. Even if you do nothing, at least you are aware that this is a potential problem. Good luck!

05 June 2017

America's environmental clean-up bill is overdue.

From the year 1900 through the latest data available from 2011, America is responsible for over 28% of all industrialized carbon emissions in the world. (SPREADSHEET made possible thanks to CAIT climate data.) Based on carbon pollution information, if we were to assume the United States did not exist, the world would have 31 additional years to resolve the climate crisis.

This information is not intended to be anti-American since I assume most of the world is happy to not be speaking German or Russian as their primary language. On the whole, the United States has been a force for good on our planet that has raised the quality of life for most of humanity through technology and prevention of another world war. It should also be noted that, without American satellite technology, the world may not have known about our perilous situation until 31 more years had passed, thereby erasing any benefit from the absence of our carbon pollution.

However, this information is critical when evaluating our responsibility to repair, or at least mitigate, the damage caused by our emissions. When a political leader speaks about how a climate deal punishes the United States, we must acknowledge the "punishment" every other country faces due to the total history of our pollution. The richest country in the world is responsible for over a quarter of the pollution so the bare minimum should involve us covering our 28% of the bill for a solution. Considering the financial benefit gained by our emissions in the past century, we probably could afford to cover the 20% gratuity, too.

22 April 2017

All income should be taxed at the same rate.


President Trump is preparing to embark on new tax policy for America and I will naively pretend that it is something more than a tax cut for the rich. If he truly wants to fix the tax system then the only truly fair process would be a flat tax based on net worth. (Expect that to happen when our sun turns into a white dwarf.) However, the best change we can make today is to tax all income, including capital gains, inheritance, prize winnings and whatever else - at the same rate. The super rich get all of their income from capital gains. I know this is depressing to hear but the 1% do not “labor” and get all of their income from investments, having already inherited or collected their core income for their investments. Their work choosing investments is their "labor". Some investments happen without being initially taxed. Yes, there are regulations in place that allow individuals to invest (with various rules/limits attached, of course) without paying any taxes. So if you have enough money to invest then you actually can “earn” money and only pay taxes when divesting. (Or maybe not even then, depending ... A tax lesson for another day.) There is no rule that a dollar is only taxed once. Everyone, no matter how you earn income, is taxed multiple times on every greenback. Just take a look at the fine print on your cell phone bill and start counting the number of taxes. The more you spend on goods or services, the more taxes you pay. Those with less income pay a higher percentage of taxes. Round one is social security and federal income tax. Round two is state taxes on income and/or sales. Round three is local taxes and/or individual departments of government. Then, depending on what you purchase (used automobile, for example) you can be taxed on it multiple times by the state. Half or more of these tax sources hit when you purchase something, which those with less money need to do with a higher percentage of their income. If you have enough money to invest then you can avoid most of these taxes. Our tax system should be equitable to all Americans. The only way to make a fair tax system is for all income to be taxed at the same rate. If you inherit it, if you get it from capital gains, if you labored for it, if you won it on the Price Is Right —- it simply does not matter. It should be taxed at whatever rate you pay. Exceptions to tax rules only benefit the rich because they are the only ones that can afford CPA’s working full time so they pay as little (or nothing) as possible. Those on "main street" have no choice but to just pay and the poorest are always hit the hardest.

04 March 2017

The future of humanity.

The future of humanity.

2014: Hottest year ever measured.
2015: Hottest year ever measured.
2016: Hottest year ever measured.
The White House is gutting the EPA. Congress is trying to cut funding for the satellites that track this information under the mistaken belief that if we do not know about then the problem goes away.

Remember that lying Al Gore movie about the climate? Great news! The climate models made 30 years ago that Gore used are accurately predicting the warming of our planet! And things start to get a lot worse in the years and decades ahead.

Politicians have become this a political game with one side trying to make America stupid and the other without the balls to underscore how critical this is. The ice is disappearing almost overnight and it is now absolutely clear that, short of a couple mile wide asteroid hitting us, that humans are on course to create the worst mass extinction event in the fossil record.

Is America great again if the choices we make today will assure our country no longer exists two generations from now? That is what the (scientifically accurate) climate models predict if we do not stop using fossil fuels.

We can fix the future with the tech we have today. With solar, wind and nuclear energy (ideally Thorium-based) we could safely be emission free for electricity generation within 20 years. Oh, and it would also create thousands of jobs. Please, White House - champion this and train the coal workers and anyone else out of a job to be part of our planet-saving new economy.

We must invest in the technology of the future if we want America to still be here for future generations.

23 January 2017

A plea to save the American economy.

Dear President Trump,

You are in danger of permanently placing China in the driver's seat of the world economy and our dollar in the toilet.

I appreciate the fact that many of your supporters want you to bring back buggy-whip factories, but they are not coming back. No matter what you do, we are not going to be building new coal-powered electric stations. Apple is not going to be transferring iPhone manufacturing to Indiana. Nike's shoes are not going to be sewed together in a Portland suburb. And that's good news!

We have the high paying jobs everyone wants right here in our borders. That Boeing company that you said charges too much money, they build the greatest aircraft in the universe. Tesla has the greatest batteries and electric cars ever dreamed of. Apple may build their devices elsewhere but all of their high paying jobs and profits comes back to the United States of America. And, more importantly, America is the financial center of the world.

We are the largest market as a result of leading the world in free trade. Whenever a standard currency is needed the world picks the American dollar. Want to buy a barrel of oil from any country in the world? The cost is calculated in our dollar. When a country wants a safe place to store their money for the long term, they invest in the United States dollar. Nearly all financial transactions come through America.

Now you want to start a protectionist environment so we can force companies to bring back their low-paying manufacturing jobs to America. It might work, but think about this for a moment:

  • China is now the largest economy in the world.
  • China trades with every country in the world.
  • China wants to lead the world in free trade and have already stated they will take our spot.
  • China no longer wants to use the American dollar as the currency standard.
    • Neither does the middle east.
    • Neither does Russia.
    • Neither does Europe.
    • Heck .. Nobody wants to use the dollar anymore.
    • ... and what held them back is not having an alternative.
    • ... and here comes China with an alternative.
If the world stops using our dollar then our financial institutions (half of our economy) and government will take an enormous hit. Bringing back low paying jobs seems nice until it means that all imported goods cost twice as much because our dollar crumbles. What will happen to our federal budget with no one investing in American treasury bonds?

This doomsday scenario will not happen immediately. It may take the world a few years to switch away from the dollar. But they will. And when they do, it will be the rest of the world that controls the American economy.

All so you could try to bring back some low paying manufacturing jobs.