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January 27, 2012

Principle failure

The right to access, correct, and delete personal information held about you and the right to bar data collected for one purpose from being reused for another are basic principles of the data protection laws that have been the norm in Europe since the EU adopted the Privacy Directive in 1995. This is the Privacy Directive that is currently being updated; the European Commission's proposals seem, inevitably, to please no one. Businesses are already complaining compliance will be unworkable or too expensive (hey, fines of up to 2 percent of global income!). I'm not sure consumers should be all that happy either; I'd rather have the right to be anonymous than to be forgotten (which I believe will prove technically unworkable), and the jurisdiction for legal disputes with a company to be set to my country rather than theirs. Much debate lies ahead.

In the meantime, the importance of the data protection laws has been enhanced by Google's announcement this week that it will revise and consolidate the more than 60 privacy policies covering its various services "to create one beautifully simple and intuitive experience across Google". It will, the press release continues, be "Tailored for you". Not the privacy policy, of course, which is a one-size-fits-all piece of corporate lawyer ass-covering, but the services you use, which, after the fragmented data Google holds about you has been pooled into one giant liquid metal Terminator, will be transformed into so-much-more personal helpfulness. Which would sound better if 2011 hadn't seen loud warnings about the danger that personalization will disappear stuff we really need to know: see Eli Pariser's filter bubble and Jeff Chester's worries about the future of democracy.

Google is right that streamlining and consolidating its myriad privacy policies is a user-friendly thing to do. Yes, let's have a single policy we can read once and understand. We hate reading even one privacy policy, let alone 60 of them.

But the furore isn't about that, it's about the single pool of data. People do not use Google Docs in order to improve their search results; they don't put up Google+ pages and join circles in order to improve the targeting of ads on YouTube. This is everything privacy advocates worried about when Gmail was launched.

Australian privacy campaigner Roger Clarke's discussion document sets out the principles that the decision violates: no consultation, retroactive application; no opt out.

Are we evil yet?

In his 2011 book, In the Plex, Steven Levy traces the beginnings of a shift in Google's views on how and when it implements advertising to the company's controversial purchase of the DoubleClick advertising network, which relied on cookies and tracking to create targeted ads based on Net users' browsing history. This $3.1 billion purchase was huge enough to set off anti-trust alarms. Rightly so. Levy writes, "...sometime after the process began, people at the company realized that they were going to wind up with the Internet-tracking equivalent of the Hope Diamond: an omniscient cookie that no other company could match." Between DoubleClick's dominance in display advertising on large, commercial Web sites and Google AdSense's presence on millions of smaller sites, the company could track pretty much all Web users. "No law prevented it from combining all that information into one file," Levy writes, adding that Google imposed limits, in that it didn't use blog postings, email, or search behavior in building those cookies.

Levy notes that Google spends a lot of time thinking about privacy, but quotes founder Larry Page as saying that the particular issues the public chooses to get upset about seem randomly chosen, the reaction determined most often by the first published headline about a particular product. This could well be true - or it may also be a sign that Page and Brin, like Facebook's Mark Zuckberg and some other Silicon Valley technology company leaders, are simply out of step with the public. Maybe the reactions only seem random because Page and Brin can't identify the underlying principles.

In blending its services, the issue isn't solely privacy, but also the long-simmering complaint that Google is increasingly favoring its own services in its search results - which would be a clear anti-trust violation. There, the traditional principle is that dominance in one market (search engines) should not be leveraged to achieve dominance in another (social networking, video watching, cloud services, email).

SearchEngineLand has a great analysis of why Google's Search Plus is such a departure for the company and what it could have done had it chosen to be consistent with its historical approach to search results. Building on the "Don't Be Evil" tool built by Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, among others, SEL demonstrates the gaps that result from Google's choices here, and also how the company could have vastly improved its service to its search customers.

What really strikes me in all this is that the answer to both the EU issues and the Google problem may be the same: the personal data store that William Heath has been proposing for three years. Data portability and interoperability, check; user control, check. But that is as far from the Web 2.0 business model as file-sharing is from that of the entertainment industry.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


January 21, 2012

Camping out

"Why hasn't the marvelous happened yet?" The speaker - at one of today's "unconference" sessions at this year's UK Govcamp - was complaining that with 13,000-odd data sets up on his organization's site there ought to be, you know, results.

At first glance, GovCamp seems peculiarly British: an incongruous mish-mash of government folks, coders, and activists, all brought together by the idea that technology makes it possible to remake government to serve us better. But the Web tells me that events like this are happening in various locations around Europe. James Hendler, who likes to collect government data sets from around the world (700,000 and counting now!), tells me that events like this are happening all over the US, too - except that there this size of event - a couple of hundred people - is New York City.

That's both good and bad: a local area in the US can find many more people to throw at more discrete problems - but on the other hand the federal level is almost impossible to connect with. And, as Hendler points out, the state charters mean that there are conversations the US federal government simply cannot have with its smaller, local counterparts. In the UK, if central government wants a local authority to do something, it can just issue an order.

This year's GovCamp is a two-day affair. Today was an "unConference": dozens of sessions organized by participants to talk about...stuff. Tomorrow will be hands-on, doing things in the limited time available. By the end of the day, the Twitter feed was filling up with eagerness to get on with things.

A veteran camper - I'm not sure how to count how many there have been - tells me that everyone leaves the event full of energy, convinced that they can change the world on Monday. By later next week, they'll have come down from this exhilarated high to find they're working with the same people and the same attitudes. Wonders do not happen overnight.

Along those lines, Mike Bracken, the guy who launched the Guardian's open data platform, now at the Cabinet Office, acknowledges this when he thanks the crowd for the ten years of persistence and pain that created his job. The user, his colleague Mark O'Neill said recently is at the center of everything they're working on. Are we, yet, past proving the concept?

"What should we do first?" someone I couldn't identify (never knowing who's speaking is a pitfall of unConferences) asked in the same session as the marvel-seeker. One offered answer was one any open-source programmer would recognize: ask yourself, in your daily life, what do you want to fix? The problem you want to solve - or the story you want to tell - determines the priorities and what gets published. That's if you're inside government; if you're outside, based on last summer's experience following the Osmosoft teams during Young Rewired State, often the limiting factor is what data is available and in what form.

With luck and perseverance, this should be a temporary situation. As time goes on, and open data gets built into everything, publishing it should become a natural part of everything government does. But getting there means eliminating a whole tranche of traditional culture and overcoming a lot of fear. If I open this data and others can review my decisions will I get fired? If I open this data and something goes wrong will it be my fault?

In a session on creative councils, I heard the suggestion that in the interests of getting rid of gatekeepers who obstruct change organizational structures should be transformed into networks with alternate routes to getting things done until the hierarchy is no longer needed. It sounds like a malcontent's dream for getting the desired technological change past a recalcitrant manager, but the kind of solution that solves one problem by breaking many other things. In such a set-up, who is accountable to taxpayers? Isn't some form of hierarchy inevitable given that someone has to do the hiring and firing?

It was in a session on engagement where what became apparent that as much as this event seems to be focused on technological fixes, the real goal is far broader. The discussion veered into consultations and how to build persistent networks of people engaged with particular topics.

"Work on a good democratic experience," advised the session's leader. Make the process more transparent, make people feel part of the process even if they don't get what they want, create the connection that makes for a truly representative democracy. In her view, what goes wrong with the consultation process now - where, for example, advocates of copyright reform find themselves writing the same ignored advice over and over again in response to the same questions - is that it's trying to compensate for the poor connections to their representatives that most people have. Building those persistent networks and relationships is only a partial answer.

"You can't activate the networks and not at the same time change how you make decisions," she said. "Without that parallel change you'll wind up disappointing people."

Marvels tomorrow, we hope.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

January 13, 2012

Pot pourri

You have to think that 2012 so far has been orchestrated by someone with a truly strange sense of humor. To wit:

- EMI Records is suing the Irish government for failing to pass laws to block "pirate sites". The way PC Pro tells it, Ireland ought to have implemented site blocking laws to harmonize with European law and one of its own judges has agreed it failed to do so. I'm not surprised, personally: Ireland has a lot of other things on its mind, like the collapse of the Catholic church that dominated Irish politics, education, and health for so long, and the economic situation post-tech boom.

- The US Congress and Senate are, respectively, about to vote on SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), laws to give the US site blocking, search engine de-listing, and other goodies. (Who names these things? SOPA and PIPA sound like they escaped from Anna Russell's La Cantatrice Squelante.) Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) have proposed an alternative, the OPEN Act (PDF), which aims to treat copyright violations as a trade issue rather than a criminal one.

- Issa and Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) have introduced the Research Works Act to give science journal publishers exclusive rights over the taxpayer-funded research they publish. The primary beneficiary would be Elsevier (which also publishes Infosecurity, which I write for), whose campaign contributions have been funding Maloney.

- Google is mixing Google+ with its search engine results because, see, when you're looking up impetigo, as previously noted, what you really want is to know which of your friends has it.

- Privacy International has accused Facebook of destroying someone's life through its automated targeted advertising, an accusation the company disputes.

- And finally, a British judge has ruled that a Sheffield student Richard O'Dwyer can be extradited to the US to face charges of copyright infringement; he owned the now-removed TVShack.net site, which hosted links to unauthorized copies of US movies and TV shows.

So many net.wars, so little time...

The eek!-Facebook-knows-I'm-gay story seems overblown. I'm sure the situation is utterly horrible for the young man in question, whom PI's now-removed blog posting said was instantly banished from his parents' home, but I still would like to observe that the ads were placed on his page by a robot (one without the Asimov Three Laws programmed into it). On this occasion the robot apparently guessed right but that's not always true. Remember 2002, when several TiVos thought their owners were gay? These are emotive issues and, as Forbes concludes in the article linked above, the more targeting gets good and online behavioral advertising spreads the more you have to think about what someone looking over your shoulder will see. Perhaps that's a new-economy job for 2012: the digital image consultant who knows how to game the system so the ads appearing on your personalized pages will send the "right" messages about you. Except...

It was predicted - I forget by whom - that search generally would need to incorporate social networking to make its search results more "relevant" and "personal". I can see the appeal if I'm looking for a movie to see, a book to read, or a place to travel to: why wouldn't I want to see first the recommendations of my friends, whom I trust and who likely have tastes similar to mine? But if I'm looking to understand what campaigners are saying about American hate radio (PDF), I'm more interested in the National Hispanic Media Coalition's new report than in collectively condemning Rush Limbaugh. Google Plus Search makes sense in terms of competing with Facebook and Twitter, but mix it up with the story above, and you have a bigger mess in sight. By their search results shall ye know their innermost secrets.

Besides proving Larry Lessig's point about the way campaign funding destroys our trust in our elected representatives, the Research Works Act is a terrible violation of principle. It's taken years of campaigning - by the Guardian as well as individuals pushing open standards - to get the UK government to open up its data coffers. And just at the moment when they finally do it, the US, which until now has been the model of taxpayers-paid-for-it-they-own-the-data, is thinking about going all protectionist and proprietary?

The copyright wars were always kind of ridiculous (and, says Cory Doctorow, only an opening skirmish), but there's something that's just wrong - lopsided, disproportionate, arrogant, take your pick - about a company suing a national government over it. Similarly, there's something that seems disproportionate about extraditing a British student for running a Web site on the basis that it was registered in .net, which is controlled by a US-based registry (and has now been removed from same). Granted, I'm no expert on extradition law, and must wait for either Lilian Edwards or David Allen Green to explain the details of the 2003 law. That law was and remains controversial, that much I know.

And this is only the second week. Happy new year, indeed.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


January 6, 2012

Only the paranoid

Yesterday's news that the Ramnit worm has harvested the login credentials of 45,000 British and French Facebook users seems to me a watershed moment for Facebook. If I were an investor, I'd wish I had already cashed out. Indications are, however, that founding CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in it for the long haul, in which case he's going to have to find a solution to a particularly intractable problem: how to protect a very large mass of users from identity fraud when his entire business is based on getting them to disclose as much information about themselves as possible.

I have long complained about Facebook's repeatedly changing privacy controls. This week, while working on a piece on identity fraud for Infosecurity, I've concluded that the fundamental problem with Facebook's privacy controls is not that they're complicated, confusing, and time-consuming to configure. The problem with Facebook's privacy controls is that they exist.

In May 2010, Zuckerberg enraged a lot of people, including me, by opining that privacy is no longer a social norm. As Judith Rauhofer has observed, the world's social norms don't change just because some rich geeks in California say so. But the 800 million people on Facebook would arguably be much safer if the service didn't promise privacy - like Twitter. Because then people wouldn't post all those intimate details about themselves: their kids' pictures, their drunken, sex exploits, their incitements to protest, their porn star names, their birth dates... Or if they did, they'd know they were public.

Facebook's core privacy problem is a new twist on the problem Microsoft has: legacy users. Apple was willing to make earlier generations of its software non-functional in the shift to OS X. Microsoft's attention to supporting legacy users allows me to continue to run, on Windows 7, software that was last updated in 1997. Similarly, Facebook is trying to accommodate a wide variety of privacy expectations, from those of people who joined back when membership was limited to a few relatively constrained categories to those of people joining today, when the system is open to all.

Facebook can't reinvent itself wholesale: it is wholly and completely wrong to betray users who post information about themselves into what they are told is a semi-private space by making that space irredeemably public. The storm every time Facebook makes a privacy-related change makes that clear. What the company has done exceptionally well is to foster the illusion of a private space despite the fact that, as the Australian privacy advocate Roger Clarke observed in 2003, collecting and abusing user data is social networks' only business model.

Ramnit takes this game to a whole new level. Malware these days isn't aimed at doing cute, little things like making hard drive failure noises or sending all the letters on your screen tumbling into a heap at the bottom. No, it's aimed at draining your bank account and hijacking your identity for other types of financial exploitation.

To do this, it needs to find a way inside the circle of trust. On a computer network, that means looking for an unpatched hole in software to leverage. On the individual level, it means the malware equivalent of viral marketing: get one innocent bystander to mistakenly tell all their friends. We've watched this particular type of action move through a string of vectors as the human action moves to get away from spam: from email to instant messaging to, now, social networks. The bigger Facebok gets, the bigger a target it becomes. The more information people post on Facebook - and the more their friends and friends of friends friend promiscuously - the greater the risk to each individual.

The whole situation is exacerbated by endemic, widespread, poor security practices. Asking people to provide the same few bits of information for back-up questions in case they need a password reset. Imposing password rules that practically guarantee people will use and reuse the same few choices on all their sites. Putting all the eggs in services that are free at point of use and that you pay for in unobtainable customer service (not to mention behavioral targeting and marketing) when something goes wrong. If everything is locked to one email account on a server you do not control, if your security questions could be answered by a quick glance at your Facebook Timeline and a Google search, if you bank online and use the same passwords throughout...you have a potential catastrophe in waiting.

I realize not everyone can run their own mail server. But you can use multiple, distinct email addresses and passwords, you can create unique answers on the reset forms, and you can limit your exposure by presuming that everything you post *is* public, whether the service admits it or not. Your goal should be to ensure that when - it's no longer safe to say "if" - some part of your online life is hacked the damage can be contained to that one, hopefully small, piece. Relying on the privacy consciousness of friends means you can't eliminate the risk; but you can limit the consequences.

Facebook is facing an entirely different risk: that people, alarmed at the thought of being mugged, will flee elsewhere. It's happened before.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.