Things, stuff, and other items of interest

March 1, 2010

Browser fingerprints, Academia's Big Brother, and more rampaging paranoia

I have been trying to come up with some sort of clever opening for this post for the last three days, and I've got bupkis. Within the rather limited confines of my cerebellum there is no witty one-liner, no amusing quip, no attention grabbing quote that I can come up with that will frame a conversation about online privacy as even remotely interesting. There's no avoiding the fact that this promises to be a painfully boring topic. Online privacy is about as exciting as tax reform or Friday night bingo strategies. Never the less, that's the subject matter I'm going to try to tackle, because quite frankly, it's extremely important and the vast majority of my very clever and intelligent friends don't know diddly squat about it, and they (you) really really should.

Not convinced? Fair enough. How about you click on this and let me know what you see. That good reader, is what the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls a 'Browser Fingerprint'. The EFF's panopticlick site identifies tiny pieces of information that your browser leaves behind every time you visit a website. By looking at the information, and combining key data points, it's able to piece together a profile that is custom fitted to your browser. Creepy eh? The EFF isn't doing this for shits & giggles, it's trying to bring some attention to what many of us gleefully ignore. If you're interested in reading about their methodology, I'd encourage to take a look at Mr. Peter Eckersley's notes on how they did it. Better yet, why not check out some of their strategies for preserving your privacy in the future. I have to admit, checking out my own results were a bit of an eye opener.

Speaking of online privacy nightmares, that leads me to the next stop on the hit parade. Social media sites are essentially the counter point to good online privacy practices. Facebook? Don't count on them to have your best interests at heart. Back on December ninth of 2009, Facebook instituted some changes to their privacy policy. While trying to convince their user base that they were improving their privacy options, they none too subtly reset everyone's privacy default settings. If I'm to be fair, the extra privacy options were an improvement, for those that bothered to check them out. A month into the change it was estimated that only one third of the two hundred and twenty million active users Facebook boasted at the time had bothered to look at the new privacy options. Roughly seventy-three and a quarter million users, out of over three hundred million users that had entered their private information onto that website even showed signs of being aware of the privacy changes.

Facebook is kind of an easy target though, it's designed to share your information with others. That is it's singular purpose. You know this going in, and it is probably the reason you're there in the first place. So caveat emptor friends, don't say you weren't warned. Facebook is hardly alone in it's rather cavalier if not down right opportunistic attitude towards your personal information sadly. Even my hosts at Google have something of a spotty record when it comes to protecting your privacy. I suspect more than a few executives cringed when they read this little ditty from their CEO Eric Schmidt. While I'm at it, I don't think it's necessary to rehash the public relations disaster that was the introduction of Google Buzz. I still think it's a neat product, but it'll take a while to recover (if it ever does) from the botched product launch. I am through and through a Google fanboy, and it gives me no pleasure to point out their missteps and errors that have been publicly recorded as they grow. 

Casting my inner turmoil aside for a moment, now seems like an opportune moment to bring up a recent decision in an Italian court that a good portion of the internet is giving a collective double take. If my understanding of the case is correct, four executives from Google were charged with violating Italian privacy laws. Sounds juicy right? Not so much. Some sick twisted school girl uploaded a video to YouTube that she had recorded in class. The video showed a bunch of despicable human beings picking on an autistic class mate. Naturally, this is something the whole world needed to see. Nothing's so bad that a little world-wide public humiliation can't make worse right kids? Thankfully, someone called the cops. The cops called YouTube, and within a couple of hours the video was removed. 

This did not seem to appease the public prosecutors office in Milan however. The court recently convicted three of the four Google executives that were charged. Far be it for me to cast dispersions on the courts decision, but this is batshit insane. The four 'hardened criminals' involved weren't even aware of the video until long after it had been removed. Allow me to offer a little context: In February 2009, it was estimated that fifteen hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute, of every day. In January 2009, 147 million U.S. internet users watched an average of 101 videos per person. World wide, current, daily use statistics? I have no idea, and I wasn't able to find them. Suffice it to say, that there are a lot of people putting a lot of stuff on YouTube all the time. The long and the short of it is that I don't know sweet bugger all about Italian law, and I don't know the details of this particular case. From what little I do know,  I feel the decision is absurd. I've been wrong before, and thankfully, it's not my butt that's on the line. I raise the story to illustrate the point that while people are beginning to deal with some rather unpleasant facets of online privacy, the road is far from clear.

Take for example, Google Street view. I've lost count of all the challenges and lawsuits that it's generated. Our very own Privacy Commissioner has raised concerns about it more than once. With no disrespect intended to good work our vigilant Commissioner does, I tend to agree with the sentiment expressed by John Perry Barlow when he said:
"Relying on the government to protect your privacy is like asking a peeping tom to install your window blinds."
A little glib perhaps, but it gets the point across. Never mind the complexities and pressures that are focused on the Commissioner's work, the simple truth is that it's a problem that will never ever shrink. It will only get larger, and there is a finite amount of resources that we can afford to dedicate to the task.

I realize that I'm painting a rather doom & gloom picture here in terms of our privacy and the future of safe internet browsing. That is not my intention. However, I would be remiss if I didn't underscore the importance of maintaining your own vigilance on this subject. Consider the case of the school district in Lower Merrion Pennsylvania. This one made some serious noise in the news as of late, and it's not hard to see why:

Just in case there's some confusion on the point, that was a public school official, demonstrating how they can spy on the school kids, whenever they want, wherever they are, remotely, without the child's knowledge. That is [EXPLETIVE DELETED] creepy. It would seem that the FBI thought so too. Think about that for a minute. Think of all the shit you got into when you were in school. Now think about all the shit you got away with. Now what if you had a camera, perched on your shoulder (or in your lap as the case may be) watching your every move. Reminds me of a book I once read.

"We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instance of death we cannot permit any deviation . . . we make the brain perfect before we blow it out."
- George Orwell
From his novel "1984"
Take some solace in the fact that this is a topic people are very slowly beginning to take seriously. Smart people all around the world, are trying to puzzle this one out. They're going to make mistakes along the way, but there is hope. Things are changing. Hopefully, for the better.

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