Web Excursions 2021-07-18

An ode to the much bedeviled security questions; Apple removed an extension app to track fake Amazon reviews but the reality is not that black-and-white; and an argument that Master’s degrees offered by US universities are deeply flawed.


Online Security Questions Are Not Very Effective. I Still Love Them. - The New York Times

  • Online security questions have the feel of the icebreakers we might have played in middle school, or maybe second-date questions; they require us to self-define using arbitrary markers.

  • Security questions were invented to solve a problem at once existential and practical: How can you prove that you are you?

  • In the mid-19th century, banks often used signatures to authenticate people’s identities,

    • but many of the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank’s clients could not read or write.

    • So it created a “test book” that contained a wealth of personal information.

    • When clients came in, clerks asked them about their personal history and relations to verify their identities.

    • Sometimes they even asked the quintessential question, “What is your mother’s maiden name?”

      • The assumption was that your mother’s maiden name would have faded so far into the past that almost no one else could possibly have known it.

  • They feel like antidotes to the sameness of the contemporary internet.

    • Unlike the homogenized corporate sites to which they grant you entry,

      • security questions’ essential randomness feels like a vestige of a past internet.

    • They are artifacts of an era when society thought differently about what constituted identity and how to prove it

    • There is something beautiful about this alternative articulation of the self.


Apple removes 'Fakespot' app from iOS App Store following Amazon request - 9to5Mac

  • Apple on Friday removed the Fakespot app from the iOS App Store.

  • Fakespot, which is a service for filtering and hiding fake product reviews on Amazon, launched its iOS app last month

  • The app, just like its web browser extension, integrates with Amazon’s website using unofficial methods to identify fake reviews within product pages.

  • Amazon, on the other hand, claims that the app injects code that can compromise users’ data, as well as providing consumers “with misleading information” about sellers.

  • Amazon confirms that it has asked Apple to remove the app under guideline 5.2.2, which prohibits developers from using third-party content in an app without permission.

HN Comments

  • ev1: Fakespot is one of the more atrocious extensions when it comes to data collection.

    • It sends everything you look at, everything you add to cart,

    • while you are logged out of everything it will also persistently track your viewed items with a unique identifier

    • They also use the same unique session identifier across sites, so items you look at on eBay/Walmart/etc can be tied to the same person as items viewed on Amazon

    • The extension itself is many megabytes of heavily packed and obfuscated JS.


Master’s degrees are the second biggest scam in higher education.

  • Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a troubling exposé on the crushing debt burdens

    • that students accumulate while pursuing master’s degrees at elite universities in fields like drama and film,

    • where the job prospects are limited and the chances of making enough to repay their debt are slim

  • But it also pointed to a more fundamental, troubling development in the world of higher education:

    • For colleges and universities, master’s degrees have essentially become an enormous moneymaking scheme,

    • wherein the line between for-profit and nonprofit education has been utterly blurred.

  • Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at New America

    • took a long, dispiriting look at the rise of so-called online program managers,

      • or OPMs—the private companies like 2U

      • that major universities from Yale to small schools like Oregon’s Concordia University use to build their online offerings.

  • These companies design and operate courses on behalf of schools—sometimes essentially offering a class in a box

    • that the university can slap its branding on.

    • The OPM then takes as much as 70 percent of tuition revenue.

    • That money is largely being funded with government loans, which may never be paid back

  • Carey: They are in fact often one-year job-oriented programs

    • that are heavily debt-financed, marketed very aggressively through online web advertising.

    • They purport to provide very specific economic opportunities in a given field.

    • One of the reasons that universities are able to be exploitative in the master’s degree market is because they’re not constrained in the same way that they are in the market for bachelor’s degrees

    • 15 years or so ago, the federal government removed any limits on how much money you can borrow to go to graduate school, other than whatever graduate school happens to cost.

    • where online does intersect with the more troublesome parts of this issue is that gave colleges with valuable brand names an opportunity to monetize those brands in a way that never existed before

    • We need a stronger regulatory hand in the master’s degree market.

      • Put a cap on how much money you can borrow to go to graduate school.

      • more transparency around how selective are graduate programs

      • regulate programs around their effectiveness

HN Comments

  • phsource: One reason that often gets glossed over is how (non-online) Masters programs are huge moneymakers as a ticket to working in the US.