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Roundup: Anomaly, al-Asaad, Ashley Madison, Project Sansar, and a personal update

I have a bunch of small commentaries floating around in my brain and one massive post underway, so I think it’s time for a roundup. First though, a film. Anomaly takes place in the 1960s and is hard to explain. There’s a near-miss comet, an astronaut, a scientist, and the women they love. The pace drags a bit at times, but it’s very well made for a Kickstarter-financed independent project and it’s also a selection in the Sploid Short Film Festival.

 

Khaled al-Asaad

If you know the names of any archaeologists, I suggest that al-Asaad should top the list above grave robbers like Indiana Jones and Howard Carter (no matter how much we enjoy what they gave us, both fictional and real). In the American educational system, archaeology is a subset of anthropology; my university anthro department had an annual dig in the Middle East, a number of projects in the US, and a staff that was 40% archaeologists. I can understand the dedication it must take to work for a lifetime on discovering and protecting our shared cultural heritage. I can’t begin to fathom the resolve, courage, and selflessness Dr. al-Asaad showed in refusing to reveal the location of artifacts to criminal savages.

Ashley Madison hack

Is anyone else feeling ambivalent about this? I’ve seen vicious comment threads on articles about the hack and there certainly isn’t a consensus of opinion. Personally, I think it’s awful that private information is being revealed by the hackers. Infidelity can be devastating, but isn’t that an issue for the people involved and not the whole Internet? Ashley Madison is vile for a number of reasons, yet I can’t fault them for making money off an existing market; if you spent time on any Internet dating sites — as I did off and on in the late ’90s and early ’00s — you know that married people looking for a fling on the side can be found anywhere. AM grouped them together, tossed in some fake profiles to make the site more appealing, and made as much cash as possible off of it. I hope the company is sued into oblivion for their lax security and for the lie about completely deleting users who paid for that service, which allegedly inspired the hackers.

But on the other hand, the data-loving nerd in me is hungry for the details coming out about how many idiots used their work and government email addresses to register on the site, and sure, part of me wants to pump my fist when yet another “voice of morality” is revealed to be lying, cheating scum.  When private celebrity photos were leaked, I chose to look away. I won’t ignore the news stories that come out of this hack, but I won’t be combing the data for the names of friends, relatives, or colleagues, as I know some people are doing. That’s not my business. Some tips for anyone it may benefit: if you’re doing something on the Internet that you don’t want revealed, for heaven’s sake, use a throwaway email address! Buy a reloadable Visa gift card at a drug store if a credit card is required, and register with a fake name, address, and phone number. Use Tor or a heavily secured browser, lock your smartphone or get a burner phone, and don’t forget to turn off automatic backups. And, maybe you shouldn’t trust a company with a business model based on lying.

Linden Lab and Project Sansar

Someone sent me a note asking my opinion on Project Sansar and I really don’t have much to offer. I haven’t written much about Second Life or the next Linden Lab project in months. With my vacation and then accident, plus Jakob’s illness, I simply haven’t been spending much time in SL. My enthusiasm is currently ebbing, but I’ve had an SL avatar for 10 years now and know that cycles of excitement and boredom are normal for me. I’m sure the next time I go back in-world and explore, I’ll be struck by the creativity and beauty again. That said, there are SL bloggers who are covering the topic to death and back. I won’t be one of the early invitees to try Sansar as I’m neither a creator nor have I sought out a relationship with the Lindens, but I’ll be excited to see what’s there once I can have a look.

Personal stuff

Jakob is conscious and talking after a blood sugar crisis sent him to the hospital over a week ago. However, the doctor says that cancer is now active and growing in his stomach, brain, and liver. He is fighting pneumonia and cannot swallow solid food yet. Since Jakob doesn’t know or acknowledge that he still has cancer, he is demanding to go home (no way) and making life hell for his sister, the only person who visits or helps him. This is something I know well from the two weeks I spent with him in May: his illness has stripped away most of his kindness and intellect, leaving a selfish, arrogant, paranoid man. Those qualities were always part of him but now they are prominent. Even though this is not his fault, it’s a huge challenge to sustain empathy when he’s being an asshole. I’ll admit that I’m relieved he isn’t well enough to read or write yet, but I feel for his sister. Her latest text to me was anguished both from concern about his health and hurt from his behavior toward her. It’s possible to care about him and also want to tell him to get stuffed.

As for me, I took my dog for a short walk today! I’ve been cleared to put 25% of normal weight on the leg that had a tibial plateau fracture, which means that I wear a thigh-to-ankle hinged brace and I lean heavily on my walker whenever I step on that side. It’s slow and very tiring, but I know I need to rebuild my stamina. Of course, my wheelchair is still a necessary tool for longer travels or when I need to use my hands. I start physical therapy next week.

 

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John Oliver on surveillance, with Edward Snowden

While I’m working on a detailed essay about online identity, I’ll move up my usual Wednesday video post. John Oliver did a long segment on government surveillance on his HBO show last night. There are some slow bits, but stick with it, and the Snowden guest segment is very good.

It’s sad that government surveillance has to be simplified down to the issue of “dick pics” to matter to the people on the street that Oliver’s team interviewed.  Sad, but not surprising.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2015 in Privacy and Security, Video

 

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Digital anthro writing, data privacy, and One Billion Rising: it’s a round-up!

Digital Anthropology Bibliography – Interested in reading more academic pieces on humanity and technology? The Digital Anthropology Group has a list of related books and articles that can point you in the right direction. It’s a growing list and I’ve read about ten items on it, so it’s my new “to do” list as well.

Privacy and Surveillance — The Electronic Freedom Foundation has a good page of Surveillance Self-Defense tools and tips.  This is critical information for journalists and people living under repressive regimes, but I think there’s something useful there for anyone who uses digital products.

One Billion Rising in Second Life – The event opens at Friday midnight SLT; stop by anytime on Saturday! I’ll be there for a couple hours tomorrow that morning*. If you want more information or need a map and event listing for the art, music, poetry and other performances, I set up an OBR information kiosk at my closed and perpetually under construction gallery: http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Blanda/223/123/112.  Please note that the OBR region has a General maturity rating. Even though BDSM practice can serve a therapeutic role for some people, we ask that collars or other signifying gear be hidden or removed because they could serve as a reminder of violence for others.

Personal Update – This week Jakob had a port installed in his chest for an upcoming round of chemotherapy. I think he’s handling things better than I am right now; I’m a little frayed at the edges. One day at a time….

*I spent all morning knowing it was Thursday, yet thinking that tomorrow was Saturday. It’s been a strange couple of weeks.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2015 in Privacy and Security, Research, Side Topics

 

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Making the most of Safer Internet Day

It’s Safer Internet Day. Since this international effort — primarily about the safety and positive online interactions of young people — is co-funded by the EU, many of us in the States may never have heard of it, but I expect wider awareness since Google took up the cause by suggesting that account holders do a 2-minute security checkup today.

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The online interactions I have with others are generally thoughtful and interesting. Every now and then I’m reminded how many hyperbolic, hostile, clueless, and nearly unhinged trolls there are, but I appreciate that I rarely have to deal with them. I still take it very personally. That’s my nature. Perhaps because I am introverted and shy, I am very sensitive when I extend myself into the public arena and a brush with idiocy makes me want to retreat into my shell.  I wonder how I would have gotten through my tween and teen years if the Internet had been around, with the added drama of hormones, a maturing brain, and lack of perspective. While I think a lot of younger people understand online culture intuitively because it always surrounds them, many more are damaged by cruel interactions than those we see in highly publicized cyber bullying cases.

Messages about online respect and safety are important for children but there is no age cut-off. I’ll make use of this reminder to do a security update on my important accounts: changing passwords and adding 2-step authentication where I can. I’d also like to thank the people who have commented on this blog with civility and insight, even when disagreeing with me (hell, I disagree with myself much of the time, so I don’t mind that at all).

I went through Google’s 2-minute security check-up this morning and it was useful, though I couldn’t help thinking of this XKCD cartoon:

It'll be hilarious the first few times this happens.

 

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in In the News

 

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Privacy vs. personalization: finding a balance

Try to discuss data privacy with someone outside of the tech world and an indignant, “I don’t have anything to hide!” usually comes up. Yet most of those people not only have locks on their doors, they have doors! Maybe even curtains or blinds on the windows. What nerve, wanting to choose who can rummage through their personal things and watch their every move.

When I worked at a huge Internet company, our first steps into collecting data for the purpose of personalization were made with the best intentions. If we must show you ads in order to provide a service at a reasonable price, isn’t it better if the ads are relevant to you? Focus groups said yes. Won’t you be more interested if we help you find content and services that are connected to topics you already visit regularly? Those certainly had a higher clickrates. There was no nefarious goal but a desire to provide a more compelling product and minimize complaints. Over time, of course, the data gained a value of its own and that thin line between serving and exploiting users has been breached again and again.

This season of Parks & Rec has featured smart satire about a tech company that offers exciting products and services, but with utter disregard for personal privacy (though the company motto is, “Wouldn’t it be tight if everyone was chill to each other?”) The clip above is one example, where Gryzzl sends gifts to the townspeople of Pawnee that are startlingly appropriate. And that’s the thing: personalization can be wonderful, but when it’s done based on data gathered without your knowing consent, it isn’t ok.

Living with an Amazon Echo, I’m realizing what it’s like to have a digital assistant with very few ties into my personal data. It’s not good. It could be so much more useful by integrating with my email, messaging, calendar, network folders, and my Internet-connected devices. In fact, without those connections I don’t think it can be successful. Though I have some friends who are almost off-grid and others that have overshared since birth, I try to take a middle path: I want the benefits that come from detailed and accurate personal data smartly integrated, but I want my information protected like it was the Crown Jewels and never used or shared without my clear and unambiguous consent. I would like to require reauthorization to use my data, on a regular basis, perhaps every year or two. I believe I should be able to review the data that is collected and how it is being used, and be empowered to request deletions and amendments.

On the theme of reviewing what is collected, I downloaded a copy of my Facebook data this week. Even though I have a good idea of what I share and wasn’t concerned, the contents made me angry. What was in there?  Every event that I had been invited to, not just the ones I had accepted. My entire list of Friends (of course), but also requests sent/received but not accepted. My “Friend Peer Group” was categorized as “Established Adult Life”. Fair, I suppose. They had all of my Wall posts, including activity notes from apps that I have set not to share and that never appear on my Wall on Facebook itself. Every app I’ve used even once to enter a contest. Then, there was the ridiculous Ads Topics list, apparently for targeting purposes. Some of the items seem to be misunderstandings of my other data. Here, take a look at some of the bizarre ones, with my snarky commentary:

  • #Pro-Ject  [huh?]
  • #Harvest (wine)  [wine is lovely, but someone else can pick the grapes, thanks]
  • #Phonograph  [I also like my velocipede]
  • #Jesús Arellano  [who? I have a friend with that surname, but I do not have a friend in Jesús.]
  • #Farmer  [???]
  • #Calendar (Mac OS)  [I last used an Apple product in 1982]
  • #Gramophone record  [for the phonograph, duh]
  • #Shoe  [just one, please]
  • #World  [I keep my stuff there.]
  • #Colors (TV channel)  [?? Apparently a Hindi station. Hmm. I’ve got a color TV?]
  • #Extras (TV series)  [I’ve been an extra, but… I have no idea.]

None of those are particularly awful. It’s not as if they’ve wrongly labeled me as a two-time felon with a heroin habit. However, the items are inaccurate and stupid. I’m torn between more emphatically liking things that appeal to me and liking everything, to screw with the data.

If you’re willing to give away some privacy for a benefit, it’s incredibly important to read the fine print. I smashed my smartphone this week (insert lots of cursing because I’m not at my upgrade date), which gave me a reason to visit the Verizon Wireless website. I wasn’t aware of the Verizon Rewards/Verizon Select program before this, and sure, it sounded appealing: earn points by simply paying my bill and use those points for gift cards and discounts. Great. What’s the catch? Oh, it’s a big one. They’ll analyze my data and sell it to marketers to target ads at me. Here’s an excerpt from their participation agreement about what data they’ll use:

  • Addresses of websites you visit when using our wireless service. These data strings (or URLs) may include search terms you have used.
  • Location of your device.
  • Apps and device feature usage.
  • Demographic, interest and behavior characteristics provided to us by other companies, such as gender, age range, sports fan, pet owner, shopping preferences, and ad responses.
  • Demographic, interest and behavior characteristics developed by Verizon.
  • Information about the quantity, type, destination, location, and amount of use of your Verizon voice services and related billing information (also known as Customer Proprietary Network Information or “CPNI”).
  • Other information about your use of Verizon products and services (such as data and calling features and use, FiOS service options, equipment and device types).

Wow. There is no way on earth that I would opt in to that. I’m happy with Verizon’s service, but this? No. To make matters worse, a Time article about the program included this quote from Louis Ramirez of dealnews: “If you read Verizon’s Privacy Policy Summary, that means you’re subjecting yourself to telemarketing, e-mail marketing, postal mail marketing, and door-to-door calls.” Hell no.

The balance between privacy and personalization is extremely tough to achieve. I dream of a near future with useful devices, charismatic robots, and meaningful connections in the Internet of Things. That requires me to extend limited trust to corporations who have done little to nothing to earn it. At the same time, it has become clear that putting trust in any level of government is stupid; it makes the most sense to assume my personal data is being collected and can be retroactively searched and misinterpreted to suit any agenda. Whether or not I have anything to hide, I choose to have curtains and doors and locks on those doors; I want and deserve the authority to control access to my personal life.

For now, I seek to find a precarious balance by using privacy tools online (HTTPS Everywhere, Disconnect, Adblock Plus, Privacy Badger, and sometimes Tor). I skim Terms of Service before clicking, and I don’t install apps or programs that want more than I’m willing to give up, no matter how appealing they are. I don’t trust Google, but I choose to use many of their products because they work together and I don’t spread my data across a bunch of services. I have long-term alter ego accounts that I can use if I need, as well. These methods are occasionally annoying, but the whole result is something I can live with. I can keep my optimism and quiet my paranoia, and maybe that’s the best I can hope for right now.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2015 in Culture, Digital Devices

 

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Privacy and security online: Reset the Net

Reset the Net

I’m hoping that my blog isn’t the first place today that you come across Reset the Net, but I’ll encourage you to click if you haven’t.  Reset the Net is a day of awareness and activism about protecting ourselves from government mass surveillance on the Internet. Clicking any of the RtN links here will take you to a list of free privacy tools for your phone, Windows, Mac or GNU/Linux computer, tips to manage your passwords, and more. While they won’t give you complete protection in the case of a targeted investigation, they will go a long way toward shielding you from large scale data and metadata collections.

To protect ourselves, it’s necessary to give up a little convenience. Even I feel a lot of  “I don’t wanna!” when it comes to switching browsers or adding layers of verification. Rather than switching to Tor (yet), I use a number of Chrome plug-ins like Privacy Badger, HTTPS Everywhere, and Disconnect. These “break” a lot of websites for me: alignment is strange and videos don’t appear or play. Sometimes it’s annoying to tweak the settings to see a video I really want to watch, but it forces me to be aware that I’m giving up privacy to do so. If I go to my Privacy Badger settings and see that a long list of tracking mechanisms have been blocked, I leave and don’t go back. I took a couple of days recently to audit my passwords, changing many of them and adding security. It’s not difficult to set up or use another layer of verification on many services.

If you think this sort of thing is unnecessary, you trust in the benevolence of governments and others far more than I do. Personally, I think my data is mine. I should be able to choose when to share it with anyone else, whether they are advertisers, website publishers, or government agencies. At the same time, I think it’s my responsibility to safeguard my data from theft.  An account provider gives me a door with a unique username and password, but it’s up to me to make sure that door is locked.

Reset the Net. Click, download useful tools, and take time soon to add some security.

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2014 in In the News, Side Topics

 

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