Tag Archives: technology

Privacy, the Internet and You

Privacy: the quality or state of being apart from company or observation.—-Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

A handful of reads this week prompt me to write about privacy and our use of the internet.

First was the story that some GOP members of Congress, doing, as always, the bidding of Big Business, have taken issue with modern web browsers ability to toggle a ‘do not track’ button. Like firewalls and virus checkers, everyone who surfs the ‘net should be aware of these security tools.

Basically, there is code inside the internet (cookies are just one type) that is designed to not only track where we go and what we see, but then to report our movements to businesses, or whoever is doing the tracking.

They want to use our internet habits to better ‘know’ us. Now think about that for a second…

Modern web browsers have a “Do not track” button that lets ethical marketers know that we choose to ‘opt out’ of their tracking. Seems fair to me.

Until recently, advertisers have said that they would honor our preferences. That’s been changing, and the final straw, apparently, is Microsoft’s decision to launch their next Internet Explorer version with the ‘do not track’ switch now a default, and a setup question asking the user if they want to be tracked.

Microsoft says that today’s computer users expect security and privacy protections to be built into their products.  I know that I do. Good call Microsoft!

The Board of the Association of Advertisers disagrees, though. If everyone using IE chooses to not be tracked, “companies would be prevented from collecting data on 43% of American web browsers”, ‘browsers’ meaning us, not the software.

As a result, some advertisers (the Digital Advertisers Association) are letting us know that they will no longer honor the ‘do not track’ button, since we have to say “yes, please track me” as opposed to “no, I’d prefer not to be tracked”.

It’s an honor system anyway, and one that I don’t really believe is followed to any consistency.

There are tools and browser add-ons that, rather than ask not to be tracked, block invisible trackers in their, well, tracks. Many are free. If you don’t want your internet browsing habits known by just about anybody, you owe it to yourself to use these kinds of browser tools.

Some tools block tracking of your habits by disabling the code when it shows up. Some block who you appear to be by changing the address that you’re coming from.

All put the power in your hands, with the result not depending on the ‘honor’ of the business world.

There is one down side, however. The speed at which google works for me, and your search engine of choice works for you, is greatly dependent on the engine learning our preferences through tracking previous searches and the results that we choose from that search. Turn off tracking, or hide yourself through location tools, and these searches will slow down some and become somewhat less fruitful.

I can live with slower searches to not have what I’ll describe below.

The next article I read was about how today’s political campaigns have purchased our browsing history, to the point of creating profiles of us and using those profiles to alter what we see on their sites. One example I remember is if you have a conservative profile with church or religious sites in your browsing history, you’re greeted with a ‘have a blessed day!’ and content is presented that meshes with your profile; but if conservative with no church or religious sites in your history, a more business oriented site is presented, and without the  homilies.

Both campaigns are using this tactic, it isn’t limited to conservatives and evangelicals.  Liberals can be polarized into environmentally oriented or civic oriented, each with their own buttons to be pushed. We expect campaigns to want to push our buttons, but I prefer they tell me what they stand for before they know what I am for. When I go to the Romney or Obama web site, I want to see what they are about, who and what they stand for, and not just the parts they think I’ll agree with. And if greeted with a “hey y’all” when the page opened, because I live in the South, of course… well, that would be just too much.

Another way the campaigns use our bought information is to tap into the network of people they have and cross match to see if any might know us as well. Have you gotten a call from a long-lost friend who just happened to call about the election? Or maybe a call from a neighbor you haven’t met, wondering which route to the polling place that you think is best, with your local streets as choices?  If you do, the chances that it is happenstance are slim indeed. And more than a bit creepy.

The third article I read was a snippet about the privacy at Facebook. Many apps (Skype, Horoscopes, games) used by Facebook users give hidden permission for the app’s makers to access not just your data history, but that of all of your “friends” as well, and will even use your non Facebook contact lists, such as e-mail and address books, to get them. I say “hidden permission” because most users don’t know that’s what they are agreeing to, and would not agree if they understood the meaning.

What is scary about these situations is that the information on us is there to be had, to the highest bidder, information that many of us would not care for our parents, our children, or our employers to know. I know, some of you are thinking porn sites, and maybe poker rooms, but it’s really much broader and less sinister than that.

And it’s being used to manipulate us into doing things. Some might argue that all sales is manipulation, and that may be. But imagine if the used car salesman had your browsing and prior purchase history to negotiate with.

We have some control, and no, I don’t mean in choosing only acceptable-to-every-conceivable-person-down-the-road web browsing. I mean that we can use easily available tools to block the tracking of everything we do online.

We can also let our government know that we do expect a measure of privacy in America, especially in our homes.

But geo, you say, the internet is certainly outside of our home.

Sort of.

When you clicked the link to read this post, you effectively dialed my number. A server picked up, saying ‘hello’ by sending you this post to read. It’s not much different from a phone call, which is why Skype works.

We expect our telephone calls to be private, both who we call and what we say.

If you are reading this in an internet café, maybe because you are not in a public place you also have no expectation of privacy.

Same if you’re reading on your cell phone at work or in class or at an Arby’s.

But if, like me, nearly 100% of your internet use is in your own home, I do believe that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Most people who live around here aren’t comfortable with the notion that the government wants to know who owns a gun. I’m one of those people too.

So how comfortable can we be, knowing that the government, or the church, or the neighborhood association, can buy that information, and everything else about us, from those ‘advertisers’ who would take it without our knowledge or permission?

I say not at all.

Citizen Science I


“She blinded me… with Science!” — T. Dolby

One of the unsung results of the rise of the home computer (thank-you, Woz and Steve!) and the internet that connects us all together is the capability for us to participate in science.

Not the kind of ‘science’ that counts begats and announces the age of the Universe as dogma, nor the kind that deduces that vaccinations cause mental retardation because someone on a street corner told us so. I’m talking tried and true, real science that works to better our understanding of the world around us.

Take SETI@home for instance. SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life) was a NASA project that began in 1971, They used radio telescopes to scan the heavens for radio signals that didn’t come from earth. While it’s true that in space, no one can hear you scream, the universe is a noisy place in the radio part of the spectrum. Sweeps of the sky were recorded, and computers were programmed to filter out white noise and star songs from ET calling home.

By 1999, priorities changed, funding changed, and SETI lost computing capabilities. They still had recorded sky surveys to process, so they came up with a rather novel idea… they would use home computers to help process their data. Yes, home PC’s were no longer rare and their use was booming. SETI would design a screen saver that would show the results of the calculations being performed, and the calculations would only run when the screen saver came on, so no user activity would be impacted.

SETI@home was released in 1999 and has been running ever since. They announced two goals, one of expanding scientific observation to detect extra-terrestrial life, and one showing that the citizen science concept can work.

Then there’s BOINC  (The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) which started out by taking over the client software for SETI@home.

Like many of our modern advances, BOINC is the result of partnerships between government and the private sector. Besides SETI@home, BOINC now provides access to a growing number of science projects for us to participate in, all while you are resting from your computer.

ET not your bag?  You can try climatepredicition.net, an Oxford based project that creates computer models of the earths climate and then monitors how changing variables, like carbon dioxide or loss of ice, would play out over time.

Einstein@home takes observations from orbiting satellites and crunches the numbers to try and detect gravity waves predicted by Einstein.

There’s FightMalaria@home and MalariaControl.net that measure different aspects of a disease that affects tens of millions.

If your PC is tricked out for gaming, try Rosetta@home, which helps determine the optimal 3D structure of proteins. Knowing the shape of specific proteins yields great rewards, both in understanding physiology and in the design of new drugs to fight a spectrum of diseases.

If you are a social cyber butterfly, you can even join teams (I’m a proud member of Paddy’s in Space) and engage in competitions.

Who’d a thought that we could individually contribute to the knowledge base and help make the world a better place while our PC’s and laptops were on hold?