The Cookie Conundrum

pexels-photo-705675

Where would we be without social media? Physically, we would still be in the same coffee shop and talking to each other instead of passing or posting messages to one another. I wrote a short column on one of my favorite topics. Those little pieces of code known as cookies. There was some legal stuff in there that I edited out.

Do you know what your webmaster is busy baking?

Karma. I may have been a scoundrel in a previous lifetime. As penance, I voluntarily reviewed ten webpage privacy statements from five prestigious law firms, four somewhat intrusive social media organizations, and one highly regarded national magazine for lawyers in Canada. Did I say well written? That too.

Cookie policies range from the buried deep within the privacy cookie jar to the flashing K-mart end of aisle cookie sale. Cookies refer to the little malleted crumbs of text file code that websites place on users’ browsers that land on the organization’s webpage. These cookies do not contain any coding themselves, so they cannot transfer any viruses or other types of malware. But like real cookie packaging, you must read to the bottom of the ingredient list to determine what your system ingests.

Cookies come in two major flavors. Session cookies store information about user page activities so that users can easily pick up where they left off. Think of them as celery cookies. Light and non-fattening.

Compare these to persistent cookies which store user preferences. These websites allow the user to customize how information presents itself through site layouts or themes. These more fatty chocolate laden type of cookies adhere to the fatty midsection of your browser.

Cookies cannot be executed nor are they self-executing, but like real cookies, they can be insidious.  Or at least the information on them can be used maliciously. Similar to your personal profile, your browser history can show where you have been and what you have been consuming.

The cookie continuum provides a range of uses for various organizations.  The responsible and ethical approach entails clear descriptions of how cookies are deployed on their site. The privacy policy for the various law firms are conservative and straightforward. For legally trained individuals at least.

Canadian cookies delight the user. Most websites track usage, but some of the Canadian sites merely indicate that they ‘may’ attach cookies. This lite approach appears more like a digestive biscuit cookie. Good for gumming and easy to absorb.

US firms use Twinkie like cookies which look innocent and light, but the fat and sugar consumed have ‘persistent’ lasting effects.  The cookie policy for one large law firm broadcasts the use of cookies similar to the exclusion clause you learned about in law school. Red ink with arrows.  Here users see a banner ad at the base of the webpage warning about cookie usage. The banner clearly states that by using the website, the individual consents to the use of cookies.

These persistent cookies act like the classic Pac-Man game and capture information such as your operating system, browser software, IP address, and the full uniform resource locator. They do then load on the full calorie cookie which allows a number of features such as accessing secure areas of the website, analyzing information and tracking how you share content from the law firm website via social media or email, using sharing buttons provided by AdThis for example. Cookies always extract a cost.

Although the cookie usage seems somewhat invasive, you may be asking what does the Canada Anti-spam Law say about this. For certain types of programs, such as cookies, you are considered to have express consent without requesting it, so you can distribute (attach) cookies to users.

The Facebook Cookie policy portrays a sense of permanence likened to real cookies laced with trans-fat to extend shelf-life. Here, cookies provide for authentication, security, and advertising. The cookies allow Facebook to deliver ads to people who have previously visited a business’s website, purchased its products or used its apps. Fortunately the cookies allow Facebook to limit the number of times you see a particular ad. You can innately appreciate the benefits of seeing ads you would be interested in, but at some tipping point, the ads can come across as stalking. Do you want people looking over your shoulder to know what products or services you were researching the night before?

Cookies help businesses understand the kinds of people who like their Facebook page or use their apps so that they can provide more relevant content and develop features that are likely to be interesting to their customers. Ultimately, cookies help store preferences to provide customized content and experiences.

This ‘pull’ type of marketing experience benefits a potential client interested in receiving certain advertisements for relevant products. Perhaps seeing a sale on litigation services would finally convince that reluctant client to file that civil lawsuit?

Law firms have room to move up the cookie continuum to provide a more individualized website experience. Admittedly, clients may prefer not to open up their browser in a coffee shop and receive updates on the developing law of criminal fraud, but those showing interests in mergers and acquisitions may prefer to see a website customized on that basis. Cookies with sprinkles could be the next big thing.

Mallet

Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

Bit by Bitcoin Mining

pexels-photo-844127

You load sixteen tera-tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the electrical store

As you already know, Bitcoin is all the rage. If I wrote this in 2017, then it would be true. In 2018, not so much. Bitcoin was valued at over $19,000 on some exchanges. The specter of government regulation has knocked this down somewhat.

Notwithstanding the price volatility, the benefits of mining Bitcoin remains attractive for those that know where to look. And by look, I mean looking for cheap electricity.

Back in the heyday, you could use a simple laptop to attempt to mine Bitcoin. Now for any chance of success, you have to run a server farm. Perhaps we can change the metaphor from mining, which suggests gold, to farming, which suggests easily washable boots.

Countless computers across the globe attempt to mine Bitcoin by solving an algorithm. This proves and validates the correctness of a new transaction. Every 10 mins or so, some lucky miner solves the algorithm and receives a reward of 12.5 Bitcoins. All the other computers verify this and then stop what they are doing and start at the beginning again.

If the entire process sounds wasteful, then you would be correct. The Bitcoin mining process now takes up more electricity than the majority of countries. Current estimated consumption is 61 TWh. Mining requires the equivalent of the yearly electrical requirement of Switzerland, and just a bit more than Columbia. This power could sustain over 5 million households. Just a short while ago, some pundits were claiming that mining Bitcoin would the major user of power by 2020. And like anything, projecting exponential growth from the past into the future never really pans out.

Mining produces revenues of $6.3 billion and costs of $3 billion, providing a substantial margin of 48% plus other costs.  Needless to say the carbon footprint of this type of mining is quite extensive since a number of countries rely on coal. China plans to limit the amount of electricity to miners which are estimated to be using up to 4 gigawatts of electricity, or about three nuclear reactors worth of energy. Plattsburg in the United States placed an 18 month moratorium on crypto mining owing to the extensive electrical use.

There is a lot of debate as to the actual electrical usage, but no one really knows what is happening in the black box. Suffice to say that a lot of energy is being wasted on chasing an algorithm that someone else will likely solve.

There are only a limited number of Bitcoins and more people are chasing them with increasing levels of computing power. The electrical requirements today are quite substantial since everyone has to obtain this ‘proof of work’ standard to qualify their Bitcoins. Think along the lines of will the sun rise tomorrow probability?  A lower standard such a ‘proof of stake’ may qualify but the security standard would be lacking. Think along the lines of will I rise tomorrow probability? Usually pretty good, but I might be wrong someday.

A single Bitcoin transaction takes the energy equivalent of thousands of credit card transactions. So actually the cost of a bitcoin transaction is more akin to ‘priceless’.

The security of Bitcoins do come into question since there has been substantial hacking in some countries. Bitcoin can be like the canary in the crypto-currency mining process. But instead of the canary dying, we are talking about the crypto canary disappearing completely. And instantly.

The disappearance of all remaining Bitcoin to be mined would be the signal that someone successfully created a quantum computer. The first use of such a computer would likely not be to solve the mysteries of the universe, but rather to solve the algorithm to grab the balance of the Bitcoins to be mined.

This may take ten years, or perhaps less. As Yogi Berra opines, it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

 

 

 

Photo by Make someones day from Pexels

 

 

 

In Blockchain we trust

bitcoin-blockchain-business-730569.jpgThe first thing we do, let’s disintermediate all the lawyers.

Imagine a world filled with absolute virtue where someone says they would do something and then actually did it. This level of trust reaches the pinnacle. If you wanted to buy a car, you would pay the listed price since that included the cost of manufacturing and a level of profit that everyone agreed would be appropriate for manufacturers. The bank would simply give you the money since you did say you would pay it all back in four years with interest.

But we are more of a trust but verify type of society. You have to search for comparable vehicles, generally haggle for the best price and sign pages of legal documents. Banks have you sign reams of paperwork and generally place a security interest on the car. The Bank also has to confirm the car is free of any liens. You then generally pay on time for the next four years. If you miss a couple of payments, then the bank may have to launch some proceedings for collection.

Blockchain promises to revolutionize the economy since a lot of this process outlined above simply disappears. Advocates claim that Blockchain immensely raises the level of trust in the system. Alternatively, one could argue that it removes the need for trust.

Undoubtedly you have heard of Bitcoin somehow in conjunction with Blockchain. Let’s ignore the bitcoin frenzy for now and focus on what drives it.

Blockchain comprises a continuously growing list of records called blocks. These blocks are linked together using cryptography that are resistant to data modification. So instead of a single ledger of transactions held by one organization, it is an open distributed ledger that can record transactions between parties in a verifiable way. One earlier block cannot be altered without the consensus of later blocks. There is no definite definition of Blockchain, but adherents are quite passionate about their own favorite.

Blockchains can be public or private. MasterCard’s Blockchain can’t be viewed and may not have any purpose outside of marketing since all of its transactions run through the existing infrastructure. This harkens back to the time when companies advertised they were Y2K compliant. Nice to have, eventually meaningless.

You clamber down the rabbit hole a bit more and you come across things such as smart contracts. The name again is a bit of a misnomer since the contracts are more of simple if this happens then that happens. Similar to if you have this much to drink, then you are going to feel that crappy in the morning type of logic.

Smart contracts are simply computer protocols intended to enforce the performance of a contract. They can be fully or partially self-executing. Once various conditions are fulfilled, assets are transferred and funds are released. This transaction is visible to all users but all parties remain anonymous.

We can look to Ethereum as having one of the better systems for establishing these smart contracts. Ethereum has its own cryptocurrency called Ether. In our car example the history of the car and the dealer’s transactions are on the Blockchain which is public and allow it to be checked by everyone. You contact your bank which has instant access to your credit history. The bank can transfer funds immediately and the dealer can arrange for the vehicle transfer by the time you get back from your test drive.

So long as you continue to authorize payments to the bank, all is well. If you decide to stop payments, then the car’s systems could be disabled the next time you try to start it. Welcome to the internet of things.

The Blockchain concept does have the potential to extend to all types of commercial transactions. House purchases could be reduced down to days from the existing weeks it presently takes. This would require a public ledger of real estate titles, planning permissions and certificates of title. Sweden’s land-ownership authority will be conducting its first Blockchain property transaction shortly. Presently, a three to six month transaction could potentially take hours instead. All that extra efficiency will have to come out of some intermediary’s pocket.

But you can see how the removal of intermediaries will eventually impact large swathes of job categories.  Any sort of job category that involves creating trust in a transaction may no longer be required. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners strongly claim that Blockchain is no mere hype train. This is a strong endorsement which would likely have the effect of reducing the need for Certified Fraud Examiners.

One paper suggested that insurance payouts could applied to Blockchain. They suggested that an automated system could indicate if an insured fell within an area that was recently flooded. Insurance payments would then be automatically issued. I found this a bit of a stretch. For example, there would have to be complete pre-existing documentation of assets to show that my wife’s mid-century modern furniture was actually solid teak and not veneer. A point of full disclosure, I only found out this past year that mid-century modern was actually a thing.

Ultimately, Blockchain can be seen as a foundational change. There are immense barriers to adoption for businesses, government and individuals. The incorporation of Blockchain may take years.

From my own perspective, a major function of lawyers includes the trust but verify aspect. As real estate transactions become more blockchainish, then the role of the lawyer would be substantially reduced. This may finally drive away the concept of hourly billing into a strict transactional fee type of relationship with clients.

Harvard Business Review goes so far as to say intermediaries such as lawyers, brokers and bankers may no longer be necessary. Not so much a ‘the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’ as ‘let’s disintermediate all the lawyers.’ This may not have the same emotive content, but the result would be same, lawyer wise.

 

 

Photos by David McBee

Mogul Moral Hazard

cold-cool-man-47356 (1)Moral Hazard describes a situation in which one party becomes more inclined to enter into risky behaviors knowing that they are protected against the risk and the other party will incur the cost.

This came to mind when I finally went downhill skiing after a twenty year hiatus. Back in my high school and university days, my life revolved around skiing and planning to ski. Not that I have ever been seriously injured while skiing, but the possibility came top of mind recently.

Skiing has changed. I went to the rental shop and they pulled out these new innovations. The skis now have this parabolic shape. I remember reading about them years ago, but I was not aware of what they looked like up close. Bodacious comes to mind. The boots weren’t much different, thankfully.

There was an entire rack of helmets, so I picked up one these things also. Amazingly, back on the ski hill everything worked out. No one got hurt. This new equipment did make it far easier to ski and I was likely way more aggressive wearing the helmet.

I was quite ready to admit at the beginning of the day that I was a less than average skier considering all of the time that had passed, but after a couple of runs all of that confidence came back. Perhaps false confidence, but confidence all the same.

But this is where behavioral economics comes in. When it comes to activities such as driving for example, about 90% of people feel that they are better than the average driver. Almost no one wants to place themselves in the bottom half of drivers by suggesting that “yep, I’m far worse than the average driver.’ This suggests that people are far more confident in their abilities than statistics and the Darwin Awards actually show.

This raises the question of whether insurance induces people to engage in risker behavior than they would if they didn’t have insurance. For myself, I have perhaps an excessive amount life insurance at eight time’s annual salary in the case of accidental death along with some great long and short term disability. I don’t think having this insurance modified my behavior. I certainly wasn’t skiing eight times faster knowing that I would leave a very nice estate.

Moral hazard arises from asymmetric knowledge. One party knows more than the other party. In this instance, the insurer may not completely understand that I intend to engage in risk taking behaviours since mentally I still feel 20 years old. Emotionally, perhaps a bit younger. Physically, perhaps 3 times that. How can the insurer foresee that I might undertake some ‘dumbass’ skiing behaviours while my mental, emotional and physical ages are several decades apart? Perhaps that is already worked into their mathematical models.

This represents a type of ex ante moral hazard, or before the event. I am not a major fan of using an opaque terms of describing a vague concept. But this generally means that I change my behaviours based on the fact that I am now insured. Perhaps ex dumbass ante moral hazard captures the concept.

This compares nicely to the ex post moral hazard. After the insured event has occurred, you are more prone to claim insurance benefits exactly because they are available. Admittedly I use our health care spending account for this purpose. I spend a bit more to get the compressed lens for my glasses to avoid the coke bottle effect I would otherwise need to see what I am doing. I feel enabled.

Insurance companies do take steps to address this increase in use of insurance benefits by adding deductibles and co-insurance. Again behavioral economics tells us that people are twice as adverse to losses as they are to gains. Here we can see that insurance companies do recognize that the rationale person that traditional economic models rely upon does not exist except perhaps only the in the earlier fairy tale type of economic texts. But insureds would still be prone to take care to avoid incurring a loss since there is the frustration factor.

This frustration factor becomes apparent when claiming travel health insurance. My wife and I made plans for a bike trip in Asia. Being the prudent people we are, we purchased the complete trip cancellation insurance. This may be similar to purchasing the extended warranty which turns out to be a costly insurance premium for a low probable event. But buying trip cancellation is the easiest thing in the world. You put in the length of your trip, your age, price of the trip, your credit card number and off you go. You get a nice little brochure almost instanteously.

Unfortunately, my wife got ill just before the trip and had to cancel. Now, there is no way to fill in a claim form on-line. You have to download the policy and figure out how to fill in a claim. This necessitated printing out the form, photocopying receipts and physically mailing the entire package. The number of doctors visits increased since now we also had to provide written reports on why she couldn’t travel and how this was not a pre-existing illness.

Admittedly, this acts as a type of disincentive. Even as a lawyer, I found the amount of paperwork, and I mean actual paper, excessive. The 10 month time and effort to claim under the insurance exceeded the 10 minute time and effort to arrange the insurance. One would hope that the arrangement time and the claim time would be comparable. Fortunately, my wife are completely hung up on this completion thing and made this a personal project to complete.

Research seems to show that insurance does not increase the ex dumbass ante behavior. Insurance does seem to negate some preventative behavior that’s difficult to maintain. It seems to be easier to take drugs to alleviate diabetes than it is to avoid those sugary laced slushy drinks. Insurance does increase use of health benefits, but this may reduce even more costly medical intervention later.

Mark Twain in his speech on accident insurance had this to say.

“I have seen an entire family lifted out of poverty and into affluence by the simple boon of a broken leg. I have had people come to me on crutches, with tears in their eyes, to bless this beneficent institution. In all my experiences of life, I have seen nothing so seraphic as the look that comes into a freshly mutilated man’s face when he feels in his vest pocket with his remaining hand and finds his accident ticket all right.”

So insurance companies, and lawyers, face a discerning public. I am sure I should apologize to one group for placing those two groups together. But like anything, once you really need insurance, or a lawyer, you’re glad it’s there.

Pixabay

+Source: pixabay.com