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Off By Default

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 11:04 PM

You probably have never heard of Nick Shabazz. We seldom hear of people who make sense. Our attention is drawn instead to noisy malevolent clowns.

He was once a well known figure on YouTube, where he was famous for excellent reviews and commentary on pocket knives, later flashlights, wrist watches, and writing implements. Through his self-effacing humor (“Gear Reviewer, YouTuber, and Jackass-of-all-trades”), his distinctive voice, and his carefully enforced privacy (people who thought they saw his face in the reflection of a polished knife blade or watch crystal discovered that he wears a Batman mask when reviewing shiny things), he built a community of followers who valued his intelligence, his humor which ranges from very clever to juvenile, and the fact that he was obviously not trying to sell you the products he was reviewing. He also made a point of knowing what he was talking about.

His YouTube channel isn’t his raison d’être. Unlike so many whose very meaning hangs by the thin thread of Google whim, he has an actual life. He is apparently an engineer or chemist or something — he’s perfectly comfortable with some pretty high concepts — which he says he enjoys.

Nick (I justify calling him by his first name because we briefly corresponded years ago) is still around and his channel is as good as ever, though it does not pop to the top of YouTube recommendations any more, because he doesn’t play the marketing game of, basically, corrupting his reviews in favor of clicks. Integrity was once the expected starting point for, well, everyone. Now it is a notable rarity and singled out for punishment.

I mention him, which I’m delighted to have the opportunity to do, because of his April review of the latest Apple Watch. It was a typical Nick Shabazz review: fair and complete, pointing out its strengths and weaknesses and the things about it that mattered to him but might not matter to you. But then he pointed out something that people who watch YouTube reviews are not accustomed to hearing:

“I’ve spent some time on this, wanting to be fair. I have switched to Android. I switched to a Linux computer. I’ve moved away from Apple products broadly. They have become the very thing that I used to use an Apple computer to avoid.”

He praises the watch’s many fine qualities but also comments on the huge amount of medical data it collects. “On the bad side, to start with, remember all that health data I talked about. That’s a little scary. Giving it to a company like Apple is something you should not consider lightly. All of this health and personal data can give lots of information to people, and Apple is a company that talks big about privacy but also regularly screws up and and implements anti-consumer and anti-privacy policies.

“They are just one unscrupulous MBA or government edict away from sharing that information with your insurance company . . . so you should think very carefully before you share that data. And by collecting it you are sharing it because Apple doesn’t give you that choice.”

Nick Shabazz is absolutely right about that. I wasn’t surprised that he was onto it because, as I said, he’s a very smart guy who still dabbles in the practice of thinking.

It is enough to give you a headache, trying to fend off all the entities who make their business from knowing things about you that are none of their business. You cannot today purchase a new car that doesn’t collect information about you and phone home with it. (“Who cares?” is the typical response. “I have nothing to hide.” Then yank the curtains down from your bedroom windows, why don’t you? You don’t want to do that? What, then, would you think of a company that did it without your permission? Guess what: you are encountering such companies a thousand times every day, usually without knowing it.)

I haven’t watched Nick’s videos much in the last couple of years. I now have the pocket knives I like (the one I carry, an Ontario Rat II in D2 steel, or R2D2, I got entirely because he recommended it — and he was right). I have the wristwatches I like. I made my decisions as to writing instruments before there was a YouTube. And it’s hard for me to get very excited about a flashlight. So it wasn’t until last night that I saw the excellent commentary quoted above, just because I wondered what Nick has been up to, and took a look.

I found it at a fortuitous time. It added materially to what I had planned to write about anyway, and it helped me realize that intelligent people not specializing in the subject are concerned about their privacy and the security of their personal information.

Though it was released three weeks ago, it wasn’t until this week that I read “Privacy First: A Better Way to Address Online Harms,” issued November 14 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It points out that our bureaucracy-political complex is all the time wringing its hands and talking about privacy but it has been impotent in its actions and even in its proposals for legislation, which inevitably go nowhere. The answer, the EFF eloquently says, is not at all complicated: Privacy first. All the law needs to say is that you may not collect any information online about anyone without their knowledge and explicit permission. After that, you may not use or distribute that information without their knowledge and explicit permission. It’s that simple.

“Trouble is, our lawmakers seem to be losing the forest for the trees, promoting scattered and disconnected proposals addressing whichever perceived harm is causing the loudest public anxiety in any given moment,” says the report. ” . . . It’s long past time to look for global solutions that can accomplish something concrete and ambitious. Happily, you don’t have to look far. The truth is many of the ills of today’s internet have a single thing in common: they are built on a system of corporate surveillance. . . .

“In other words, whatever online harms you want to alleviate, you can do it better, with a broader impact, if you do privacy first.”

The report goes on to describe the characteristics of a useful privacy-protection law. It includes penalties that would allow the offended to collect cash money from the offender. While the last thing we need is further enrichment of the plaintiffs bar, setting those parasites loose on the likes of Google and the others like it does spark a bit of not entirely unrighteous schadenfreude. Nor should people be forced to pay the extortion of hiring a company to sanitize their internet footprint. (“Nice little reputation you have there — it would be a real shame if something happened to it,” those companies effectively say.)

The EFF then goes on to describe the positive effects of its proposal. They are many and unexceptionable. They also protect against real or apparent bills of attainder, prohibited by the U.S. Constitution when that august document still mattered. Why just go after TikTok when you can go after TikTok and everyone else who does the same corrupt and corrupting things?

It will fall on deaf ears, of course. Our legislators and media corporations are basically for sale, as the late, much-lamented P.J. O’Rourke reminded us. They pretend to be technologically illiterate, in what may be the lone instance of our elected representatives not being as stupid as they look. The fact is, they and their lickspittles make enormous use of your personal data, too. And the shadowy data-collection industry returns the favor, “lobbying” officials to oppose meaningful reform. What voice have you against the big dollars being offered to officials who really are the crooks you’ve always suspected them to be? (The U.S. Senate is not so much outraged by the indictment of blatantly corrupt New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez as they are that he got caught, in the way that the mob arranged the arrest of boss Louis “Lepke” Buchalter in 1939: While he was out there free, there was increased scrutiny on everyone.)

The only way we can regain our privacy is by loudly demanding it, withholding our votes from those who support and accept money from the data scrapers, and in the meantime being alert. This can involve a lot of work, I’m sorry to say, though there is satisfaction in confounding the thieves and voyeurs who want to peek through your bedroom window and every other window into your life. It can become a passion, and a rewarding one. If there were a program to flood the bad guys with bad, meaningless data that would corrupt their corruptly gathered data, well, sign me up. I do make a point of giving them false and misleading information wherever possible, even as I would not give a burglar my home address and combination to the safe, even if he asked nicely.

And they do ask nicely, just as the molester offers candy to the child to get into the car. Apple, Google, and others offer convenience in return for information about you, and make no mistake, what is in your interest is of no interest to them at all. If they could do it legally, they would empty your bank account and retirement fund. Or, probably, if they could do it illegally but get away with it.

If you fall for it now, you’ll regret it later. Nick Shabazz, I think, would tell you that much.

“Comprehensive privacy legislation won’t fix everything,” says the EFF. “[But a] privacy-first approach would help alleviate a variety of problems, giving us some breathing room while we explore how to finish the job.”

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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