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Internet Explorer is for Dummies! Anatomy of a hoax.

August 7, 2011 15 comments

Good business intelligence quickly identifies information that is real and what’s false – or should. It’s important that decision making is based on accurate, factual data – as otherwise bad decisions get made. So how do you tell whether something is real or fake?

Generally, the first rule is to check the source or sources.

  • Are they reputable and reliable?
  • Is the information in the story sensible and reasonable?
  • What’s the background to the story – does it fit in with what’s already known?

The problem is that even if information passes these tests it may still not be true. There are numerous examples of news items that sound true but that turn out to be false. One example is a BBC news story from 2002 quoting German researchers who claimed that natural blondes were likely to disappear within 200 years.   A similar story appeared in February 2006 in the UK’s Sunday Times. This article quoted a WHO study from 2002. In fact, there was no WHO study that stated this – it was false. The story of blonde extinction has been traced back over 150 years and periodically is reported – always with “scientific” references to imply validity.

The “Internet Explorer users have lower IQs” hoax

Often, the decision to accept a news item depends on whether or not it sounds true. If the story sounds true, especially if supported by apparent research then people think that it probably is – and so checks aren’t made. That is why a recent news story suggesting that users of Internet Explorer have lower IQs than those of other browsers was reported so widely. Internet Explorer is often set up as the default browser on Windows computers, and many users are more familiar with Explorer than other browsers. The suggestion that less technologically adept users (i.e. less intelligent users) would not know how to download or switch to a different browser made sense.

I first read the news story in The Register - an online technical newspaper covering web, computer and scientific news. Apart from The Register, the story appeared on CNN, the BBC, the Huffington Post, Forbes and many other news outlets globally (e.g. the UK’s  Daily Telegraph  and Daily Mail). Many of these have now either pulled the story completely, just reporting the hoax, or added an addendum to their story showing that it was a hoax. A few admit to being fooled – the Register, for example, explained why they believed it: because it sounded plausible.

The hoax succeeded however, not only because the story itself sounded plausible, but also because a lot of work had been put in to make it look real. The hoaxer had built a complete web-site to accompany the news item – including other research, implying that the research company concerned was bona fide, other product details, FAQs, and even other research reports, etc. The report itself was included as a PDF download.

In fact most pages had been copies from a genuine company, Central Test headquartered in Paris and with offices in the US, UK, Germany and India – as was highlighted in an article in CBR Online.

Red Flags that indicated the hoax

To its credit the technology magazine, Wired.com spotted several red flags, suggesting that the story was a hoax, stating that “If a headline sounds too good to be true, think twice.”

Wired commented that the other journalists hadn’t really looked at the data, pointing out that “journalists get press releases from small research companies all the time“. The problem is that it’s one thing getting a press release and another printing it without doing basic journalistic checks and follow-throughs. In this case,

  • the “research company” AptiQuant had no history of past studies – other than on its own web-site;
  • the company address didn’t exist;
  • the average reported IQ for Internet Explorer users (80) was so low as to put them in the bottom 15% of the population (while that for Opera users put them in the top 5%) - scarcely credible considering Internet Explorer’s market share.

After the hoax was exposed, the author, Tarandeep Gill, pointed out several red flags that he felt should have alerted journalists and admitted it had been a hoax i.e.

1. The domain was registered on July 14th 2011.
2. The test that was mentioned in the report, “Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (IV) test” is a copyrighted test and cannot be administered online.
3. The phone number listed on the report and the press release is the same listed on the press releases/whois of my other websites. A google search reveals this.
4. The address listed on the report does not exist.
5. All the material on my website was not original.
6. The website is made in WordPress. Come on now!
7. I am sure, my haphazardly put together report had more than one grammatical mistakes.
8. There is a link to our website AtCheap.com in the footer.

The rationale and the aftermath

Gill is a computer programmer based in Vancouver, Canada, working on a a comparison shopping website www.AtCheap.com. Gill became irritated at having to code for earlier versions of Internet Explorer – and especially IE 6.0 which is still used by a small percentage of web users. (As of July 2011, 9% of web-users use Internet Explorer versions 6.0 and 7.0 with a further 26% using version 8.0. Only 7% of web users have upgraded to the latest version of Internet Explorer – v9.0).

The problem with IE versions 6.0-8.0 is that they are not compatible with general web-standards making life difficult for web designers who have to code accordingly, and test sites on multiple versions of the same browser – all differing slightly. (As you can’t have all 4 versions of Internet Explorer IE6.0 – IE9.0 on the same computer this means operating 4 separate computers or having 4 hard-disk partitions – one for each version).

Gill decided to create something that would encourage IE users to upgrade or switch, and felt that a report that used scientific language and that looked authentic would do the trick.  He designed the web-site, copying material from Central Test, and then put out the press release – never expecting the story to spread so fast or far. He was sure he’d be found out much more quickly.

The problem was that after one or two reputable news sources published the story everybody else piled in. Later reports assumed that the early ones had verified the news story so nobody did any checks. The Register outlined the position in their mea culpa, highlighting how the story sounded sensible.

Many news outlets are busy flagellating themselves for falling for the hoax. But this seems odd when you consider that these news outlets run stories on equally ridiculous market studies on an almost day basis. What’s more, most Reg readers would argue that we all know Internet Explorer users have lower IQs than everyone else. So where’s the harm?

The facts are that AptiQuant doesn’t exist and its survey was a hoax. But facts and surveys are very different from the truth. “It’s official: IE users are dumb as a bag of hammers,” read our headline. “100,000 test subjects can’t be wrong.” The test subjects weren’t real. But they weren’t necessarily wrong either.

You may disagree. But we have no doubt that someone could easily survey 100,000 real internet users and somehow prove that we’re exactly right. And wrong.

The real issue is that nobody checked as the story seemed credible. Competitive Intelligence analysis cannot afford to be so lax. If nobody else bothers verifying a news story that turns out to be false, you have a chance to gain competitive advantage. In contrast those failing to check the story risk losing out. The same lessons that apply to journalists apply to competitive intelligence and just because a news story looks believable, is published in a reputable source and is supported by several other sources doesn’t make it true. The AptiQuant hoax story shows this.

Meanwhile the story rumbles on with threats of lawsuits against Tarandeep Gill by both Microsoft (for insulting Internet Explorer users) and more likely by Central Test. Neither company is willing to comment although Microsoft would like users to upgrade Internet Explorer to the latest version. In May 2010 Microsoft’s Australian operation even said using IE6 was like drinking nine-year-old milk. If Gill has managed to get some users to upgrade he’ll have helped the company. He should have also helped Central Test – as the relatively unknown company has received massive positive publicity as a result of the hoax. If they do sue, it shows a lack of a sense of humour (or a venal desire for money) – and will leave a sour taste as bad as from drinking that nine-year-old milk.

Gun smuggling, airline security and an intelligence failure.

January 25, 2011 2 comments

The headline article in the London Times for 25 January 2011 (print edition), Gunrunner Security Fiasco, reports how a security consultant named Steven Greenoe had smuggled numerous weapons into the UK – subsequently sold to UK criminals and gangs. At least one gun is known to have been used in a drive-by shooting.

This story raises several issues – not least the problem of airport security and how to ensure passenger safety, both on the ground and in the air. The news appeared to break on the same day that a suicide bomber killed three dozen people at the Moscow arrivals lounge.

I’ve often felt that the current paranoia over airport security was “overkill” (pardon the word-use). When I first started flying it was an adventure, but since September 2001 it has become more and more unpleasant. The security checks – although necessary – are becoming increasingly intrusive, yet the terrorists and criminals continually find new ways to get round them. Each time they are caught, new barriers are put in front of the innocent travelling public, to the extent that the average traveller is now so nervous that it would be almost impossible to differentiate between the genuinely nervous innocent and the person exhibiting nervousness due to their plans to blow up a plane.

Just as an example of how easy it is to blow up a plane if you really wanted to, I did some quick research prior to writing this post. For a few hundred US$ it is possible to purchase a few grams of a chemical and package it in a way that would not arouse suspicion if taken on a plane. With the addition of further chemicals available to all passengers on the plane, this could be turned into a bomb that would cause substantial damage. I’m not going to identify the chemicals for obvious reasons and not having tested this, I can’t say whether this bomb would be sufficient to blow a hole in the plane’s fuselage. However videos of the two chemicals in combination are available on the Internet, and the reaction is always highly explosive, completely destroying the reaction container. (One described the reaction of just 2 grams of a similar less-reactive chemical as like letting off a hand-grenade in a bath tub, and the resulting video confirmed this as the bath was destroyed).

The point is that if you want to kill and cause mayhem, it is possible. The job of security is to spot those people who are acting suspiciously or where intelligence suggests that they may be up to no good. This is how El Al caught Nezar Hindawi when he persuaded his pregnant girlfriend to carry a bomb onto a plane for him. The girlfriend was innocent and knew nothing about the suitcase with semtex hidden inside. It was only due to excellent intelligence, prior to reaching check-in, that a massacre was stopped.

The problem today is that everybody is likely to act suspiciously due to nervousness – and so make the job of picking up the genuine criminal more difficult. I believe that this is the first problem with airline security. The second is the laxness of checks at some smaller airports. Both are examples of intelligence failures. The first adds “noise” to the security problem, and uses staff that just go through procedures rather than depend on intelligence skills. The second is potentially worse in that it fails to use intelligence at all, and just hopes that the fact that the airport is small / regional means that the risk will be much lower. Of course, any potential terrorist can spot this from a long way off.

The US has long felt relatively safe, so long as the terrorist is kept out. As a result, checks on domestic flights are minimal or ineffective. This means that it is relatively easy to pack guns in domestic luggage – that then gets transferred to an international flight. Part of the problem here is the US obsession with gun ownership as a right (with the right saying that guns don’t kill people – people kill people, and ignoring the fact that guns make it easier for people to kill people). As long as the gun is in stored luggage there is less of an incentive to stop the passenger – even if detected. In the case of Steven Greenoe, he was reportedly stopped on at least one occasion – but managed to justify himself and so was allowed to fly, rather than get arrested. (I find it strange that in America – driving at 95mph or smoking cannabis - both generally less dangerous than owning and using a loaded gun are more likely to result in a criminal record).

The Times newspaper article mentioned that the gun smuggler concerned, Steven Greenoe, described himself as a security consultant. I did a brief search and up popped Greenoe’s LinkedIn page. Greenoe describes himself as the CEO of Jolie Rouge (which to me sounds a bit like the name given to the Pirate Flag – the Jolly Roger: surely not a coincidence). One part of Jolie Rouge’s business appears to be competitive intelligence – although the company doesn’t actually seem to use this term. Nevertheless Jolie Rouge Consulting states:

JRC uses public and private sources to unearth information critical to accurately valuing business and financial transactions. JRC uses an established network of legal, political, business, and military thought leaders to rapidly compile up-to-date and difficult-to-acquire information. Our clients use JRC’s oral and written reports to validate and sharpen their investment strategies and long-term business planning.

When I first looked at Greenoe’s profile he’d included the Business Strategy & Competitive Strategy forum within his LinkedIn profile.  When I next looked this had disappeared. I don’t know whether Greenoe dropped the group, or the group dropped him – scared about adverse publicity linking a gun runner to competitive strategy. Nevertheless, it highlights how important it is for the competitive intelligence community to police their own and ensure that anybody linked to the profession behaves ethically and morally. (This wouldn’t be the first time. There is a well-known and erudite CI consultant and author who many years ago, got caught up similarly, causing a scandal that is still remembered by long-time competitive intelligence professionals). Gun-running – especially where the guns are then sold on illegally is a lucrative business. (The guns cost $500 each but were reported to be selling at 10x that amount – meaning that the consignment he was arrested over would have netted him $360,000 profit for a little over $40,000 expenditure).

However the really odd thing about this news story is the date. Although the reports reached the press today (January 2011), Greenoe was first stopped on May 3, 2010, and arrested in July 2010. I wonder why it has taken six months for this story to hit the headlines. It’s another example of how care needs to be taken when doing competitive intelligence analyses – as what may look like a new news story could actually be quite old.

Delicious humbug and monitoring News stories

December 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Effective competitive intelligence monitoring means keeping up with the news, and where news is likely to impact you, drawing up strategies to take into account changes.

The problem with instant news via twitter, blog posts and various other news feeds is that news updates sometimes happen too quickly, before the snow has even had a chance to settle. That’s fine – just so long as the source for the news is 100% reliable, and the news story itself is also totally accurate. (I’m using snow as a metaphor here – rather than the more normal dust – as outside there is around 15cm of the stuff with more promised during what looks like being the coldest winter in Europe for over 20 years).

Unfortunately, more often than not, one of these two aspects fails: the source may not be reliable, or the story may not be true, or may be only half-true. Typically however people pick up on the story and it spreads like wildfire (so not giving that snow a chance to settle before it gets melted all over the web).

An example of this has been taking place this last week – with numerous posts reporting the demise of the web-bookmarking service Delicious.

Delicious (originally located at http://del.icio.us) was founded in 2003 and acquired by Yahoo! in 2005. By 2008 (according to Wikipedia) it had over 5 million users and 180 million bookmarked URLs. This makes it an important source for web-searching as, unlike with a search engine such as Google or Bing, each URL will be human-validated and valued.

Apparently, during a strategy meeting held by Yahoo! looking at its products, Delicious was named as a “sunset” product.

Slide from Yahoo! strategy presentation - on plans for various products

An image of this slide was tweeted – and after Yahoo! failed to deny that Delicious was to be closed, posts quickly appeared denouncing the company for the decision. Nobody really cared that sites like AltaVista and AlltheWeb were going – as they were to all intents and purposes dead anyway. (Their search features have long been submerged into Yahoo!’s own – although I for one, still miss some of the advanced features these services offered. Alltheweb allowed searching of flash content, and AltaVista had a search option that nobody now offers: the ability to specify lower/upper case searches).

The problem is that many of the sources posting the story are normally extremely accurate and reliable so when they post something, it is reasonable to believe what they say. This then compounds the problem as the news then gets spread even further – and when the story is corrected, the news followers often fail to spot the corrections.

The example of Delicious is not isolated. There are many news stories that develop over time – and when making strategy decisions based on news it is important to take into account changes, but also not rush in, if a news item hasn’t been fully confirmed.

Ideally check the source – and if the source is a press item (or blog post) then look to see if there is a press release or where the original item came from, in case there is a bias, inaccuracy or mis-interpretation. Only when the news has been confirmed (or where there are no contra-indications) should strategy implementation take place (although of course, the planning stage should be considered immediately if the potential impact of the news is high).

In the case of Delicious their blog gives the real story. The slide leaked to twitter was correct – Delicious is viewed as a “Sunset” product. However that doesn’t mean it will be closed down – and Yahoo! states that they plan to sell the service rather than shut it down (although it is noticeable that they don’t promise to keep the service going if they fail to find a buyer).

There is, in fact, another lesson to be learned here, relating to company awareness on the impact of industry blogs and twitter. It is important to not only monitor what is said about your company, but also to anticipate what could be said.  In a world where governments can’t protect secrets being leaked via Wikileaks, it would be surprising if high-impact announcements from companies didn’t also leak out to industry watchers. Some companies constantly face leaks – Apple is notorious in this regard – and part of their strategies involve managing potential leaks before they do harm. In this Yahoo! failed. As a media company that depends on the web for its business this is a further example suggesting how Yahoo! seems to have lost its way. This is not negated by evidence such as the leaked slide mentioning Delicious, showing they are thinking about their future and product/service portfolio.

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