Oh noes! Facebook messing about with privacy?

Posted in Opinion on October 25th, 2012 by byronkho

Recently, someone commented negatively on the subject of Facebook selling data to intelligence agencies. I wrote out a quick reasoning why that wasn’t a big deal.

1) Through your credit profile and itemized credit statements, marketers and other institutions can gather a strong picture of who you are, whether they do it generally by extrapolating demographic trends or individually on just you. Walmart, Amazon and others already adjust the products they suggest to you and the coupons they send you via snail mail, email or any other communication method based on your habits and the general habits of your demographic. Just using your statements alone, your credit card company – and the merchants you buy from, and the third-parties that work with all of the above on their promotions and internal services – can figure out many things about you. Where you are at any given time, how much you spend, what places you frequent, what items you like to order, how regular you are with bill payments… From there, you can imply how much salary people are being paid, their social habits, holiday routines, a locational tracker and their general lifestyle risk. Banks and insurance companies can build up similar profiles, which is how they assign risk and judge worthiness for coverage or loans. All this should be familiar to you – and that’s not even the whole picture.

2) Government has access to all of the above, plus they have census data, tax returns, health system expenditures and other such individual data provided through government services. Governmental organizations often have vetting power over most financial transactions, most mortgage and loan plans and servicing, plus many other social-protection programs that set the government as watchdog. If they decided to build a file on you, they’d have a heck of a lot to work with.

2a) National security in the US and Canada under various agencies and partnerships has spawned programs that already watch all, or almost all, of your telephone, email and online communications. Their only obstacle is the sheer amount of data they have to work with. The NSA just finished building a massive complex to house their data collection and analysis wing, and it’s sole job is to collect everything said or written on the North American continent, and sift through it for any watchwords – usually terrorism, but anything that’s of current interest. Mobile providers routinely turn over locational data without warrants here in the US, and warrants for cell phone records are apparently very easily obtained in 2012. Not to mention the mobile providers who let security agencies collect their data directly. Basically, if you’ve used any communication technology, there’s a good chance someone else has a pretty full record of when, where, what and how; it may mean nothing to them now, but they can always look closer at it later.

3) Your online activity at work is not your own. It’s legal (to an extent) for bosses to install keyloggers, watch your activity on your desktop in real-time, monitor and block parts of your online viewing behavior, and read through and keep anything “private” you access via work computers. All sites track every bit of activity that they can while you’re on that site, and that’s also attached to IP and MAC address, should they wish. You do a search on Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc? Great – they’ve got the info and linked it to all the other data they’ve collected on you. They update all further search results partially based on your previous searches, and use it in general to update everyone’s search results. If you use their browser, you’re also sending them a lot more data that may or may not be deleted, and which is probably not. Every site tracks your activity, as much as can be helped. If you use Gmail, they comb through your email to provide you with targeted ads around the Gmail site. Google collects every single bit of data that they can get from you and then uses it to improve services throughout your neighborhood, your demographic, your country and the world. It IS its own intelligence agency. If there is reason to be paranoid about the government becoming Big Brother, then there is also reason to fear the other future dystopia: corporations becoming Big Brother.

4) It’s more and more important for individuals to be searchable online. If you have no online presence, that says something about you which may not bode well for your future employability. You are either not equipped re: modern technology, you have something to hide, or you haven’t done anything of note so no one has bothered mentioning you. Bosses (and future business partners, or friends, or anybody really) want to be able to assess your comfort with technology, your social influence and your risk levels – which the Internet makes easy to do at one sitting. Being a smart user of social media is just another part of the interview and vetting process.

In a general sense, one shouldn’t be scared of sharing one’s self on the Internet. If YOU are the one doing it, you have direct control over what is said about you online. This is important when applying for schools and jobs, or even as potential friends and acquaintances. It’s almost second nature to do immediately do a search on the name as a first step to finding out who they are. First, it is best that you bring out the correct points that you want people to know about you. If you’re saying stupid things online and making yourself look bad, that’s a behavior that probably carries itself over to offline life. Your whole life is more or less a constant “sell” of who you are, and any marketer knows that you have to set the agenda, not others. Second, you need to have SOME presence, regardless if you want to be in control or not. If there is nothing online about you, that tends to imply that you were so unimportant that you made no mark in today’s society. People participate in social gatherings, do runs and walks for good causes, get published in journals and magazines, sign their names to online petitions, comment in forums and messageboards, become members of academic or hobby groups in university, high school and in working life, etc. – all of these usually leave some sort of online footprint. If those footprints cannot be found – or found easily – then it is highly likely you’ll be written off. Better off to have a footprint and manage as much of it yourself as possible.

Using Facebook is voluntary, and if you decide to do so, it is CURRENTLY no more dangerous than living out a normal life. We exist every day trusting that the credit card companies, the merchants, the health insurance companies, the banks, the government, the ISPs, our bosses, and everyone else we come into contact with on any sort of contractual basis will hold your information sacred and not resell it or use it against you – which, ahem, they often do. The sad fact is that they own your data, and it is impossible to retract that permission. Contracts may include provisions for deletion of data or other such privacy measures, but there is no guarantee that anyone does it. As far as privacy goes, Facebook hasn’t overtly said that they will do anything that is any worse than what everyone else already does.

5) Better a sale we know about than a backdoor plugin we don’t.


Parade’s End.

Posted in Opinion on October 22nd, 2012 by byronkho

Just finished watching this miniseries on BBC2. It’s co-produced by HBO, but media watchdogs seem to think it’s not going to get released by HBO until next season some time, probably in February the summer. Their reasoning is that the Xmas season isn’t good for new releases, and then January and March have the premieres of Girls, Enlightened and Game of Thrones. They need a month that can allow for five night in a row airings, as they want to keep viewer momentum for all 5 episodes and it tested well on BBC2 with that format.

I do hope it gets a US airing. I enjoyed the show much more than Downton Abbey – it’s dramatic but not melodramatic, and the chemistry between Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall is phenomenal. It’s hard to decide who to watch when they’re sparring, and I regret how their debacle ends, despite it being the right way. The show is based on the Ford Maddox Ford novels and was scripted by playwright Tom Stoppard. Stoppard’s work on the teleplay is astounding work; there is so much material to be covered, and the prose itself is often convoluted and tricky to parse. Its portrayal of class in WWI England is interesting, despite being only a window into a very limited amount of society. The main character is Christopher Tietjens, an aristocrat with a high sense of duty and honor, which requires him to stand beside his wife Sylvia, who is constantly unfaithful, and also renounce a job that requires him to lie and instead pick up a gun and join the hoi polloi in the trenches. His extreme honesty doesn’t get him far politically, but his competence shines through. It exasperates his general, who wants to do better by him but cannot due to the scandal he creates in his wake; and it exasperates his wife, who futilely attempts to win back his love by making him jealous, not knowing that he holds trust so sacred that once lost, it can never be won back again. The “other side” comes out in the form of Valentine Wannop, a suffragette who is the third in the love triangle. Tietjens cannot bring himself to cheat on Sylvia despite her long infidelities, but clearly maintains a deep and unflinching loyalty to Wannop. They maintain their innocent unrequited love over 5 long years, during which she represents the purer England that Tietjens is fighting for. (In parallel, popular painting in real-life England after the War focused on an innocent, pastoral England that had no blemishes of war or strife – people liked the idea that they had fought and bled for a beautiful country that had never really existed but in dreams.) There are other subplots that illustrate a particular contempt of Ford’s for the hypocritical views of 20th century aristocracy; they have forgotten that titles and power require that one give back to the People, much like 17th century nobles were wholly responsible for the welfare of all their peasants. However, the writing and direction of the miniseries (and the novels) make it clear that though this is desirable in a theoretical sense, it can’t bring happiness in the modern age. The running subtext is that compromise is necessary. The ending shows Tietjens maintaining his public sense of honor and duty, but in his personal life finally compromising – allowing him to abandon his wife and take up with a girl that is engaged with him both emotionally and intellectually and is no fan of empty games.

I actually watched all the episodes in a 24-hour period, as I couldn’t help but try and finish it all at once. I enjoy the BBC WWI and WWII dramas, and especially the WWI ones. That entire period is one of transition to the modern era, where every country in Europe is experiencing the handover of power from the nobility to the commoners, and where all peoples are learning the power of the common man – individualism flairs, causes revolutions, destroys empires and ruins economies. Truly a devastating period to cover, and most of the BBC attempts have not been duds. Compare to Birdsong: produced by NBC Universal, the series droned on with emotional levels at no higher than comatose. I did enjoy the filmography of that particular show, but Eddie Redmayne’s constant emptiness and the director’s inability to imbue any scene with enough emotion was enough to kill it. Sad – Clemence Poesy is great for roles requiring her delicateness.

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The Science Conversation.

Posted in History and Politics on October 20th, 2012 by byronkho

Shawn Otto at Scientific American makes the claim that increased federal funding of science after WWII allowed scientists to withdraw from public conversation about science, since they no longer needed to continuously appeal to the People for money. This opened the door for religious conservatives to take over the science “debate,” leading to the morass of “is it real” ponderings over previously-accepted natural observations like evolution, climate change, the possible effects of reproduction on the female body, etc. that we’ve experienced over the last few years.

The drop in federal funding of science (to be cut even further, should budget cuts continue to erode government programs like the NIH and its ilk) has encouraged scientists to remove themselves from academia – where there is a greater tendency for visibility and honesty in science – and move over to corporate funded institutions, which can pay for results but may not add to public knowledge unless it is profitable. Not all scientists that lose funding will be hired by for-profit corporations, as they may be doing research that is disregarded for some reason as off-topic or unprofitable; these scientists will have to begin engaging the public – which, for practical reasons, tends to be represented by the larger medical charities – in order to find the money necessary to continue their work. In regards to the public conversation of science, this moment in time still reflects the co-opting of the science discussion by politicians in the media spotlight, who pander to calcified religious and business interests, but this latter group of scientists – let’s class them as “independents” – will soon be forced to awaken to public engagement and their voices will, I hope, increasingly be heard.

As a postscript: I should add that we need more science celebrities like Bill Nye and Stephen Hawking to “spread the word.” It may be a reflection of our knowledge-averse culture that we haven’t been able to celebrate any current scientists as rockstars, and can only lend any popular credence to nostalgic scientific heroes of our generation’s childhood.

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Posted in History and Politics on October 7th, 2012 by byronkho

With learned members like Paul Broun and Todd Akin on the House Science Committee, it’s obvious why the United States is the absolute tops in science literacy worldwide. Badruddin Haqqani and Ali Khamenei, with their credentials, would likewise be good candidates for the Committee: they also take their Books seriously.

Just think: as chairman of the subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Broun has “general and special investigative authority on all matters within the jurisdiction of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.” Since we’ve outsourced the Space Race to private corporations and well-meaning billionaires, ridiculed and lamented “wasted” funding on alternative energy sources, cut federal funding for general scientific research to the absolute bone (and let private corporations take over the strenuous work, steal all the patents and then benefit the shareholders and not society by sitting on or stamping out real development; come on, this is the homeland of cutthroat capitalism – survive or die – wait, isn’t survival of the fittest a creation of the devil?), and even cut expenditures on internal military research into useful technology (replacing their input with that of private defense corporations and contractors, who obviously spend our money wisely – especially on all those Abrams tanks and obsolete jet fighters that have been so useful in our engagements in the Middle East), it is evident to me that Broun has done his job to the absolute best of his ability.

First of all, I would like to thank the Medical College of Georgia for its outstanding job in educating Broun and giving him the degree which displays his staggering competence to the entire world. Second, I would like to thank the Southern Baptists for taking a great stand against infamy; I can’t resist applauding for a hero either. Third, I would like to thank Georgia for electing a representative who can utilize Godwin’s Law in criticizing a civilian national service corps (because we are all in agreement that groups like the Peace Corps and the Civilian Conservation Corps weaken society and sow the seeds of imminent national destruction through Marxist dictatorships; the end is near), who can joke about presidential assassination, and who thinks that Isaiah 33:22 is, or should be, the basis for our constitutional beliefs: “For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; he will save us.” Separation of powers is for sissies. And everyone knows Samuel actually wrote our Constitution (with divine help): “then Samuel told the people the manner of the kingdom, and wrote it in a book, and laid it up before the LORD” (1 Samuel 10:25). And obviously we have a king; “President” is such an archaic title. Sheesh.

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