“Sorry, that’s a trade secret”

This is some kind of a record. The very name of this blog reflects its new role as my personal soapbox, and regular readers are no doubt familiar with my fearless style. In short, I’m willing to call out anyone or anything, but usually only one or two companies or agencies at a time. For this post, I’m not stopping at two, three, four, or even five companies. No, this post calls out no less than six companies for doing something incredibly brazen–and the shocking thing is that five of them get away with it!

ReadWriteWeb reported on a case involving the San Jose Mercury News. The Mercury News itself ran its own story about the case.

In essence, six companies fought the release of the race and gender of their respective work forces. From the Mercury News article:

[The companies] waged an 18-month Freedom of Information battle with the Mercury News, convincing federal regulators who collect the data that its release would cause “commercial harm” by potentially revealing the companies’ business strategy to competitors.

And further down:

Experts in the area of equal employment law scoffed at the idea that public disclosure of race and gender data — for example, the number of black men or Asian women in job categories such as “professionals,” “officials & managers” and “service workers” — could really allow competitors to discern a big tech company’s business strategy. A bigger issue, they said, is the social cost of allowing large, influential corporations to hide their race and gender data.

The six companies (which I’ll call the “Sneaky Six”) are:

  • Google
  • Yahoo
  • Oracle
  • Apple
  • Applied Materials
  • Hewlett-Packard

Hewlett-Packard lost its fight, while a federal judge upheld the trade secret restriction for the other five.

Thankfully, nine other companies were willing to share the information; these include eBay, Intel, AMD, and Sun Microsystems. (Note that Oracle, named in the first list, completed its acquisition of Sun recently; this may well be the only glimpse at this kind of information for Sun that we’ll ever get.) The article does not list all nine companies, but does mention these are the 15 largest companies in Silicon Valley, so a little detective work should uncover the companies not named.

I’m particularly disappointed that Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard are on this list. I had a higher opinion of Yahoo than most of the other companies named on this list. The same for HP; their products (particularly printers and scanners) have a better track record of free software friendliness as of last time I checked.

I’m assuming most people know who Google, Apple, and Oracle are. It may surprise some of you that I, personally, did not know much about Applied Materials until I looked them up for this post; they aren’t exactly a household name. I’ve linked to the Wikipedia articles for each company for those that might need it.

In closing, I certainly hope that federal judges don’t continue to make horrible mistakes like this. The first step to countering racial or gender bias is to know that it exists: the “Sneaky Six” would just as soon keep us in the dark about it. That is, quite honestly, conduct unbecoming of companies in a leadership position.

Too hot for the iPhone: Apple censors sex apps

The Unofficial Apple Weblog writes on what appears to be the imminent removal of some or maybe even all sexual content from the iPhone’s App Store. Now, on any other smartphone, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But this is the iPhone we’re talking about, and the App Store is the only Apple-approved channel for iPhone applications. So in essence, this is Apple playing “nanny” and censoring content they don’t like.

The particular app in question may well set a relative low in taste. I’m not going to judge that. What I am going to judge, is Apple’s utterly senseless and arbitrary censorship of iPhone content, specifically applications.

I was asked by my mom recently what I thought of the iPad (which will have similar restrictions to the iPhone and iPod). I’m not including the full text of my response here, but regular readers should have some idea how it went. (You may want to do some catch-up reading if you are new to this blog.)

When it comes down to it, I’d really rather not have anything bad to say about companies like Apple or their products. But dubious and arbitrary decisions like this do not sit well with me as a sworn opponent of censorship. And as long as Apple and other companies continue to make dumb moves like this, I’ll likely keep calling them out as I find them. I’d let TUAW do it instead, but it appears its author(s) will more than happily cave and essentially pat Apple on the back for a clearly censorious move.

A new twist on “school-owned”

A recent Computerworld story reveals a shocking violation of student privacy from a Pennsylvania school district.

The Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, provided laptops to its students, complete with webcams. This by itself is not an issue. What is an issue is that the school district had the ability to remotely activate the webcam and see whatever was in front of it, without the students’ or parents’ consent or knowledge.

From the article:

Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., said they first found out about the alleged spying last November after their son Blake was accused by a Harriton High School official of “improper behavior in his home” and shown a photograph taken by his laptop.

An assistant principal at Harriton later confirmed that the district could remotely activate the Webcam in students’ laptops. “Michael Robbins thereafter verified, through [Assistant Principal] Ms. Matsko, that the school district in fact has the ability to remotely activate the Webcam contained in a student’s personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the Webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer,” the lawsuit stated.

What could they possibly have been thinking?

While at school or at school-sponsored activities, discipline is the school’s responsibility. Cameras in schools and on school buses are fine. However, it is really not the school’s realm to discipline outside of school hours and school functions, and usually what goes on at home is none of school officials’ business. (I say “usually” because adults have the legal responsibility to report suspected child abuse and things of that nature.)

Shame on the snoops at Harriton High. And kids, don’t assume anything about that shiny laptop the school gave you; if it’s the school’s computer, there’s the ever-present possibility it can do anything the school wants, including rat you out at home. Just ask Blake.