Your proximity card may not be so secure.

An electrical engineering student at the University of Waterloo has created a handheld device that can clone your security system’s proximity card basically from some stuff he had around the house. It seems quite simple, and pretty creative of him. I’ve always appreciated that kind of inventiveness.

When I went to school there, we were just concerned with descrambling cable signals. Times change.

Freedom of choice. Use it.

There have been endless stories recently regarding Google Gmail and privacy concerns. Google Watch has a privacy alert about it. The World Privacy Forum says that 31 civil liberties associations are against it. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has suggestions for protecting you privacy with Gmail.

Here is a suggestion for everyone. If you are concerned about your privacy, don’t sign up for Gmail. Otherwise, don’t worry about it. We all have freedom of choice, but we so often fail to exercise it. In fact, many people would like to make out decisions for us, by suggesting that Google not even offer the service. One lawmaker has even suggested a law against it.

Google is not a charity. They are a for-profit company that is proposing a free email service with up to 1 GB of storage, in exchange for the ability to deliver advertising to users – and efficiently targeted advertising at that. This is not spyware that installs itself without the user’s knowledge. They have stated their intentions clearly.

This seems to be a disturbing trend lately. Howard Stern is being censored, effectively by the FCC which has changed the rules of how it calculates fines, hitting Clear Channel Comunications with a huge penalty, with the potential for more in the future. We may not agree with him, but free speech is still a right.

Whether it is Google on the web, or TV, or radio, if you don’t like it then make the decision to turn it off. Please do not propose to make that decision on my behalf. I can make up my own mind.

Consumer frustration.

Maybe it’s just me, but I am frustrated by movies on DVD. It seems that the makers of the DVDs have a lot more control over my viewing experience than I do. Lately when I insert a DVD and attempt to play it I am directed to coming attractions. In some cases I can’t even fast forward through them, and must skip chapters instead. When I hit the Menu button I am forced to endure a sequence from the movie before the actual menu appears.

DVDs represent an additional revenue stream for movie companies. I have purchased the DVD. When does the movie company believe that they should control my viewing experience? Is it strange of me to expect that when I give the player a command, it should do it, as opposed to letting someone else dictate what I can do?

I also find it odd that I cannot fast forward though the “piracy is illegal ” message at the beginning of the DVD. I’m no planning on pirating the movie, so it is superfluous. And if I was planning on copying the movie, why would I care?

Perhaps the movie companies might give a thought as to what the consumer actually wants.

Ethnography: Helping make Marketing real.

Fast Company has an excellent article about Ethnography and Marketing. Researchers at Ogilvy & Mather follow people, watching their every move, in order to see how they really act rather than how they say they would act. Don’t worry – the people are willing subjects and are paid for their time. They document everything in order to understand how people think and act. The upshot is that Marketing can be much more effective when specifically tuned to the potential customer – perhaps even recreating their entire world, including the product to be sold and how it would fit in.

Companies have tried lifestyle marketing (i.e. beer and attractive women), but I’ve noticed that these correlations do not always occur in real life. If research could detect real patterns in how people act, then they could market products much more effectively by understanding how the product really fits into my personality.

Years ago I used to watch Saturday Night Live. Every Saturday at midnight there was a commercial for Mr. Big candy bars. Unfortunately there were no stores open that late where I lived, but every Saturday night I salivated over that candy bar, wishing I had one. Unfortunately the feeling did not linger until ther stores were open again. Perhaps if someone had researched how I purchased candy bars and how quickly I ate them, the marketing might have stuck.

Some ideas need to be free.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has created The Patent Busting Project to fight these questionable patents. Several patents granted in the past few years have been used, primarily by groups of lawyers, to generate revenue in the form of license fees. These fees do not go to reseach or improved technology, but merely to profit. They also limit advances in technology, and waste productive time.

While I recognize the need for companies to protect their technology – I am an inventor of record in several patents myself – it is unreasonable to allow patents to stifle creativity. I sincerely hope that the EFF is successful in changing how the Patent Office grants such broad patents.

Amazon enters the search business.

John Battelle has posted a review of Amazon’s new search engine He indicates that it is built on top of Google. There is one slight difference. There is a “Sign In” option, and after performing a search, the line ” Hello, sign in to enable site features.” appears at the upper right corner. When you click “Sign In”, you are asked to sign in to your Amazon account. After that you are able to view your search history, starting with the last 24 hours. It also lists the books that match your search.

To the recording industry: Get a clue.

The record manufacturers have been busy suing everyone in sight for allegedly downloading music illegally. Yet just when legal downloading is beginning to take off at 99 cents, they want to raise prices of single song downloads to as much as $2.49. They are also considering bundling hits with less popular songs. Imagine walking into a Macdonalds, paying twice as much for Big Mac – but they will give you a Filet O Fish.

In some cases the albums available online for dowloading cost more than the CDs do in stores. And this is without any product, manufacturing, and distribution costs at all. So where are the cost savings? Costs involved in the recording industry are murky, with different royalties paid in different situations. However, it certainly appears that some of the motivation here is greed. There has been a substantial economic downturn in the past few years, yet the RIAA is surprised that sales are down. An article in the New York Times (free signup required) suggests that there may be other reasons why sales are down. A Harvard/UNC study indicates that the effect of downloading on sales is “statistically indistinguishable from zero”.

Customers are beginning to use these services. The market is beginning to grow. This is not the time to make up “lost” profits.

Avoid carbs AND spyware.

Simson Garfinkel suggests that Congress pass legislation forcing software to be labelled in the same way the food products currently are. For example, if a piece of software includes spyware, then it would have to indicate that to the potential customer. This idea could go even further, identifying the things that are good for you like the functions that operate correctly, and also the things that are bad for you like the stuff that doesn’t really work at all. Perhaps then the overblown marketing claims could be labelled as “fat”.

Lose a court case? Change the law.

In a recent court case in Canada, the judge ruled that file sharing did not contravene copyright and was therefore legal. That seems reasonable given that Canadians -presumed guilty of copying – already pay a tax on all recordable media, the proceeds of which go directly to the recording industry. Now the Federal Heritage Minister has promised to change copyright law, though she provided no details. She didn’t say how quickly she would be removing the tax, although I’m pretty sure Canadians shouldn’t hold their breath.

When I was younger, we used to share CDs (and even records) with friends so that they could tape them. We could even get them at the library. This went on for years without issue. Why is this now different? Record companies insist that this is piracy, though I always thought that was when someone made illegal copies of music and sold it. Instead, people are just sharing music – just like we did years ago. Does the problem stem from the fact that the internet allows millions to get the shared music?

I also used to be able to make a backup copy of my CDs, or play them at home or in the car. Record companies would also like to take that away from me and make me pay for the same music over and over for each use. Once I have paid for a song, shouldn’t I be able to listen to it anywhere? Would a book publisher seriously consider charging me twice for a book if I wanted to read it at home and in the car?

I believe in copyright, but I find myself arguing against it in a sense. Rather that change to provide service to their customers, record companies have merely attacked them, and lobbied the government to change the law to make it criminal to share files. Copyright in virtually every country is civil law. Now the record companies are going to make it criminal – and make YOU a criminal.

Soon the FCC-supported broadcast flag will keep you from recording you favorite TV programs as well. Will these steps herald the end of the time-shifting VCR-driven era?

What rights do you as a consumer get for your hard-earned dollars? And who is on YOUR side?