Are you getting exactly what you pay for?

Almost every product you buy is sold by weight, volume, length, count or area. This means that when you buy a product, you might not be getting exactly what you think you’re paying for. Let’s take a tub of potato salad as an example: you purchase this from the deli at your local supermarket. Think you’re paying only for the potato salad? Ah, not exactly: you’re most likely paying for the weight of the plastic container too.

Australia has not had a national trade measurement system up to now and this has allowed retailers to “short-weight” or overcharge for items. But consumers should only be paying for the product and not the packaging. 109 years ago, it was written into the Australian Constitution that responsibility for weights and measures should be a national responsibility and, from July 1 2010, it will be.

A new national trade measurement system will come into effect on this date and will give the Commonwealth the responsibility for weights and measurements for the very first time. The system will cover measures used in trade that total more than AU$400 billion a year nationally, including exports, imports and over-the-counter sales such as meat and petrol. It will greatly reduce State compliance differences and bring Australia on an equal footing with its trading partners.

The new national system will replace 17 different pieces of State and Territory legislation and will make it simpler for businesses to operate within a uniform framework. The National Measurement Institute (which is a Division of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) will become the national regulator of trade measurement and will be responsible for a national compliance framework delivered by 100 inspectors. These inspectors will use highly accurate equipment to inspect fuel dispensers at service stations, scales at retail stores and packaged products at supermarkets.

Obviously, this is a great boon for consumers because it will mean whether you are buying petrol in Hobart or groceries in Cairns, Australians will be confident they are getting exactly what they are paying for. Parliamentary Secretary for Innovation and Industry, Richard Marles, was quoted in a Media Release on May 20 and highlighted how Australian consumers have been at a disadvantage:

Even small errors in weight or volume can add up significantly over time. If you lose one percent of a weekly $200 grocery shop because the scales are wrongly calibrated, over a year, you could be down more than $100“.

The new national system will require an education and awareness campaign, so the National Measurement Institute (NMI) has provided 10 Top Tips for Australian consumers:

  • make sure you have a clear view of the scale
  • check the scale shows zero weight – if it doesn’t, tell the trader
  • make sure the price/kg on the scale matches the advertised price/kg
  • check the total price on the scale is the price you’re charged at the checkout
  • make sure you get everything that you paid for
  • always read the label
  • pay only for the product, not the packaging
  • ensure the price is indicating $0.00 after you have picked up the nozzle and before you start filling your car’s fuel tank
  • check your receipt to ensure the prices match the advertised price
  • if you think you’ve been “short-weighted” or overcharged, notify the store manager and contact the Trade Measurement Section of the NMI if you think the short-weighting was intentional or happens regularly

Reform has been long overdue but finally the Australian consumer can shop with confidence. Thanks to Mark Communications for providing me with information about the National Measurement System and the photo accompanying this post.

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May 30, 2010 at 2:29 am 1 comment

Accidental spies

Google’s feeling the heat in Germany and Australia. Co-founder, Sergey Brin, admitted that Google has “screwed up”. I guess that’s what you call it when you hack into 600GB of private wireless data, in over 30 countries, whilst cruising the streets snapping images for the Street View mapping service. Oh, how silly of me: Google “accidentally” managed to capture that 600GB of data, they didn’t intentionally set out to hack into private networks. But Google: I think you’ll find the finger of wire-tapping pointed at you. To appreciate the seriousness of Google’s accidental spying, they were collecting data that potentially includes emails, passwords, Facebook or Twitter updates and Web sites visited. And when you think about it, Google probably knows more about you and me than any Government does and yet Google is not regulated.

This “inadvertent” collection of data has led to Google facing a class action lawsuit, which could see the search engine giant coughing up US$10,000 every time it screws up and collects data from unprotected networks. Two lawsuits have been filed, one in the Oregon federal court and the other in Washington and claim privacy violation pursuant to 18 USC §2511, under which plaintiffs and class members are entitled to $100 a day for each day their data was breached or $10,000 per violation per plaintiff. The two plaintiffs are Vicki Van Valin of Oregon and Neil Mertz of Washington, who claim that their homes’ wireless networks were not password protected and that the Street View vans cruised by their residences at least once. The lawsuit states in part:

“When Google created its data collection systems on its GSV [Google Street View] vehicles, it included wireless packet sniffers that, in addition to collecting the user’s unique or chosen Wi-Fi network name (SSID information), the unique number given to the user’s hardware used to broadcast a user’s WiFi signal (MAC address, the GSV data collection systems also collected data consisting of all or part of any documents, emails, video, audio, and VoIP information being sent over the network by the user [payload data]”.

The plaintiffs successfully applied for a temporary restraining order against Google and this prevents the search giant from deleting the collected data. Valin works for a technology company and works from home a fair bit. This would mean that a significant amount of data Valin sends over her wireless network is subject to her employer’s non-disclosure agreement. This could make things very interesting for Google and, in comparison, Facebook’s ongoing privacy bungles look kinda rosy.

Seems that New Zealand’s Privacy Commissioner is also interested in asking Google a few questions because oh nooooooo, shock, horror, Google accidentally collected data in NZ too. And the only time I’m likely to agree with Australia’s Communications Minister, Stephen “Internet Filter” Conroy, is when he said: “The code that the computer program collects is designed to collect this information..Yes, I’m saying they wrote a piece of code designed to do it….(and that this has been) the largest privacy breach in history across western democracies“.

BTW: don’t you think that Page and Brin are a couple of toothy dudes?

Photo credit: SMH.

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May 26, 2010 at 1:00 am 2 comments

NZ Spy Bill

I’m trying to find out exactly how many CCTV cams are here in Christchurch, New Zealand. I’ve been told it’s 44. Certainly, 25 new cams were added to the CCTV network in 2009. In Oxford, where I’ll be living, I’ve yet to spot one. I will do a thorough check as there’s bound to be one, probably at the town’s only ATM. But it’s a relief to be in a town where you and the streets aren’t watched day in day out by a lot of unblinking eyes.

What has me more alarmed though is an NZ Bill I’ve blogged about before – the Search and Surveillance Bill 45-1 (2009). Skim that blog post first before reading on. The Bill is currently before the Justice and Electoral Committee which is due to report back in late 2010.

I was watching Sunday last week and there was a report on just how intrusive this Bill could be into the every day lives of New Zealanders. Why don’t you watch the session – it’s pretty damn frightening. I was pleased to see a partner from NZ law firm, Bell Gully, being interviewed about concerns that Government agencies will have increased surveillance powers and you can read that law firm’s submission here.

As I understand it, over 70 “non-police” NZ agencies (such as Fisheries Ministry, Inland Revenue Department, Commerce Commission, the Reserve Bank and the Pork Industry Board) already have the power to obtain a search warrant (as long as it is deemed “role appropriate) but the Bill is a step beyond this – it gives these agencies the power to enter private property and covertly install a listening or recording device, set up hidden cameras or plant tracking devices on cars without someone’s knowledge.  At the moment, when one of these agencies obtains a warrant, it’s for the production of documents or to answer questions. If there is reasonable cause, a search of physical property might take place.

The S&S Bill extends investigatory powers and is trying to provide a homogeneous framework for regulators but….it is basically giving police powers to non-police Government agencies. Scary. Who will be overseeing exactly what these agencies can and can’t do? And under what circumstances will an agency be given the power to enter private property for secret squirrel operations? From my reading of the S&S Bill, it seems that non-police agencies would also be given the power to obtain a “residual warrant” that would allow them to legally hack into someone’s computer remotely and this would include asking an ISP to provide access to the person’s computer network.

Surely this Bill is contrary to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, which gives New Zealanders the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure?

What really, really scares me is that should the Bill become law, I can’t see how a person has the right to silence. It seems that under an Examination Order, a Government agency can haul you off for questioning and you have no right of refusal. I guess you could cite s60 of the Evidence Act and claim ‘privilege against self-incrimination’ – but I’m not sure how far that would get you.

Anyway, I plan to study this much more deeply. It’s very concerning that a democracy like New Zealand is considering such invasive powers (no doubt it’s being touted as an “anti-terrorism” measure). If you know anything, leave a comment.

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May 24, 2010 at 11:02 pm Leave a comment stuff

I am “decommissioning” my website basically because this blog has far more readers. So I’m making all my thought pieces freely available in this post. Most of them are essays from a complexity perspective on various topics or they are articles/interviews I wrote for Image and Data Manager.  In no particular order, here they are: knock yourself out!

Victoria Ward & Kim Sbarcea

Rui Martins & Kim Sbarcea

Kim Sbarcea

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May 19, 2010 at 9:42 pm 3 comments

Achtung Google!

I’m watching with interest a simmering cat fight that could boil over soon. Germany is looking at Google, closely, very closely and the German Federal Commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, Peter Schaar, is not happy with the search giant, saying that Google may been in breach of German privacy law.

Regular ThinkingShift readers know of my distaste for Google’s Street View service. After being pressed by the German Government to cough up information on the Wi-Fi data contained on the hard drives of Google’s Street View cars, Google posts (what sounds like) a transparent, open post.

The story goes like this: Google has allegedly been collecting private data on individuals by scanning for private wireless networks and recording the details whilst cruising streets with those ugly Google Street View vans. European officials were concerned about Google’s activities and demanded they reveal the type of data collected. Cornered, Google admitted that private data had been collected but oops, it was a programming error, and we didn’t mean to do it, sorry. But it seems that what Google was busy collecting was not just the names and addresses of private citizens but also information sent over the network such as emails and what websites were visited by those citizens.

Illegally tapping into private networks is against German law so Google is in hot water. Peter Schaar isn’t taking any of Google’s excuses lying down, saying:

‘‘So everything was a simple oversight, a software error! The data was collected and stored against the will of the project’s managers and other managers at Google. If we follow this logic further, this means: The software was installed and used without being properly tested beforehand. Billions of bits of data were mistakenly collected, without anyone in Google noticing it, including Google’s own internal data protection managers, who two weeks ago were defending to us the company’s internal data protection practices.’

If German data protection authorities had not demanded Google reveal what exactly was on the hard drives of Street View cars, then I wonder if Google would ever have admitted to “the software error”. Ah, I doubt it.

And German citizens are none too happy about Street View either, with many private home owners signing up to have their properties excluded from the spying Google eyes. I can assure Google that should they ever try to come down the driveway of our rural property in New Zealand, a huge cat fight will erupt. One poor woman in the UK has been captured by the cruising vans not once, not twice, but 43 times as she innocently strolls down a Suffolk street, walking the dog.

Google: your credibility is evaporating dudes.

UPDATE: 18/05/2010 Google’s woes are going from bad to worse – the Australian Privacy Commissioner is also asking questions of Google since the internet behemoth admitted it had “inadvertently” been recording Wi-Fi data from unsecured wireless networks in over 30 countries. Electronic Frontiers Australia and the Australian Privacy Foundation have sent Google a “please explain” joint letter and are pressing Google to reveal what data its Street View cars and vans actually collect. Can’t wait to hear Google’s latest response: “oh, we’ve been collecting heaps of data about private citizens in over 30 countries for four years?  Really? We had no idea: must be a programming error. We’ll get back to you”.

All this sounds like Facebook’s latest debacle over privacy issues – and what’s happening now with Facebook? People are leaving it in droves. I have a Facebook “presence”, basically a cartoon cat avatar and minimal information. I think I will now even de-activate this. Note: there is a difference between deleting stuff off Facebook and de-activating your account. It seems Facebook retain the data (eg photos, your connections blah blah) and can data mine it to death.

Mark May 31 in your diaries as “Quitting Facebook Day” – there’s a whole website devoted to quitting Facebook on that day. I plan to join the exodus.

UPDATE: May 26 2010 – Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA), Joe Barton (R-TX) and Ed Marley (D-MA) have sent a letter to Google and asking for a reply by June 7. There are 12 juicy questions that Google is being grilled on. Read it here.

UPDATE: May 27 2010 Google is resisting all demands to hand over private internet data to Regulators (and snubs Hong Kong’s Privacy Commissioner whilst it’s at it). Mmmmmm…..if Google “accidentally, inadvertently, oops, we didn’t mean to” collect data, then why are they fighting so hard to deflect any attempts at getting them to handover the collected data?

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May 17, 2010 at 8:57 am 2 comments

A rose may not be a rose

Singapore-based blogging colleague, Marc of Creative Spark, sent me this article about hidden, unlisted chemicals in perfumes. It’s time for a perfume update anyway, so the article is very timely. I do have a liking for Chanel Coco but was horrified to learn it contains 18 unlisted toxic nasties.

A report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has identified perfumes that have an average of 14 secret chemicals in them and these are not listed on the perfume bottle or label. I know that in the US, there is a loop hole in Federal Law (Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973), which allows perfume houses to claim their fragrances are trade secrets. Perfume houses can call their scent “parfum” or “fragrance” and are not required to separately list the ingredients. This also applies to shampoos, body washes, air fresheners, dishwashing detergents etc that use the word “fragrance”. Behind this word is an awful lot of toxic stuff swirling around. And the problem is that many of the unlisted chemicals (especially when multiple chemicals lurk in a product) can trigger allergic reactions and even disrupt hormones. These chemicals can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics commissioned the report and the EWG churned through the data. 17 perfumes were tested and what’s really scary is to read that 12 of the 17 perfumes contained diethyl phthalate, a chemical linked to sperm damage and behavioral problems.

If you use American Eagle Seventy Seven, you might want to think again, because the analysis revealed that this scent has a whopping 24 unlisted, secret squirrel toxic chemicals in it.

Unfortunately, Coco Chanel followed with 18 nasties. Musk ketone is another synthetic fragrance ingredient that was found in the tested perfumes. Musk ketone is absorbed by the body, concentrates in human fat tissue and breast milk and has a possible link to cancer.

Here are the 17 scents tested, along with the number of clandestine chemicals contained in them. Truly scary. And as the report points out, consumers can hardly make an informed decision if we don’t know what ingredients are really in products.

In the 17 perfumes tested, there were 38 secret chemicals. Do yourself a favour and read the full report. Download it here.

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May 14, 2010 at 5:14 am 1 comment

Grappling with The Bureaucracy

There’s a lot of crap you have to deal with when moving countries. Top of the list has to be getting a driver’s licence and air-freighting some of your stuff as “unaccompanied luggage” so you actually have some fresh clothes to wear whilst you wait for the shipping container, which is chock full of your entire household of STUFF, to sail leisurely across the ocean. So a few handy hints for the unwary. I’ll call them Golden Rules.

Golden Rule #1how to deal with the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) of NSW Australia and the NZ Transport Agency. First take a valium or stiff drink. If you have an Australian driver’s license, you can convert to an NZ one after coughing up your entire life story – well, Australian passport along with proof of your NZ address. You don’t have to be subjected to a scary driving or knowledge test.

I have an NZ passport woot! easier….but …my surname is causing a hissy fit. My full surname is dos Santos Martins; but my New South Wales (NSW) driver’s license just says Martins. I don’t remember how this happened but I prefer to be called Kim Martins because the whole dos Santos thing is too much of a mouthful, exotic sounding though it may be. The RTA had no problems with plain old Martins. (Sbarcea is my former name and I use it for professional reasons only).

But NZ doesn’t like it. Nope. Despite my NSW driver’s license having a photo of my cheery face and despite that same face appearing on my NZ passport (with the longer surname), the NZ Transport Agency does not believe I am one and the same person.

So many phone calls later back to Sydney and the RTA, I’m kinda stuck. The RTA are sending over a Certificate of Particulars, the fancy name for something that will prove I’ve been driving for more than 2 years in NSW. But it will say Martins. To change this name to dos Santos Martins, I was told to hotfoot it back to Sydney and go through the whole change of name business. What the?

So a call to the NZ Transport Agency indicates they will probably have problems believing that Kim Martins is Kim dos Santos Martins, despite the two photos being of the same person.  So I’m desperately trying to find my old NZ passport that said Kim dos Santos Martins aka Kim Martins. Golden Rule #1 is therefore: make sure the surname on all your originating country documents matches that of your passport. Pretty simple I know but if you have an unusual surname like I do, you could run into The Bureaucracy. And The Bureaucracy is rigid.

Golden Rule #2 when shipping stuff by air freight make sure you understand the charges you will get lumped with at the other end. We used an air freight company in Sydney that fast-tracked some of our clothes and computers to Christchurch via some cargo plane and using DHL. 2 days it took and (we thought) we paid all costs before we left Oz. They said yep, you’ve paid airport to airport, so just go along and pick up your stuff.

Simple right? ah nope. What they didn’t mention was we’d be hit with (fairly high) costs at the airport in Christchurch for collecting the airfreight, paying the airline charges blah blah. So we merrily go along to pick up our stuff, praising the Airline Gods that my laptop did not go missing in action somewhere and found surprise…it’s your lucky day, cough up NZ$87.00 to get your stuff.

Oh and Golden Rule #3, try to avoid using DHL. There seems to be DHL Express, DHL Global and other DHLs. The DHL website is pretty crappy and it was an intelligence test trying to find the right DHL place to go to in Christchurch to pick up our airfreight. In all honesty, I can’t say they were all that helpful over the phone or in person.

I suspect I will soon have a post on how to deal with MAF (NZ Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry). They have already flagged that they want to rummage through 9 boxes in our container as “boxes of interest”. Gulp. I think box #182 is the one full of dead squirrels – only joking MAF 🙂

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May 11, 2010 at 7:08 am 4 comments

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