Back in the year 2016, we had no problems. Well, okay, that’s not true. We had some problems. But our headphones weren’t one of them. That’s because headphones featured a universal design that was based upon a simple 3.5 mm jack that had been around for over a century. Then Apple killed the standard audio jack in iPhones and introduced its $159 wireless Airpods.
Wireless earbuds seem great, of course, until one falls out of your ear and down a sewer grate. Single Airpod Syndrome is a very real consequence of the new, untethered world of audio. That’s why Apple actually offers single Airpod replacements. That’s also why one company called Tapper introduced a solution of its own: Airpod cords.
First spotted by Boingboing, the $60 strap wraps around your neck and connects to your Airpods via magnets. That means if one falls out of your ear, it’s anchored to your body—like a rope climber is anchored to a mountain, or, you know, a normal, wired pair of earbuds were once anchored to your phone. What more is there to say here? We’re talking about a $60 product that adds wires to a product designed to remove wires from your life. The most hilarious twist is that Tapper’s cord actually has 4/5 stars on Nordstrom right now! Even if half those reviews are ironic, and the other half are planted, that’s still pretty impressive for a few inches of cordage. And a pretty sad commentary on the state of headphones, three years after Apple destroyed a perfectly good universal standard.
Departments of Motor Vehicles in states around the country are taking drivers’ personal information and selling it to thousands of businesses, including private investigators who spy on people for a profit, Motherboard has learned. DMVs sell the data for an array of approved purposes, such as to insurance or tow companies, but some of them have sold to more nefarious businesses as well. Multiple states have made tens of millions of dollars a year selling data.
Motherboard has obtained hundreds of pages of documents from DMVs through public records requests that lay out the practice. Members of the public may not be aware that when they provide their name, address, and in some cases other personal information to the DMV for the purposes of getting a driver’s license or registering a vehicle, the DMV often then turns around and offers that information for sale.
Many of the private investigators that DMVs have sold data to explicitly advertise that they will surveil spouses to see if they’re cheating.
“You need to learn what they’ve been doing, when they’ve been doing it, who they’ve been doing it with and how long it has been going on. You need to see proof with your own eyes,” reads the website of Integrity Investigations, one private investigator firm that buys data from DMVs.
“Under this MOU [memorandum of understanding], the Requesting Party will be provided, via remote electronic means, information pertaining to driver licenses and vehicles, including personal information authorized to be released,” one agreement between a DMV and its clients reads.
A small section of a document from the Virginia DMV showing which private investigators the DMV has data selling agreements with. Image: Screenshot.
Multiple DMVs stressed to Motherboard that they do not sell the photographs from citizens’ driver licenses or social security numbers.
Some of the data access is done in bulk, while other arrangements allow a company to lookup specific individuals, according to the documents. Contracts can roll for months at a time, and records can cost as little as $0.01 each, the documents add.
“The selling of personally identifying information to third parties is broadly a privacy issue for all and specifically a safety issue for survivors of abuse, including domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and trafficking,” Erica Olsen, director of Safety Net at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told Motherboard in an email. “For survivors, their safety may depend on their ability to keep this type of information private.”
The sale of this data to licensed private investigators is perfectly legal, due to the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), a law written in the ’90s before privacy became the cultural focus that it is today, but which critics believe should be changed. The process of becoming a licensed private investigator varies from state to state, and can be strict, according to multiple sources close to the industry. Some states, however, allow licensing to be granted on a local level or investigators to operate without a license.
The DPPA was created in 1994 after a private investigator, hired by a stalker, obtained the address of actress Rebecca Schaeffer from a DMV. The stalker went on to murder Schaeffer. The purpose of the law was to restrict access to DMV data, but it included a wide range of exemptions, including for the sale to private investigators.
“The DPPA is one of several federal laws that should now be updated,” Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of privacy activism group EPIC, wrote in an email. “I would certainly reduce the number of loopholes,” he added, referring to how the law might be changed.
Do you work at a company selling data? Do you know of an abuse of DMV data? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on 44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on email@example.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The data sold varies from state to state, but it typically includes a citizen’s name and address. In others, it can also include their nine-digit ZIP code, date of birth, phone number, and email address.
Rob Namowicz, a private investigator from Wisconsin, told Motherboard in an email he buys DMV records “to get driver license [sic] information on subjects I may be investigating.”
Motherboard did not obtain records from DMVs in all states, so the number of private investigators that have been granted access to citizens’ data across the country is likely higher.
The data selling is not limited to private investigators, however. The DPPA also allows the DMV to sell data of drivers to various other entities. Consumer credit reporting company Experian features heavily in the documents obtained by Motherboard, which stretch from 2014 to this year, as does research company LexisNexis. The Delaware DMV has direct access agreements with around 300 different entities, according to one spreadsheet. The Wisconsin DMV has current agreements with over 3100 entities, another shows. Local media outlets in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere have also reported on DMVs selling data to third parties.
Valerie McGilvrey, a skiptracer who uses various tools and techniques to track down vehicles that need to be repossessed, told Motherboard “with Texas having no repo license and minimum standards, convicted felons can and do access professional databases.”
“The selling of personally identifying information to third parties is broadly a privacy issue for all and specifically a safety issue for survivors of abuse, including domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and trafficking.”
DMVs are making a lot of money from the sale of this data. The Rhode Island DMV made at least $384,000 selling personal data between 2015 and this year, according to a spreadsheet obtained by Motherboard. When asked how much the Wisconsin DMV made from selling driver records, a spokesperson wrote in an email “Per these 2018 DMV Facts and Figures, $17,140,914 was collected in FY18 for driver abstract fees.” Examining that document shows that Wisconsin’s revenue for selling driver records has shot up dramatically since 2015, when the sale drew in $1.1 million. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles made $77 million in 2017 by selling data, a local outlet found.
Documents explicitly note that the purpose of selling this data is to bring in revenue.
“This is a revenue generating contract,” one document from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles obtained by Motherboard reads.
A spokesperson from the Wisconsin DMV wrote in an email that “Wisconsin DMV directly informs customers that their information may be sold.”
Some uses of the data include being able to contact owners of certain cars in case they need to be recalled. But multiple DMVs confirmed that access to such data has been abused in the past—likely by customers using the data in a way that they were not authorized to do so.
“Yes, it has been done before,” Binta Cissé, communications manager at the North Carolina DMV, wrote in an email after Motherboard asked if the DMV has cut off access to data buyers after abuse.
A section of a document from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles describing how the sale of data is to generate revenue. Image: Screenshot.
Alexis Bakofsky, deputy communications director from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, also said the agency had revoked access after abuse.
“Since implementing the new controls in 2017, the department has cancelled three MOUs with requesting parties for misuse,” she wrote. “Additionally, while there was no indication of misuse, the department proactively cancelled two MOUs with requesting parties for failing to provide adequate internal controls.”
Spokespeople from the Virginia DMV and the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission also confirmed those agencies have cut-off access after abuse of data. The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles said it has not had to terminate contracts because of abuse.
Senator Ron Wyden, who works especially on privacy and surveillance issues, told Motherboard in a statement “News reports over the past year have repeatedly exposed the troubling abuse of Americans’ location data, by private investigators, bounty hunters, and shady individuals.”
He added that if the DMV data has been abused by private investigators, “Congress should take a close look at the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, and, if necessary, close loopholes that are being abused to spy on Americans.”
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The term ‘responsive web design’ has been a mainstay in the world of digital development for many years. Go to any early-stage client meeting and you’ll almost always get asked to ‘make sure it works on mobile’.
The standard response to this has generally been, ‘don’t worry, we’ll build it responsive’, but is this response out of date?
The limitations of responsive web design
The main ‘tool’ of responsive web design is the ‘media-query’. This lets us apply a subset of CSS only when a website is rendered at a specific size, orientation or when some chosen environmental criterion is met (for example, light level). This allows a front-end developer to easily manipulate how a website, digital product or app displays on different sized devices, or as a window size changes.
However, I’m starting to think that tying rules about how an element should display to the size of the overall page or device is very short-sighted. This is especially true in today’s world of component-driven design.
Component-driven design changes everything
Today, in modern web design, we usually build highly re-usable, environment agnostic components using methodologies such as Atomic Design, often with the aim of building out a pattern library to be used across a variety of applications. This approach saves time and money, as it reduces the need to duplicate work. There is a burden, however, as each individual component needs to be robust enough that they work appropriately when dropped into containers of different sizes.
For example, if we built a news item preview component, with an image above a text excerpt, this may display in a wide container (e.g. an index page), or within a sidebar (e.g. related articles). If we write a media query that changes the news item’s display based on the size of the viewport (for instance placing the image alongside the copy instead of above it) we will be limiting the contexts when this item is useful. This is because if the viewport is wide, the rule will apply, even if the component is being used in the sidebar where it doesn’t have adequate space.
This is the crux of my complaint; media queries are very manual and explicit. Instead of defining the ideal state for a component, we are forced to place it in context and test how it works in relation to the canvas, and then manually adjust. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself doing the adjustment optically and then explicitly writing rules to tweak the display to your liking. If the page layout changes – and therefore how the module sits on the page – you will likely have to reassess these rules. This creates a huge maintainability burden and makes it easy for components to visually ‘break’ at certain viewport sizes, unbeknownst to the person making the changes.
Responsive web design, up to this point, has been concerned with the canvas, but what is really needed is a component-driven mindset.
Intrinsic web design
In 2018 Mozilla Designer Advocate Jen Simmons coined the term ‘intrinsic web design‘. This methodology takes a more content-out approach to digital design. Instead of changing styles based on the size of a viewport (or how big the screen of the device is), components automatically lay themselves out based on their own ‘ideal’ conditions.
For instance, instead of saying at 768px wide, the news article image sits above the text instead of alongside it, we could give more rough guidelines: ‘the image should span the full width of the parent, but ideally be no bigger than 250px wide’. Then, when the image hits 250px, it will automatically move to sit alongside the text.
We can describe responsive/adaptive design as an imperative approach – you are describing explicit behaviour to occur at an explicit width. Intrinsic design, meanwhile, has more in common with a declarative approach; we are providing guidelines, but leaving the precise implementation up to the browser.
Flexbox, grid and multi-column layout
Intrinsic design is largely enabled by new(ish) layout methods such as CSS Flexbox and CSS Grid (using auto-layout). These are all complementary technologies and don’t replace one-another – Grid is two dimensional, Flexbox is one-dimensional.
Below is an example of how we might use CSS Flexbox to create an automatically adapting media-query-less component:
This is saying that when list items get smaller than 250px, they should wrap. 250px is their ‘ideal’ size, but they can grow to fill additional space.
grid-template-columns: repeat( auto-fit, minmax(250px, 1fr) );
This is saying, when columns get smaller than 250px wide, they should occupy their own row. We don’t need to explicitly say when to switch layout, instead, we are providing a content-driven rule. It is not bound to the viewport size, but the width of the content itself, so can be used within nested elements. If the grid is used within a small sidebar, for instance, it will be a single column, while if it is also used in a content area next to the sidebar (larger than 250px * 2), then it will split into columns.
Alternatively, we could use CSS multi-column layout with the column-width property:
The behaviour of these three examples are all subtly different, with variances around the width of the wrapping items, and the distribution once they wrap. However the premise is the same: we advise the ideal width of an element, and let the browser worry about when and how to wrap.
These examples are ‘contextual’ and more ‘responsive’ than responsive web design, since they respond to their environment, not the viewport.
Bring on container queries
I expect that at some point in the future element or container queries will be introduced, and this post will be rendered moot. Certainly, until that point, it’s hard to fully do away with media queries, as much as I’d like to.
In the meantime, it is possible to point to the clever work that’s been done to make components responsive to their parent, not the page width. However, to me, a lot of these solutions are restrictively contextual.
So, where does that leave us?
Well, no, responsive web design isn’t dead, but we are at the point where we’ve evolved past what most people mean when they use the term. We’re no longer just trying to fit the things we make to varying screen sizes.
Instead, we’re now building digital products in a more flexible, module-driven way, and we have better tools now than five years ago that make working like this easy. We’re designing at the modular level, rather than the screen size level, and we’re moving to a more declarative approach. It’s still responsive web design, we’re just responding to a subtly different stimulus.
Looking for a highly-customizable way to sell your digital goods online? Chances are you can do it with WordPress.
The jack-of-all-trades CMS offers a number of different plugins that will help you distribute software, eBooks, music, stock photos and just about anything else that can be downloaded. And you can build a simple configuration with free tools.
But because there are a number of options available, it can be difficult to figure out which path to take. You’ll want to adopt a strategy that allows you the flexibility you need without adding a whole lot of unexpected costs and/or roadblocks.
Sound daunting? No need to worry! Today, we’ll show you a few different possibilities for selling digital products. While they won’t cover every possible need, they should at least help you determine the path that’s right for you.
Scenario #1: Single Product Sales
If you want to sell digital products on a one-off basis, a shopping cart is the way to go. A free plugin such as WooCommerce or Easy Digital Downloads can do all of the heavy lifting for you. Configure your products, set pricing and you’ll have a basic store up and running rather quickly.
What’s more, each of these shopping cart plugins have a wide variety of free and paid add-on components. They provide extra functionality such as the ability to tie in with specific payment gateways, offer product bundles and allow for affiliate sales – to name just a few.
The biggest decision here may be which cart to use. Each has its own strengths when it comes to digital products.
Easy Digital Downloads
As its name suggests, Easy Digital Downloads (EDD) was built specifically for selling downloadable goods. Thus, it offers a whole lot of features dedicated to this purpose.
You can, for example, use the built-in function to limit access to downloadable files by download attempts or expiration date. And if you’re selling software that requires a license key, you can add this functionality through an available paid add-on. If you’re distributing large files, there is even an add-on for storing them on Dropbox.
Or, start a community site by allowing users to post and sell their own items. Need a way to provide users with sales commissions? It’s just another plugin away.
However, at its core, EDD is also a shopping cart. Out of the box, the plugin includes things like discount codes and customer management (including front-end account profiles). About the only feature missing is the ability to ship physical goods – but again, there’s an extra piece that can allow for this as well.
By now, just about everyone knows WooCommerce. It’s the dominant shopping cart in the WordPress sphere. It’s feature-packed, highly-customizable and you can use it to sell just about anything – including digital products.
This functionality is built right into the core plugin, so you can start selling right away. Like Easy Digital Downloads, the ability to limit downloads based on attempts or an expiration date is included.
Downloads also work with variable products. For example, if you’re selling images, you can allow users to pick from a number of different sizes or formats. This also enables you to price them accordingly.
Of course, WooCommerce is also famous for its large number of extensions. You’ll find a few that are specifically geared towards digital goods, including one aimed at professional photographers and another that enables you to offer downloads on subscription-based sites (we’ll get to that in a moment).
But since the plugin is used to sell so many different types of products, those who have very specific needs when it comes to digital goods may be a bit disappointed. There aren’t a lot of extra bells and whistles in this category.
That being said, if you don’t need some of the extras that EDD offers, or you’re selling a variety of physical and digital products, WooCommerce is still a great choice.
Scenario #2: Subscription-Based Service
Another typical scenario is in offering digital downloads to customers via a subscription. This is frequently becoming the preferred method for sites that sell stock photography, illustrations, icons and other types of assets. Customers pay monthly, yearly or even a single lifetime fee in exchange for access to files.
The good news is that both Easy Digital Downloads and WooCommerce have add-ons that enable subscriptions and recurring payments. Just note that you’ll need to work with a payment gateway that supports this functionality.
Making Your Site Members Only
Beyond the ability to sign up subscribers, you’ll also want to think about how you’ll protect your files from unauthorized users. This functionality is available for either of the aforementioned shopping cart plugins. But again, it will require a combination of commercial add-ons if you want to stay within their respective plugin ecosystems.
Alternatively, you could also work with a full-on membership suite. Plugins such as Paid Memberships Pro or S2Member Framework, among others, could be a good fit if you are just looking to sell access to restricted content. This may limit you quite a bit when it comes to features like download limits and licensing, however.
There may be some cases where combining both a cart and membership suite makes sense. This is a piecemeal approach, though, and could make implementing features a little more difficult. Therefore, you’ll want to weigh your options carefully.
Dealing in Downloads
Setting up a basic store to sell digital products is well within reach. With the help of a free shopping cart plugin, you can go from installation to selling online in a few short hours.
If you’re looking for something a little more robust, that’s also possible through the plugins mentioned above. But it will most likely take some commercially available add-ons to bring the desired functionality to your website.
Either way, you’ll have a solid foundation for your store that can grow along with you over time.