A blog experiment by Brad Mills.


Trust in the digital era

Go ahead. Click it, I dare you.

I see this and similar widgets on a lot of websites. Being a guy who codes websites here and there, I can kind of guess what it does and how it works, and I've in fact written code to work with this kind of widget before. I have no agenda beyond making things easier for the end user and hopefully reducing the number of errors I'll need to deal with on the back-end later. However, I'm going to surmise that not every website — and perhaps even not every web developer — is operating with a clean agenda.

That's not to say all of them are dirty, but have no doubt that some of them are, and beyond what's shown on your screen (and perhaps not even then), you truly have no idea what happens to any of your information.

For example... just about every monthly household bill I have is automated, and every month, the companies needing to collect a payment from me tap into my bank account and deduct the amounts due. I am personally not involved in these transactions. My involvement ended when I checked a box on my screen, years and years and years ago, that said "I agree to these terms" or something like that. There were probably several paragraphs of text I agreed to, but I don't remember what they were... probably something like "I authorize Company XYZ to automatically deduct payments from my bank account on a regular basis" and a bunch of legal language put in there by lawyers so their egos and heads are all properly inflated.

So in order for this automated magic to work properly, each company needs the following:

  • My account number with said company (which they already have, since I'm already their customer)
  • The amount due (again, which they already have, since they're basically billing it to me)
  • My bank's routing number (available by lookup, though they'd have to know where I bank, so I just provide that number)
  • My account number at my bank (which I provide)
  • My checkmark in a box, agreeing to basically get out of the way and let the magic happen

I put most of those checkmarks in place in the early 2000s (the "aughts" if you will). In the years since, every company providing service to my house has changed hands at least once, some of them multiple times. There hasn't been a single billing interruption in that time. That means the companies which are now deducting money from me are not the ones I authorized to do so way back when Collective Soul was still relevant. That little checkbox I clicked on my screen has carried forward over the years, across multiple billing departments and companies and no doubt computer system and software upgrades, along with my bank routing number and bank account number.

Now I'm sure that, when the information was transferred from the acquired company to the acquiring one, there were thousands upon thousands upon thousands of checkmarks and routing numbers to move over. And it's not like there was a little man wearing a bowler hat running over with a shoebox filled with these things. "Here you go, here are all the checkmarks and routing numbers. Mr. Mills is in here somewhere, I'm sure!" as he tips his hat to the billing department. No, this was also part of an automated thing, hopefully encrypted, sent out over a wire and dropped into the appropriate place in the acquiring company's computers.

There's a lot of trust going on here, and that's where I'm going with this. Over time, we're putting more and more faith into the computer systems we use. Some of these are used to make our lives easier... like making automated payments for household bills, for example. My grandparents used to drive around all over town and pay bills in person, my parents sat down and mailed out checks each month, and I checked a box on a screen umpteen years ago and said "I trust you, you guys got this, I'm out." In exchange for this trust relationship, I get uninterrupted water and electricity and gas, and hours of my time are freed up each month.

So what if it's not such a clear relationship? Like... let's say installing an app on your phone. And then creating an account with it, and allowing all the permissions it asks for (like access to your email address, contacts, phone number and location). And then signing in, clicking the "remember me" box so you don't have to keep track of your account information, and trying whatever it's designed for. And then, deciding you don't like it, and deleting it. Great, so... did that also delete your account? How about your email address? How about your location? Did the app forget you? If you reinstall it again later, will it remember that it was remembered, and just sign you back in?

How can you know?

I don't have any answers. Further, my voice in this will certainly be drowned out in the constant roar of information flowing around us each and every day. But, I submit we are making a lot of assumptions about the software we interact with, and while a lot of those assumptions are ok to make, there's an incredibly good possibility that it's not always ok to make that leap of faith.

And there's no way to know when it is and when it isn't.

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