Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Bump keys: should journalists tell consumers everything?

Many professions, especially those having to do with issues like security, or with manipulation of customers’ money, have long had quasi-secret practices, informal in nature and not company specific and legally binding like trade secrets, that more or less stay within the “profession.” Reporters for established newspapers and television networks prides themselves on getting scoops to expose various dirty little secrets to the public.

With the Internet and the world of blogging and profiles, this paradigm slowly erodes, and implodes. Employers worry that associates will cross the line as they slowly come to the conclusion that they need blogging policies. But nevertheless, it’s useful to list a few of current media flaps over dirty little secrets recently.

For example, late in 2006 reporters started occasionally to provide stories about bump keys. (The story apparently originated in The Netherlands.) These are purported to be like “master keys” that can open almost any conventional lock cylinder with a slight amount of force. There are even some videos on the Internet on how to make them. The Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA) issued a press release (PDF) that implied that self-promoting or attention-getting journalists were endangering ordinary residential security by “exposing” something that has been known semi-privately for at least a half century. A good response to this turf-protective and parochial "reasoning" ("security through public ignorance"), by Marc Weber Tobias, is here.

Of course, if there is such a “secret hidden in plain sight” then consumers are entitled to expect a solution. Bump-resistant cylinders exist and are not that expensive. Sure, locksmiths want do do more business, but get it right the first time! Home builders should install them, as should apartment landlords, without quibbling. Beyond that, homes should be built and designed to be more secure (which they are in some high-end gated communities). This means avoiding sliding glass doors or windows hidden by shrubs, using solid core doors, good deadbolts, and high security cylinders. In many cases, security systems are a good idea, and they can now be installed with synergy, sometimes, for example, for parents who need to watch children or working adults who need to watch especially disabled or very elderly people. (These kinds of home monitoring systems, appealing to people who have elderly loved ones but who travel or live in other states, started getting more publicity around 2004 or 2005.)

I lived in New York City in the late 1970s, and everyone took additional precautions then. You put bars or gates near fire escapes, insisted on solid core doors and Medeco pick-resistant cylinders (everybody knew about picking), with deadbolts and plates.

Of course, all of this is related to sociological change. In the 50s, families and communities were more cohesive, and different classes of people were only beginning to understand the inequities on a grander scale. Today, society is necessarily more mixed, and there are plenty of people with axes to grind. In an individualist world where immediate ties are not a secure, individuals simply have to be more careful.

Of course, the same idea applies to the whole idea of Internet security, the particular problems of which has been discussed in many earlier postings on these blogs. The more individual consumers know, the better they can protect themselves.

But we find this kind of idea of “plain sight secrets” breaking down in other areas. Private detectives and debt collectors have their tricks that don’t get out too much – such as “skip tracing” web services. On an episode of CW’s Supernatural, the character Dean (Jensen Ackles), who plays a cop, breaks into a car with a coathanger and says “I know a few tricks,” whereas his law-student brother Sam (Jared Padalecki) struggles with the conscience and ethics of what the brothers are doing to root out evil.

Or, take banking. Not just all the warnings about phishing. Banks make money off of the short-sightedness of “average” middle class customers, with huge penalties and fees for breaking the “rules” of the credit world. I would hate to be an executive responsible for the “bottom line” of making money this way. Good thing that consumers are told.

On journalistic "openness", Anderson Cooper 360 (CNN) presented a serious conundrum on Tuesday May 22, about the rogue website whoisarat.com which lists "snitches" or "rats" who inform or "flip" in order to get plea deals. Law enforcement maintains that the existence of such sites can hurt investigations of serious crimes. The Justice Department maintains that it does not have the authority to shut down such a site, because of First Amendment concerns. Lawyer Jeffrey Toobin maintained on the 360 program that the First Amendment cannot distinguish between Internet (immediately accessible) and printed (not so accessible) speech, as courts have repeatedly maintained (as in COPA).

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