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A Customer Wants to Know: How Stupid Can I Be?

Back in the day, we used a number of email lists run by a program called mailman to communicate with our customers. You could join a list based on the type of device you had, and from time to time we’d email you to let you know about updates and upgrades. We stopped using these lists around 2007 but the server is still running.

Every month, the list server sends each member his password and a reminder that he can unsubscribe or change his preferences by logging into the server and making the changes. When you sign up for the list, you can turn this option on or off. Because so many people sign up by email and have a password generated for them automatically, this behavior (monthly reminders) is turned on by default.

On January 1 I received this email from a subscriber to our iPhone list. I’ve changed his name and anonymized his employer’s company name, which appeared in every email he sent. Note he’s writing from the UK.

You have just emailed me my user name and password in an e-mail in plain text.

Are you stupid or something!

I have closed my account

Jimmy McWeenie

Jimmy’s Employer’s Name Here

Normally, I would send a nice response that explains that there is no financial or personal data exposed by the password, and would explain why we enable this behavior by default. But his “are you stupid” comment irritated me. I crafted a number of more- and less-tactful responses to this email, but ended up sending this one:

On 01/01/2014 15:09, “Craig Rairdin” <craigr@laridian.com> wrote:

Jimmy,

When you signed up for this email list, you chose the option to have the server send your login credentials to you every month. We are stupid enough to send you the information that you requested on the schedule that you requested.

We’re also stupid enough to send you the products you purchase and stupid enough to respond to your support requests. We’re stupid enough to continue developing new products for new platforms and stupid enough to give them away for free.

I hope we’re stupid enough to explain this clearly.

Let me know how much more stupid you need us to be.

I hope your new year is off to the same great start that ours is.

Craig

Jimmy replied:

If you still don’t get that sending someones login details, their user name and password in plain text in an e-mail is not just stupid, it’s a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998, then you should be involved in the computer business at all.

You don’t send this data out every month, just four times since 2011, which was when I had a look at your software.

I’ve done my best to ensure that my account with you is now closed, hopefully be can now both enjoy a 2014 equally undisturbed by each other

Best wishes

Jimmy McWeenie

Jimmy’s Employer’s Name Here

I had to look up the “Data Protection Act of 1998”. It was at this point I realized Jimmy is in the UK.

On 1 Jan 2014, at 22:54, “Craig Rairdin” <craigr@laridian.com> wrote:

Jimmy,

Our company and our server is in the US. We haven’t been subject to the laws of the UK since the late 1700’s. 🙂 This is an email list you signed up for. When you signed up, you had the option to have your login credentials sent to you every month. You chose that option. The list server is following your instructions.

Every mailman list server list from the beginning of the internet has done this. I get these reminders every month from a dozen lists. I’m glad to hear you figured out how to remove yourself from the list, which is one of the options that is presented to you every month. You have not “closed your account” — just removed yourself from an unused mailing list.

I’m working on that particular server today and will shut down all the lists while I’m there. We haven’t made use of them for a long time and most people have removed themselves already.

Craig

Jimmy replied:

Unfortunately Craig, you are wrong again. Your company is currently offering it’s products through Apples UK App Store, and so those accounts will be liable to UK taxes and jurisdiction.

I very much doubt that any one who signed up, expecting some kind of news letter, thought that you would e-mail out their account details in plain text.

Tell you what, I’ll e-mail our conversation around to a few websites tomorrow, and we’ll see if, generally, people think that your company is behaving irresponsibly or not.

I’ll cc you in so that you can know who I’ve sent them to, as no doubt they will want some comments from you

Regards

Jimmy McWeenie

Jimmy’s Employer’s Name Here

So now Jimmy is threatening to expose this vile breach of privacy to the rest of the world. My experience is that people who make this threat either never follow through, or else the people they notify are used to receiving their crazy rants and just block them. So I’m not worried. Continuing to demonstrate the scope of my stupidity, I chose to respond:

On 2 Jan 2014, at 00:00, “Craig Rairdin” <craigr@laridian.com> wrote:

Our relationship with Apple is one where they act as an independent seller of our software. Our agreement with them makes them responsible for all taxes and local laws in the places in which they do business. It does not create nexus in the UK for Laridian. In fact, one of its purposes is to assure us that it is Apple that is doing business in the UK, not us. The people who signed up for the list learned about the purpose of the list on the same page where they opted to have their password emailed to them every month. If they knew they were signing up for a newsletter, they knew they were requesting their login credentials. And if they objected to receiving those, they read the instructions and learned, just as you did, how to remove themselves from the list or change their subscription settings.

Feel free to pass our conversation around to whomever you feel it would benefit. Make sure to let them know that we sent you the information you requested, that we told you how to stop receiving that information, and that you followed those instructions and now are not receiving that information any longer. If that angers them to the degree it does you, I’d be happy to discuss it further with them.

Craig

This morning, Jimmy replied:

On 1/1/14 6:13 PM, “jimmy mcweenie” <jimmy@jimmys_employer.co.uk> wrote:

I’m sure that Apple will be one of the people I send this to. From a brief viewing of Apples terms and conditions, it would seem to me that they make some effort to preclude the type of liability you suggest falling on them. Would you like to take the opportunity, right at the start, to send me a copy the details of where I signed up to have my account information sent to me in plain text? You seem to want to rely on the fact that I asked you to do this, and you were only complying with my wishes.

If you send me evidence that I specifically asked you to email me my account security information as plain text each month, I will include this information with my email of this conversation.

Is there anyone at Laridian you would like to involve in this discussion?

Regards

Jimmy McWeenie

Jimmy’s Employer’s Name Here

By threatening to involve other people at Laridian, he’s hoping to get me worried that my boss will find out how I’ve been treating our customers.  Clearly, Jimmy hasn’t read the Laridian org chart. When it comes to stupid, I’m the top dog here. I decide to bring this to an end.

On 02/01/2014 16:40, “Craig Rairdin” <craigr@laridian.com> wrote:

Here’s the documentation for Mailman, our list manager software: http://www.gnu.org/software/mailman/docs.html. It contains everything you need to know.

You may involve as many people in this discussion of the subtle details of your email preferences as you think will be interested. Personally, I’ve lost all my interest. I have explained the situation to you; you have removed yourself from the inactive list you signed up for; I have removed you from any future email we may do (though we probably haven’t sent you a marketing email in the last 10 years or so); and I’m in the process of shutting down this unused mailing list server. I’ve disabled the automatic monthly emails, which is irrelevant since I plan on having the entire physical server offline in the next few days.

I have explained that we’re not subject to the Data Protection Act of 1998 since we have no nexus in the UK. Furthermore, the mailing list does not retain any “sensitive personal data” as defined by the Data Protection Act of 1998, so unauthorized acquisition of your password would not expose any data that is protected by the Act, even if we were subject to it.

This will be my last email to you on this subject, which, as you so tactfully put it, is “How stupid can (I) be.” I believe I answered that question by simply replying to your email. I made it clearer by continuing the conversation as long as I have.

Again, I wish you the very best for the new year.

Craig

But Jimmy will have none of it. He continues:

Craig

In a mission to prove how stupid you really are, you decide to have one last poke at me, when I hadn’t taken my complaint any further.

I had decided that in light of the fact you sold Bible software, I would put the exchange to a down to a bored techie whiling the time away making ill advised comments to a customer.

However if you want to discover how serious this complaint is, I’m e-mailing Apple to see what they think of Laridian distributing customer account details across the weld every month

Enjoy

Regards

Jimmy McWeenie

Jimmy’s Employer’s Name Here

So sometime between when he said he was “sure” he was going to send this all to Apple and when he received my reply, he decided not to. Only when I replied did he decide to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. Interestingly, my reply contained no “pokes” at him, only a continuation of the self-depricating theme of answering his question “How stupid are you?” in the affirmative.

I’m sure since Jimmy has no idea that I’m the President of Laridian that he has no idea who to send his email to at Apple. I’ll let you know what happens next.