News, media & communications

Why online anonymity must go

They say the things you love about someone when you start a relationship are the things you hate at the end of it. Our relationship with the internet has, until now, depended on anonymity. But the problems of anonymity are growing, such as lying, fraud, cyberbullying, or just outright bad behaviour. People behave differently online just because they are anonymous.

Facebook and Google have started to change that. You have to use your real name to log on and everything you do is traced back to your real offline identity. This means your life becomes much more public, even on sites that are affiliated with Facebook and Google. Commentators note this has increased the quality of comments and reduced the amount of “trollish nonsense” seen before.

This doesn’t stop people who are determined to make trouble using false identities. Companies, like BlueCava, have set up to identify machines using several kinds of digital footprint. One is fonts. The typical machine uses 4,000-20,000 fonts and your machine can be identified by all the fonts installed in each program. BlueCava is collecting a dossier of 1 billion devices and hopes to have 10 billion available before long. It says its software recognises the source of data 99.5% of the time.

Other aspects of your digital fingerprint are screen size software, language settings, operating system, browser & plug-ins, and devices. A combination of each of these settings creates an identification stamp unique to you. Of course, being able to identify the machine itself is not helpful when hackers or frauds use lots of different computers, for example, in cybercafes. Then a more sophisticated method is needed to identify the user’s unique way of writing; their own idiosyncracies of expression. When Enron collapsed in 2001, researchers pored over all the emails sent and were able to identify people by the way they wrote. Authorship identification software could be added to a company’s email system to help authenticate who has sent the email.

Unfortunately, or not, being able to identify people easily on the internet is likely to unintentionally censor self expression. People have different identities at work than they do at home, and they don’t necessarily want their home identity to be known at work. So while they might behave better, at least online, it means they can’t be fully themselves. The question is: how much are we willing to give up to ensure that someone online is who they say they are?
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 29 October 2011, The real you. J Giles.
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Search words: online identity, anonymity, pseudonym, cyberbullying, abuse, Microsoft Passport, Facebook, TechCrunch, Google+, BlueCava, fingerprints, fonts, screen size, software, language, operating system, plug-ins, device, fraud, hacker, Enron, idiosyncracies, authorship identification software, south Korea, censorship, privacy, nicknames.
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Why Facebook is in your face

Facebook has made several privacy errors since it exploded on to our screens and there’s no reason to think this will stop. From tracking your activity after you’ve logged out, to updating your profile with what you have just bought online, to sharing user data with third parties, Facebook has certainly pushed the boundaries of a social network. The latest announcement is what the company calls “frictionless sharing”, which looks like the ultimate in surveillance.

Frictionless sharing means your friends can very easily find out where you’ve been, what you’ve seen and what you’ve bought, without you having the bother of telling them. When you hit the “like” button on an article, Facebook immediately tells your friends what you’ve just read. The web’s music streaming software, Spotify, will be embedded into Facebook so your friends can find out what music you just downloaded (and you have to join Facebook to use Spotify). As Mark Zuckerberg says, “We think it’s an important next step to help tell the story of your life”. To whom we wonder. Facebook’s partners include Netflix, Washington Post, Yahoo, and Ticketmaster.

This has led a leading American sociologist, Sherry Turkle, to see it is a “form of modern madness”. She thinks technology has so dominated our lives, that we have become less human. She says it isolates more than connects us, and people are being diminished by their poor behaviour online. This is coming from someone who previously applauded what was happening in the technological sphere.

Users of Facebook can make their own judgments about what they want to expose themselves to for the sake of being part of a social network. As to whether technology induces a kind of madness, it certainly looks that way when you walk into a cafe and every second person is sitting with a laptop. But before that, everyone was reading newspapers. So what’s the difference?
Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 29 September 2011, Is Facebook becoming too powerful? C Williams.
International Herald Tribune (US), 23 September 2011, Facebook wants users to share even more. S Sengupta and B Sisario.
The Observer (UK), 23 January 2011, Social media make us less human, warns US expert as backlash mounts. P Harris.
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Search words: Facebook, social media, Twitter, Sherry Turkle, technology, isolation, humanity, communication, Google+, movies, information, games, Netflix, Spotify, The Washington Post, privacy, “frictionless sharing”, developers, cookies.
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See Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Basic Books, January 2011.


Hackers with their heads in the cloud

The virtual world can seem so intangible, and “cloud” computing makes it seem more so. It’s unfortunate then, that storing all our personal data “in the cloud” makes it easy for real-life hackers to use our data against us. It is probably not until it happens to you personally that security suddenly seems necessary and worthwhile.

People who have, eg, Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo accounts, are storing all their personal information in the cloud and, unless they take steps to protect it, they open themselves to hacking. Cloud-based systems like these are also managed and protected by third parties, apart from big companies like Amazon that keep their own cloud-server business. Some companies, like, have even set up storage to help people manage their passwords and can themselves be hacked.

We need to acknowledge the scale of the hacking problem, across individuals and big companies, recognise the battle between people who want to steal data and those who want to protect it, and change expectations of the user that organisations alone will protect them from all risks.

The plain answer seems to be to take passwords very seriously. Experts advise the following: 1. Choose a long sequence of familiar words with spaces between them, eg, London Bridge is falling down slowly. The hacker would simply see a very long, forbidding password. 2. Choose words that are not “real” English, eg, Assin Fosu. 3. Choose a gibberish password, such as V&lamEgM!4*s.

More important, don’t use the same password for every site. When banking, for example, use a password only for that. Once hackers find one password, they simply use the same one across all the sites you visit. This means you may need around half a dozen passwords to keep all your data “safe”. Even as we write this, there are probably hackers who are trying to get round what has just been advised.
Ref: The Atlantic (US), November 2011, Hacked! J Fallows.
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Search words: hackers, risk,, data, cloud, password, protection, Google, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, storage.
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How the free ride internet is costing us

One of the benefits of the internet is that most of it comes to us completely free (other than your broadband connection). Many people see this as crucial, to preserve its broad, informative, innovative and democratic nature. But some believe that keeping it free tends to dumb it down and this ultimately hurts our culture industry. A book by journalist, Robert Levine, Free Ride: How The Internet is Destroying Business and How the Culture Business can Fight Back, expands on this idea.

Levine believes Silicon Valley was too ready to experiment, without considering its effects on modern culture. He also blames Google for aggressively moulding internet policy, for example, funding work on getting around internet censorship. Meanwhile, he argues that society’s problems are better served by generating high quality content than just giving everybody universal broadband. He says, provocatively, “it’s time to ask, seriously, whether the culture business as we know it can survive the digital age”.

Of course, it’s not the first time that people have wondered whether the new technology is going to kill the old ones. It happened with photographs, gramophones, photocopiers, televisions. Levine sees Google TV as a threat to cable television but product returns are currently higher than sales. In publishing, book sales were 4%, and earnings 6%, higher in 2011 than 2008, thanks partly to ebooks. So there’s not much evidence for cannibalisation there.

Levine’s solution seems to be to enact more laws to give internet companies less protection from responsibility for the acts of their users, and punish companies and individuals involved in piracy. However, this would need more surveillance, demand changes to internet structure, and hamper innovation. It’s true that many journalists have lost their jobs to the internet, and much of the content on the net is rubbish, but the internet is more than just a provider of entertainment. We probably don’t even know how it will evolve in the next two decades.
Ref: The Observer (UK), 21 August 2011, Why the best things in life aren’t free. E Morozov.
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Search words: Robert Levine, culture, technology, Silicon Valley, Google, internet policy, Chris Anderson, Knight Foundation, piracy, digital culture, cable TV, Google TV, copyright, laws, journalism.
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Robert Levine, Free Ride: How The Internet is Destroying Business and How the Culture Business can Fight Back, Bodley Head, 2011.

Applications (apps) for children

Gone are the days, perhaps, when a 3-year old sat in the sandpit making sandpies. An international study of preschoolers found 20% of them can play an app on a smartphone, while only 9% can tie their shoe laces. This is what Kids Industries, a market research firm, frighteningly calls a “huge emerging market”.

HarperCollins plans to have 25-30 apps for children by the end of 2011 and Penguin plans a number of interactive children’s book for iPads, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Disney has a series of toys called App Mates that interact with the touch screen of an iPad, for example, racing vehicles from the Cars animated films.

A Kids Industries study found parents downloaded about 27.2 apps for their children to play on iPads, costing about 100 pounds each year. Given prospective sales of 63.6 million tablets in the coming year (Gartner figures), this is described as a “fantastic opportunity” for children to receive and tell stories differently. It also costs a lot more to buy a children’s app (over 4 pounds) than it does to buy one on iTunes (59p), presumably because it is “educational”. But these apps cost a lot more to create than a simpler ebook so publishers will need the volume to make them worthwhile.

It will take time for publishers to understand how to translate text books into interactive formats and this leaves room for a lot of creativity. However, as one commentator wryly says, “it doesn’t help that the interactive editor at publishing companies is usually 24 years old and the closest they have been to a kid is their nephew in Manchester”. Well said.
Ref: Financial Times (UK), 15-16 October 2011, Apps for children the next big thing. M Palmer.
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Search words: children, ebooks, HarperCollins, Penguin, iPad, apps, iTunes, Kids Industries, preschoolers, interactive.
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