Messing with data: The 10-step subversive instruction manual to hit the tech companies where it (really) hurts.

An apology means something to me.

You can find plenty of advice on how to say you’re sorry, but none I’ve found match the simple wisdom of Theresa Britz, the fiercely-lovable science teacher at my Catholic grade school. To her, an apology meant nothing without a commitment to changing your actions in the future. Without change, “I’m sorry” were simply words better off not said.

Britz used a more colorful phrase: “word vomit.”

Wow, I miss her.

I thought about her as I read a story on Slashgear about cameras installed on Delta and United Airlines entertainment systems. Of course, the cameras were “pre-installed” by the manufacturer to serve possible “future functions.” But don’t worry, they won’t use them to watch you in your seats without your knowledge. They’re “sorry” if you are bothered by this, but they have no plans to remove the cameras.

Delta and United Airlines vomited words. They mean nothing.

I thought about her as I read a story on CNET about a microphone Google installed in a version of its Nest Secure home security system without informing customers. I come from a product development background. One of the ways you save money is to purchase circuit boards (in bulk) with pre-installed components. You may want to use those functions later, and it’s easier to update software than hardware. But don’t worry, Google won’t turn on that microphone without your consent in an attempt to compete with Amazon’s Alexa or SimpliSafe’s security system. They’re “sorry” if you are bothered by this, but they have no plans to remove the microphones.

Google vomited words. They mean nothing.

I thought about her as I read a story in Mashable and the Wall Street Journal about how the mobile app Flo shared information with Facebook about women’s menstrual cycles. As every woman in my life has confirmed (I had to ask), “When was your last period?” is one of the first questions pre-menopausal women get every time they visit the doctor’s office. This app was a simple way to keep accurate health records. But don’t worry, Flo promises not to share information (any longer) with Facebook. They’re “sorry” if you are bothered by this, but they have no plans to compensate users nor to insist Facebook expunge that data.

Flo vomited words. They mean nothing.

As individuals, we are statistically insignificant data points to the tech companies, something less than human beings – at best, a source of cash to buy the next gadget or subscribe to the next subscription service. We’re irritating ants who should just do our jobs.

When you think of it that way, why should tech companies be truly sorry? To paraphrase the trickster god Loki, the boot does not apologize to the ant.

It’s about time we flipped the script.

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To paraphrase the West African proverb: If you think you are too small to make a difference, try staying calm with a fire ant in your underpants.

To understand why you can be the proverbial fire ant in Mark Zuckerberg’s briefs, we need to acknowledge two critical realities of the modern data technological complex:

  1. Data is more valuable to a technology company than gold to an alchemist, more valuable than oil to an army, and more valuable than liquidity to a stock broker. Without data, the tech business model implodes.
  2. That data comes from you, as individuals, and you have a choice to provide it or not. Sharing your data may not seem like your choice, but it is. Modern life may be more difficult without Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple, but it is (very) possible.

If it doesn’t seem like consumers have their finger on the scales of the balance of power, it’s only because we have short memories. Let’s refresh them, shall we? In the beginning of the Silicon Valley revolution, technology companies begged for your loyalty by churning out ever-more-impressive products and services – the search engine, ecommerce, smartphones, and social networks. As time passed and adoption of these products peaked, Silicon Valley confused their ubiquitous use with a shift in the balance of power. This is a misinterpretation of the situation: Search engines, ecommerce sites, next-generation smartphones, and always-on social networks aren’t innovations any longer. They are commodities.

(And they know it.)

To keep the ants from biting, Silicon Valley has resorted to psychological tricks: Lengthy terms and conditions on tiny mobile screens, asking you to accept this choice under time pressure (downloading a ticket app as you’re walking into a theater), defaulting information sharing to “on” with the ability to change it buried in confusing menus of settings, obscuring the identity of “marketing partners” to hide the ways they sell your data to make more money, and turning lame announcements of iterative products into baited-breath rock star parties.

The party is over.

When Toyota builds a car with a defect, they apologize and issue a recall to fix it. When Facebook shares your private data with advertisers, it’s your fault for not checking the correct box. How long will it be before smaller tech companies, medical and health companies, and even your local grocery store sees what’s happening and thinks they can get away with victim blaming too?

Well, fuck that. I’ve had enough of cleaning up word vomit.

It’s time us ants remembered we can bite.

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Biting back, aka Data Subversion, takes three distinct forms.

  1. Data denial: Refusing to provide any data not explicitly required to use a product or service.
  2. Data damning: Posting (and amplifying) discoveries of data misuse by mentioning not only specific companies, but also specific management
  3. Data distortion: Having fun with any data that is purely preferential or optional.

(Note: The last term also carries a specific technical definition in data science. If you have trouble with the difference, simply think of this last one as “having fun with data.”)

How do these three techniques impact data privacy offenders?

First, data denial shrinks the size and scope of their consumer/user database. Smaller, less-rich databases are less valuable and cannot easily be monetized by selling access to third parties, nor are they as rich a source of future product development.

Second, data damning exposes what many companies would prefer to keep private, causing public shame for individual management team members and redirecting corporate resources to address the issue. (For our purposes, management includes only those with a fiduciary corporate responsibility – officers of the company – not your everyday line manager. Sorry CXOs, with a great paycheck comes great accountability.)

Third, data distortion degrades the quality of the resulting database by introducing an overabundance of “outliers” and bogus preference data. If management isn’t observant enough (or simply lazy), they’ll use these oddball datasets and make poor decisions.

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THE MANDATORY DISCLAIMER SECTION

Before we proceed, the lawyers have advised me to issue a few ground rules and perfunctory statements. Put simply, when people read “subversion,” they interpret it to mean sabotage, theft, and destruction. That’s not what we’re talking about. This of this instead as non-violent resistance.

But to be more specific, here’s a list of techniques I consider completely off the table: hacking (either the black hat or white hat variety), spoofing (pretending to be someone else), providing false required data, phishing, doxing, stalking, harassment, or anything else explicitly illegal where you live.

Additionally, depending on your role or profession, you may be subject to additional constraints. Those people include, but are not limited to: fiduciaries, caregivers, physicians, lawyers, peace officers, elected/non-elected officials, as well as those subject to employee codes of conduct and other contractual agreements.

This list isn’t meant to cover everything. If you feel uncomfortable with anything on the list you’re about to read, don’t do it. That’s what personal freedom means. You choose.

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Okay, done reading the disclaimers? Are you sure? Good. Let’s get specific.

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1. Defeating the surveillance state for less than a penny.

Cameras have become ubiquitous … and quite good. Your average smart phone has a better camera than most full-bodied cameras built before 2000. In fact, their ubiquity has dropped the price to the point they can be installed just about anywhere – in phones, yes, but also laptop computers, DIY security systems, cars, street corners, airplane seats, and even light bulbs.

Defeating one is as easy as the humble sticky note. The 3M brand seems to last a little longer (better adhesive), but even the generic brand will do. My preference is the smaller 2 x 1.5 in size because they can cover the camera on my laptop without too much overhang. Yes, you can buy camera covers specifically designed for this purpose, as well as special “gadgets” designed to cover and uncover your camera on your smartphone, but don’t overpay.

I did the math: You can buy 1,200 yellow 3M notes for $9.19. That’s $0.008 per note, or less than a penny. Cameras might have gotten cheaper, but they’re not less than a penny.

 

2. Always keep a Yahoo email address.

How many times are you asked to provide an email address to get access to a special deal, use a coupon, or download an app? How many times have you done that only to find your important (or work) email box filled with spam and other advertising? It’s not just from the original offer, many companies sell your email address to other “marketing partners” as soon as possible.

To defeat them, I maintain a Yahoo.com email address. After a few days, it’s completely unusable. My mailbox must have hundreds of thousands of messages by now (though I believe Yahoo purges them after a while). Never conduct any important business or sensitive transactions using this email address – it’s the most likely to get hacked or compromised – but it’s perfect for taking advantage of special offers without divulging anything more than necessary.

Bonus! Create a fun username that you can repeat (loudly) when asked at a store. I suggest something like “IKNOWYOUREGOINGTOSPAMME at YAHOO dot COM”.

 

3. Do your part to encourage humorous new product development

Perhaps the second-most common request from the tech companies (and pretty much every company these days) is the “quick” survey. What did you think of your last visit to Starbucks? How was your last Uber ride? Would you recommend Fidelity Investments to your friend or colleague?

Ugh.

I’m irritated, and I’m in marketing.

But don’t despair! You can have some fun. Remember, these are preference surveys, which means you can decide what you prefer to share. A suggestion: Imagine if you were answering the survey as your favorite Disney character. What would Mr. Incredible think of that last Uber ride? Have fun!

 

4. Make ‘em pay.

You may have noticed that when you search for a brand or a company on your favorite search engine, you often get two results. The first (usually at the top, as in this example) shows the icon for “Ad” next to the link. The one below it does not. There’s a difference. The company – Williams Sonoma in this case – paid Google to advertise its brand at the top of the screen. But Williams Sonoma is so well-known that its name would appear near the top regardless. Why would they pay? The marketing team is taking no chances.

If you click on the link marked “Ad,” Williams Sonoma will need to pay for that. There is no set amount (it’s a complex auction formula), but it can be anywhere from $0.50 to $10.00 depending on the keyword.

Here’s the question: Do you think the brand is taking you seriously as a customer? Awesome. Scroll down and click on the “organic” link. Not taking you seriously? Not respecting your privacy? Sending you spam? Click on the ad and imagine a cash register sound in your head.

(A note: Repeatedly doing this, or worse, using some software bot to do it, is called click fraud. Not cool, and also a violation of Google’s terms of service. Don’t do that. Have fun with your individual act of resistance.)

 

5. Buy your phone (and your laptop) a condom.

Using a modern smartphone is a lot like unprotected sex in the 1970s – lots of interesting partners, but plenty of unintended side-effects. (I’ll let you use your imagination.) Today’s smartphones can track all kinds of location data as well as listen for voices, turn on their cameras, and track biometrics. You consented to all that, right? Sure, you did.

Let’s use another example: Have you ever left your laptop locked in the trunk of your car – not powered down, but “asleep,” while you go about your business? With a simple device (no, I won’t link to it) thieves can scan car trunks and discover a laptop hiding inside. A professional can be in and out of your vehicle in under 60 seconds.

Preventing either scenario requires learning a teensy bit of physics. In order for most of these functions to work, your phone, your laptop, as well as thieves’ scanning devices require the unimpeded progress of electromagnetic radiation – not the kind that hurts you, of course – think “WiFi” signals. A so-called Faraday case will block any wireless signal coming in or out of your device. In other words, from an electronics perspective, it is invisible.

 

6. Channel James Veitch in your next chat session.

James Veitch is famous for replying to spam email. His videos and TED Talks are, without question, some of the most hysterical examples of modern comedy I’ve ever seen.

Who’s James Veitch? Okay, stop right here. Watch this video. Come back in a minute.

Now, I think you’ll know where I’m going with this. The next time you’re irritated with a company not respecting your intelligence and your privacy – and you see a “live chat” link – I think you’ll know what to do.

Bonus! Try chatting as your favorite literary character. Can you hold an entire chat as Jean Valjean? How about chatting only in Haiku? Ever dreamed of being Batman? Wonder Woman? Go nuts.

 

7. Give nosey apps more than they bargained for.

Apps always want more information. I used to use MyFitnessPal to track my basic nutrition, exercise routine, and weight. Then Under Armor bought the app, and immediately began asking for more data at every turn, connecting with its database to compare my progress to others, and (of course) sending a never-ending torrent of ads for Under Armor gear to “improve” my workouts.

These days, I use it only to track weight. Oh, and some other stuff. You see, when I imagine myself as Batman, I imagine the workout routines I must do to fight criminals with my bare hands. (I think I’d do way better than Ben Affleck, but I suspect not as well as Adam West.)

I also know a guy who lets his cat “weigh herself” on his internet-connected scale. The resulting graph is hysterical.

Bonus! Many apps – especially the less popular ones – have “offline” versions. Try those instead. You may discover they are almost as good for fewer privacy invasions and marketing partners.

 

8. Quack Quack Start!

Did you know that search companies (and your internet service provider, in some cases) can track you even in “Incognito” mode on your browser? Most people don’t, but it makes sense. Without information to sell advertisers, there is no one to pay for the work it takes to build and maintain a functioning search engine. In fact, Google is so good at it that advertising drives more than 80 percent of all corporate revenue (much more if you only count “search”). In other words, search engines are advertising engines. Nothing more. That you get some tangential benefit isn’t the point; it’s only needs to be good enough to keep you addicted.

But remember, search technology has commoditized. Privacy-first browser DuckDuckGo strips away the advertising part of the business model to create a more seamless search experience. They’re banking on being ahead of the curve as more of us start to take control of our data. You may want to give them a try.

 

9. Learn how to tag executives on LinkedIn.

Do you only check your account on LinkedIn when you need to find a new job? You may want to reconsider. Many corporate executives hang out there, keep their information updated, and respond to requests. In other words, if you want to send the Chief Marketing Officer of Nike a message, LinkedIn is the place to do it.

Be warned. Here’s where it gets personal.

Do you have an issue with something a company has done? Ready to post it on Twitter? Consider using LinkedIn instead. Email gets filtered (if you can find the correct email). Twitter is a dumpster fire, and most (smart) executives use someone in their communications department to manage their Twitter feed to avoid saying something, uh, damaging to the company. But LinkedIn is different. It’s a professional resume and reputation management tool.

Mad about the Flo app sharing your data with Facebook?

Well, here’s Founder and President Yuri Gurski’s public LinkedIn profile. You can send him a message (if you use the Sales Navigator tool), or better yet, write a post with your opinion and “tag” him in it using the @ symbol. LinkedIn will fill in the rest of the data and he’ll be notified. All his connections may see that tag as well. One post is enough. (More than that could be harassment, and you’ll likely be blocked.) Use this one wisely. You’re not hidden on LinkedIn either. Be respectful and ask good questions. Perhaps, something like this:

@ExecutiveName, I learned your app shares private health information with Facebook and other advertisers. I appreciate using the product, but what assurance can you give me that my privacy is protected under HIPAA regulations?

You get the idea.

 

10. Alexa Cat™ – Amazon, here’s a new product idea. You’re welcome.

Your Amazon device does not have the computing power, nor access to all of the information it needs, to function without an internet connection. It has just enough on-board processing power to listen for your voice, recognize its trigger word, and send that information back to a set of central servers to respond and complete your request. It can do all sorts of things – tell you the weather, play music, answer simple questions, and connect with all sorts of other third-party services.

Each time it does that, it creates a richer and richer database about you and people like you.

But like most appliances in your home, they’re not used most of the time. And if you’re like most people, you have a bored and lonely dog or cat waiting around at home for you to return from work. What if you could entertain your pet and have fun degrading Amazon’s database at the same time?

I have the solution for you! Create a recording of yourself making random requests – for the weather in Katmandu, playing Beethoven’s 9th symphony, answering questions about the highest mountain ranges in the world – anything you can think of. Set it to play loudly enough to ask Alexa to answer these nonsense questions while you’re away at work.

(A warning: Test it out first with you in the home. You want to make sure your dog doesn’t go berserk, or that you’re not inadvertently making purchases while you’re away, but assuming everything checks out…you can have loads of fun, and your pets will be happier.)

Bonus! Set up a camera and see what your cat or dog does as two robots (your recorded voice and Alexa’s servers) talk nonsense to each other. Be creative. You might just become a YouTube star!

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It’s fair to ask if the actions of just one person will really hurt the tech companies in any meaningful way. In other words, if you keep your Amazon Echo busy all day while you’re at work with random requests to entertain your cat, will that really make a difference?

Yes. More than you think.

First, data denial practices get you in the habit of being conscious about your choices and make you aware of the value of your privacy. Second, data damning raises the issue for others who haven’t yet considered their own privacy. Third, data distortion is just good fun. We could all use a little more fun.

Personally, I have a bit of a mischievous and contrarian personality. I find it funny to entertain a cat with nonsense Amazon requests, but I recognize that for some of you, all this might sound a little icky.

Good.

Fighting back isn’t for the timid.

Perhaps you’ll be fortunate to have your government come to the rescue with GDPR-style legislation. Perhaps that legislation will be able to keep up with the pace of technological change. Perhaps new consumer-first and privacy-centric technologies will begin to take root among more than just a few activists.

I’m hopeful on all these fronts, but I’m not holding my breath. And I’m not waiting. Neither should you.

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About Jason Voiovich

Jason’s arrival in marketing was doomed from birth. He was born into a family of artists, immigrants, and entrepreneurs. Frankly, it’s lucky he didn’t end up as a circus performer. He’s sure he would have fallen off the tightrope by now. His father was an advertising creative director. One grandfather manufactured the first disposable coffee filters in pre-Castro Cuba. Another grandfather invented the bazooka. Yet another invented Neapolitan ice cream (really!). He was destined to advertise the first disposable ice cream grenade launcher, but the ice cream just kept melting!

He took bizarre ideas like these into the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. It should surprise no one that they are all embarrassed to have let him in.

These days, instead of trying to invent novelty snack dispensers, Jason has dedicated his career to finding marketing’s north star, refocusing it on building healthy relationships between consumers and businesses, between patients and clinicians, and between citizens and organizations. That’s a tall order in a data-driven world. But it’s crucial, and here’s why: As technology advances, it becomes ordinary and expected. As relationships and trust expand, they become stronger and more resilient. Our next great leaps forward are just as likely to come from advances in humanity as they are advances in technology.

Thank you! Gracias! 谢谢!

Your fellow human.

 

Jason T Voiovich

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