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No Public Privacy September 2, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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My town is fairly techno-savvy.  They run a great web site with up-to-date information on just about anything you can imagine.  They also provide real-time email notification of town issues.  Any time there is an emergency road closing, or an impending storm, you get a nice email letting you know.  You also get all the official town press releases, as they are, um, released to the press.

I always thought this was pretty cool, until last week.  That’s when I got an email from the town informing me that the address lists used to drive the email system are considered a public record and are therefore obtainable under the Freedom Of Information Act.  The town wanted me to know that someone had just obtained a copy from the town, and that I should be on the lookout for potential spam as a result.

Isn’t that great?  Spammers need not scrounge addresses on their own, or pay for them from dubious sources.  Instead, they can get them, for free, from every municipal entity in the country that provides information via email.  Somehow, I don’t think this is what was envisioned when the FOIA was passed.

Now citizens have a choice: continue to receive timely (and potentially life-saving) information from your town, or be subject to even more spam from those who get the lists from your town.  Of course, this punishes the most forward-thinking towns who have taken the time to implement these fancy services.  Backwards towns, still distributing information via criers, are not putting their citizens at risk.

I know that I should be running appropriate spam filters (I do) and not open suspicious messages from destitute ex-royalty in Nigeria (I don’t), but not everyone is as techno-hip as I am.  Even worse, you know the spammers will be sending fake messages that look like missives from my town, just to further confuse the recipients.  I know that is somehow illegal, but I’m guessing that most spammers are not following some sort of Spammers Ethical Code to prevent this kind of stuff.

Lots of people fret that private data being held by third parties may someday be retrievable via subpoena, and much is made of how responsible Google and other large firms will be when trying to protect our data.  But I don’t know that many people have worried about what our local town government will do when asked for our data.  Now we know: they turn it over to comply with the law.

I have to believe that certain town-held data (like utility billing data) is confidential.  Or is it?  Could I send a letter to any town in the United States and get their complete billing database, under FOIA?  Forget email.  That kind of data would be a goldmine for all sorts of data mining and marketing insight.

I don’t know where this is headed, but I am not happy about where it is so far.  We need to rethink how data is held by public agencies, and how it can be withheld except under certain very well-defined circumstances.

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Triumph Over The Man September 30, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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They are back! The great corporate giant has yielded to my demands, and S.O.S Pads are once again available at my local grocery store!

Regular readers know that S.O.S Pads were discontinued recently in my area. I was astounded by this decision, and even more perturbed by the cavalier  nonchalance with which the store manager informed me of this decision. Other shoppers clearly felt the same way and, after my posting, shared similar concerns. My Mom even sent me a box of S.O.S Pads, which was a welcome but unexpected side effect of the post.

After a flurry of activity that included glaring at the store manager and filling out the online customer comment form, the pads suddenly reappeared in their rightful spot on the kitchen cleaner aisle. Other shoppers played it cool, showing little emotion as they became aware of the pads’ triumphant return. But I knew they were appreciative, and that my hard work had paid off to the benefit of the entire community. The will of the Man has been bent, and we are all the better for it.

Fight The Power! August 10, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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They’re gone.  The S.O.S Pads are gone.

I was food shopping Sunday afternoon, dutifully traversing the aisles, expecting everything to be in its place.  I know that this expectation is not always met, as devious marketers move things in an effort to break my concentration and tempt me with new and exciting products.  On rare occasions, the entire store gets reconfigured, just to shake things up and keep customers off-balance.

This was different.  All the other kitchen cleaning products were in their places, but the S.O.S Pads were gone.  Not sold out, not moved slightly, but completely removed.  I looked for the shelf tag that should mark their familiar home, but none could be found.  Had then been shifted to a whole new store neighborhood?  Perhaps they were no longer considered a kitchen cleaning tool, but had been shifted to the skimpy kitchen/hardware/automotive section as a garage accessory.  Hard to imagine, but the mind of the store layout person is difficult to plumb at times.

Instead of wandering the store in a Sisyphean search, I went right to the manager and asked where they were.

“Oh, we don’t carry them anymore.”

“At any store?”

“Nope.  When they reset that display, the pads were not included.”

I walked away, rendered mute by another example of corporate grocery incompetence.  In one fell swoop, some drone within the depths of Harris Teeter had eliminated 91 years of product history, removing a product as American as Corn Flakes or Wonder Bread from the shelves.  How could this be?  Have people suddenly stopped scouring things?  Is there insufficient margin on steel wool and soap to justify their sale?  Or have S.O.S Pads been found to be environmentally unacceptable?

Surely it cannot be the latter.  After all, on the same shelf that used to contain the Pads are environmentally safe quick-dissolving dishwasher detergent pouches.  Honestly, if you are concerned about the environment enough to fret about the safety of the dissolving pouch that contains the detergent, wouldn’t you have long ago sworn off automatic dishwashers and reverted back to eating off hardened disks of week-old bread to ensure a completely carbon-neutral eating and washing experience?

In this case, I suspect a bad decision by a powerful committee. A committee that holds our fate in its hands, deciding with the stroke of a pen how we will clean our pots and pans.  Are we going to put up with this?  Are we going to allow The Man to decide how we scrub and wash?  Or are we going to stand up and fight this injustice?

I will fight.  I will go to the Harris Teeter web site and lodge a formal complaint.  As hundreds and thousands of others do the same, our voices will be heard and S.O.S Pads will be returned to the shelves.  A great tradition of shiny American cookware will not be interrupted by petty bureaucracy.

Are you with me?  Let’s hear it: Scour To The People!