I’m not the first to observe this by any means - Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert has made a career and damn good living out of it - but if this planet has one inexhausable, infinitely renewable resource then that resource in human stupidity…
… and there’s nothing so certain to bring that fact home to you than a few hours a week spent on the Internet.
The simple fact is that there are still plenty of people out there who are dumb enough to…
- send their bank account details to someone who e-mails them with the opening gambit of
- believe they’ve won the Elbonian Lottery, which they’ve never even heard of let alone entered, just because someone sends them an e-mail telling them they’ve won
Never mind the whole business of believing that your bank/building society/credit card company needs you to remind them what your username, password and pin number is or that you really are going to win the big prize from that scratchcard that arrived through the post and not some crappy faux gold pendant that even Gerald Ratner would have refused to stock, just so long as you phone a premium rate line at £3 a minute - because, of course, your card is going to be the only winner.
Now to that venerable list of human stupidity we can add all those people who blithely handed over their e-mail addresses to the Labour Party through its ‘Big Conversation’ website without ever expecting to hear from them again.
Ok, as might be obvious by now this is a bit of a continuation of something which started with me debunking Guido Fawkes’ ineptly researched innuendos regards the Labour Party’s campaign e-mails during the recent election campaign here and here. - a spat which has brought in nigh on 200 visitors from the BBC in just over 24 hours since being featured on their website.
The difference this time is that, thanks to a comment from Eliot Flack-Hill the so-called ‘concerns’ of ‘privacy campaigners’ become oh very much clearer.
Eliot, to start with, takes issue with my assertion that only Labour Party members and people registering through Labour’s website went on to receive e-mails from the party. Not True, says Eliot, he only added a comment to the ‘Big Conversation’ website.
Mmmm. And just who did you think owned that website, Eliot? After all it was a Labour Party policy initiative which was announced at the Labour Party Conference and was paid for by… you guessed it… the Labour Party.
Eliot then goes on to admit that not only did he blithely hand over his e-mail address when asked by the site but he also ‘can’t recall what that site stipulated re personal data’ which would generally suggest that he didn’t bother to check anyway, making him would generally be known in trade as ’spambait’ as the experienced netizen knows damn well that you never, ever give a proper personal e-mail address to a website you’re not planning to use on a regular basis - that’s what free and eminently disposable webmail accounts at Hotmail and Yahoo are for.
But then none of that matters as he’s sure that if he’d have known that his e-mail address would wind up being used by Labour, at a later date, to send e-mails to him he would not have bothered with the Big Conversation in the first place.
It’s here that we step into the realms of logical inference as follows:
Q - A Labour Party website asks you for your e-mail address. Why?
A - So they can send you emails. Duh!
What we’re people expecting? A personal reply from Tony? A quick note to say sorry for invading Iraq?
Come on folks, it not difficult is it? Yet even with the benefit of hindsight it seems some folks still can;t work it out for themselves.
Ultimately we get to Eliot’s real beef which echo’s Guido’s comments about Tory voters getting e-mails from Labour when he says:
“I feel that Labour’s use of electronic data during the election campaign was exessive [sic], dishonest and underhand - I got more emails from Labour (referring to me as ‘Dear Supporter’ and some of them ludicrously claiming to be from ‘Tony Blair’) than I did from the Lib Dems, of whom I AM a member.”
Leaving aside the obvious questions like…
- Why not just click the unsubscribe link and have yourself removed from the mailing list?
- Have you never come across the concept of spam filtering?
Both of which become rather salient when you find out that Eliot is a software developer for IBM mainframes and can, therefore, hardly claim to be a total novice when it comes to information technology/
It seems the real ‘issue’ here has more to do with Labour having stolen a march on the other parties by taking the time bring in people who understood how to use the available technology to full extent permissable in law. It just happens that one of the people brought in - Zack Exley - has a bit of name recognition value due to his work during the US Elections which allows the likes of Guido Fawkes to feed on the paranoia and ignorance of some of the less net savvy amongst us.
Just to finish the analysis, I’ve now been through several of the Labour Party e-mails to look at exactly what was going on ‘under the hood’.
First thing to note is absence of embedded scripting or IFRAME tags - so nothing was happening unless you actually clicked on a link or image in the e-mail anyway. Sure they knew they’d sent you an e-mail as Guido states - of course they did, they sent the damn thing in the first place - but after that you were only even going to register ‘on the radar’ is you chose to click on a link and make something happen all by yourself.
Second, the only link to have a consistant personal identifier string attached to it was the unsubscribe link and it appears that the only change made to this link after the ‘Clem Atlee’s Battlebus’ e-mail from Matt Carter on 19th April - which was the last to use any ‘hidden’ scripting was that the method of unsubscribing was changed from a website link, which automatically unsubscribed you further e-mails to a mailto link which generated an unsubscribe e-mail you had to send manually.
The only e-mail to use this link other than for the purpose of registering your intent to unsubscribe from Labour’s mailing list was one that was ostensibly from Tony himself, announcing that he’d gone to the Queen to seek the dissolution of Parliament, and which used this identifier on links to volunteer for election duty and to invite recipients to send their questions to Tony via the Labour website.
And just for the ubergeeks out there, this identifier was in the form of four 8 character strings - a total of 32 characters in all - which is also, as it happens, the length of a GUID (global unique identifier) field used in most SQL-based databases, including MySQL on which this very blog runs.
Third, the other identifers in e-mails appear to relate only to specific elements in the email such as a particular image or link, i.e. ‘donate’ or ‘volunteer’. These used indentifiers in the format ‘LNK’ plus a 5 digit serial number - giving too few combinations, in fact, to allow for individual link tracking. These would have given Labour only statistical data on which particular links/images people were more inclined to respond to. Did people respond better to e-mails from Tony or did they prefer to be hearing from John O’Farrell? Did a generic appeal to support Labour work better than one which played on the party’s support for the NHS?
There idenitifiers, likewise, disappeared after April 19th, although whether as result of ‘pressure’ from the likes of Guido or simply becuase they’d already done their job by that point is, at this stage, still unclear. As I mentioned in my original piece, for a legal standpoint Guido was simply blowing smoke and has/had nothing which would stand up in court. However people like Zack Exley have been around long enough to understand how even a wrong-headed and inaccurate analysis like that which Guido finally put forward can easily blow up to the point where issues with the medium overtake the message that being put across to the detriment of the campaign as a whole.
In all, these hidden links undoubtedly provided useful stuff for the marketeers looking to identify which messages worked best and drew the best response but nothing which could be used to track individual behaviour, let alone tie that behaviour back to a specific person and post code.
So what’s all that about? Was it really the Beast of Redmond that was watching all along?
Well not really. This same type of link seems to crop up in many places on the net and on many different and unrelated websites and appears to be nothing more than Microsoft’s own proprietory version of Google Juice - hit the link and your hit on the site/page is first logged by MSN Search and goes some way to bumping your site up its search engine rankings and also, in the new cases, triggering their web crawlers to register and index the site with their own search engine before you are forwarded on the page you actually want - sneaky, yes, in a putting one over the competition (Google, Yahoo) kind of way but hardly a threat to your privacy.
And that’s all folks. That’s the whole shebang laid bare and in detail and nothing, really, to get worked up about at all.
If people want to debate the ethics of Labour’s use of new technology during the election campaign then fine, go ahead, its probably of interest to some - just don’t go wasting your time, effort and especially your money mount fruitless legal challenges because the only thing that’ll get you is a sizable bill…
… and don’t forget, by the time the next major election comes around - probably not next year’s local elections but almost certainly the next round elections in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament - it won;t just be Labour doing this but the other two major parties as well.