Monday, June 14, 2010


So-called experts

The New York Times recently printed an article about a data leakage related to iPad accounts. It’s only a small concern, some say, not a big one:

Even in the wrong hands, e-mail addresses are of limited use beyond sending junk e-mail or attempting to pull people in with so-called phishing attacks, security experts said. What is more, e-mail addresses can be easy to guess. Members of the military are permitted to use only unclassified addresses on devices like the iPad.

But experts said that ICC-ID numbers could, in the right hands, be used to get other information, like an iPad’s location.

There’s something very curious about the what is more sentence: how on Earth could anyone guess the email addresses of over 100,000 AT&T iPad customers? No matter; I agree that the exposure of email addresses is, while regrettable and a public-relations difficulty, not a severe problem.

There are, though, two language-related things I have to say about the text quoted above.

The Times frequently uses the adjective so-called to denote a term of art, one with which readers might not be familiar. It always strikes me as odd. So-called has a connotation, at least a mild one (and sometimes not so mild), of illegitimacy. Look at the title of this post, for example. If I were to refer to the so-called experts who made the quoted statement, I’d be very strongly giving the impression that I, at least, did not consider them to be experts.

In the context that it’s used here, it’s not so strong. Yet I still have the feeling that the writer is saying, The security experts I’m quoting call them ‘phishing attacks’, but that’s such a silly term, isn’t it?, or something of that nature.

But he is not: he is using it to acknowledge that you, the reader, might not have heard the term before, and this is, in fact, what it’s called. Perhaps the Times style guide suggests so-called for that purpose, but I would prefer one of these:

  1. [...] attempting to pull people in with ‘phishing attacks’ [...]
  2. [...] attempting to pull people in with what are called ‘phishing attacks’ [...]
  3. [...] attempting to pull people in with attacks known as ‘phishing attacks’ [...]

The other item is the pairing of in the wrong hands in the first paragraph with in the right hands in the second. The problem is that they both mean, essentially, in the wrong hands — that is, in the hands of a malefactor — and the second is focusing, by saying the right hands, on malefactors with sufficient skill to pull the trick off. But the opposition of wrong and right confuses the matter, making it appear that the second paragraph is referring to the good guys, rather than to particularly skilled bad guys.

My guess is that a copy editor would have caught this, and that the article suffers from cutbacks in copy editing.


Brent said...

"But experts said that ICC-ID numbers could, in the right hands, be used to get other information, like an iPad’s location."

Maybe ICC-ID numbers can only be used by right-handed people to get that information?

Andrew Yourtchenko said...

I wholeheartedly agree. The so-called online articles are frequently too reckless with the language they use.