My sleepy midnight blog post on Palm Pre privacy was picked up by more than 60 news outlets. This is a postmortem of what such an experience is like from the inside.

I first learned that the media were picking up on the story when I got an email from a reporter wanting to do an interview. At the end he mentioned that he had just noticed my blog was submitted to slashdot. I spent half an hour doing an email interview, and by then the story was at the top of slashdot. So I had to switch gears to keeping my web server up.

I've been slashdotted several times before, and figured it would not be a problem since I have a static web site. And the server load was never a problem, but apache still slowed to a crawl. Turned out I had it configured to accept a very low number of simulantaneous clients. When I tried to set it to a more realistic value (like 150), apache crashed. I tried switching out apache2-mpm-worker for apache2-mpm-prefork, but that had the same problem. This apache problem was solved by the new apache2-mpm-event package, which handled slashdot with ease. Server response turned from molasses to snappy.

Two days later, apache has transmitted 6 gigabytes of data to 32 thousand curious visitors.

After reaching Slashdot, the story spread to lots of technical news sites. One of the better of these stories was on The Register, who actually interviewed me -- the only reporter to do so that day.

Overnight, the story spread from tech news sites to more established media, like the Washington Post, BBC, LA Times, MSNBC, and to the UK's Telegraph, Mirror, and Guardian. (None of these news sites contacted me.)

As the story filtered from site to site, I watched random wrong things accumulate in it -- such as me being called "Joey Hess, a mobile app developer". I knew the story had hit bottom when it reached The Inquirer, which referred to me as "A bogger (sic) called Josh (sic)".

By this time, the story came complete with parts of a press release from Palm, Inc, (which of course didn't address the true issue) and was sufficiently third-hand and vague as to do nothing but scare people.

Palm's stock price dropped that day, on news that they were scaling down their production plans. I doubt that was related.

On the second day I was interviewed by Wired. That day and today, the story spread to the non-English news in Austria, Turkey, Poland, France, Russia, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Italy, China, Hungary, Germany, Brazil, and The Netherlands.

At this point, the story seems to have died back in the news, and after all the noise, little has been accomplished. Palm insists there is no problem and that data collection can be turned off. I have not found a way to do so, without hacking WebOS.

Journalists vs parrots

I think it is illuminating that only a couple of news outlets actually made contact with you directly, instead of repeating things they've read somewhere. That shows the difference between journalists and parrots. It is unfortunate that most news articles are pumped out by parrots.

And that makes me concerned about all the other news articles: are they as bad in quality as well?

Comment by liw.fi
Yep, many articles are low quality
Newspapers don't have the money to pay journalists to do detailed investigations any more. There are a bunch of other factors as well - Flat Earth News by Nick Davies is a good overview http://www.flatearthnews.net/.
Comment by flourish.org
comment 3

As a belated followup, I eventually discovered what was making apache crash when I configured it to fork a lot of processes -- I had a ulimit 40 stuck in its startup script to work around a different issue earlier. Oops.

(Also, to the best of my knowledge, the privacy issue still exists in the Palm Pre.)

Comment by joey