Prairie Trail Logo

Views from the Prairie

August 10

Not So Anonymous

A researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that most computers give enough information when browsing to be able to identify "this computer". According to a Computerworld article, Peter Eckersley found that browsers are able to give back to the host computer enough information so that subsequent actions could be identified as coming from that same computer. And other research is showing that all browsers "leak" information when browsing.

What types of things are reportable? Turns out that the host can ask for a lot of stuff about the computer by sending down JavaScript commands. The JavaScript command System.getproperty can ask for the Operating System name, the version, which version of Java, and what your home directory is. Other commands can give what fonts are installed, what plugins you have in the browser, what name you signed into the computer with, what time zone the computer thinks it is in, and more. It turns out that the combination of all of these are fairly unique to each computer (where people are allowed to make choices).

There are several ways to avoid being tracked this way. In the corporate world, it turns out that perfectly "cloned" computers were impossible to distinguish from each other. The security people were correct to insist that some computers be set up exactly one way and the users are not allowed to add features or applications. Mobile devices are also hard to track. Finally, it is best to limit where one might be browsing.

The Importance of Forgetting

Brain researchers are learning that memory is not just about remembering something. Often, equally important is the ability to forget something. Our society is built based on the ability to forget. That is the only way that the mass of humanity is able to ride the subway day after day to work and not be overwhelmed with remembering all the people we saw on the way.

Forgetting is a very important human function. It is not just "not remembering". It is also about making judgments about what is important to remember. We start with short term memory and only move the "important" events into long term memory. So, while a child forgetting to do chores can be exasperating, it is also part of the process of learning what is and is not important.

Forgetting is an important part of social healing. Thus, religions have rites to "forgive" and to help the society heal. Western justice systems include ways to wipe a transgression off of the legal record. Countries that had major trauma often try to use a "truth commission" to get the story out so that people can let go of remembering. In the classic novel Les Mis rables by Victor Hugo, the plot revolves around those who would not forget and forgive what was done (and the harm they caused by that remembering).

There are some people who have "photographic memory" and even fewer who have little or no ability to forget. Reading their stories shows just how valuable the skill of forgetting is. Many of these people are not able to function in society because they can't determine what is important information and what is not. They can recite back to you everything that was said in a meeting, but not be able to filter and condense the information down to the vital parts. Because they can not forget, any hurt, any trauma, any disappointment is still just as raw as the day it happened. One such person described her live as agonizing.

Likewise, in business, forgetting is an important part of moving on into new fields and new markets. Thus, one of the most important learning curves at a company is the "Unlearning Curve" or "Forgetting Curve". When moving on, a business has to "forget" how things worked five years ago and learn what works today. Advertisements constantly need to be updated even if selling the same things. Sales channels keep changing as companies go out of business and new ones form.

We see the challenge that companies have in forgetting. Companies that thrived in one area often stumble as the market changed. The latest large company to stumble is Google. Yes, it dominates searches. But others are both figuring out how to "lie" to Google and to work around the perceived need for a search. One place even says that if a customer needs to do a search, that is almost a defect of their web site.

In order to forget, companies put in place procedures to identify what no longer works, develop strategies to move to the new, and do the painful changes to people so that they give up what they used to do.

Apple Computer has done this twice. The first time, they did it at a cost of alienating many people within the company as they switched from the Apple II to the Macintosh. The second time, Steve Jobs had to leave the company for a number of years before he could come back and lead the company into a new way of doing business.

Often, IT systems embody the "old way" of doing things and must be transformed in order to move the company forward. IT systems embody the old business practices and must be changed to the desired new business practices.

Forgetting is such an important part of humanity that, as a society, we not used to how nothing is getting forgotten on the Web. We are not used to people being able to track down everything we wrote 30 years ago. A few years ago, it was common to have to erase old records because electronic storage wasn't capable of holding more. Nowadays, we are recording more and more of life and people are not ready for what will happen. Pictures posted many years ago can come back to haunt someone. As a society, we need to address how to forget and what to forget.


This newsletter is posted here as well as sent via mail and email. If you wish to receive updates, please sign up above.

Prior Years

  1. 2008
  2. 2009