Adam Fields (weblog)

This blog is largely deprecated, but is being preserved here for historical interest. Check out my index page at for more up to date info. My main trade is technology strategy, process/project management, and performance optimization consulting, with a focus on enterprise and open source CMS and related technologies. More information. I write periodic long pieces here, shorter stuff goes on twitter or


Hidden dangers for consumers – Trojan Technologies

I’ve been collecting examples of cases where there are hidden dangers facing consumers, cases where the information necessary to make an informed decision about a product isn’t obvious, or isn’t included in most of the dialogue about that product. Sometimes, this deals with hidden implications under the law, but sometimes it’s about non-obvious capabilities of technology.

We’re increasingly entering situations where most customers simply can’t decide whether a certain product makes sense without lots of background knowledge about copyright law, evidence law, network effects, and so on. Things are complicated.

So far, I have come up with these examples, which would seem to be unrelated, but there’s a common thread – they’re all bad for the end user in non-obvious ways. They all seem safe on the surface, and often, importantly, they seem just like other approaches that are actually better, but they’re carrying hidden payloads – call them “Trojan technologies”.

To put it clearly, what I’m talking about are the cases where there are two different approaches to a technology, where the two are functionally equivalent and indistinguishable to the end user, but with vastly different implications for the various kinds of backend users or uses. Sometimes, the differences may not be evident until much later. In many circumstances, the differences may not ever materialize. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.

  • Remote data storage. I wrote a previous post about this, and Kevin Bankston of the EFF has some great comments on it. Essentially, the problem is this. To the end user, it doesn’t matter where you store your files, and the value proposition looks like a tradeoff between having remote access to your own files or not being able to get at them easily because they’re on your desktop. But to a lawyer asking for those files, it makes a gigantic difference in whether they’re under your direct control or not. On your home computer, a search warrant would be required to obtain them, but on a remote server, only a subpoena is needed.
  • The recent debit card exploit has shed some light on the obvious vulnerabilities in that system, and it’s basically the same case. To a consumer, using a debit card looks exactly the same as using a credit card. But the legal ramifications are very different, and their use is protected by different sets of laws. Credit card liability is typically geared in favor of the consumer – if your card is subject to fraud, there’s a maximum amount you’ll end up being liable for, and your account will be credited immediately, as you simply don’t owe the money you didn’t charge yourself. Using a debit card, the money is deducted from your account immediately, and you have to wait for the investigation to be completed before you get your refund. A lot of people recently discovered this the hard way. There’s a tremendous amount of good coverage of debit card fraud on the Consumerist blog.
  • The Goodmail system, being adopted by Yahoo and AOL, is a bit more innocuous on the surface, but it ties into the same question. On the face of it, it seems like not a terrible idea – charge senders for guaranteed delivery of email. But the very idea carries with it, outside of the normal dialogue, the implications of breaking network neutrality (the concept that all traffic gets equal treatment on the public internet) that extend into a huge debate being raged in the confines of the networking community and the government, over such things as VoIP systems, Google traffic, and all kinds of other issues. I’m not sure if this really qualifies in the same league as my other examples, but I wanted to mention it here anyway. There’s a goodmail/network neutrality overview discussion going on over on Brad Templeton’s blog.
  • DRM is sort of the most obvious. Consumers can’t tell what the hidden implications of DRM are. This is partly because those limitations are subject to change, and that in itself is a big part of the problem. The litany of complaints is long – DRM systems destroy fair use, they’re security risks, they make things complicated for the user. I’ve written a lot about DRM in the past year and a half.
  • 911 service on VoIP is my last big example, and one of the first ones that got me started down this path. This previous post, dealing with the differences between multiple kinds of services called “911 service” on different networks, is actually a good introduction to this whole problem. I ask again ‘Does my grandmother really understand the distinction between a full-service 911 center and a “Public Safety Answering Point”? Should she have to, in order to get a phone where people will come when she dials 911?

I don’t have a good solution to this, beyond more education. This facet must be part of the consumer debate over new technologies and services. These differences are important. We need to start being aware, and asking the right questions. Not “what are we getting out of this new technology?“, but “what are we giving up?“.

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3 Responses to “Hidden dangers for consumers – Trojan Technologies”

  1. daw Says:

    I think the debit card situation is worse than that — in principle, under the law, there are situations under which someone can steal money from your debit card account and even after investigating and proving this, the bank doesn’t have to pay you back — unlike for a credit card. Of course, they may do so out of the goodness of their heart (in my experience they even credit money back to you during investigation) but there is obviously a big difference between what they are required to do by law and what they volunteer to do, even as policy.

  2. ezra Says:

    Hehe. . . the point about remote data storage reminds me of the inability of police to inspect one’s trunk during a traffic stop without a separate warrant.

    So, given that it’s massively useful to be able to remotely access data, what’s the solution? Is some clever EFF-minded entrepreneur out there offering data storage that qualifies as one’s legal property (say, by selling hard drives by the gigbyte) and so enjoys greater 4th Amendment protection?

    Off topic: having just bought a home, I was utterly astonished at the amount of info the mortgage lender gets from me. Bank statements, tax returns, pay stubs, SSN, DOB. . . it would be utter child’s play for them to steal my identity if they were so inclined. And the only alternative is to apply for a higher-security mortgage which comes with a higher rate. . . effectively costing thousands of dollars. Some option.

  3. Matt Whyndham Says:

    Excellent roundup that’s worth at least a bookmark, now, shall I entrust it to whoever the owners of happen to be, or write it down on a bit of paper?

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