The sophistry and revisionist history in Skeptoid Brian Dunning’s statement

My understanding of Brian Dunning’s cookie-stuffing scheme is fairly thorough at this point. I’ve read the articles in major news organizations about Dunning and Shawn Hogan’s scheme, and I happen to understand to a very high degree of fidelity the workings of the World Wide Web and cookies. So when I read the statement that he wouldn’t allow copying-and-pasting on, I balked. Not only at the lies, misdirection and obvious con-man level sophistry going on in the post, but that anyone who claims to have pulled off such a job might think that what they claim to have done is actually plausible.

Rebecca Watson has done a thorough job at deconstructing the statement for what it is: a great ball of chaff thrown up to confuse the radars of so-called skeptics who are evidently unable to recognize such tactics. But there’s some nuance I’d like to add, specifically because there are parts that appear to directly reference something I blogged about recently, which has bubbled up to very near the top of search results on the terms “Skeptoid” or “Brian Dunning”.
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The virtual radio silence on Brian Dunning’s fraud

Today, Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast and brand, blogger at SkepticBlog, was sentenced to 15 months prison and three years supervised release.

Barely anyone’s talking about it, though (except, obviously, us Social Justice Bullies who will inevitably be accused of crowing about this news).
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Why I distrust Apple, in one short video

Okay, seriously. I know that WWDC is a sales pitch moreso than a tech demo. But this supercut of superlatives tweaks every nerve I have as regards manipulative language.

There’s not a lot of actual innovation in their new iteration, that I can see, just a nice coat of paint slapped on the same old stuff. “This changes everything” was true when iOS first got introduced, but now it’s all “this keeps everything the same except for a prettier wastebasket.”

Twitter blocked in Turkey; activists graffiti alternate DNS workaround

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has instated a ban of Twitter ostensibly over concerns that it hosts pornography, but from all appearances actually in response to repeated leaks of damning recordings of government officials.

However, the way that the ban is implemented is very rudimentary — the government has forced all ISPs in the country to remove twitter.com from their DNS servers.

In response to this ban, activists have been graffitiing Google’s DNS servers:

Graffiti on a turkish wall reading 'DNS: 8.8.8.8 Alternatif: 8.8.4.4'

Picture obtained here, can’t find the original source — if you do, let me know.

It’s not clear how long this workaround will last, but there are other avenues. One could, for instance, switch DNS to OpenNIC, or if changing DNS no longer provides enough of a workaround and these ISPs are forced by the government to shut down all traffic to Twitter’s servers, then you could instead connect to Tor or some other anonymizing VPN or proxy service.

When people complain that they’re being silenced for being blocked or moderated on a blog, I have to laugh — that’s not in any way an abrogation of your freedom of speech. Having all access to the internet cut off by a totalitarian government, on the other hand, is most decidedly one, and is most decidedly something we all must fight.

Fraudster skeptic Brian Dunning’s shell game

It’s been known for quite some time that Brian Dunning is dirty. From 2006 to 2007, he and his brother set up their joint venture Kessler’s Flying Circus as part of the eBay affiliates program wherein you get commission from every sale if someone purchased something after clicking on a banner ad on your site. Two of Dunning’s other websites, WhoLinked.com and ProfileMaps.info were configured to “stuff cookies” for eBay — that is, to create persistent cookies in your web browser such that if you visited one of those sites, the next time you visited eBay it would imagine that you’d clicked on one of those banner ads. Basically, by going to the site, without knowing it, you were treated as though you’d clicked on the Dunning brothers’ ad campaign even if you’d never even seen that ad. And the cookie would persist such that all your purchases looked as though they came from that ad campaign.

He’d figured out to do this by reverse-engineering Shawn Hogan’s tools — Shawn Hogan being the top-most eBay affiliate, who had himself defrauded eBay of $30+ million USD.

In 2008, eBay filed a lawsuit alleging that Dunning and Dunning had defrauded them of $5,300,000 USD. Though not as big a fraud as Hogan’s case, the Dunnings were the number two affiliate, and this was not chump change. eBay was definitely not getting the advertising bang for their buck. In 2010, a federal grand jury indicted him on five counts of wire fraud in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1343. The FBI issued a press release in April 2013 showing that Brian Dunning had pled guilty. He faces 20 years jail time for his crimes.

Given that his general defense to the FBI was that eBay had been “stupid” in the way they set up the program, it’s fairly self-evident he was not repentant of his crimes and thought he could fight the suits in a sort of characteristically Libertarian “if you can do it, then it’s okay to do” defense. Now that he’s pled guilty, it’s fairly evident that he could not fight this case with that method of thinking.

Dunning’s legacy, his skeptical podcast Skeptoid, has long been known to be a cash cow as well — with its own advertisements, and a kitsch store with huge markups on t-shirts and mugs and the likes. However, now that Dunning has pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing, Skeptoid’s fate is in question.

In May of 2012, Dunning filed to convert the Skeptoid Media, Inc into a 501(c)3 non-profit charity, removing the ads from the podcast and site. This is mere months after he’d been forced to publicly admit that the lawsuits were ongoing.

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This is a screenshot of the filing for non-profit status from the Department of Justice website.

It’s an easy leap to believe that this was done to protect it from fallout from his fraud; it’s an easier leap to believe that all he has to do to protect the money he stole is to donate it all to Skeptoid as soon as the non-profit status comes through. I am under the impression that Dunning is presently setting up a board for this non-profit entity prior to the status actually changing. I don’t think it’s possible, at this point, to consider the brand anything but spent and destroyed — any efforts made by any members of our community toward rehabilitating its image and disassociating Skeptoid the brand from Brian Dunning the imprisoned felon are, in my mind, wasted and themselves tainted efforts.

I’m certain that the FBI will not allow this shell game to happen, especially not with the scrutiny that’s levelled at Brian Dunning presently. But on the off chance that it does happen, that Skeptoid is allowed to use funds from the eBay fraud, and that it doesn’t die on the vine thanks to the ongoing support I see from numerous big-name skeptics in our community, at least it won’t have happened because everyone stayed silent.

I do not consent to the skeptical “brand”, insofar as there is one, being represented by malicious con-men and other ne’er-do-wells. The skeptical way of thinking is a toolset that supplements a person’s identity. Not every person’s identity toolset is complete — many people lack empathy or a strong moral compass, among other numerous lacks. The skeptical toolset has too long been associated with amoral Libertarian con-artists that comprise the big-name skeptics, like Dunning, and I’d very much like that to end now. We have enough of an image problem with so-called “honest liars”; no need to prop up dishonest con-artists as part of a package deal.

Speak up. Repudiate any efforts to resurrect the Skeptoid brand. Dissociate yourselves from it if you have ties. Dunning is an unrepentant con-man and none of us need to go down with his ship.

I say that as someone who got into movement skepticism with Skeptoid being the first podcast I ever listened to.

Much ado about cyber-nothing

I’ve been drowned in the world of tech over this holiday season. It is, after all, my lifeblood, as well as my hobby — it’s how I pay the bills and help keep this family afloat. So time has been in short supply for anything but work, and I’ve been choosing (as I mentioned recently) to spend most of my free time either playing Starbound (an absolutely incredible space sandbox game that’s still in pre-release — I’m going to write up a review ASAP), or working on learning Java and creating a procedurally generated platform game that will probably never see market because I suck at art.

Pictured: wanted cyber-criminal "The Hamburgler"

Pictured: wanted cyber-criminal “The Hamburgler”

Being drowned in tech as I am, the things I’ve been reading are mostly technology-related as of late. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped being a skeptic or atheist — just that they haven’t been topics on my must-read list.

This particular piece in All Tech Considered made my skeptical and security-minded tech parts of my brain flip the hell out, and I figured I should share that feeling with you. The piece starts appropriately doomsday, extrapolating from the actual information at hand in a manner that makes me think the piece was written by a very experienced science journalist:

If your computer is infected with a virus or other forms of malware, disconnecting the machine from the Internet is one of the first steps security experts say you should take. But someday, even physically separating your laptop from a network may not be enough to protect it from cyber evildoers.

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Twitter: Fixed it for you

Dear Twitter,

I noticed you’re having a hard time balancing user issues with dealing with harassment and dealing with privacy. I further noticed you had a good idea for a change to a function that solves one class of issues, but that had side-effects that made another class of issues dramatically worse.

I think I have found a reasonable solution for your problem.

Do both.

Oh, and there are some more tweaks I can offer to help fix other outstanding problems, if you’ll listen.

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On not being completely free to curate

I just attended Skepticon 6, and had a number of excellent and thought-provoking conversations with some people I’ve admired, some people I’ve long since befriended, and some people I’d never met before but am glad to have met now. It was a great experience, a few issues aside which I’ll, naturally, have to talk more about soon.

On Wednesday night, immediately after work, Stephanie, Brianne and I piled into the car and undertook a ten-hour car ride south. We arrived at 5 am, and promptly hit our beds and crashed. The first night we were in Springfield, Missouri, folks were still filtering into town, and as we skeptics are wont to do, we sought one another out for the first of what promised to be many of those thought-provoking conversations. This conversation became the genesis for this post, which will hopefully serve as a follow-up to my recent post about curating your internet experience.
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You are free to choose how to use the internet

I’d like remind everyone that you are free to curate your internet experience however you please. When your internet experience starts to suck because people are trying to make your life miserable, you are free to deal with that as you see fit.

You are free to withdraw from a space. You are free to ban and block. You are free to call on friends for help. You are free to dig in and argue with every entitled douchebag who comes along trying to win a war of attrition in order to force you out of that space. You are free to be pseudonymous; you are free to use your real name. You are free to publicly disagree with them, even via a blog post if you so choose; or you can privately disagree with them amongst a small tight-knit circle of friends and allies. You can use any number of block-list services like Akismet, RBL, the A+ Block Bot, or even a whitelist-only setup like making your Twitter account Private. You can engage with everyone who thinks the internet is a debate club, or you can ignore those people, or you can block them.

And be damned anyone who says that this is “fascist”.
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The Ada Initiative recognizes the feminist fight in the skeptical and secular communities

Two days ago, I was pleasantly surprised on Twitter (a rarity, to be sure) when The Ada Initiative tweeted the following:

 

Until then, I had no idea The Ada Initiative knew this parallel fight was happening in the skeptical and secular movements, where I’ve only seen them talk about the problems in technology, the open source world and geek culture.
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