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The Dangers of Geolocation February 17, 2010

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Mashable has read my mind again – or rather, I should say, Pleaserobme.com, has read my mind. Over the weekend my Dad pointed out that I had posted his vacation days on his [Facebook] wall, and that this could be dangerous. I pointed out to him that Facebook could be private, given the right settings. But he made a good point, one I have thought about time after time when I look at my Foursquare app and decide not to use it. The same goes for declining Twitter’s geotagging options. When and why did we ever decide we should tell the public at large where we are at any given time? The idea goes against everything we have been taught to do–leaving a TV on so that people think you are home, keeping location secret on dating sites, and, more generally, enjoying a thing called privacy. These sites are just another step in the annihilation of privacy. My paranoid-”down with the man” side sets off alarm bells every time I see (and use my own) GPS enabled devices, knowing that this is just one more way for people to know exactly where I am. Sure 911, Onstar, and other services use these tracking technologies to save lives, but what about Federal agencies using telecommunication records to find criminals? No one would argue that law enforcers should not have access to cell phone records, including geolocation data, with a warrant. But CNET reported less than a week ago that, “the Obama administration has argued that warrantless tracking is permitted because Americans enjoy no ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ in their–or at least their cell phones’–whereabouts.” Really? Says who? If the government has a reason to look at my records, then go ahead, but if not, I’ll hold onto the last vestiges of privacy, thank you very much.

But enough about the government, Pleaserobme.com, has brought a very important problem to light–the dangers of revealing your location to an online audience. The site compiles posts from Foursquare and calls them “opportunities” (meaning opportunities for you to rob them). It will be interesting to see if this site, which is gaining a lot of attention on Twitter, will be the demise of Foursquare (which has recently been dubbed “the next Twitter”), or if people will continue to blithely post their whereabouts. What do you think?

The Double Life of the (Academic) Librarian January 29, 2010

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Libraries everywhere continue to adopt Web 2.0 technologies, embracing sites like Facebook and Twitter to assist in outreach. Often, librarians are asked to become an active part of this community, creating their own user pages. This is true in any kind of collaborative, wiki-type environment. Participants are prompted to create a profile in order to create a sense of community. In a single day, I am unable to avoid the proliferation of social media into my job as an academic librarian. And while this is a positive improvement for the library I find myself facing the same dilemmas that teachers face when they set up a Facebook account: what are my parameters for accepting friend requests; what should I/should I not post; what kind of privacy settings should I adopt?

From Jazz Modeus's Flickr Stream, Creative Commons licensed

Public libraries have certainly embraced the image of the hipster librarian, bespattered with tattoos, perhaps even a piercing, and carrying an organic tote bag displaying though-provoking literary quotes (excuse the stereotype). Not so for the academic librarian. Academia prefers a little more conformity. While our employers may want us to show our individualism and personalities in reference and information literacy sessions, it is not hard to forget that we are professionals working in a professional environment. Working so closely with college students is a sticky situation in itself, especially for those of us who are younger. What role do we adopt? While you may say – librarian and librarian alone, it is not always that easy. We work closely, on a daily basis, with student workers who are far closer in age to us than our co-workers. We share more in common with them as well. Facebook is not a foreign place for us – it has been our mode of communication for some time now. So when our colleagues decide that we should attach our Facebook page to the library’s Facebook page, what do we do? Create two pages – one for the public and one private? This is the exact scenario that my colleague faces.   And while we may not have pictures of us guzzling beers or setting fire to couches, don’t we have a right to keep pictures of our latest camping trip between friends? How do we keep our individuality and our privacy in a world that demands we share?

Which came first: lack of privacy or lack of privacy settings? January 11, 2010

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TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington recently interviewed Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg on where Facebook is going, what new acquisitions it hopes to acquire, and its recent changes to privacy settings. This article by the New York Times Technology section, chooses to focus on the recent privacy changes which have been making waves online and in the news world for months now. As the Infomavens have recently been exploring the issue of privacy versus security both on the internet and in the “real” world, I thought it interesting that Marshall Kirkpatrick (from ReadWriteWeb and author of the Times article) should take such a cynical look at Zuckerberg’s seemingly innovative argument on privacy. Zuckerberg argues (you can witness in this video of the interview) that Facebook has changed to reflect society’s changing view on privacy. But Kirkpatrick believes that Facebook is the one who has sculpted this change in society’s beliefs. He insinuates that Facebook’s privacy changes are not want people want, but rather a way for “the company [to] shift[s] its strategy to exert control over the future of the web” (New York Times). I agree with Kirkpatrick that Zuckerberg’s argument (that blogging and other social media platforms have decreased privacy) is a flimsy one, but wonder if Facebook’s privacy settings have far more to do with advertising and revenue that anything else. Perhaps the most shocking part of the TechCrunch interview is when Arrington asks Zuckerberg “Nexus One or iPhone?”. With a wry smile, Zuckerberg responds, “Blackberry.” If that isn’t an endorsement I don’t know what is.

Disappearing in the Digital Age January 6, 2010

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I recently reviewed the fictional work Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, in which a teenager tries to evade the prying eyes of the Department of Homeland Security while still maintaining an electronic presence on the web. Then today, I stumbled across the real-life story of someone attempting to do the very same thing, albeit for fun and with a monetary reward. Writer Evan Ratliff decided, with the help of the magazine Wired, to disappear for a month, offering readers $5,000 to try to locate him. The impetus, Ratliff notes, was to answer “a series of questions, foremost among them: How hard is it to vanish in the digital age…People fret about privacy, but what are the consequences of giving it all up, I wondered. What can investigators glean from all the digital fingerprints we leave behind? You can be anybody you want online, sure, but can you reinvent yourself in real life?” (Wired.com).

from Wired.com

Ratliff then embarks on a cross-country jaunt, setting up fake email, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, as well as a fake office, an alias, and investing in numerous untraceable credit-card like gift cards for larger purchases. He routinely changes his appearance and uses the web to follow those trying to locate him, many who have set up groups on Twitter and Facebook and who manage to unearth every detail about his former life including hobbies, dietary restrictions, former habitations, purchases, and the name and phone number of his cat sitter. One of Ratliff’s most useful modes of cyber anonymity is using The Onion Router (TOR), which hides his true IP address and is also frequently mentioned in Little Brother. When Ratliff is finally caught a week from the end of the contest, it is because he attends a book reading that could have been in held in two places and was embedded in a New York Times crossword puzzle. By that time, his alias, Facebook and Twitter accounts had been compromised and it is likely he would have been caught soon, regardless of the clue.

Is is possible to disappear in our age? Of course it is. One women explains her fascination with Ratliff’s attempted disappearance:

Why would a middle-aged woman with virtually no technical knowledge be interested in following the Evan’s Vanished story on Twitter? You see, my father walked out one morning in Sumter, South Carolina, kissed the wife and two young children good-bye as if he was going to work as always, and disappeared for 12 years. He was around Evan’s age. He sent the family a telegraph a few days later asking them not to look for him. To this day, no one knows anything about his personal life during those years. I guess I’m hoping to have some clues to some of my questions (Wired.com).

People disappear all the time. But Ratliff didn’t try to disappear. He just tried to change and to change his electronic identity. Could he have lived in the woods, cultivating his own food, and never using a computer again? Sure. But that wouldn’t have been half as interesting or draw attention to the amount of information that is easily hackable, traceable and public. Ratliff doesn’t argue about the dangers of the information age like Doctorow’s Little Brother does, but he certainly draws attention to the reality of a real Big Brother.

Make sure to read the whole article here. It is fascinating to hear about Ratliff’s mental and emotional changes as well. Or check our his website: www.atavist.net.

Monday Book Review: Little Brother January 4, 2010

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Think you’re too sophisticated for Young Adult (YA) fiction? Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, will have you thinking again. Rife with techy jargon, textese, and Spanglish slang, the language of this book is as forward thinking as its subject matter. Though not a tome, this heart pounding, page-turning thriller is a comprehensive look at the issues plaguing our society today – namely the all-too-topical debate of privacy versus security. Although at times digressive hacking tips dilute the plotline, the action heats up as the book progresses.

Doctorow’s book begins with “the worst terrorist attack ever perpetrated on our nation’s soil” – the destruction of San Franciso’s Bay Bridge and its attendant tunnel under the bay. His choice of San Francisco is deliberate, emphasizing the similitude of the Civil Rights Movement with today’s struggle to uphold the first amendment in the amorphous realm of the Internet. Marcus, alias m1k3y, and his gaming pals are playing hooky from school when the attack occurs and they find themselves unpropitiously in the wrong place at the wrong time, leading to their incarceration. What results is an all out war against the totalitarian arrest-happy Department of Homeland Security thugs by an underground movement of high schoolers who find themselves in far over their heads.

My initial reaction to Doctorow’s work was to wish that it had been written for adults, as the subject matter is of extreme importance. But then I realized Doctorow’s genius in targeting the generation of tomorrow. By doing so, he subscribes to the mantra of Marcus and his friends to not trust “anyone over twenty-five” (another echo of the Civil Rights Movement). While the ideologies of adults may be set in stone, teenagers who read this work and quickly find Marcus to be a role model, will take the issues at hand into consideration and maybe even alter their attitude about security and privacy. If Doctorow can be blamed for making his protagonist slightly too altruistic, slightly too steadfast and dogmatic in his beliefs for someone his age, it can be forgiven in light of this larger goal.

Overall: A must read for anyone who has ever questioned the man.

Playing the Blame Game December 30, 2009

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In the wake of the attempted Christmas Day terrorist attack thousands of articles have swamped the internet, groping for somewhere to place the blame. The problem with blame is that it falsely pacifies us and leads us to believe that a complex situation has an easy remedy. And while the TSA, the Dutch government, and fearful citizens all have their suggested remedies, we must not forget the lessons we learned after 9-11 and the swift instating of the Patriot Act, which later made us ask if we had not surrendered some freedoms (namely, privacy) hastily, because of fear. We are now in danger of compromising our freedoms once again.

NPR.org has posted an article discussing the innovative methods of airport security that are in discussion and development. Probably the most controversial one is body-image scanning technology. A number of months ago I saw this technology discussed on a morning news program. The new body-imaging software shows a detailed image of the person’s body, including the parts that would make your grandmother blush. The program then interviewed a wide range of Americans who had widely differing opinions on whether such a technology was necessary or unconstitutionally invasive. At the time of the airing of the program, the technology seemed superfluous, but now, after this last thwarted terrorist attempt, the Dutch have decided to adopt the technology. But will this really help?

Airlines already use the “puffer” machine that purports to detect odd chemical particles, but with limited results. Other such proposed controversial security methods include profiling and detailed verbal interviews as practiced in Israel, which is renowned for their airport security. Probably the most innovative and least invasive security measure is what NPR describes as a method used and perfected in retail – looking for suspicious behavior, namely things like “increased sweating or heavy breathing.” While this sounds promising, it would seem hard to find accuracy in an environment where many people are already nervous about flying, and likely to show increased signs of anxiety as it is.

So what is the solution? Do we surrender our privacy, our right to normalcy (some proposed safety measures include restricting use of the bathroom on flights), in the name of safety? Or do we acknowledge that these drastic safety measures do little to actually protect us?

NPR.org, in another article, questions just that by examining the “under-reaction” to news of the attempted terror plot, asking “Have Americans, in a post-Sept. 11 world, become a bit blase about terrorism in the sky?” While the article takes neither side, explaining in a purely psychological manner why some people shrugged at the news (namely because the failing of the plot lowered the “dread quality” that causes people to overreact), it does point out the inefficacy (or superfluity) of all security measures by quoting risk communication consultant, David Ropeik, who states that, “We have also adjusted emotionally after Sept. 11 to the risk of airplane terrorism — even though, statistically, the risk of flying was the same before the attacks as after the attacks.” What do these articles prove? They prove that airport security should not be the focus of our energies. They prove, in light of the new information that “Abdulmutallab was added to a massive database of potential terrorists after his father warned U.S. diplomats about his son’s extremism” (NPR.org), that America’s intelligence agencies are the real ones to blame in their lack of communication and cohesion. I have to agree with Obama on this one and call it a “systemic failure”.

What do you think is the best solution to the struggle between privacy and safety?

Web Trends to Watch in 2010 December 3, 2009

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Pete Cashmore, CEO and founder of the social media blog Mashable and now a writer for CNN.com, has come up with his list of the “10 Web Trends to watch in 2010.” While my eyes usually glaze over by point three of such lists, I was happily surprised to find myself agreeing with Cashmore’s prescient points. Particularly compelling are his points on the soon-to-be ubiquitous GPS, information overload, and convergence of functions in one device. Cashmore, unlike other netizens, intelligently (I believe) predicts a short faddish life for the kindle. He also argues that more information, while seemingly attractive, may not always be helpful. Cashmore closes with his most compelling argument, one that has already been a hot topic among librarians, teachers, parents, copyright lawyers, artists, and anyone else interested in privacy. He states, “We’re seeing the ongoing voluntary erosion of privacy through public sharing on Facebook and Twitter, the rise of location-based services and the inclusion of video cameras in a growing array of devices…Expect personal privacy — or rather its continued erosion — to be a hot media topic of 2010.”

What do you think will be the hottest web trend in 2010?

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