Skip to content
(Child to an Elf on the Shelf) Snitches get stitches.

Snoop on the shelf

Snoop on the shelf published on

It’s no secret I don’t like the Elf on the Shelf. Between my built-in prejudice against cutesy “traditions” that date back to the medieval era of, oh, 2004 or so, and a healthy aversion to normalizing surveillance culture, I was never going to warm to this little creep.

Now, though, I seem to have company. The Elf has made its move in Britain, and the backlash is underway. (Apparently Britain’s embrace of the surveillance state outweighed their distaste for newcomers. Which is saying something, since anti-immigrant sentiment helped convince them to commit national economic self-disembowelment. Am I blaming the Elf for Brexit? I am absolutely blaming the Elf for Brexit.)

And in the meantime, 2016 has given me one more reason for Elf-loathing. Or am I wrong to feel uneasy about an army of red-capped zealots, rabidly loyal to an absolute ruler, reporting our every move to him?

You HAD to get a breeding pair.

You HAD to get a breeding pair. published on No Comments on You HAD to get a breeding pair.

Instead of hoisting glasses of egg nog or ordering in Chinese food, I made you a cartoon. Happy holidays.

* * *

Wondering why your family was the freakish one that didn’t raise you with the Elf on the Shelf™ family tradition™? Turns out it dates all the way back to… 2005.

I think the damn thing’s creepy as hell (Santa’s agent spying on you on behalf of the North Pole Stasi!) and doubly so now that it’s been extended to children’s birthdays. And I’m in no way reassured by the Mensch on a Bench.

The blood elf flies north at midnight

The blood elf flies north at midnight published on No Comments on The blood elf flies north at midnight

So now we know that the NSA isn’t just mining mobile phone metadata. They’re mining World of Warcraft gold.

I suspect their people are a lot less clueless than my cartoonist’s heart would like to believe. Sure, I’m tickled at the thought of James Bond flailing helplessly in mid-air for hours in Second Life. But even as someone whose knowledge of the intelligence community is largely informed by Michael Westen‘s monologues (see previous cartoon), I’m pretty sure these folks are used to adapting quickly to different cultures and unfamiliar environments.

And intelligence work in a MMORPG probably isn’t much different from intelligence work anywhere else: building relationships, gaining trust, listening carefully, and doing a lot more boring sifting through data than you might think. (So online community managers, you can probably expect a call from a CIA human resources officer any day now.)

That doesn’t mean the execution went off without a hitch. According to the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, there were so many intelligence agents in the virtual field that a “deconfliction” group had to keep them from wasting time infiltrating each other. Not that there aren’t folks who use Second Life as a way of infiltrating each other, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic. And the ProPublica article on the Snowden revelations suggests strongly that terrorists weren’t actually using World of Warcraft or Second Life except for recreation and getting one’s freak on.

What the article doesn’t address, and what I suspect the biggest danger posed by MMORPG ops, is mission creep.

Anyone who has missed work to finish a quest, or looked up from an online melee to realize it’s four in the morning, knows what I’m talking about. Intelligence agencies used to have to worry about field agents “going native”; now they have to worry their loyalty could be divided between their country and their guild. Yeah, you’re pretty sure that mage is MOSSAD, but she’s awfully handy with a Frost spell, so now she’s in your questing party. And maybe you haven’t come up with a lick of actionable intel in three years, but you’ve kept Al Qaeda off the leaderboard, and isn’t that what really matters?

Incidentally, there’s also the massive violation of privacy (and community). Wouldn’t it be great if there was someone trying to do something about that?

Rainbow Gumball Racerz would like access to your bank account and dental records (Y/N)

Rainbow Gumball Racerz would like access to your bank account and dental records (Y/N) published on No Comments on Rainbow Gumball Racerz would like access to your bank account and dental records (Y/N)

This cartoon came about because I came across one app too many asking for outrageous access and permissions: see my contacts, tweet on my behalf… stuff that’s becoming numbingly routine, but which the app really has no need for.

I know the platforms often don’t make it easy, but I’d love developers to go beyond just saying they want this access; tell me what you’ll do with it. Are you going to store my list of contacts locally and offer to autocomplete names as I enter them? That might be cool. Are you going to email everyone I know each time I defeat a level boss in Avatar Vs. My Little Pony? Not so cool.

And I’d like fewer vampires and more houseguests. Invite a vampire into your house once, and that permission’s apparently irrevocable (or so a lot of late-night movies would have me believe). But a houseguest has to ask permission every time they drop in, and that’s what I’d like to be able to opt for with some apps. One example: I’d like to require a passcode entry before enabling Facebook and Twitter “integration” on kids’ games, so my little ones can’t gunk up my updates (and your news feeds) with useless status updates unless I say so.

One last thought about the cartoon: what are the chances there are already apps out there performing surreptitious surveillance? Or maybe, what are the chances there aren’t?

This is the bonus cartoon I promised after folks kindly pushed the Noise to Signal Facebook Page past the magic 2,000-Like mark. (That may seem like an arbitrary number, but it really isn’t. I’m now officially entitled to a friendly nod and a “S’up?” from Mark Zuckerberg if we ever walk by each other.)

Unfortunately, it’s late, because the server crashed under mysterious circumstances. I choose that wording deliberately, because it suggests the involvement of nefarious forces, which has more cachet than “I have no idea why this is broken; maybe some disk corruption or a squirrel got into the datacenter.”

Now, however, I have resurrected the server (with lots of encouragement from the good folks at Linode!), so we’re back up and running. Better yet, we’ve made the leap from Ubuntu’s Karmic Koala to Raring Ringtail, completely bypassing Maverick Meerkat, Tempestuous Tapeworm, Obsequious Okapi and Passive-Aggressive Porpoise.

What will this mean to you? Well, other than a possible Funny Ubuntu Animals cartoon in the offing, maybe nothing. Or maybe it will mean shorter load times and an undefinable yet undeniable sense of well-being. Let me know.

Boss to two employees: Dammit, people - this Prism thing's all over the news, and I'll bet we don't even have a marketing presence there.

Branding secrets of (insert name of new platform here)

Branding secrets of (insert name of new platform here) published on No Comments on Branding secrets of (insert name of new platform here)

Fun fact: Prism’sArmageddon” tour is the first rock concert I ever saw. ‘Twas up at Camp Fortune; The Pumps opened for them.

(child holding a stuffed bear) No hidden nanny camera, no voice synthesizer - in what way is this a teddy bear?

Maybe the rest comes via an in-app purchase

Maybe the rest comes via an in-app purchase published on No Comments on Maybe the rest comes via an in-app purchase

A cartoon for everyone who’s fighting the good fight against feature bloat and scope creep.

Previously on Noise to Signal: Candace’s last-minute change of heart has repercussions well beyond the blast radius, and triggers a free-for-all among the Qaos Quartet. Vasily sees an opening – but the Night Heron moves just as quickly to close it. Has the Crossroads Directorate really anticipated this all along, or is Adriana just a better improvisor than anyone suspected? Either way, it forces Ivana’s hand – the one holding the vial of Blue Epsilon. Akinyele has no choice but to activate the last five sleeper agents… and is as surprised as anyone when the voice at the other end of the comm link is Mayor Subramaniam’s.

He sees you when you’re surfing, he knows when you’re on Skype…

He sees you when you’re surfing, he knows when you’re on Skype… published on No Comments on He sees you when you’re surfing, he knows when you’re on Skype…

Originally posted on ReadWriteWeb

It was just over a week ago that the Canadian government was preparing to table its new Internet surveillance legislation.

For the Conservatives, it was supposed to be a very good week. Tough posturing on crime has been a vote-winner for them in the past, and the only people who care about civil liberties are those herbal-tea-swilling vegan-sashimi-ordering bicycle-riding bleeding hearts* who’d never vote for them anyway – right?

And then Public Safety Minister Vic Toews went and said something that galvanized a community that went far beyond the herbal-tea-swilling crowd. Replying to a questioner in the House of Commons (or “House of Representatives” to Americans, Australians and New Zealanders), he said:

We are proposing measures to bring our laws into the 21st century and to provide the police with the lawful tools that they need. He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.

The government promptly rebranded the bill, hastily changing its name from “Lawful Access Act” to “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act.” And all holy hell broke loose.

This being Canada, by “all holy hell” I mean there was a hashtag – #TellVicEverything. Twitter’s Canadian users bombarded Toews with the mundane details of their lives. One of the country’sleading voices for online freedom, Michael Geist, summed it up:

Yesterday’s Twitter-based #tellviceverything was the perfect illustration for how the Internet can fuel awareness and action at remarkable speed. Through thousands of tweets, Canadians used humour to send a strong message that the government has overstepped with Bill C-30 (my favourite remains @kevinharding’s Hey @ToewsVic, I lost an email from my work account yesterday. Can I get your copy?). Alongside the Twitter activity are dedicated websites, hundreds of blog postings from commentators on the left and right of the political spectrum, thousands of calls and letters to MPs, and nearly 100,000 signatures on the Stop Spying petition at Open Media.

By the end of the week, several of the country’s editorial pages that are normally pretty sympathetic to the Conservatives’ agenda had swung against them on this issue. A Twitter account appeared, revealing purported details of Toews’ personal life, and then went dark again. And the government was signalling it might be open to amending the bill, with at least one Conservative Member of Parliament saying it’s “too intrusive as it currently stands.”

This isn’t the first time our politicians have accused defenders of privacy and civil liberties of siding with child pornographers. But it’s the first time it’s backfired this spectacularly.

Maybe it’s because Canada’s net activists were spurred by the success of the fight against SOPA/PIPA in the United States (a fight many of us played some small role in waging). Maybe it’s because we’ve become a little more sensitive on online privacy issues, after a few high-profile clashes with social networking giants. Or maybe it’s just that we won’t tolerate being lumped in with terrorists, child pornographers, thieves and counterfeiters whenever it suits a politician’s or lobbyist’s communications strategy.

Whatever the reason, Canada now has a northern counterpart to the wired community’s newfound activism in the US. And #TellingVicEverything is only the beginning.

Or as I call them, “my people”.

We call it GulagNet

We call it GulagNet published on No Comments on We call it GulagNet