Leaving Facebook

I deactivated my account on Facebook on New Years’ Eve [1]. There was no specific reason or motive for doing so. I’ve been living without the Facebook app on my phone for more than 6 months now [2] and have not missed it much. I used to access Facebook via the browser on the phone and laptop using the web view interface. It works just as well if not better in case you’re wondering.

So why did I quit a social networking site that I’ve been using for the last 12 years [3]? Continue reading

  1. Why wait for the new year to begin your resolution, right? []
  2. Admittedly, after hearing about Facebook’s attempts at tracking our location even when we’re not using the app []
  3. Yes, I opened my account back in 2005 when Facebook was open to only college students in select universities. I used to enter the classes I was enrolled in to find my classmates to add as friends. I still had some of them as friends []

Privacy vs. Free

“I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information,” said Cook. “They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be.”

Tim Cook presented this blistering attack on most Silicon Valley companies in his speech at EPIC’s Champions of Freedom event in Washington, DC. Privacy concerns about your online data have always been existed ever since Google started offering their awesome web services for free but have received renewed attention since Edward Snowden’s revelations. No one can deny the truth in Tim Cook’s words. You can nod and still choose to use the services of the companies he refers to. But hopefully, you’re making that choice consciously i.e. you’re trading your privacy for free services.

I’ve been trying to move away from Google services and choose to pay for any services that its competitors offer if it is nearly the same quality [1]. It may be near-impossible to not use services from companies that rely on your personal information to make a dime but it may help to spread them out across these companies. At least with Apple, I’m relatively sure that it is not using my private information to earn money. They charge a premium for their excellent products and I’m more than willing to pay. That way, I’m putting a cost to my privacy. Most may not and that’s fine. But it’s misleading to assume that you care about your privacy and yet have all your eggs in Google’s basket; simply because their entire business hinges on marketing your data. More than 90% of Google’s revenue still comes from advertising; a technology they learned to monetize in the mid-00s.

Apple was hated in its initial days for proprietary software and incompatibility with most hardware. That hatred was justified because if everyone owned an Apple product then the world would have fewer choices. Right now, the only criticism against Apple seems to be its high prices which is a strange protest because it begs the question of willingness to pay. Are you willing to pay what Apple asks for their products? If not, there are several alternatives out there that either compromise on quality or have hidden costs that require your private data to make up the difference. You may make an argument based on economic disparity but advertising dollars often are skewed toward the higher income demographic.

Similarly, given Android’s marketshare, if everyone is using Google products and services just because it is free, the world is worse off because not only are you tied into their ecosystem but also are subject to their targeting algorithms for marketing and advertising. But Google is smart. They often provide opt-out settings so the tech-savvy people who fill the comment threads can stand above the fray and claim that they’re not being taken advantage of. But for all the tech savviness, they forget the arguments they made against Apple and neglect the fact that most people do not opt-out and that makes everyone worse off. Further, you cannot opt-out of certain services. Just try to disable your search history and then try to use Google Now. Obviously, it wouldn’t work but you fail to see why it isn’t in Google’s interest to make it work. I’ll definitely not be using Google’s new fangled photo service. I prefer to spread my data across various providers. That way, no one has access to everything.

In the end, it all boils down to what’s important for you. In some societies, privacy is not valued and price is the primary factor for making buying decisions. Google fits well there. In other societies or sub-sections of the populations, quality of product and willingness to pay for that quality matter, Apple wins there.

  1. I still haven’t found decent alternatives to Google Search. Gmail is good simply based on search capabilities. But most of my communication is now spread across WhatsApp and Messages for Mac []

We Know What and How You Are Reading

Most e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, have an antenna that lets users instantly download new books. But the technology also makes it possible for the device to transmit information back to the manufacturer.

“They know how fast you read because you have to click to turn the page,” says Cindy Cohn, legal director at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It knows if you skip to the end to read how it turns out.”

[Source: Is Your E-Book Reading Up On You?] Whoa! Whoa! Hang on, now does Amazon really transmit this information back to the publisher? I may not have a problem with Amazon doing this but at least let me have the illusion of control over my privacy by checking a box saying I Agree. Considering how Amazon will not even tell you how many Kindles it has sold so far, I doubt they are in the business of making their data collection practices transparent. For the record, I do not skip to the end to read how it turns out so don’t believe Amazon when it tells you I do.

It is not about FourSquare, stupid

I nearly quit FourSquare last week. Not because of the privacy concerns that suddenly everyone realized they were subject to in the social networking world but because I didn’t really see the point of it all[1]. FourSquare is a geolocation-based ‘game’ where you ‘check-in’ at places you go to and based on certain factors, you are awarded points. If you frequent a place often enough, you are anointed the Mayor. Currently, I’m the Mayor of Kroger Co Store 383 and Barnes and Noble in Bryan and College Station respectively. In metro cities, restaurants, bars, and other business offer special discounts to frequent customers based on their FourSquare ‘badges’ in order to make you frequent them often and boost business. Currently, no such offers or promotions are available in my town hence my decision to leave it.[2]

However, people are quitting or not joining FourSquare citing privacy reasons. This gained momentum when a site, PleaseRobMe.com hypothesized that based on your check-ins at other places, you indicated that you are not at home and hence vulnerable to burglary. At face value, it makes sense but if you think about it, it is ridiculous. Aren’t you already tweeting your current activities outside your home or updating your Facebook status and uploading photos when you are at a party away from home? So how is FourSquare any different? Andy Baio unearthed similar concerns about answering machines on your home telephone and newspaper funeral service announcements in the 70s and 80s. As far as I know, unlike Google Latitude, FourSquare doesn’t place a roving GPS tracker on you broadcasting your movements across the city and visible to all especially Jack Bauer. In fact, the GPS locator used by FourSquare isn’t even all that accurate and often while adding venues, it places me smack in the middle of the Texas A&M Drill Field when in fact, I’m a mile away at a restaurant. Taking advantage of these shortcomings, people have even appointed themselves as the Mayor of North Pole[3]. You have the freedom to check-in or not wherever you go and there is no compulsion to check-in every day. And just because you checked in at Great Clips on Sunday morning doesn’t mean your wife isn’t at home.

So like any social networking tool you are using, there are a few things you should and should not do if you value your privacy. Gawker has covered quite a few and I’m adding a few more:

  • Don’t add random strangers as friends: Since you are sending out information about the places you frequent, you can be more selective in adding friends than say, on your Twitter list. In fact, I have found people from other countries trying to ‘friend’ me on FourSquare baffling because you don’t have the same restaurants, or stores so even the recommendations angle doesn’t work. I removed a bunch of people that I had added earlier and I hope they don’t take it personally. I don’t. But then adding out of town ‘friends’ should assuage your privacy concerns, right? As in real life, in two words – choose wisely.
  • Don’t check in from work: Becoming a mayor of your workplace is not just lame but sad. I’m sure your boss will not include your FourSquare checkins in your annual review. And these check-ins are the privacy holes that you should keep away from.
  • Don’t check in from home or your friend’s place: After work, don’t go home and check-in at home with a message saying, you are glad to be at home. That in fact is where PleaseRobMe directly applies and perhaps you deserve to be robbed. Of course, being a Mayor of your own home is even more lame than being the Mayor of your workplace. While you are at it, extend the privacy courtesy to your friend by not checking-in to his home while you are visiting. Not only is it rude but also a gross violation of someone else’s privacy especially if he is not on FourSquare. Did I mention that the pinnacle of lameness is being the Mayor of your friend’s home?
  • Don’t check-in from places you don’t want ‘friends’ to know about: This is so obvious that I hesitated to include it. But then again, don’t underestimate the stupidity of people. Some feel compelled to indulge in their social networking habits so a specific tip like this makes them feel less guilty.

The rules are pretty simple and easy to follow to avoid being a FourSquare jerk. In spite of that, if you have friends who have visited your home and know that you are out and then proceed to rob you, you have larger problems than a FourSquare profile.

  1. @desinole says that he uses it to keep a list of places he visits. I agree that if used judiciously, it provides excellent patterns and trends in the places you frequent []
  2. I eventually returned after finding that Yelp!, the business-review site that also offers check-ins wasn’t as intuitive. []
  3. Reliable sources tell me it is definitely not Santa Claus []

From my cold dead hands

If you needed any reason not to take your laptop along when you cross the border, this might be it. Civil liberties are seriously declining under the bogeyman of terror.

Google – Maybe a Little Evil

Google’s ‘Do No Evil’ is fast turning out to be just a slogan rather than a mission statement. Over the weekend, Google divulged private information of Rahul Krishnakumar Vaid who had posted derogatory and vulgar comments about Sonia Gandhi on an Orkut group. What is the India law enforcement doing digging up lukhha Orkut users when they should be focused on solving the Jaipur blasts case? Lukhhagiri hasn’t killed hundreds of people in India.

Google Streetview – privacy concerns or being paranoid?

No matter how many times Google makes me fear that they might be killing off innovation in startups or using the power of their search engine to become a hegemony, I cannot deny that their web services are truly path-breaking. Their latest offering – Streetview – is a layer that you can click and turn on in Google Maps that gives you pictures of the mapped street. The image isn’t static but instead panoramic and you can drag your mouse cursor to get a 360-degree view from a point and even zoom into specific spots to get more details (e.g. store signs, street signs, etc.)

I suggest you first go take a look (if you haven’t already). For e.g. here is a street view in San Francisco and here is one at Times Square in New York City. Note that not all locations in the country are mapped and right now only the main cities have the option enabled. The images were captured by a vehicle that had an “11-sided camera” mounted on the top and this data was either collected by Google or contracted out to Immersive Media [the quality varies depending on who has collected the data].

Now this new feature sparked off a new wave of interest on the web as people were wowed by the cool factor. Naturally everyone looked for their neighborhood and began exploring others to find strange tidbits of urban life across American. Even a Flickr tag/group sprang up showing different screen captures of street views. But as with any mob voyeurism exercise, people soon started getting freaked out by the level of detail captured by Google cameras. Boing Boing rightly asked if such an exercise was taken up by the CIA or NSA, would the public accept it? John Battelle, the guy who wrote the seminal book on Google titled, The Search also wondered whether images would soon be replaced by live video.

Privacy Concerns

These are genuine concerns, do you want to be the guy checking out a girl while the world watches? Or the guy who discreetly tries to enter a pron video store and gets screwgled? Or a girl whose thong is showing? Whatever the moral rules are on that, you have a right to your privacy, right? Or are we getting too paranoid that the world is watching us when in fact, at any given time we are taped by umpteen number of surveillance cameras either on the freeway or the bank or even an innocuous place like the grocery store. But the latter two are private properties so are you justified to be concerned when your actions on the street are captured on film (or chips)?

In a more specific example that Boing Boing brought to attention, a woman in Oakland, California was freaked out when the street view image literally peeked inside her apartment (you can even see her cat). Boing Boing readers thought she is making a fuss and even nicknamed her ‘crazy cat lady’. But she was surprised by the reactions and said:

The question is, where do we draw the line between public and private? Obviously, the picture of Monty isn’t very good, but who’s to say whether tomorrow, Google’s camera’s won’t be a lot better, giving clearer pictures and more detail?…The opposing argument claims that what’s visible from the street is public. By opening my windows for some much-needed light and air, am I granting permission for my living room to be broadcast worldwide? I don’t think I am. I think if I open my windows, my neighbors and passers by might see the cat in the window. That’s substantially different to me than realizing that everyone in the world can potentially see into my home.

She has a point. When do the boundaries of public and private domain intersect and exactly who has (visual) access to your space? You may be fine with your neighbors or even passerbys looking in your home but are you willing to live with the possibility that someone from across the world might be looking in and still worse, you have no idea who that person is? The issue extended beyond blogs when NY Times spoke to her and enquired deeper into her concerns. For the record, she isn’t your typical Luddite and even welcomes this new feature but is concerned about how it will be used:

“The issue that I have ultimately is about where you draw the line between taking public photos and zooming in on people’s lives. The next step might be seeing books on my shelf. If the government was doing this, people would be outraged.”

Opting out of Google Streetview

If you are concerned about an image in your neighborhood, you can request Google to take it off. But such requests will be rare and follow-up will be still painfully slow. Although the law clearly states that people in public spaces can be photographed, you would definitely feel uncomfortable if you noticed someone taking your pictures continuously. Photographers practice a unwritten code of ethics – to always ask a person before shooting their picture. In my experience, most of them do not refuse.

But the question is whether you relinquish some rights when you are in public space and as long as you are not harmed, can you be photographed without your consent. Of course, that depends on what ‘harm’ is. There is another related issue concerning a different topic that I’ll cover later.

The Greatest Generation Gap

Ubiquitous computing, constant connectivity, or the end of privacy for today’s teens.

Anonymity begets Anonymity?

Many things make a complete blogger. Being anonymous and able to bitch about your friends is just one of them. Not much of a Raymonds blog commercial, is it? But then again I don’t really bitch about my friends on my blog. Life is too short to bitch around and I don’t necessarily subscribe to the view that nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around. I just have remained anonymous on my own volition and ferociously guard my privacy and no subpoena (courtesy Jivha) is gonna force me to reveal myself. But I drop plenty of hints and any smart alec worth his ounce in brain power can deduce my identity and location.

Except for my roomies and brother, who really do not take any great efforts to read my blog, no one around me is aware that I blog. I remain anonymous not to bitch about my friends but rather for the reasons of incommensurability of our thoughts at another plane. I may be an entirely different person offline where I don’t usually voice out my political rants, concerns on human inconsistencies or personal diatribes. Not because I am afraid to do so but for the simple reason that not many would understand and I don’t fancy shouting myself hoarse on deaf ears. This is my sounding board where I am free to write any BS that pops up in my intensely complex and unstable mind.

But recently I explicitly shared the existence of my blog with MV. She has mostly heard me out patiently during my infrequent verbal rants before she launches into frequent rants of her own. The other day she mentioned the lack of intellectual stimulation in daily life burdened with academic obligations and meaningless circuitous conversations with friends. She suggested an informal gathering of friends around a topic of the day, be it politics, science, economy or plain human psychology in order to stimulate reasonable debate which would enhance our understanding of the world. The thought might be utopian but certainly worth a shot.

Those thoughts made me share the existence of my blog where sometimes we indulge in similar cyber debates. Bingo! she was ready for the red pill ala The Matrix. But she failed to grasp my reasons for anonymity, which might change if she reads this. She instead threw me a different challenge. Although she admits that she can verbalize better than inscribe, she would start her own blog under a pseudonym and if I had it in me, I would trace her out. But it is an easy task. She loves dogs more than anything in the world and I bet the first post, if there is would definitely be on puppy love.

PS. Any suggestions to paragraphize further will be ignored, so don’t waste your breath or rather finger movements

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