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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM


In the August 2000 special section on Personalization, which consists mostly of uncritical cheerleading for various forms of Internet user profiling, Eugene Volokh promises us an article on "Personalization and Privacy," but instead gives us a discussion of U.S. law.

Volokh reasonably concludes that the law should not restrict the collection or sale of personal information, but he ignores a more important question: whether we, as professionals, should involve ourselves in such activities, legal or not.

There seems to be a tendency, these days, for people to think that whatever is legal must, somehow, be acceptable. This is clearly not true; no law forbids us, for instance, to betray the confidences of our friends, nor should there be any such law ... and yet a person who does so repeatedly will be thought of poorly, and may rightfully suffer social sanctions. There are many, many examples of behaviors that aren't illegal but are still almost universally condemned.

I don't claim that commercial transactions are entirely like personal confidences, but I do claim that we, as professionals, have an ethical duty to consider the effects of our work on others, and that businesses have an ethical duty to consider the desires and expectations of the individuals with whom they interact. It disturbs me to see these duties ignored or glossed over in favor of legalism.

However imperfectly it performs, the law is meant to provide behavioral standards so clearly defined they can reasonably be imposed by force. There are standards that can't be reduced to law, or that shouldn't be. These standards are nonetheless important, and it concerns me to see them fall into disrepute and to see the social norms and institutions that support them fall into disuse.

John Bashinski
Belmont, CA

Eugene Volokh responds:
I agree entirely with Bashinski that many things that are legal are not ethicaland, for that matter, not good business. But as a law professor asked to write for a professional journal, I felt I should limit myself to that fieldlawin which I have professional knowledge and not lay claim to an expertise in ethics I do not possess. I leave the very important ethical questions for the readers, who have as much (or more) understanding of ethics as I do.

Reading the articles in the Personalization section, I sensed a great divide between the implementation of personalization and the goal of having access to systems that allow me to express and satisfy my personality.

When imagining the goals to which I would apply personalization, I see four areas of service:

  • Automation;
  • Protection;
  • Decision support; and
  • Reality construction.

Automation frees me from tedium. It pays my bills, waters my yard, feeds my cat. It is organized to support my personal style; so it is personalized but does not respond automatically to changes in my personality or help me construct that personality.

Protection analyzes my environment and physical state and marshalls resources needed to maintain my personal well-being. It monitors my blood-sugar level, local weather, crime patterns, and external disturbances (fires, and street blockages, among others). It formulates advice I can capably implement and summons professional or emergency services to assist me. The service reflects knowledge of my personal abilities and needs, but does not help me plan or organize my life to maximize my experience within these limitations.

Decision support provides information I have independently determined to be valuable and helps implement a course of action using that information; stock quotes, weather reports, and news reports fall into this category. This is personalized in some sense, in that I select the information channels. My selection reflects my personality. Unfortunately, the value of the information is limited. In any significant case, everyday users do not have the sophistication to effectively formulate action that implements their larger goals. Online trading is a case in point: the best thing for the average user is to buy and hold market indices. The alternative is to devote one's life to tracking the doings of others, rather than doing oneself.

Reality construction is a more advanced application. It uses personal information, such as financial liquidity, age, and clothing size, and helps users evaluate and select among alternative courses of action.

How about a meal creation system? Given my dietary needs, taste ("Italian," "pork," and so forth), target budget, current ingredients, kitchen layout and utensils, preparation time, and available stock at the supermarket, I am given a list of recipes. I select specific courses, and then I'm advised to purchase additional courses to round out the meal's nutritional value.

Budgeting programs that allow me to select a desired lifestyle, circumstances, and location, correlate with my current and projected earnings capacity and help plan purchases of assets and consumables, is another example. The implications of a significant life change could also be projected. For example, changes in wage scales and consumer prices could be projected to assist me in reassessing my priorities and options.

Day planners could provide current and projected information at local sites, transport planning, appreciation options (self- or guided tours of an art gallery), names of friends or attendees interested in sharing the experience, and lists of local services (restaurants, hotels, and so forth).

Of the four, I believe only the last takes us from "customer" satisfaction, to "personal" satisfaction. To the contributing authors, I guess I would pose the question: How do we get there from here?

Brian Balke
Westlake Village, CA

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The Economic Espionage Act: A Lawyer's Perspective?

I have to take issue with Andrew Grosso's perspective of the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 ("Legally Speaking," Aug. 2000, p. 15).

Grosso decries the use of wiretaps against "what is essentially a crime against property." All forms of larceny, including burglary and bank robbery, are crimes against property. Should every victim of a property crime have to hire a private detective to snoop on the perpetrator? In Maryland, at least, doing so would be illegal.

Grosso argues against the possibility that the 1996 law might justify court-ordered federal wiretaps. Why is due process such a problem? The act also forbids misappropriation of trade secrets by federal wiretappers, their contractors, or cooperating communications workersa possibility previously addressed only by requesting permission to file a civil suit against the government.

The 1996 law puts federal agents on the side of the law against internal malfeasance. As Grosso says, it indeed treats trade secrets differently from other concepts lumped under the simplissimus of "Intellectual Property." This is correct, because whereas copyright or patent assigns rights to public information, a trade secret, which is a form of capital equipment, can never be public.

The 1996 law gives equality to industry, including small business, in regard to malicious espionage. Grosso's closing statement that it is unintelligent is wrong; this is not a legal teaching but a lawyer's opinion.

It's a pity the present administration has chained itself from the logical next step: Making it an act of perjury for a federal employee to lie in the line of duty.

John Michael Williams
Redwood City, CA

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Proposal Typography Deserves Fuller Treatment

Daniel Berleant's "On Site" "Does Typography Affect Proposal Assessment?" (Aug. 2000, p. 24) is misleadingly titled. Of the nine bullet points that make up the bulk of his interesting piece, only two are on aspects of typography.

While the typographical considerations are probably less important than many of the other aspects detailed in this "On Site," they deserve fuller treatment than is possible in two pages.

On his first point, Berleant explicitly assumes that the body of proposals are in a serif font, and takes his figures (which I infer have been incorrectly reproduced) to suggest "submitting proposals with section headings in a sans-serif font."

This is certainly the current fashion. But people who take their typography seriously must bear in mind "serif" and "sans-serif" are not font species, or even genera, but families in the order of humanist (roman/ italic) fonts. There is an enormous variety of serif fonts and a wide range of legibilities. Just print out a document using one of the Times fonts that seem to be the favorite defaults of popular word-processing programs and compare the result with the font used on this page to see how much difference there can be.

My experience suggests that choosing carefully the serif font to be used for a proposal is far more important than fiddling with the headings font. The publishing industry has long regarded the mixing of fonts as detrimental to the esthetics of a document. Traditional wisdom has not yet been overpowered by the relatively scanty figures in Berleant's study, and I would recommend proposal designers stick to a single font.

I would also agree that a well-chosen serif font is more pleasing and legible in a printed document than a sans-serif font. On the other hand, it seems widely accepted that sans-serif fonts are generally preferred to serif fonts in documents to be presented on screens.

Berleant's second typographical bullet point "suggests an advantage to submitting proposals with narratives in text smaller than 12 point." The assumption here seems to be that all text other than headings and subheadings should be in a single font size.

My experience suggests that interest is added to formal documents by varying the font size for different kinds of text. Quoted paragraphs, for example, are more obviously quotations if set in smaller type, and technical details, such as the ones in appendices, bulk less in smaller type. Executive summaries, which should be carefully designed as to layout and type selection, are more attractive and legible in larger type than is be appropriate for the main part of a proposal.

However, any variation of font size for running text must be done sparingly and in a logical pattern. Frequent or inconsistent variation in font size can be most disturbing to the reader.

Neville Holmes
Launceston, Tasmania

Daniel Bearlant responds:
Neville Holmes raises some interesting points. He begins by implying that many of the items discussed merit significantly deeper coverage. I fully agree. This necessarily brief "On Site" was a wake-up call for further investigationnot the last word by any means.

Holmes also discusses a number of particulars. He correctly infers that the table labeled "Sans-Serif Headings" was incorrectly reproduced. In fact, it's missing two numbers: of the proposals rated "Not Competitive," nine did not use sans-serif section headings; just one did, suggesting a possible tendency for less-competitive proposals to use a serif font in section headings relative to more competitive proposals.

On the subject of section headings in sans-serif with the body defaulting to serif, Holmes makes other interesting comments, concluding that "Traditional wisdom has not yet been overpowered by the relatively scanty figures ... and I would recommend that proposal designers should stick to a single font." This illustrates the point that the computing community would benefit from a deeper investigation of the topic.

Holmes's second major point is that appropriately varying the font in the narrative is a good thing. I agree it can be appropriate to set certain passages in italics, and appendices and reference lists in smaller font. My figures referred to the font the proposers used as a default; I did not mean to imply otherwise. Related questions of font variation are relevant and await further investigation.

It is well to keep in mind that things are not always what they seem. For example, it is known that ragged-right margins make for easier reading. Yet few would dare submit proposals without the "neatness" and "professionalism" of a justified right margin.

I appreciate the opportunity provided by Communications for sharing my observations.

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Superficial Ethical Rant

Neil Munro's Column ("From Washington," July 2000) is so riddled with faulty logic that a point-by-point rebuttal would take more time to prepare than the thing merits. In the end, all Munro seems to be asserting is that the particular ethical framework he adheres to, which seems to include a strongly anti-scientific and anti-abortion component, is the only valid framework. Any other set of ethical principles is just plain wrong, apparently, without any need to adduce evidence for this assertion. He is certainly free to believe this, but I think Communications does its readers a disservice providing an audience for this shallow and superficial rant.

John J. Bosley
Washington, DC

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Who Is Worthy?

I wish to second Robert Levine's concerns (Forum, Aug. 2000, p.11) regarding the invasion of the Internet in our private lives.

At the end of World War II, there was considerable debate about the development of the hydrogen bomb on the part of the scientists at Los Almos, concluding in the realization that such a thing could be done. Then came the debate about whether or not it should be done. The consensus was that such a device would be capable of indiscriminate annihilation of whole populations on a massive scale, of little incremental military value over the existing technology, and devoid of any redeeming value to humankind.

The device, they said, was altogether evil. Yet it was built, and we have had to deal with its menace ever since. Why? Because it was inevitable, they said.

All technical issues aside, we as human beings are imperfect. As a species, we are not altogether good and not altogether evil. We have created a great many things that have benefited society in a largely positive way. But at what cost? We have created many things (technological and biological weapons of mass destruction come to mind) that either by commission or omission have brought us to the brink of self-destruction as a species. At this very moment, we do not stand far from the cliff's edge.

Technology in the hands of responsible and honorable people can be a good thing. What we seem to underestimate is that the very same technology in the hands of those who are irresponsible and without honor can cancel out any potential benefit to the human condition.

The Napster controversy is an excellent case in point. Napster argues that the Internet has changed the realities of intellectual property ownership. Has it? I think not. Is Napster a modern Robin Hood seeking to right a great social injustice, or just another pirate on the high seas? Napster users' catch-me-if-you-can attitude in response to the threatened shutdown of Napster is a troubling demonstration that not all will is good in the new economy. Trouble is, we do not know who is worthy and who is not until the crime has been committed. How can we be so arrogant and naive to think that we can, when armed with some cleverly sculpted bits of sand, a few lines of code, a code of ethics, and a utopian vision, overcome that which whole generations have labored to overcome.

Another reality is that the currency of the Internet age is information, paid for in eyeball-seconds. In exchange for information, we are obliged to spend some of our bandwidth assimilating the supplier's message. But information flows both ways. It is the very nature of the Internet to do so. Any expectation of privacy on the Internet is a myth. Why? Because the information about you is so valuable, suppliers give away the technology to get it.

No doubt it improves their efficiency and lowers their cost by targeting their audiences more carefully. But they are not beholden to you in the least. They use the information as they see fit and do not allow you to recall itever. Is this an equitable exchange? Is it theft by deception? Is it espionage? Is it inevitable?

What do I care if someone has my email address or compiles and sells dossiers on my buying habits. The Internet makes it easy for me to find and buy thingsright? The industry regulates itself. Those that abuse my trust will be chastised, abandoned, and forced to retreat into bankruptcy. Perhaps. But we have seen that even in the last throes of dot-com dissolution, their informationyour informationbecomes their primary salable asset to be auctioned to the highest bidder. In the end, your information is not, and never will be, your information.

Jeffrey Rosenwald
Frederick, MD

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A Point about Flight Simulators

We would like to make a point about Chris Hecker's contribution to Communications (Jul. 2000, p. 34 ). We are computer scientists and FAA licensed pilots. Ben Choi has 112 hours operating helicopters, 60 hours operating high-performance single-engine, fixed-wing, and 222 hours flying single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft (394 hours total). Christopher Prince has 59 hours (166 flights) flying gliders.

Hecker states, "... flight simulators ... have pretty solid physics simulators delivering a convincingly realistic and consistent experience." Prince has spent time using three glider simulators (Flight Unlimited III, Microsoft Flight Simulator 98, and SFSPC 3.0) and has remained unconvinced as to their realism. Choi has used helicopter simulators (Jane's AH64D Longbow) to advance his training in these expensive aircraft, but remains unconvinced regarding the realism of fixed-wing aircraft flight simulators (Microsoft Flight Simulators and Jane's ATF). We are addressing the issue of PC-based simulators and not the issue of large-scale simulators, which neither of us has had the opportunity to try.

While we appreciate the point of Hecker's article was not at all entirely about realism and more toward the difficulty and necessity of providing consistency in these PC-based systems, we believe real-world experts (in this case, pilots) should be consulted before simply reading the label on Microsoft Flight Simulator 98: "As Real As It Gets." Thanks to Hecker for a stimulating article.

Christopher G. Prince
Duluth, MN
Ben Choi
Ruston, LA

Chris Hecker Responds:
I will certainly be the last to defend game marketing tactics! However, even within a given series of games, there are differences in simulator quality. I'd encourage Prince to try to dig up a copy of Flight Unlimited 1 (FU). The simulator in the original FU used a simplified computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulation over the wing. It apparently had a number of professional pilots as testers, and I've heard (although I'm not a pilot) that it captures a lot of the subtleties of flying. However, and this ties into some of the points in my article about the difficulties of using physics in games, the game developers took out the CFD simulator and replaced it with a more traditional precalculated, table-based simulator for later versions because the original simulator was unstable and difficult to work with. As I said, domain-specific simulators have it easier than general simulators, but I'd never argue they actually have it easy.

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Predatory Disintermediation in the Travel Industry

I found Hal Berghel's "Digital Village" column on predatory disintermediation (Jun. 2000) fascinating. Being a partner in a chain of travel agencies explains my more than passing interest in the matter.

My observation is that the general populace has no clue about the inevitable effect on their lives should this rampant predatory disintermediation continue. As one of the few non-industry observers who seem to appreciate the serious consequences of this unregulated trend, I wonder if there is anything constructive that can be done to garner the attention of appropriate arms of the U.S. government, the only entity seemingly powerful enough to effect any meaningful change? By the time the implications of these trends are appreciated at large and a public clamor ensues, the die may well be cast.

I don't think the public is going to like the "new world order" of travel, but that will be small consolation to retail travel agencies disintermediated into early retirement. For most of us, our businesses are our retirement plan, and the prospect is not very appealing.

Keep writing, Hal. Maybe someone in Washington reads your column.

Terry Denton
Fort Worth, TX

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