Data protection, anonymity and copyright

I talk a great deal on this blog about data issues, privacy and ownership, anonymity and copyright, however is there a clear connection between them? Should we care about who has access to our data, who we are and control over our access to data?

I think that these issues are so connected that we need to do something about how they are managed at a federal level. Currently, it’s rather easy for governments to request data from internet sites. Some times they require warrants or court orders other times the companies simply hand over the data. Savvy users understand how their data is collected and used by companies. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m learning about this as I’m going. It’s not easy because some times it’s really inconvenient to really protect your data. The more sites that are connected together the more likely one of your accounts are to be hacked. Linking sites also creates other problems. Specifically Facebook and Google. Twitter isn’t as bad, but it easily could be.

Why are Facebook and Google bad though? First Facebook is the worst by far. Both Zuckerbergs have made statements proclaiming privacy a bad thing.We can see this erosion with the creation of Facebook’s OpenGraph and seamless information sharing. We’ve all see the increase in the amount of information that our friends are sharing. Such as Spotify and articles they’ve read. Which now no longer click through, but end up going to some app from that company. All of this information is being stored and sold to customers with your name on it. Effectively you’ve lost your ability to view websites freely without it being stored on multiple servers by multiple companies at the same time.
Google comes in a close second with their privacy problems. They aren’t any better with Google+ as they require names at this time. We also don’t know what Google does with the information that you give them when you link accounts together. By giving access to Google when you sign into another website Google is learning more about you which will likely be used to adjust your filter bubble.

Without anonymity or at least pseudonymity it’s significantly more difficult to control access to your data. Putting a buffer between you and the people that are interested in learning about you as a person can protect you from a lot of bad people. However, whenever there are discussions about anonymity or pseudonyms some one almost always makes the argument that it will increase the safety for child molesters or terrorists.

The Copyright industry is one of the most vocal advocates of this tactic. In fact, this is one of the arguments being used for SOPA. They argue that if you don’t have anything to hide then you have nothing to worry about. Well, I don’t buy that argument. People have privacy fences for a reason around their yard. Why not do the same thing for your data? Being anonymous doesn’t mean your bad, it just means your being safe.

Anonymity makes it more difficult for copyright holders to come after people who download movies without buying the movie. They want to know if your downloading it regardless of the fact that you might actually own the movie in some other physical medium and are using the digital copy as a back up. They also don’t really care if you go out and buy the movie after watching it. In fact the Swiss government came out and said that buying a movie or song after downloading is extremely common.

Based on these three points, I believe that everyone should be pushing leaders to increase the ability for users to be anonymous on the internet. This will protect users data from identity theft, allow users better control over their data and decrease the impact of the filter bubble. We must accept the fact that people may use the freedom in unethical ways. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s unethical for people to be anonymous online and doesn’t mean that they are unethical. It means that we need to define clear laws and procedures to deal with unethical or illegal activities in these systems. Without these guidelines we are likely to have no control over our data.

Amazon’s Silk

Interesting read on Tech Dirt on Amazon.com’s Silk browser. They note that it’s a copyright infringement suit waiting to happen. If you’re too lazy to read the article, basically Silk will copy whatever website you go to onto it’s servers so it can send you a compressed version of it. For instance if a website that you’re on has a 3mb picture they’ll send you a 50kb picture instead. This does a few things. First, it will help relieve congestion on cell networks because smaller pieces of information are being sent. Second, it will save you data if you don’t have an unlimited data package. Finally, it could violate copyright. Why? Because it’s copying everything from a website and then sending you the information from a different source. Not only that, but it is effectively altering the picture they are sending you. I’m not sure if there have been any copyright cases based on compressing the quality of a picture, but for all intents and purposes it’s altering the picture. It probably should fall under fair use, but you never know some one will probably try to sue over that.

There are some other issues to consider too. The browser has predictive capabilities based off of aggregate users actions. This is actually fairly similar to what Facebook is doing, but there are no implications for ads with Amazon (at this point we don’t know if they store individual user statistics). The example they give on the website, is if you go to NYTimes.com and a high percentage of users then click on the business section Amazon will pre-load this information into their severs. This could have an impact on big websites’ server loads as well. They could potentially be hit twice for a lot of visits to their site. If Amazon predicts incorrectly, then it will hit the server at least twice.

Another interesting consideration is related to ad revenue. Let’s say users of some website like, I don’t know KBMOD.com, always visit a YouTube account after reading the front page, let’s go with InfiniteSadd, which would then auto play the video that’s on top. This of course have the ad pop up on the bottom. Now the question I have is in these situations would this count as a click, or would the ads start to filter out views and click throughs from Silk? The situation, I presented is unlikely as there’s no direct link from KBMOD to InfiniteSadd’s user profile. But’s easy to image that it could work that way.

I’d really like to know more about the user statistics that Silk will be collecting. Since the browser is going to be on their Fire device (who knows could also be an update for older Kindles as well), Amazon will know who is browsing what you are browsing and may actually keep that information in your account to predict your behavior better. I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t collect that data. I would imagine that it’s very technologically feasible to use a larger aggregate dataset for websites you don’t frequent, but for your most commonly visited websites for Amazon to have enough usage to figure out where you’re going to go next.

I think the browser is a great idea. However, I can also see this turn into another way for Amazon to better target your recommendations. If you are on your Fire and they see where you go, then they will also know what other products you might be interested in that you haven’t bought through Amazon before. If they know what interests you then they can put those into your “Silk based recommendations.” Now there hasn’t been any talk of that yet, but since they are selling the product at a loss they need you to buy a decent amount of product to get a return on their investment. I’ve seen two values, $50 and $10 losses.

Keep your eyes open for news on this, it could be a copyright and privacy issue before long.

Facebook dirty filthy liars

Facebook has patented the ability to continue tracking users after they have left their website. Despite this Facebook repeatedly claimed that they were not in the business of tracking their users. However, Facebook’s business is knowing their product as well as possible. You are their product. They are extremely interested in knowing everything they can about you. Why? It’s really simple. The more they know about their user’s online browsing activities the better they can customize ads for you. I imagine that they will create some pretty sophisticated models to determine who will click what sorts of ads. The more people click the more accurate the ad targeting will become.

While individual users do have a web “fingerprint” as the EFF puts it, people will typically browse the same types of websites together. For example people who play fantasy football will be going to yahoo! sport (or some other competing service), they then visit sites like espn, sports illustrated and probably a few sports blogs to try to figure out the best way to get an edge in their game this weekend. Facebook will take this data and aggregate it for a larger set of data. As there are 800 million facebook users and millions of players of fantasy sports, this data could be extremely useful for Facebook to use in placing ads. From these data they may be able to determine which sports team you’re interested in, which players are on your fantasy team, and then display ads for jersey’s from that team or for a specific player. They will also be able to figure out which ads will have an higher likelihood of someone with your browsing profile to click on.

Facebook will then be able to set a premium for ads that they do this with, or they will earn more money from the number of clicks a given ad gets. This of course is why Facebook has decided to collect this data. Some of it seems harmless enough. It’s not that big of a deal that Facebook is getting my fantasy football information, why should I care? Well, you don’t just use the internet for fantasy football, you use it for banking, shopping and a plethora of other activities. Do you know what data facebook is collecting? I certainly don’t. From the patent it is unclear what protections they are providing on the data they are collection. It also doesn’t say what data they will be collecting when you visit a third party site.

As a personal precaution I have started to use Facebook in a separate instance of Chrome using the Incognito function. This prevents my browsing history from being saved and deletes many cookies. I have also taken to deleting all my cookies every time I close my browser. I don’t do it myself Chrome does it for me. Additionally, these settings are available for both Internet Explorer and Firefox. I suggest that you look into doing similar safety measures to prevent Facebook from getting information from you that you don’t want them to have.

Finally, the other thing that isn’t really discussed in many places that mention the ads, this data is also being provided to law enforcement agencies. Now of course there’s the whole if you aren’t doing anything wrong then you don’t have to worry about anything. However, this worries me regardless because I’m losing my control over what information is going to the government and companies. I don’t like that. Patents like this one and cookies that record our daily activities are changing our private life into our public life.

On Being the Product

Today I’ve read and reposted a few articles (another) about users being the final product for several companies. These of course are facebook, twitter, google (in various forms including plus), yelp and the list goes on. Personally, I think that the claims that we are only the product is a bit of simplification. There is no doubt that we are the product, however, it’s also a matter of to whom are we the product? For instance, my blog, which I post on facebook, twitter and Google Plus allows others to be consumers of my content. The people who are my friends, followers or in my circles are able to consume my content. We are not merely products to companies, but we are products for other people as well.

We consume what are friends put out there. We have habits an manners in which we’d like to be able to consume that information. However, we’re running into a bidirectional problem. We’re losing control over what information we’re sharing and we’re losing control over how we consume this information. In Tom Anderson’s (of myspace fame) post about the changes in facebook, he mentions something called seamless sharing, where you have to do nothing and it’s instantly shared. This, to me, raises all sorts of privacy concerns. In this TED talk the speaker addresses the problem of filtering algorithms in google and facebook.

I think it’s very obvious that Facebook still realizes that we’re consumers of the information. For without our work as the product, posting links, pictures and statuses, there’d be no facebook. However, without us as consumers reading various different posts and clicking related links there’d also be no facebook. The product we are to non-fellow consumers comes down to our network, what the people in our network are interested in and whatever information that is automatically shared with facebook through our web browser.

We need to be aware that this trend is going to continue. We as users and consumers need to fight to get control over our data and the right to control what we share when we share it. This gets back to my points in my earlier blog posts about pseudonyms and truly being anonymous on the web. If you are interested in knowing at least some of the information that you’ve shared on facebook over the years in some countries you are able to download a copy of your facebook history. I haven’t done so yet, but I plan on it. If it is not available in your country, try to get the rights to your data.

While facebook is using you as a product, you still should have the right to demand the information they have on you and are selling to 3rd parties. Being the product isn’t fun, however, it’s nothing new. We’ve been the product for years and have never really complained. The difference now, is that the information about your personally has never been better and is only going to get better the more you give them. For free.

Pseudonymity and Anonymity II

Yesterday I gave an extensive overview of the debate that is ongoing between “Real name” supporters and “Pseudonym/Anonym” supporters. If you haven’t read it I suggest you check it out. There are quiet a few different groups of people discussing it, American and International.

Why do I think it’s a big deal though? I mentioned yesterday that I made a personal choice to use my real name instead of a pseudonym. This is partially because I’m really bad at coming up with them, but also because I try to speak with my real voice as much as possible. I’m also aware that this is could have some repercussions depending on what I try to do after I graduate. I haven’t also been the most supportive of the US government. At  one point when I was debating with a hardcore conservative he pointed this out to me as well.

The problem is that we don’t know who has our information. We lose control of it as soon as it’s put on the internet. I have no idea who has access to the conversation I’m talking about. I know that Facebook and the people involved in the conversation do, but I don’t know if that information got passed onto any sort of governmental body.

This is a huge change from what has happened in the past. We had control over who we gave our information to. It was easy because it had to be face to face or perhaps through a letter. Once that conversation was finished unless notes were taken or it was recorded most of the information would only be remembered only imperfectly by the people involved. This is not the case now. it can be stored and recalled perfectly through the internet and web records.

This permanence is dangerous, as the past will haunt people for decades to come instead of only a few years and only with their friends. However, that is not all. Forcing people to use their real names in all cases causes a chilling affect on activism as governments try to stamp down on it. Twitter will be a more popular communication tool for activists than Google + or facebook because of their pseudonym policies.

Regardless of if we like it or not, Facebook, Twitter, Google + and other social networking sites have become our public forums. We don’t have a town square to meet and discuss life. We don’t have the community unity that once used to pervade life so we use the tools that we have. However, all of these new meeting places are controlled by corporations that are required to give data to the US government and other governments as well. The ability to protect your identity from the government, other organizations and from people you don’t want to have find you is important. It allows people to be honest and investigate different parts of themselves or try to fight to bring down repressive regimes.

Pseudonyms are part of the internet’s social norms, a method to protect free speech and to protect yourself. They are very important and we need to fight to keep them. The US government should be seeking to protect our ability to have pseudonyms and not fighting against them. The State Department claims they support internet freedom. Supporting pseudonyms and the ability to be anonymous on the internet is the best way to do so.