Posts tagged ‘Edward Snowden’


We need to change how we consume and share media as Sir Tim Berners-Lee warns us about privacy and ‘fake news’

18.03.2017


Paul Clarke/CC BY-SA 4.0, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37435469

Above: Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Earlier this month, Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote an open letter expressing his concerns about the evolution of his invention, the World Wide Web. (Interestingly, he writes the term all in lowercase.)
   It wasn’t just about ‘fake news’, which is how the media have reported it. His first concern was, in fact, about our losing control over our personal data, and determining when and with whom we share them. It’s something I’ve touched on regularly since 2011, when Google breached its own stated policies over user-preference collection for advertising purposes, something that Facebook appears to be following suit with mid-decade. This was long before Edward Snowden blew the lid on his government’s monitoring, something that’s happening to citizens of other occidental nations, too.
   Sir Tim writes, ‘Through collaboration with—or coercion of—companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online, and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused—bloggers can be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going too far. It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.’
   But the one that struck me as very pertinent to publishing is Sir Tim’s second point. It’s the one that most news outlets seized on, linking it back to ‘fake news’, a term now corrupted by the executive branch of the US Government when attacking coverage that it doesn’t like. However, Sir Tim’s points were far broader than that. And it’s evident how his first point links to his second.
   It’s not hard to see that there is biased coverage on both the right and right wings of US politics (interestingly, they call it left and right), although Sir Tim points to how ‘a handful of social media sites or search engines’ show us the things that appeal to our own biases through their algorithms. ‘Fake news’ then spreads through these algorithms because they play to our prejudices. He writes, ‘those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.’ These sites are able to determine what we see based on the data we’ve given them, willingly or unwillingly.
   It’s so far from the ideals of the World Wide Web that it’s sad that the medium, which was once so expansive and inspirational as we surfed from one site to the next to read and absorb information, has come to this: a tool for becoming more insular, the first path to the idiocracy.
   Google, as I wrote last year, biases itself toward larger sites, no longer rewarding the media outlet that breaks a news item. The incentive to be that maverick medium is, therefore, lessened greatly online, because the web isn’t being ranked on merit by the largest player in the search-engine business. It’s why Duck Duck Go, which doesn’t collect user data, gives search results that are generally fairer. We think it’s important to learn alternative viewpoints, especially in politics, otherwise the division that we already see in some countries will only deepen—and at worst this can lead to war. In peacetime countries, a compatriot with opposing political thoughts is not our enemy.
   Facebook’s continued data collection of user preferences is also dangerous. Even after users opt out, Facebook’s ad preferences’ page demonstrates that it will keep collecting. Whether or not Facebook then uses these preferences is unknown—certainly Facebook itself clams up—but since the site reports journalists who alert them to kiddie porn, kicks off drag queens after saying they wouldn’t, and forces people to download software in the guise of malware detection, who knows if any of Facebook’s positions are real or merely ‘fake news’? Knowing the misdeeds of sites like Facebook—and Google which itself has been found guilty of hacking—do they actually deserve our ongoing support?
   Of course I have an interest in getting people to look beyond the same-again players, because I run one media outlet that isn’t among them. But we have an interest to seek information from the independents, and to support a fair and neutral internet. We may learn an angle we hadn’t explored before, or we may find news and features others aren’t covering. Better yet, we may learn alternative viewpoints that break us out of our prejudices. Surely we can’t be that scared of learning about alternatives (maybe one that is better than what we believe), or having a reasoned debate based on fact rather than emotion or hatred? And if you are sharing on social media, do you want to be one of the sheep who uses the same click-bait as everyone else, or show that you’re someone who’s capable of independent thought?
   It shouldn’t be that difficult to distinguish fake-news sites from legitimate media (even though the line gets blurred) by looking at how well something is subedited and how many spelling mistakes there are. Perhaps the headlines are less emotive. There is a tier of independent media that deserves your support, whether it is this site or many competing ones that we’ve linked ourselves. Going beyond the same-again sources can only benefit us all.

Originally published in Lucire’s online edition.

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How my Dad called the primary and the election for Donald Trump ages ago

11.11.2016


FJM88NL, licensed under Creative Commons

I’ve had a phone call and a lot of comments on this in the last couple of days: my Dad, who is 81 with early-stage Alzheimer’s, called the US presidential election for Donald Trump months ago. I posted it on my social networks the day he made his definitive call, and friends remembered it. Thank you for all your compliments.
   Go back to 2015, he had called the Republican primary for Trump.
   I wasn’t as confident but I had Tweeted the week before the election that polls were understating Trump’s actual support by at least 6 per cent.
   In 2008, when everyone had dismissed Gov. Sarah Palin, he said that she wasn’t going to go away, and that she’d command an even greater influence in the first Obama term. While he predicted an Obama win, again quite early on, he wasn’t optimistic and didn’t think there would be great change in the US. You may or may not agree with that.
   Going right back to the 1980s, when I was at college, and before China showed any signs of opening up, he made the call about its economic rise, and that I would be assured, by the time I was in my 30s and 40s, that many would want to deal with the country. It would be, I remember him telling me, a career advantage to being Chinese—in contrast to the racism we encountered far more frequently back then.
   During the height of the Muldoon era, Dad, who counted himself as part of Rob’s Mob, made the call that Sir Robert Muldoon would not be able to hold on to his power or reputation in his old age. When a documentary aired condemning Sir Robert after his death, so that he wouldn’t be around to file a defamation suit, he said, ‘I told you so.’
   Even in the elections I contested (and he encouraged me to run), while he refused to be drawn on what he thought my chances were, he was unequivocally clear that my rival, John Morrison, wouldn’t win, in 2013. Dad certainly did better than some so-called political experts I can name.
   And if you want to get really spooky, during the Martin Bashir interview of Princess Diana, he said that by the time she was 37, she’d have a ‘really bad year’. He didn’t say she’d die.
   No, he’s not a Mystic Meg of any sort. He’s a guy who’s been around for a while and kept his eyes open.
   If you want to know his secret, I can tell you that his political projections are based in part around reading. Not mainstream media, but websites that he’s discovered over the years himself. He’s a keen web surfer and loves his news. He doesn’t put that much stock in political “experts”, and after having run myself, I can fully understand why.
   He’d even take in the viewpoints on Russia Today, which gives you an idea of how varied his reading was. Just today I caught him watching an address from Edward Snowden.
   With Palin, it was probably the sudden rise of her fan sites set up by US conservatives. He hadn’t seen such a rapid rise of sites that soon galvanized their support around the former Alaskan governor before. While mainstream media dismissed her and gave the impression that post-2008, she wouldn’t matter, Dad had entirely the opposite reading. Politically centrist, and, like me, a swing voter, he kept following the sites out of interest, and saw how they morphed into the Tea Party movement. He also knew they wouldn’t go away any time soon, and observed that there was a Palin effect, as the likes of Ted Cruz soon found out when contesting their Senate seats.
   And, despite my own criticisms of this practice, Dad would read the comments. Sometimes he would wade through hundreds of them, to get a sense of what people were thinking.
   It was his reading of media from left and right during the latest US presidential election that saw him made his calls very assertively.
   Rather than dismiss certain conservatives as ill-educated, as some media might, Dad treated them as human beings. He knew they would galvanize and get behind Trump.
   When you’ve lived through a world war (including an occupation) and then a civil war, and saw your family start from the bottom again after 1949, you get to be good at knowing what people go through.
   He’s always been politically switched on, and had a keen interest in history and economics, the latter of which he studied at a tertiary level. But he’d always explain to me that it came down to people and their behaviour, and never rational decision-making. I might have only lived just over half his lifetime so far, but I find little fault in that statement. All new movements have plenty of power, till they become the establishment.
   His thoughts on China in the 1980s could well have stemmed from that: I never asked him, and aphasia means he’d now find difficulty telling me anyway.
   Sadly for the US, he finds appeal in the theory that the nation will break up, though he hasn’t quite yet made the call in the same way he made the one for the Trump presidency. But as with his Trump prediction, I’m publishing this one online.
   He’s never stated it as succinctly but he has, in passing in the 1980s and 1990s, said that the British Empire wouldn’t last much longer beyond our current monarch’s reign.
   You never know, we might be coming back to this post in a few years’ time. These are gloomy scenarios but I’d rather put Dad’s ideas out there now, as I did with the Trump presidency, rather than tell you ex post facto how clever he was. The lesson: treat people as people, and it’s amazing how much that will reveal.

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Posted in China, culture, media, New Zealand, politics, UK, USA | No Comments »


Your preferences mean nothing: Facebook still profiles you, even after you switch off interest-based ads

15.02.2016

A few years ago, I discovered that Google was monitoring and gathering user preferences even after one had opted out. Google would initially put an opt-out cookie that went with your browser when you first opt out, which is exactly what every other ad network does—but, then, within 24 hours, it would replace it with its standard cookie and begin tracking you again. It counted on people not returning to their ad preferences page, and the ploy may have worked for some two years before I discovered it, and reported it to the Network Advertising Initiative, who confirmed the error.
   The NAI says that Google has remedied that, and I trust that it has. It didn’t stop Google from hacking Iphone users the following year, circumventing the ‘Do not track’ feature on the Safari browser, till they got busted by the Murdoch Press.
   It seems these big Silicon Valley firms think they are a law unto themselves, as is evidenced by their approach to taxation, for instance, and it appears Facebook is now doing the same thing as Google when it comes to getting advertising preferences on you. In their world, user preferences are something to be spat on, not observed.
   Facebook has often switched things on in its user preferences that you had switched off earlier, but I don’t remember them having touched those settings for a few years. But a leopard doesn’t change its spots. Recently, I discovered that Facebook had indeed turned on my advertising preference tracking, under ‘Ads based on my use of websites and apps’. I had it set to ‘No’; a month ago, I discovered this was set to ‘Yes’.
   I promptly switched it off, but had discovered that Facebook had compiled quite the dossier on me on January 20. Had I agreed to it, this would have been fine; and I use Facebook’s targeting myself from time to time marketing to users that I believe have agreed to be tracked and marketed to.


Above: Facebook compiled a big dossier on my preferences for its ad targeting, though when you open it up, there are entries that bear no resemblance to what I like.

   However, there are two worrying points here. The obvious one is Facebook disrespecting user preferences and collecting data on us—and there has been plenty of debate on just where those data go thanks to Mr Snowden. Secondly, for marketers, the data that Facebook has gathered are, to some degree, laughable.
   As I reviewed and deleted I discovered things in there that I had no interest in whatsoever. In the time that Facebook had gathered data on me, it had supposedly built up a profile on me that was made up of over 1,000 points (above is the summary, though I have expanded this out to have a good read). I found, in my profile, that I was supposedly into search engine marketing, Westpac, dentistry, NASSCOM (not sure what this is), radar, cosmetology, unmanned aerial vehicles, ClickZ, Marabou (chocolate), miniskirts, high-heeled footwear (yes, I can understand that publishing a fashion magazine might have added these), National Basketball Association, the Houston Astres (who?), Leicester City FC, TNA Knockout, the Australia national rugby union team (fortunately, the All Blacks were accurately recorded), World Tag Team Championship (WWE), and the Authority (professional wrestling); I discovered that Facebook thinks Occupy Wall Street is a ‘Religious Center’. Now, some of these will have come from websites I may have browsed at, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to my liking these things: what if you had browsed an article about the arrest of a child molester? Don’t ask me where the Aussie rugby and wrestling come from, as I don’t visit their sites or even news articles about either.
   I spent considerable time deleting all of them, doing myself and Facebook a favour. Naturally, I switched off the tracking.


Above: My ad preference tracking is switched off. End of story? Unfortunately, not: Facebook doesn’t care what you’ve put in here.

   I do think it is positive that Facebook reveals this, as it could have kept our preferences hidden, as it has done for years. It is only right that consumers are given a choice.
   However, where are the ethics to continue doing it after a user has switched it off?
   Because that’s exactly what Facebook does, and, like Google, you can’t pretend to me that these are all accidents. These are companies that believe they can do whatever they like, and intentionally have created systems to do so.
   Interestingly, when I approached the US DMA about this data-gathering on January 22, I received no response, unlike the NAI, which got back to me after I furnished proof of Google’s activities. At that point I had not told them who was doing it, I simply asked them what its position was, with its code of conduct, if a member were to gather data on a person even after that person had opted out.
   Within two days, Facebook had built up a new profile about me, of just over 100 items. I checked with the DAA, which has a website where you can see if the opt-out cookies are present, and it confirmed that Facebook’s was. It seems, then, that Facebook does not honour its own opt-out cookie, exactly the same as Google. Whether it uses this data or not is immaterial: it shouldn’t be gathering them for the duration of the time I choose to be opted out. I haven’t approached the DAA yet, but I will do after I get everything together.
   The items, incidentally, were still laughable; even more so, because of the smaller number. By the 24th, I was apparently a fan of Bandcamp and the company Excite (remember them?), but to my recollection I had not visited any site about either. And the next day there were a few dozen data points, where apparently I liked B movies, Berlin (the band), the immune system, the MG ZR, Frank de Boer, Gracia Baur, sandals, Presbyterianism, the Mandarin language, and Trinidad and Tobago. Again, where this all came from, I have little clue.



Top: Within two days, Facebook had a number of points about me, despite my having chosen to have its advertising-preference tracking switched off. It’s Google all over again. Above: The DAA confirms that Facebook’s opt-out cookie is present, although as I’ve discovered, it makes no difference.

   And so on. Every few days I’d go in there, have a peek, and have a laugh, and noted that my tracking preference was still set to ‘Off’.
   I have accused Facebook of arrogance and this is yet another example. I’ve also accused them of incompetence.
   You’ll have got to this point wondering why I still use it if I dislike the tracking. For a start, I shouldn’t have to put up with user preferences being ignored, if the setting has been provided, and if Facebook itself has been notified (I have contacted them). And as long as I have an account, which, unfortunately I need to administer business pages and groups, the tracking will continue, even if I do not use any features for my personal Timeline. (In fact, I hardly do any more; to the point where Facebook always has, in my feed, a top post showing me what I did x years ago when I log in; reminding me, ‘Gosh, didn’t we have it good together?’ liked a jilted lover.) By my own choice, I use Facebook’s messaging a lot (but not its app) and some very close friends contact me exclusively through that, and I’m going to have to continue there, too, because there is some utility. I also realize the irony of having a “like” button on this blog.

   In other words, I’ve minimized my activity with the site where I realistically can, and right now I don’t care if I can no longer like, post, share or comment, which was becoming a very, very regular bug with Facebook anyway. (It’s now getting more commonplace, as other friends begin getting the same symptoms with increasing frequency; it seems I hit the point before they did.)
   Like with Google, whose privacy gaffes saw me minimize my contact with them, I’ve de-Facebooked where I can; and I accept I can go further (e.g. regular logging out and cookie-blocking). I’ll see where things go after I contact the DAA.

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Posted in business, internet, marketing, USA | 4 Comments »