Nine Circles of Hell!: Friday, November 4
The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – the nine most hellish news stories, for Friday, November 4, 2011, are:
October jobs report: Unemployment rate dips
American employers reported slower hiring last month, but a falling unemployment rate showed the job market may actually be gaining strength.
Employers added 80,000 jobs in October, the Labor Department reported Friday, marking a sharp slowdown from hiring in September and August. Government figures from those months were both revised significantly higher.
But a separate part of the data shows fewer Americans are unemployed. The unemployment rate fell to 9% in October, down from 9.1% the month before, and the lowest rate since April.
“At the end of the day, the U.S. is still managing to create jobs, and I think that’s definitely positive,” said Jennifer Lee, senior economist with BMO Capital Markets
The good news: The monthly jobs report is compiled from two separate surveys: one for employers, and another for households. The two parts can sometimes show slightly different readings on the job market.
In this case, the household survey is showing the economy added roughly 1 million jobs since the end of July. Meanwhile, the employer survey shows 342,000 jobs created over that same timeframe which, while better than expected, is still not great.
But for the most part economists seemed ready to welcome Friday’s data as slightly encouraging.
Additionally, revisions from August and September added 102,000 jobs to the nation’s payrolls.
“Either survey portrays a job market that is a bit better than people might have hoped for,” said David Resler, chief economic consultant with Nomura.
That said, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
The bad news: More than two years after the recession officially ended, the labor market is still struggling to gain back even a fraction of all the jobs lost. Only about a quarter of the 8.8 million jobs shed have since been recovered.
And in October alone, roughly 13.9 million Americans remained unemployed, 42% of whom had been out of work for 27 weeks or longer.
And as companies have been hiring modestly, the government is still slashing jobs. The employer survey showed that private companies added 104,000 jobs in October, while the government cut 24,000, mostly at the state level.
Though that amounts to positive growth, it’s still not enough to jumpstart the job market. Typically, it takes around 150,000 jobs per month just to keep up with population growth.
Plus, the unemployment rate could still climb higher again …
Poverty rates not as high as reported because government spending works
The New York Times
Bleak Portrait of Poverty Is Off the Mark, Experts Say
When the Census Bureau said in September that the number of poor Americans had soared by 10 million to rates rarely seen in four decades, commentators called the report “shocking” and “bleak.” Most poverty experts would add another description: “flawed.”
Concocted on the fly a half-century ago, the official poverty measure ignores ever more of what is happening to the poor person’s wallet — good and bad. It overlooks hundreds of billions of dollars the needy receive in food stamps and other benefits and the similarly formidable amounts they lose to taxes and medical care. It even fails to note that rents are higher in places like Manhattan than they are in Mississippi.
On Monday, that may start to change when the Census Bureau releases a long-promised alternate measure meant to do a better job of counting the resources the needy have and the bills they have to pay. Similar measures, quietly published in the past, suggest among other things that safety-net programs have played a large and mostly overlooked role in restraining hardship: as much as half of the reported rise in poverty since 2006 disappears.
The fuller measures have also shown less poverty among children but more among older Americans, who are plagued by high medical costs. They have shown less poverty among blacks but more among Asians; less poverty in rural areas and more in cities and suburbs, where the cost of living is high. And they have found fewer people in abject destitution, but a great many more crowding the hard-luck ranks of the near poor, who do not qualify for many benefit programs and lose income to taxes, child care and medical costs …
Coming amid soaring need and bitter debt debates, the findings in Monday’s release are likely to offer fodder both to defenders of safety-net programs and fiscal conservatives who say the government already does much to temper hardship and needs to do no more.
Experts expect the new report to be consistent with a decade of research about the ways in which the official poverty rate distorts the realities of American poverty.
The numbers in this article are based on that research — by the census, the National Academy of Sciences and others — and include not just cash income but also government benefits, work expenses, taxes and cost of living. Many experts expect Monday’s census report, based on similar methods, to add a bit to the official poverty count of 46.2 million, while most experts also expect the recent growth will ap-pear less steep.
One alternate census data set quietly published last week said the number of poor people has grown by 4.6 million since 2006, not by 9.7 million as the bureau reported in September. At least 39 states showed no statistically significant poverty growth despite surging unemployment, according to an analysis by The New York Times, including Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas.
In North Carolina, poverty has risen by more than 250,000 people by official count, but stayed flat under the alternate measure despite soaring unemployment.
One explanation can be found in programs the official count ignores: food stamps and tax credits. Combined the two programs delivered $221 billion across the country last year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than doubling since 2006.
In Charlotte, Angelique Melton was among the beneficiaries. A divorced mother of two, Ms. Melton, 42, had worked her way up to a $39,000 a year position at a construction management firm. But as building halted in 2009, Ms. Melton lost her job.
Struggling to pay the rent and keep the family adequately fed, she took the only job she could find: a part-time position at Wal-Mart that paid less than half her former salary. With an annual income of about $7,500 — well below the poverty line of $17,400 for a family of three — Ms. Melton was officially poor.
Unofficially she was not.
After trying to stretch her shrunken income, Ms. Melton signed up for $3,600 a year in food stamps and received $1,800 in nutritional supplements from the Women, Infants and Children program. And her small salary qualified her for large tax credits, which arrive in the form of an annual check — in her case for about $4,000.
Along with housing aid, those subsidies gave her an annual income of nearly $18,800 — no one’s idea of rich, but by the new count not poor.
“They help you, my God,” Ms. Melton said. “I would not have made it otherwise.”
Virtually every effort to take a fuller view — counting more income and more expenses — shows poverty rising more slowly in the recession than the official data suggests. That is true of localized studies in New York City and Wisconsin and at least four different national data sets that the Census Bureau publishes. While the official national measure shows a rise of 9.8 million people, the fuller census measures show a range from 4.5 million to 4.8 million.
“That’s a big difference,” said Timothy Smeeding, an economist at the University of Wisconsin who oversaw the study in that state. “It’s about time we started counting the programs we use to fight poverty.”
Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the new measure “is showing that government help is keeping millions of families above the poverty line right now” …
One consistent finding in the alternate measures is that poverty falls among children, the target of many government programs. And it rises among Americans 65 or older, who often have high out-of-pocket medical costs, despite being covered by Medicare.
Such is the case for John William Springs, 69, a retired city worker in Charlotte who gets nearly $12,000 a year in Social Security and disability checks. That leaves him about $1,300 above the poverty threshold for a single adult his age — officially not poor. Then again, Mr. Springs had a heart attack last summer and struggles with lung disease. Factor in the $2,500 a year that he estimates he spends on medicine, and Mr. Springs crosses the statistical line into poverty.
An upbeat survivor of a lifetime of need, Mr. Springs fills his prescriptions in partial amounts and argues the poverty counters got him right the first time.
“I ain’t poor,” he said. “I eat. I got a roof over my head.”
Some experts say cases like that of Mr. Springs may point to a hidden need among the elderly, whose official poverty rates have sharply declined over the past generation. Others have cautioned that the new measure still has flaws — failing to capture, for instance, that many elderly can draw from savings and are less reliant on annual income and benefits than younger people.
One concern in recent years is the sharp rise in “deep” poverty, defined as living on less than half the money it would take to no longer be poor. That is partly because of changes that make cash welfare harder to get. Yet many of the very poor do receive food stamps, a program whose rapid expansion has made it a safety net of last resort.
In part by counting food stamps, the fuller Census measure analyzed by The Times shows deep poverty falling by nearly 25 percent …
Even with assistance, life is a series of hard choices. Ashley Bolton was lifted above the poverty line under the new measure by about $10,000 in federal programs that cushioned her earnings as a hostess at the Original Pancake House in Charlotte. Still, sometimes she lets her car insurance lapse. She juggles two part-time jobs with classes to become a pharmacy technician, and relies on her mother, who works nights, to put her children to bed.
“I live the recession,” Ms. Bolton said. “All that stuff that happened to people — that’s my life every day.”
Huntsman’s former boss and Perry’s Texans profit from Obamacare
The Associated Press
Obama health care law has unexpected beneficiaries
Some of the money from President Barack Obama’s health care law is flowing to places you might not expect.
Two Texas public employee programs are among the top 25 beneficiaries of a $5-billion fund to shore up employer coverage for early retirees, despite Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s vow to repeal what Republicans derisively call “Obamacare.”
And records show the Huntsman family business, where GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman was once a top executive, received about $1 million.
Some see a gap between dire Republican rhetoric about the health care overhaul and the pragmatic impulse to cash in on a new government benefit.
“Lots of Texans are already benefiting from health care reform,” said Anne Dunkelberg, a health care expert at the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities. “Other than for political theater, there would not be the kind of opposition there is.” The nonpartisan center advocates for the poor.
Employer-sponsored health insurance for retirees has been shriveling for years, ever since companies were required to report their liability to investors. Democrats who wrote the new law wanted to encourage employers to keep offering coverage. Only about 6 percent of private companies currently provide such a benefit for early retirees, according to the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute.
But that still works out to more than 400,000 companies. Add state and local government agencies, as well as union plans, and the number swells. The Obama administration’s subsidy program got so many applications it stopped accepting new ones after approving more than 6,000. It pays 80 percent of the claims amount for early retirees ages 55 to 64 whose care costs between $15,000 and $90,000.
The top beneficiary: the United Auto Workers retiree medical plan, collecting more than $220 million.
“Some people have described this program as ‘Cash for Clunkers,’ in the sense that if you want it, you have to get in line first,” said Paul Fronstin, an economist with the benefits research group. “There was a lot of advice given to be first in line.” The original Cash for Clunkers paid people to trade in gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient transportation. It created a marketing sensation before running out of cash.
Texas, it seems, heeded the advice. So did Huntsman International.
The Teacher Retirement System of Texas, a statewide system for public education employees, received more than $70 million as of Sept. 22, according to the federal Health and Human Services Department. The Employees Retirement System of Texas, which covers state employees, received about $30 million.
Huntsman International, the main operating subsidiary of the family-founded chemical conglomerate, is also collecting.
As candidates, both Perry and Huntsman have sworn to repeal Obama’s signature health care law, which gradually extends coverage to most of the uninsured and makes other changes, including a ban on denying coverage to people in poor health and an unpopular requirement that most Americans carry insurance.
Spokesmen for the Perry and Huntsman campaigns said they see no contradictions.
Govt. to grill James Murdoch on new evidence in UK hacking scandal
Phone hacking: NoW warned about ‘culture of illegal information access’
(Thanks to listener Cian O’Connor.)
Senior executives at News International were warned by a company lawyer in June 2008 that there was “a culture of illegal information access” at the Murdoch-owned media group involving “at least three” of its journalists.
They were also cautioned it would be “extremely damaging” to the publisher’s public reputation if that information reached court as part of a legal action brought by Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, whose lawyers had uncovered evidence of phone hacking at the News of the World during a legal battle with the title.
The warning is contained in a legal opinion prepared by Michael Silverleaf QC, the group’s counsel, for the News of the World’s legal officer, Tom Crone, on 3 June 2008 – and was made public for the first time .
It was handed over by the company’s former legal advisers Farrer & Co to MPs on the culture, media and sport select committee, which is investigating phone hacking at the paper, as part of a group of documents requested by parliament. They were published on the committee website.
The documents will intensify the pressure on James Murdoch to explain his role in handling the phone-hacking scandal. They provide the most detailed picture yet of the sequence of events that led him to authorise a payment of £425,000 plus costs to a hacking victim to buy his silence. They appear to confirm that Murdoch was notified at an initial meeting with News of the World’s editor Colin Myler on 24 May 2008 that “fatal” evidence had emerged showing that the paper had hacked Taylor’s phone. At a subsequent meeting with Myler and Crone on 10 June 2008, Murdoch authorised the payment, totalling £700,000, to Taylor, but he has maintained that he was not made aware of evidence showing that hacking extended beyond a single “rogue reporter”.
The documents showed Silverleaf had warned in his opinion that there was “overwhelming evidence of the involvement of a number of senior … journalists” in repeated attempts to access private information relating to Taylor.
News International said on Tuesday that Murdoch did not see the opinion.
The QC named Greg Miskiw, a former news editor at the paper, and Ross Hindley, a reporter, as apparently “intimately involved”. A third name given by Silverleaf is redacted.
The documents will be seized on by MPs when they question James Murdoch, third in command at the parent company News Corp, next week, during his second appearance before the committee.
The committee chairman, John Whittingdale, said : “This contradicts the evidence given to us previously and we shall be asking about this when James Murdoch comes before the committee.”
Israeli military intercepts latest Gaza flotilla
The New York Times
Israel Intercepts Two Boats Bound for Gaza
The Israeli military said on Friday that it had boarded two small boats that were sailing toward Gaza to challenge Israel’s maritime blockade of the Palestinian coastal enclave. There were no immediate reports of violence or injuries.
The boats, one Canadian and the other Irish, were carrying 27 pro-Palestinian activists, journalists and crew members from nine countries. The military had stated that it would prevent the boats from reaching Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas.
The Israeli Navy initially notified the vessels that they were en route to an area under blockade and advised them to turn back, or to sail to a port in Egypt or Israel, the military said in a statement.
Shortly after, an Israeli military spokeswoman said the boats had been boarded by naval forces. “The boarding followed numerous calls to the activists,” the spokeswoman, Avital Leibovich, wrote on Twitter, adding that the navy “took every precaution to ensure the safety of activists.”
The military said that the boats would be steered to Ashdod port in Israel where the activists would be handed over to the police and immigration authorities.
The two boats set sail from a Turkish port on Wednesday, four months after the last international flotilla to Gaza was stalled by the Greek authorities who held some vessels in port. Two other vessels, including the Irish boat now headed for Gaza, were damaged at port under mysterious circumstances. The protesters said the boats were sabotaged.
CIA drone war on Pakistan: “What’s going on here is murder”
Pakistani civilian victims vent anger over US drones
When tribal elders from the remote Pakistani region of North Waziristan travelled to Islamabad last week to protest against CIA drone strikes, a teenager called Tariq Khan was among them.
A BBC team caught him on camera, sitting near the front of a tribal assembly, or jirga, listening carefully.
Four days later the 16-year-old was dead – killed by one of the drones he was protesting against.
In his final days, Tariq was living in fear, according to Neil Williams from the British legal charity, Reprieve, who met him at the Jirga.
“He was really really petrified,” said Mr Williams, “and so were his friends. He didn’t want to go home because of the drones. They were all scared.”
Tariq carried with him the identity card of his teenage cousin, Asmar Ullah, who was killed by a drone. On Monday he shared his fate …
The CIA’s drone campaign is a covert war, conducted in remote terrain, where the facts are often in dispute.
The tribal belt is off limits to foreign journalists. Militants often seal off the locations where drone strikes take place. The truth can be buried with the dead.
After the missile strike on Monday, Pakistani officials said four suspected militants had been killed.
If the strike actually killed two young boys – as appears to be the case – it’s unlikely anyone will ever be held to account.
There are no confirmed death tolls but several independent organisations estimate that drones have killed more than 2,000 people since 2004. Most are suspected to be militants.
Many senior commanders from the Taliban and al-Qaeda are among the dead. But campaigners claim there have been hundreds of civilian victims, whose stories are seldom told.
A shy teenage boy called Saadullah is one of them. He survived a drone strike that killed three of his relatives, but he lost both legs, one eye and his hope for the future.
“I wanted to be a doctor,” he told me, “but I can’t walk to school anymore. When I see others going, I wish I could join them.”
Like Tariq, Saadullah travelled to Islamabad for last week’s jirga. Seated alongside him was Haji Zardullah, a white-bearded man who said he lost four nephews in a separate attack.
“None of these were harmful people,” he said. “Two were still in school and one was in college.”
Asghar Khan, a tribal elder in a cream turban, said three of his relatives paid with their lives for visiting a sick neighbour.
“My brother, my nephew and another relative were killed by a drone in 2008,” he said. “They were sitting with this sick man when the attack took place. There were no Taliban.”
Viewed from a drone, any adult male in the tribal areas can look like a target, according to Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who is taking on the CIA.
“A Taliban or non-Taliban would be dressed in the same way,” he said. “Everyone has a beard, a turban and an AK-47 because every person carries a weapon in that area, so anyone could be target.”
Mr Akbar is suing the CIA for compensation in the Islamabad High Court, and plans to file a Supreme Court action.
He claims the US is getting away with murder in North Waziristan.
It’s a view shared by Reprieve, whose Director Clive Stafford Smith has been meeting drone victims in Pakistan.
“What’s going on here, unfortunately, is murder,” he said.
“There’s a war going on in Afghanistan, but none here in Pakistan, so what the CIA is doing here is illegal.”
The CIA would doubtless say otherwise, if it were prepared to discuss the drone programme, but US officials are usually silent on the issue.
In a rare public comment two years ago, the then director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, defended the use of drones.
“We have targeted those who are enemies of the United States,” he said. ” When we use it, it is very precise and it limits collateral damage.”
But the damage is not limited enough, say opponents like Mr Stafford Smith, who is gathering evidence about civilian deaths. From a shopping bag he produced a jagged chunk of metal – a missile fragment – believed to have killed a child in Waziristan in August of last year.
Chinese police bust impoverished migrants in baby-trafficking ring
The Associated Press
China baby-trafficking ring is shut down
Police in eastern China have shut down a human trafficking ring involving low-income migrant couples who were selling their babies, a state-run newspaper has reported.
Police in Zoucheng, Shandong province, found last month that 17 infants had been sold in the city to Chinese buyers, according to the Global Times newspaper. Police rescued 13 babies and sent them to welfare centres and a search was under way for the other four, the paper said.
The report cited an investigating police officer as saying the couples were mainly migrants who had moved from poorer areas in Sichuan province in south-west China to Zoucheng to seek work.
It quoted the officer, Chen Qingwei, as saying the husbands would go out to work while their wives sold their babies to raise money.
There was no immediate comment from police in Zoucheng.
One couple had sold three children, the newspaper said.
Chen said baby boys could be sold for up to 50,000 yuan (£4,900), while the price for girls was 30,000 yuan, much more than the parents could earn from farming.
Growth “with increasing reliance on coal is imperiling the world”
Greenhouse gases rise by record amount
The global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide has jumped by a record amount, according to the US department of energy, a sign of how feeble the world’s efforts are at slowing man-made global warming.
The figures for 2010 mean that levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago.
“The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing,” said John Reilly, the co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.
The world pumped about 564m more tons (512m metric tons) of carbon into the air in 2010 than it did in 2009, an increase of 6%. That amount of extra pollution eclipses the individual emissions of all but three countries, China, the US and India, the world’s top producers of greenhouse gases.
It is a “monster” increase that is unheard of, said Gregg Marland, a professor of geology at Appalachian State University, who has helped calculate department of energy figures in the past.
Extra pollution in China and the US account for more than half the increase in emissions last year, Marland said.
“It’s a big jump,” said Tom Boden, the director of the energy department’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at Oak Ridge National Lab. “From an emissions standpoint, the global financial crisis seems to be over.”
Boden said that in 2010 people were travelling, and manufacturing was back up worldwide, spurring the use of fossil fuels, the chief contributor of man-made climate change.
India and China are huge users of coal. Burning coal is the biggest carbon source worldwide and emissions from that jumped nearly 8% in 2010.
“The good news is that these economies are growing rapidly so everyone ought to be for that, right?” Reilly said. “Broader economic improvements in poor countries has been bringing living improvements to people. Doing it with increasing reliance on coal is imperiling the world.”
Homeland Security TV ads in hotels tell guests to be vigilant
Hotel guests recruited with Homeland Security TV spots
The Department of Homeland Security is recruiting hotel guests to join the fight against terrorism.
Starting today, the welcome screens on 1.2 million hotel television sets in Marriott, Hilton, Sheraton, Holiday Inn and other hotels in the USA will show a short public service announcement from DHS. The 15-second spot encourages viewers to be vigilant and call law enforcement if they witness something suspicious during their travels.
During the PSA, which starts with a woman exiting a yellow taxi in front of a train station, a narrator says, “Maybe you see something suspicious. Can you be sure? If you see something, say something to authorities.”
The PSA, which will be interspersed with other messages on the welcome screen, will be the same in all 5,400 hotels that LodgeNet serves. It ends by telling viewers to contact “local authorities.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says that reaching the “millions of guests that stay at hotels and motels each year is a significant step in engaging the full range of partners in our Homeland Security efforts.”
The federal government gained access to hotel TV sets by forming a partnership with the hotel industry’s largest association — the American Hotel & Lodging Association — which connected DHS with LodgeNet, the industry’s largest TV-content provider.
By entering hotels at a time when the hospitality industry is on the rebound, the government has the power to tap a growing, captive audience. Recent research from LodgeNet says 98% of hotel guests turn on their hotel TV, and the average guest keeps it on for more than three hours per day.
How close are we getting to the end of online anonymity?
The real you: Say goodbye to online anonymity
Illegal and just plain bad behaviour online has sparked discussions of new laws to combat cyberbullying and secure the internet from criminal activity. Such legislation may soon be irrelevant. Several companies are building tools that can identify internet users with unprecedented precision. Proponents claims the new tools will lead to a safer and less hostile internet. If the internet is to keep developing, they say, perhaps we can no longer afford to live in an anonymous environment where no one need ever be held accountable for their actions. Are we ready to abandon the option of shielding our online identity?
“The internet would be better if we had an accurate notion that you were a real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer,” Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, told an audience in the UK at the Edinburgh Television Festival in August.
The ability to be a “fake person” is a large part of why comments on otherwise respectable publications often descend into outright abuse. Similarly, the ease with which it’s possible for wrongdoers to cover their tracks online enables credit-card fraud, which costs retailers and the card companies hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the US alone. Retailers simply have no easy way of knowing whether the buyer is who they claim to be. So it remains fairly easy to purchase goods online using a stolen credit card. A more robust method for verifying identity would almost certainly reduce fraud.
So why not have people take their identities with them any time they use the internet? The problem, simply put, is that no one wants to be forced to use their real name online. At least one previous attempt to create an identity system for the internet, Microsoft’s Passport initiative of the early 2000s, failed in part because privacy advocates objected to one organisation controlling the process.
That changed, however, with the arrival of Facebook. To use the social network, you must register with your real name. Once logged in, everything you do – posting messages, sending messages, tagging photos – is attributed to what, for most users, is their actual, offline identity.
Using your real name on a single site may not seem like a big deal, but Facebook’s reach continues to creep beyond Facebook.com. Since 2008, websites have been able to integrate with Facebook in such a way that their visitors must be Facebook users to post comments. Each post is clearly associated with the user who made it.
Why would anyone want this? As it turned out, Facebook integration benefited not only the websites that adopted it, by making it much easier to police comments, but also individual users, who could then conveniently log into multiple sites with their Facebook password. Users’ comments could also be set to be copied automatically to their Facebook wall, so their friends could easily see what they had posted.
The effects were immediate. Before popular technology blog TechCrunch introduced Facebook integration earlier this year, half of their comments were either from spammers hawking their wares or were “trollish nonsense”, wrote TechCrunch columnist M. G. Siegler in an article explaining the site’s decision. After the change, the majority of comments became “coherent thoughts in response to the post itself – you know, what a comment is supposed to be”.
Google’s new social network, Google+, also requires people to use their real names when signing up. And with Facebook’s and Google’s social networks likely to become increasingly intertwined with the rest of the web, eventually one or both could very well emerge as de facto online identity systems …
One of the most powerful identity tracking systems now available is offered by BlueCava, a company based in Irvine, California, that helps websites monitor fraud, among other things. BlueCava’s software “fingerprints” any device that someone uses to visit a website, be it a desktop or laptop computer or a mobile device like a smartphone. That fingerprint is made possible by the hundreds of types of data that browsers send when connecting to a website, from the machine’s operating system to the time zone in which the device is set to operate (see diagram).
You might be surprised at just how mundane these details can be. Consider one of the data types passed from browser to website: the fonts installed on your machine. They will include not just the fonts that it came with, but also fonts that may have been included with software you installed, making the complete list distinctive. “A typical machine has 4000 to 20,000 fonts,” says BlueCava chief executive David Norris. Fall outside this average and your machine is distinctive. “If you have 1926 that’s a lot of uniqueness,” Norris says.
BlueCava combines these bits of information to create a unique ID number for every device that accesses a website running the company’s software. The firm has assembled a dossier on 1 billion devices, and Norris estimates that the number will double in the coming year. At this rate, it won’t be long, he says, before all 10 billion internet-enabled computers in the world have a place in BlueCava’s repository. Norris claims that when presented with a query from a machine already in the database, the software can recognise its source 99.5 per cent of the time.
BlueCava also has what it calls a reputation exchange – a database of information on how devices that the company has fingerprinted have been used over the past year. When online fraud occurs, information about the guilty party’s computer is sent to the database. Retailers who check the database can then decide to bar that device from being used to make purchases on their website.
Although the system can be extremely effective, it does have one large loophole: not every computer has just one user …
Now stand back for a minute. A series of robust identity technologies is spreading across the web. Powerful new authentication methods like writing-style analysis are probably just a couple of years away from being put into widespread use. In a report issued this April, the US government issued a report calling for an interlocking system of compatible identity systems. It seems like one is already emerging.
Will online anonymity, and the crime and abuse that come with it, become a remnant of a past age? Is the internet about to grow up?
Before we throw a coming-of-age party, we might take a moment to consider the implications. Identity-tracking systems can have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to express themselves online. In 2007, South Korea began requiring users of the country’s major websites to sign up with their national identity number to post comments. A study by Jisuk Woo at Seoul National University found that the rate at which people posted comments on the popular forum dcinside dropped precipitously after the law went into force. “Most users became afraid to write on online services,” adds Chun Eung Hwi, a consumer rights campaigner in Seoul. “They were reduced to passive readers and kept silent on public issues.” Yet the evidence for a fall in libellous or obscene comments was mixed. A similar dynamic was evident at TechCrunch. Though the quality of comments increased with Facebook integration, their numbers decreased. Siegler pondered whether people were censoring themselves.
What’s more, online social networks collapse our social lives to a single space, completely unlike normal life where we generally interact with different groups at different times and in different ways. A person might share a radical political view with a friend but shy away from expressing the same opinion at work, for example. It is normal for us to take on what sociologists call different “social roles”, yet this behaviour is inhibited by the openness of Facebook, and less directly by the less transparent technologies that bind our online activities into a single identity …
The question that will shape the future of identity on the net is how much we are willing to give up to be assured that every book reviewer on Amazon is who they say they are. Right now, along with anonymously maligning the competition, we are all free to peruse websites on radical politics, investigate medical diagnoses and make a cheeky remark or two in a chat room – all without feeling that anyone is looking over our shoulder. Would we be willing to do so if all of our online actions were logged in an identity database?