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In a classic piece of ethnography from the 1940s, William Whyte carefully watched the interactions among Italian immigrants on a street corner in Boston’s North End.  Technology today has made the world like the street corner in the 1940s—it is now possible to make detailed observations on the behavior and interactions of massive numbers of people. These observations come from the increasing  number of digital traces left in the wake of our actions and interpersonal communications.
Mobile Phone Data for Inferring Social Network Structure, N. Eagle, A. Pentland & D. Lazar (pdf)

After several years of futile resistance I was assimilated by Facebook this week.  Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to keep in touch with friends, many of whom I’d lost contact with over the years.   I finally overcame my concern that I would come to know too much about some of them.   I get friend requests as my “circle” expands.  At this writing, I have twenty four friends.   FB also suggests “People you may know.”

Sometimes those suggestions can seem a little too good.  Caitlin Dewey wrote in the Washington Post last spring about how Facebook does it.  In Dewey’s telling, it’s all good math.  But, just how paranoid should I (we) be?

Last night I went to a very small party, where I met Jean for the first time.  This morning FB suggested Jean as a person I may know.    Dewey’s “good math” explanation would have that suggestion be the result of matching information from our profiles and our network.  But, my profile discloses nothing more than where I live (Boulder, Colorado) and where I went to school.  Jean’s profile has not much more.  We have no mutual FB friends.  We have no mutual FB interests (I have disclosed no interests to FB explicitly.)  I have not allowed FB to see my contacts.   It would actually make more sense for FB to suggest Jean’s husband, with whom I worked briefly in an exotic location, though not within the same organization.

So, is the timing just a coincidence, or did FB know or infer that we were at the same location last night?   I have installed the FB app, but I have turned off the location option (at least that’s their story).   Or, does FB know that I searched for the party address on Google Maps shortly before I left my house last night?  Did Jean do the same?

Association by proximity is ho-hum.  FB offers opt-in proximity alerts in its Nearby Friends service, but wondering about PYMK is a small industry on the internet and a few folks have seen evidence that physical proximity prompts PYMK suggestions.  But FB does not have permission to use my location, and in 2014 they denied that they use location data for PYMK (though the wording is such that FB could deny the denial if they are caught actually using location info).  Is FB inferring proximity from other information?  I don’t know.  I don’t know, but I am going to do a little experiment.

From This is really just eye-candy, since it was developed using an active-sensor approach.
From This is really just eye-candy, since it was developed using an active-sensor approach.  It’s a neat visual, though.

Let me offer up an idea I had several years ago that is even creepier–it is completely passive and there is no opt out.  It was such an evil idea that I thought about patenting it, but intelligence agencies are probably already doing this, so going through the expense and brain damage of applying for a patent would probably be a waste of time (and a source of trouble.)

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a technology where a small transponder transmits an identification code upon interrogation by radio.  There are a variety of technologies, but some are small enough and inexpensive enough to be placed in clothing.  I have an RFID transponder on my car that allows automatic tolling on a nearby highway.  The RFID unit is a small windshield sticker that replaced a cell-phone-sized active, battery-powered transponder.   Passports issued since 2007 have an RFID transponder, as do many new credit cards.  There are real concerns about privacy with RFID, so standards have been developed that are intended to protect your identity from nefarious interrogation of a transponder.

But, as RFID tags used for inventory control become smaller and more common, even ubiquitous, the combination of RFID codes in the collection of clothes a person is wearing will provide a practically unique signature.   A particular RFID code is not necessarily unique, but a combination of several codes becomes virtually unique.   Of course, people will wear different clothes from day to day, but it is not difficult to imagine a data mining approach that would categorize different sensed combinations as being the same individual–I have not done the math, but detecting even two codes together would likely be a very  reliable signature.   Of course, once a set of signatures has been associated with Person X, then that individual can be tracked, and can be associated with other people by proximity in space and time.   RFID interrogators placed in airports, train stations, bus stations or even on streets or in shops, could provide a rich data set from which associations could be inferred.  Figuring out who Person X really is will not be too hard.

If you think this is far-fetched, take a look at what Disney is doingJust replace “object” with “person”.

What makes this seem particularly evil is that it is not opt-in, and you cannot opt out.  (Though you may be able to destroy RFID tags in your clothing (using a microwave oven–look it up), you won’t be able to do that with electronic equipment, your passport or your credit card.  Some technologies that vary returned codes according to an algorithm known, in principle, only to the manufacturer could also make social network discovery through RFID more difficult, but only if used in all RFID transponders.)

You are probably not crazy if you are a little paranoid about all of the information you are leaking.  My advice for your peace of mind:  Don’t try using face recognition in Picasa or Google Photos (or now Lightroom).  It’s creepy good and sometimes scarily wrong.


Prime Time

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice.

Farhad Manjoo has an interesting article about Amazon in today’s New York Times.

(Disclaimer:  I don’t know anything about retail.  Or, wholesale or fulfillment or a wide variety of other aspects of business.  I’m just kibitzing here.)

It is Jeff Bezos’s patience that has been the key to Amazon’s rise to dominance in online retail, at least according to Manjoo.  And, I won’t argue with him because lack of patience, the obsessive focus on the current quarterly performance, was one of my big complaints during my seven-year tenure at a multinational, publicly traded firm.

The value of Amazon’s shares doubled in 2015.  This was not supposed to happen according to skeptics of theJeff Bezos’ huge investments in infrastructure.  Some critics will still say that it was the lucky move into web services that has fueled Amazon’s recent success, and it is true that Amazon Web Services has become huge–Manjoo reports that AWS will soon be worth more than Intel.

But, the retail business is profitable, and Manjoo says it has passed the “inflection point” where the company’s investment in more than 100 warehouses, along with other “fulfillment” infrastructure, has begun to pay off.  Sales growth now requires little additional investment.  And, some are projecting a lot of growth.   Manjoo writes that one analyst forecasts that by 2020 over 50% of U.S. households will subscribe to Prime, Amazon’s subscription and free-shipping program.

It is Prime that looks to drive Amazon to retail dominance in the U.S. and elsewhere (Alibaba in China dwarfs Amazon.)   In retail, Prime harnesses the “power of free”, described by Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational ($19.39 at this writing on Amazon.  Eligible for Prime.)  Both Dan Ariely and I benefited from the power of free as I described in this e-mail.

Whatever the reasons for its success, Amazon’s dominance causes concern, primarily among its competitors, but also on the part of local “bricks and mortar” retailers.

Our household is a Prime subscriber, and I purchase stuff from Amazon.  I do like shopping at local businesses, and I am concerned about how Amazon’s ascendancy might harm them.  But, is there a way that Amazon could help local businesses?

From time to time I will run into Dave Hite at McGuckin Hardware.   Dave and Dee (McGuckin) Hite own the store.  I’ve been shopping at McGuckin’s since it opened: Dee’s brother Ron was a schoolmate at Boulder High School.   I even did a little bit of manual labor for the store way back when.

Dave and his family have been in hardware for a long time, and what says is his biggest concern is the decline of wholesale suppliers to independent hardware stores.  The big operations have their own supply chains; as their lower prices lead independents to close, their suppliers also weaken or disappear, which in turn pushes more marginal retailers into failure.  This is a positive-feedback condition, aka “progressive failure” or “death spiral”.

Now comes Amazon, with wholesale buying power and fulfillment that is unrivaled in the U.S.  Amazon already provides a complete warehouse and fulfillment service to small internet sellers–carefully package and label your stuff, ship it to Amazon, and where it is stored until they ship it according to your instructions.   Why can’t this model support local businesses.  Say that Amazon expanded its business to include a comprehensive collection of hardware.  A shopper at McGuckin Hardware who could not find what they want in the store would browse the Amazon stock with a store clerk and order what they want, using McGuckin’s “mega-Prime” account.   Amazon and McGuckin each get a cut and the customer gets what they want delivered to their door.   I dunno, maybe this is dumb, but it seems like an interesting  possibility.  I’ll raise Shunryu Suzuki on this.

The other thing that I wonder about Amazon is how the delivered transportation energy cost of an item compares to one picked up from a local store?   I don’t know the answer to this, but I think there’s a good chance it would go in Amazon’s favor, particularly when you consider that the product is hauled home from the local store along with multiple tons of vehicle.   This seems like an interesting question;  perhaps it has already been answered.