Writing

The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook

Inspired by this post by Kurt Opsahl of the EFF, Matt McKeon of IBM’s Visual Communication Lab created the following visualization depicting the evolution of the default privacy settings on Facebook:

sorry, still don't have an account on fb

Has a couple nice visual touches that prevent it from looking like YAHSVPOQUFOTI (yet another highly-stylized visualization piece of questionable utility found on the internet). Also cool to see it was built with Processing.js.

Friday, May 7, 2010 | javascript, privacy, processing, refine, social  

I am what I should have said much earlier

So it takes me a year or two to post the “You Are What You Say” lecture by Dan Frankowski, and the day after, a much more up-to-date paper is in the news. The paper is by Paul Ohm and is available here, or you can read an Ars Technica article about it if you’d prefer the (geeky) executive summary. The paper also sites the work of Latanya Sweeney (as did the Frankowski lecture), with this defining moment of the contemporary privacy debate, when the Massachusetts Group Insurance Commission (GIC) released “anonymized” patient data in the mid-90s:

At the time GIC released the data, William Weld, then Governor of Massachusetts, assured the public that GIC had protected patient privacy by deleting identifiers. In response, then-graduate student Sweeney started hunting for the Governor’s hospital records in the GIC data. She knew that Governor Weld resided in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a city of 54,000 residents and seven ZIP codes. For twenty dollars, she purchased the complete voter rolls from the city of Cambridge, a database containing, among other things, the name, address, ZIP code, birth date, and sex of every voter. By combining this data with the GIC records, Sweeney found Governor Weld with ease. Only six people in Cambridge shared his birth date, only three of them men, and of them, only he lived in his ZIP code. In a theatrical flourish, Dr. Sweeney sent the Governor’s health records (which included diagnoses and prescriptions) to his office.

And from the “where are they now?” file, Sweeney continues her work at Carnegie Mellon, though I have to admit I’m a little nervous that she’s currently back in my neighborhood with visiting posts at MIT and Harvard. Damn this Cambridge ZIP code.

Saturday, September 19, 2009 | privacy  

You stick out like a sore thumb in the matrix

Finally got around to watching Dan Frankowski’s “You Are What You Say: Privacy Risks of Public Mentions” Google Tech Talk the other day. (I had the link set aside for two years. There’s a bit of a backlog.) In the talk, he takes an “anonymized” set of movie ratings and removes the anonymity by matching them to public mentions of movies in user profiles on the same site.

Interestingly, the ratings themselves weren’t as informative as the actual choice of movies to talk about. In the case of a site for movie buffs — ahem, film aficionados — I couldn’t help but think about participants in discussions using obscure film references as colored tail feathers as they try to out-strut one another. Of course this has significant impact on such a method, making the point that individual uniqueness is only a signature for identification: what makes you different just makes you more visible to a data mining algorithm.

The other interesting bit from the talk is about 20 minutes through, where starts to address ways to defeat such methods. There aren’t many good ideas, because of the tradeoffs involved in each, but it’s interesting to think about.

Monday, September 7, 2009 | privacy, speaky  

Curiosity Kills Privacy

There’s simply no way to give people access to others’ private records — in the name of security or otherwise — and trust those given access to do the right thing. From a New York Times story on the NSA’s expanded wiretapping:

The former analyst added that his instructors had warned against committing any abuses, telling his class that another analyst had been investigated because he had improperly accessed the personal e-mail of former President Bill Clinton.

This is not isolated, and this will always be the case. From a story in The Boston Globe a month ago:

Law enforcement personnel looked up personal information on Patriots star Tom Brady 968 times – seeking anything from his driver’s license photo and home address, to whether he had purchased a gun – and auditors discovered “repeated searches and queries” on dozens of other celebrities such as Matt Damon, James Taylor, Celtics star Paul Pierce, and Red Sox owner John Henry, said two state officials familiar with the audit.

The NSA wiretapping is treated too much like an abstract operation, with most articles that describe it overloaded with talk of “data collection,” and “monitoring,” and the massive scale of data that traffics through internet service providers. But the problem isn’t the computers and data and equipment, it’s that on the other end of the line, a human being is sitting there deciding what to do with that information. Our curiosity and voyeurism leaves us fundamentally flawed for dealing with such information, and unable to ever live up to the responsibility of having that access.

The story about the police officers who are overly curious about sports stars (or soft rock balladeers) is no different from the NSA wiretapping, because it’s still people, with the same impulses, on the other end of the line. Until reading this, I had wanted to believe that NSA employees — who should truly understand the ramifications — would have been more professional. But instead they’ve proven themselves no different from a local cop who wants to know if Paul Pierce owns a gun or Matt Damon has a goofy driver’s license picture.

Friday, June 19, 2009 | human, privacy, security  

Data is the pollution of the information age

An essay by Bruce Schneier on BBC.com:

Welcome to the future, where everything about you is saved. A future where your actions are recorded, your movements are tracked, and your conversations are no longer ephemeral. A future brought to you not by some 1984-like dystopia, but by the natural tendencies of computers to produce data.

Data is the pollution of the information age. It’s a natural by-product of every computer-mediated interaction. It stays around forever, unless it’s disposed of. It is valuable when reused, but it must be done carefully. Otherwise, its after-effects are toxic.

The essay goes on to cite specific examples, though they sound more high-tech than the actual problem. Later it returns to the important part:

Cardinal Richelieu famously said: “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.” When all your words and actions can be saved for later examination, different rules have to apply.

Society works precisely because conversation is ephemeral; because people forget, and because people don’t have to justify every word they utter.

Conversation is not the same thing as correspondence. Words uttered in haste over morning coffee, whether spoken in a coffee shop or thumbed on a BlackBerry, are not official correspondence.

And an earlier paragraph that highlights why I talk about privacy on this site:

And just as 100 years ago people ignored pollution in our rush to build the Industrial Age, today we’re ignoring data in our rush to build the Information Age.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009 | privacy  

Hide the bipolar data, here comes bioinformatics!

I was fascinated a few weeks ago to receive this email from the Genome-announce list at UCSC:

Last week the National Institutes of Health (NIH) modified their policy for posting and accessing genome-wide association studies (GWAS) data contained in NIH databases. They have removed public access to aggregate genotype GWAS data in response to the publication of new statistical techniques for analyzing dense genomic information that make it possible to infer the group assignment (case vs. control) of an individual DNA sample under certain circumstances. The Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium in the UK and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Boston have also removed aggregate data from public availability. Consequently, UCSC has removed the “NIMH Bipolar” and “Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium” data sets from our Genome Browser site.

The ingredients for a genome-wide association study are a few hundred people, and a list of what genetic letter (A, C, G, or T) is found at a few hundred specific locations in the DNA of each of those people. Such data is then correlated to whether individuals have a particular disease, and using the correlation, it’s possible to sometimes localize what part of the genome is responsible for the disease.

Of course, the diseases might be of a sensitive nature (e.g. bipolar disorder), so when such data is made publicly available, it’s done in a manner that protects the privacy of the individuals in the data set. What this message means is that a bioinformatics method has been developed that undermines those privacy protections. An amazing bit of statistics!

This made me curious about what led to such a result, so with a little digging, I found this press release, which describes the work:

A team of investigators led by scientists at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) have found a way to identify possible suspects at crime scenes using only a small amount of DNA, even if it is mixed with hundreds of other genetic fingerprints.

Using genotyping microarrays, the scientists were able to identify an individual’s DNA from within a mix of DNA samples, even if that individual represented less than 0.1 percent of the total mix, or less than one part per thousand. They were able to do this even when the mix of DNA included more than 200 individual DNA samples.

The discovery could help police investigators better identify possible suspects, even when dozens of people over time have been at a crime scene. It also could help reassess previous crime scene evidence, and it could have other uses in various genetic studies and in statistical analysis.

So the CSI folks have screwed it up for the bipolar folks. The titillatingly-titled “Resolving Individuals Contributing Trace Amounts of DNA to Highly Complex Mixtures Using High-Density SNP Genotyping Microarrays” can be found at PLoS Genetics, and a PDF describing the the policy changes is on the NIH’s site for Genome-Wide Association Studies. The PDF provides a much more thorough explanation of what association studies are, in case you’re looking for something better than my cartoon version described above.

Links to much more coverage can be found here, which includes major journals (Nature) and mainstream media outlets (LA Times, Financial Times) weighing in on the research. (It’s always funny to see how news outlets respond to this sort of thing—the Financial Times talk about the positive side, the LA Times focuses exclusively on the negative.) A discussion about the implications of the study can also be found on the PLoS site, with further background from the study’s primary author.

Science presents such fascinating contradictions. A potentially helpful advance that undermines another area of research. The breakthrough that opens a Pandora’s Box. It’s probably rare to see such a direct contradiction (that’s not heavily politicized like, say, stem cell research), but the social and societal impact is undoubtedly one of the things I love most about genetics in particular.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008 | genetics, mine, privacy, science  

Skills as Numbers

numerati-small.jpgBusinessWeek has an excerpt of Numerati, a book about the fabled monks of data mining (publishers weekly calls them “entrepreneurial mathematicians”) who are sifting through the personal data we create every day.

Picture an IBM manager who gets an assignment to send a team of five to set up a call center in Manila. She sits down at the computer and fills out a form. It’s almost like booking a vacation online. She puts in the dates and clicks on menus to describe the job and the skills needed. Perhaps she stipulates the ideal budget range. The results come back, recommending a particular team. All the skills are represented. Maybe three of the five people have a history of working together smoothly. They all have passports and live near airports with direct flights to Manila. One of them even speaks Tagalog.

Everything looks fine, except for one line that’s highlighted in red. The budget. It’s $40,000 over! The manager sees that the computer architect on the team is a veritable luminary, a guy who gets written up in the trade press. Sure, he’s a 98.7% fit for the job, but he costs $1,000 an hour. It’s as if she shopped for a weekend getaway in Paris and wound up with a penthouse suite at the Ritz.

Hmmm. The manager asks the system for a cheaper architect. New options come back. One is a new 29-year-old consultant based in India who costs only $85 per hour. That would certainly patch the hole in the budget. Unfortunately, he’s only a 69% fit for the job. Still, he can handle it, according to the computer, if he gets two weeks of training. Can the job be delayed?

This is management in a world run by Numerati.

I’m highly skeptical of management (a fundamentally human activity) being distilled to numbers in this manner. Unless, of course, the managers are that poor at doing their job. And further, what’s the point of the manager if they’re spending most of their time filling out the vacation form-style work order? (Filling out tedious year-end reviews, no doubt.) Perhaps it should be an indication that the company is simply too large:

As IBM sees it, the company has little choice. The workforce is too big, the world too vast and complicated for managers to get a grip on their workers the old-fashioned way—by talking to people who know people who know people.

Then we descend (ascend?) into the rah-rah of today’s global economy:

Word of mouth is too foggy and slow for the global economy. Personal connections are too constricted. Managers need the zip of automation to unearth a consultant in New Delhi, just the way a generation ago they located a shipment of condensers in Chicago. For this to work, the consultant—just like the condensers—must be represented as a series of numbers.

I say rah-rah because how else can you put refrigeration equipment parts in the same sentence as a living, breathing person with a mind, free will and a life.

And while I don’t think I agree with this particular thesis, the book as a whole looks like an interesting survey of efforts in this area. Time to finish my backlog of Summer reading so I can order more books…

Monday, September 1, 2008 | human, mine, notafuturist, numberscantdothat, privacy, social  

“Hello Kettle? Yeah, hi, this is the Pot calling.”

Wired’s Ryan Singel reports on a spat between AT&T and Google regarding their privacy practices:

Online advertising networks — particularly Google’s — are more dangerous than the fledgling plans and dreams of ISPs to install eavesdropping equipment inside their internet pipes to serve tailored ads to their customers, AT&T says.

Even more fun than watching gorillas fight (you don’t have to pick a side—it’s guaranteed to be entertaining) is when they bring up accusations that are usually reserved for the security and privacy set (or borderline paranoids who write blogs that cover  information and privacy). Or their argument boils down to “but we’re less naughty than you.” Ask any Mom about the effectiveness of that argument. AT&T writes:

Advertising-network operators such as Google have evolved beyond merely tracking consumer web surfing activity on sites for which they have a direct ad-serving relationship. They now have the ability to observe a user’s entire web browsing experience at a granular level, including all URLs visited, all searches, and actual page-views.

Deep Packet Inspection is an important sounding way to say that they’re just watching all your traffic. It’s quite literally the same as the post office opening all your letters and reading them, and in AT&T’s case, adding additional bulk mail (flyers, sweepstakes, and other junk) that seems appropriate to your interests based on what they find.

Are you excited yet?

Monday, August 18, 2008 | privacy  

Paternalism at the state level and the definition of “advice”

Following up on an earlier post, The New York Times jumps in with more about California (and New York before it) shutting down personal genomics companies, including this curious definition of advice:

“We think if you’re telling people you have increased risk of adverse health effects, that’s medical advice,” said Ann Willey, director of the office of laboratory policy and planning at the New York State Department of Health.

The dictionary confirmed my suspicion that advice refers to “guidance or recommendatios concerning prudent future action,” which doesn’t coincide with telling people they have increased risk for a disease. If they told you to take medication based on that risk, it would most certainly be advice. But as far as I know, the extent of the advice given by these companies is to consult a doctor for…advice.

As in the earlier post, the health department in California continues to sound nutty:

“We started this week by no longer tolerating direct-to-consumer genetic testing in California,” Karen L. Nickel, chief of laboratory field services for the state health department, said during a June 13 meeting of a state advisory committee on clinical laboratories.

We will not tolerate it! These tests are a scourge upon our society! The collapse of the housing loan market, high gas prices, and the “great trouble or suffering” brought on by this beast that preys on those with an excess of disposable income. Someone has to save these people who have $1000 to spare on self-curiosity! And the poor millionaires spending $350,000 to get their genome sequenced by Knome. Won’t someone think of the millionaires!?

I wish I still lived in California, because then I would know someone was watching out for me.

For the curious, the letters sent to the individual companies can be found here, sadly they aren’t any more insightful than the comments to the press. But speaking of scourge—the notices are all Microsoft Word files.

One interesting tidbit closing out the Times article:

Dr. Hudson [director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University] said it was “not surprising that the states are stepping in, in an effort to protect consumers, because there has been a total absence of federal leadership.” She said that if the federal government assured tests were valid, “paternalistic” state laws could be relaxed “to account for smart, savvy consumers” intent on playing a greater role in their own health care.

It’s not clear whether this person is just making a trivial dig at the federal government
or whether this is the root of the problem. In the previous paragraph she’s being flippant about “Genes R Us” so it might be just a swipe, but it’s an interesting point nonetheless.

Thursday, June 26, 2008 | genetics, government, privacy, science  

Surfing, Orgies, and Apple Pie

Obscenity law in the United States is based on Miller vs. California, a precedent set in 1973:

“(a) whether the ‘average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,

(b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and

(c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Of course, the definition of an average person or community standards isn’t quite as black and white as most Supreme Court decisions. In a new take, the lawyer defending the owner of a pornography site in Florida is using Google Trends to produce what he feels is a more accurate definition of community standards:

In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” or “watermelon.” The publicly accessible data is vague in that it does not specify how many people are searching for the terms, just their relative popularity over time. But the defense lawyer, Lawrence Walters, is arguing that the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that interest in the sexual subjects exceeds that of more mainstream topics — and that by extension, the sexual material distributed by his client is not outside the norm.

Below, “surfing” in blue, “orgy” in red, and “apple pie” in orange:

viz-500.png

A clever defense. The trends can also be localized to roughly the size of a large city or county, which arguably might be considered the “community.” The New York Times article continues:

“Time and time again you’ll have jurors sitting on a jury panel who will condemn material that they routinely consume in private,” said Mr. Walters, the defense lawyer. Using the Internet data, “we can show how people really think and feel and act in their own homes, which, parenthetically, is where this material was intended to be viewed,” he added.

Fascinating that there could actually be something even remotely quantifiable about community standards. “I know it when I see it” is inherently subjective, so is any introduction of objectivity an improvement? For more perspective, I recommend this article from FindLaw, which describes the history of “Movie Day” at the Supreme Court and the evolution of obscenity law.

The trends data has many inherent problems (lack of detail for one), but is another indicator of what we can learn from Google. Most important to me, the case provides an example of what it means for search engines to capture this information, because it demonstrates to the public at large (not just people who think about data all day) how the information can be used. As more information is collected about us, search engine data provides an imperfect mirror onto our society, previously known only to psychiatrists and priests.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008 | online, privacy, retention, social  

Personal genetic testing gets hilarious before it gets real

Before I even had a chance to write about personal genomics companies 23andMe, Navigenics, and deCODEme, Forbes reports that the California Health Department is looking to shut them down:

This week, the state health department sent cease-and-desist letters to 13 such firms, ordering them to immediately stop offering genetic tests to state residents.

Because of advances in genotyping, it’s possible for companies to detect changes from half a million data points (or soon, a million) of a person’s genome. The idea behind genotyping is that you look only for the single letter changes (SNPs) that are more likely to be unique between individuals, and then use that to create a profile of similarities and differences. So companies have sprung up, charging $1000 (ok, $999) a pop to decode these bits of your genome. It can then tell you some basic things about ancestry, or maybe a little about susceptibility for certain kinds of diseases (those that have a fairly simple genetic makeup—of which there aren’t many, to be sure).

Lea Brooks, spokesperson for the California Health Department, confirmed for Wired that:

…the investigation began after “multiple” anonymous complaints were sent to the Health Department. Their researchers began with a single target but the list of possible statute violators grew as one company led to another.

Listen folks, this is not just one California citizen, but two or more anonymous persons! Perhaps one of them was a doctor or insurance firm who have been neglected their cut of the $1000:

One controversy is that some gene testing Web sites take orders directly from patients without a doctor’s involvement.

Well now, that is a controversy! Genetics has been described as the future of medicine, and yet traditional drainers of wallets (is drainer a word?) in the current health care system have been sadly neglected. The Forbes article also describes the nature of the complaints:

The consumers were unhappy about the accuracy [of the tests] and thought they cost too much.

California residents will surely be pleased that the health department is taking a hard stand on the price of boutique self-testing. As soon as they finish off these scientifimagical “genetic test” goons, we could all use a price break on home pregnancy tests.

video1_6.pngAnd as to the accuracy of, or what can be ascertained from such tests? That’s certainly been a concern of the genetics community, and in fact 23andme has “admitted its tests are not medically useful, as they represent preliminary findings, and so are merely for educational purposes.” Which is perfectly clear to someone visiting their site, however that presents a bigger problem:

“These businesses are apparently operating without a clinical laboratory license in California. The genetic tests have not been validated for clinical utility and accuracy,” says Nickel.

So an accurate, clinical-level test is illegal. But a less accurate, do-it-yourself (without a doctor) test is also illegal. And yet, California’s complaint gets more bizarre:

“And they are scaring a lot of people to death.”

Who? The people who were just complaining about the cost of the test? That’s certainly a potential problem if you don’t do testing through a doctor—and in fact, it’s a truly significant concern. But who purchases a $999 test from a site with the cartoon characters seen above to check for Huntington’s disease?

And don’t you think if “scaring people” were the problem, wouldn’t the papers and the nightly news be all over it? The only thing they love more than a new scientific technology that’s going to save the world is a new scientific technology to be scared of. Ooga booga! Fearmongering hits the press far more quickly than it does the health department, so this particular line of argument just sounds specious.

The California Health Department does an enormous disservice to the debate of a complicated issue by mixing several lines of reasoning which taken as a whole simply contradict one another. The role of personal genetic testing in our society deserves a debate and consideration; I thought I would be able to post about that part first, but instead the CA government beat me to the dumb stuff.

Thomas Goetz, deputy editor at Wired has had two such tests (clearly not unhappy with the price), and angrily responds “Attention, California Health Department: My DNA Is My Data.” It’s not just those anonymous Californians who are wound up about genetic testing, he’s writing his sternly worded letter as we speak:

This is my data, not a doctor’s. Please, send in your regulators when a doctor needs to cut me open, or even draw my blood. Regulation should protect me from bodily harm and injury, not from information that’s mine to begin with.

Are angry declarations of ownership of one’s health data a new thing? It’s not like most people fight for their doctor’s office papers, or even something as simple as a fingerprint, this way.

It’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out. Or it might not, since it will probably consist of:

  1. A settlement by the various companies to continue doing business.
  2. Some means of doctors and insurance companies getting paid (requiring a visit, at a minimum).
  3. People trying to circumvent #2 (see related topics filed under “H” for Human Growth Hormone).
  4. An entrepreneur figures out how to do it online and in a large scale fashion (think WebMD), turning out new hoards of “information” seeking hypochondriacs to fret about their 42% potential alternate likelihood maybe chance of genetic malady. (You have brain cancer too!? OMG!)
  5. If this hits mainstream news, will people hear about the outcome of #1, or will there be an assumption that “personal genetic tests are illegal” from here on out? How skittish will this make investors (the Forbes set) about such companies?

Then again, I’ve already proven myself terrible at predicting the future. But I’ll happily enjoy the foolishness of the present.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008 | genetics, privacy, science  

Spying on teenagers: too much information

Excellent article from the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine on how parents of teenagers are handling their over-connected kids. Cell phones, text messaging, instant messaging, Facebook, MySpace, and to a lesser extent (for this age group) email mean that a lot of information and conversation is shared and exchanged. And as with all new technologies, it can all be tracked and recorded, and more easily spied upon. (More easily meaning that a parent can read a day worth of IM logs in a fairly quick sitting—something that couldn’t be done with a day’s worth of telephone conversations.) There are obvious and direct parallels to the U.S. government monitoring its own citizens, but I’ll return to that in a later post.

The article starts with a groan:

One mom does her best surveillance in the laundry room. Her teenage son has the habit of leaving his cellphone in the pocket of his jeans, so in between sorting colors and whites, she’ll grab his phone and furtively scroll through his text messages from the past week to see what he’s said, whom he’s connected with, and where he’s been.

While it’s difficult to say what this parent was specifically hoping to find (or what they’d do with the information), it worsens as it sinks to a level of cattiness:

Sometimes, she’ll use her own phone to call another mom she’s friendly with and share her findings in hushed tones.

Further in, some insight from Sherry Turkle:

MIT professor Sherry Turkle is a leading thinker on the relationship between human beings and technology. She’s also the mother of a teenage girl. So she knows what she’s talking about when she says, “Parents were not built to know the kinds of things that technology makes possible.”

(Emphasis mine.) This doesn’t just go for parents, it’s a much bigger issue of spying on the day-to-day habits and ramblings of someone else. This is the same reason why you should never read someone’s email, like a significant other, a spouse, a friend. No matter how well you know the sender and recipient, you’re still not them. You don’t think like them. You don’t see the world the way they do. You simply don’t have proper context, nor the understanding of their relationship with one another. You probably don’t even have the entire thread of even just this one email conversation. I’ve heard from friends who read an email belonging to their significant other, only to wind up in tears and expecting the worst.

This scenario never ends well: you can either keep it in and remain upset, or you can confront the person. In which case, one of two things will happen. One, that your worst fear will be true (“he’s cheating!”) and you’ll be partially indicted in the mess because you’ve spied (“how could you read my email?”), and you’ve lost the moral high ground you might otherwise have had (“I can’t believe you didn’t trust me”). Or two, that you’ve blown something out of proportion, and destroyed the trust of that person: someone that you cared about enough to be concerned to the point of reading their private email.

Returning to the article, one of the scenarios I found notable:

…there’s a natural desire, and a need, for teenagers to have their own parent-free zone as they get older.

As a graduating senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, Sam McFarland is grateful his parents trusted him to make the right decisions once he had established himself as worthy of the trust. A few of his friends had parents who were exceedingly vigilant. The result? “You don’t hang out at those kids’ houses as much,” Sam says.

So there’s something fascinating about this—that not only is it detrimental to your kid’s development to be overly involved, but that it presents a socialization problem for them because they become ostracized (even if mildly) because of your behavior.

And when parents confront?

When one of his friends was 14, the kid’s parents reprimanded him for something he had talked about online. Immediately, he knew they had been spying on him, and it didn’t take long for him to determine they’d been doing it for some time.” He was pretty angry,” Sam says, “He felt kind of invaded.” At first, his friend behaved, conscious that his parents were watching his every move.” But then it reached a tipping point,” Sam says. “He became so fed up about it that, not only didn’t he care if they were watching, but he began acting out, hoping they were watching or listening so he could upset them.”

I’m certain that this would have been my response if my parents had done something like this. (As if teenagers need something to fuel their adversarial attitude toward their parents.) But now you have a situation where a reasonably good kid has made an active decision to behave worse in response to his parents’ mistrust and attempt to rein him in.

The article doesn’t mention what he had done, but how bad could it have been? And that is the crux of the situation: What do these parents really expect to find, and how can that possibly be outweighed by breaking that bond of trust?

It’s also easy to spy, so one (technology savvy) parent profiled goes with what he calls his “fear of God” speech:

Greg warned them, “I can know everything you’re doing online. But I’m not going to invade your privacy unless you give me a reason to.”

By relying on the threat of intervention rather than intervention itself, Greg has been able to avoid the drawbacks that several friends of mine told me they experienced after monitoring their teenagers’ IM and text conversations. These are all great, involved parents who undertook limited monitoring for the right reasons. But they found that, in their hunt for reassurance that their teenager was not engaging in dangerously bad behavior, they were instead worn down by the little disappointments – the occasional use of profanities or mean-spirited name-calling – as well as the mind-numbing banality of so much teen talk.

And that’s exactly it—tying together the points of 1) you’re not in their head and 2) what did you expect to find? As you act out in different ways (particularly as a teenager), you’re trying to figure out how things fit. Nobody’s perfect, and they need some room to be their own age, particularly with their friends. Which made me particularly interested in this quote:

Leysia Palen, the University of Colorado professor, says the work of social theorist Erving Goffman is instructive. Goffman talked about how we all have “front-stage” and “backstage” personas. For example, ballerinas might seem prim and perfect while performing, only to let loose by smoking and swearing as soon as they are behind the curtain. “Everyone needs to be able to retreat to the backstage,” Palen says. “These kids need to learn. Maybe they need to use bad language to realize that they don’t want to use bad language.

Unfortunately the article also goes astray with its glorification of the multitasking abilities of today’s teenagers:

On an average weeknight, Tim has Facebook and IM sharing screen space on the Mac outside his bedroom as he keeps connected with dozens of friends simultaneously. His Samsung Slider cellphone rests nearby, ready to receive the next text message…Every once in a while, he’ll strum his guitar or look up at the TV to catch some Ninja Warrior on the G4 network. Playing softly in the background is his personal soundtrack that shuffles between the Beatles and a Swedish techno band called Basshunter. Amid all this, he is doing his homework.

Yes, in truly amazing fashion, the human race has somehow evolved in the last ten years to be capable of effectively multitasking between this many different things at once. I don’t understand why people (much less parents) buy this. We have a finite attention span, and technology suggests ways to carve it up into ever-smaller slices. I might balance email, phone calls, writing, and watching a Red Sox game in the background, but there’s no way I’m gonna claim that I’m somehow performing all those things at 100%, or even that as I focus in on one of them, I’m truly 100% at that task. Those will be my teenagers in the sensory deprivation tank while they work on Calculus and U.S. History.

And to close, a more accurate portrayal of multitasking:

It’s not uncommon to see two teenage pals riding in the back of a car, each one texting a friend somewhere else rather than talking to the friend sitting next to them. It’s a throwback to the toddler days, when kids engage in parallel play before they’re capable of sustained interaction.

Thursday, June 12, 2008 | overload, privacy  

Are you a member of Facebook.com? You may have a lifetime contract

A New York Times article from February about the difficulty of removing your personal information from Facebook. I believe that in the days that followed Facebook responded by making it ever-so-slightly possible to actually remove your account (though still not very easy).

Further, there is the network effect of information that’s not “just” your own. Deleting a Facebook profile does not appear to delete posts you’ve made to “the wall” of any friends, for instance. Do you own those comments? Does your friend? It’s a somewhat similar situation in other areas—even if I chose not to have a Gmail account, because I don’t like their data retention policy, all my email sent to friends with Gmail accounts is subject to those terms I’m unhappy with.

Regardless, this is an enormous issue as we put more of our data online. What does it mean to have this information public? What happens when you change your mind?

Facebook stands out because it’s a scenario of starting college (at age 17 or 18 or now even earlier), having a very different view of what’s public and private, and that evolving over time. You may not care to have things public at the time, but one of the best things about college (or high school, for that matter) is that you move on. Having a log of your outlook, attitude, and photos to prove it that is stored on a a company’s servers means that there are more permanent memories of the time which are out of your control. (And you don’t know who else beside Facebook is storing it—search engine caches, companies doing data mining, etc. all take a role here.) Your own memories might be lost to alcohol or willful forgetfulness, but digital copies don’t behave the same way.

The bottom line is an issue of ownership of one’s own personal information. At this point, we’re putting more information online—whether it’s Facebook or having all your email stored by Gmail—but we haven’t figured out what that really means.

Saturday, March 15, 2008 | privacy, retention, social  

The Myth of the ‘Transparent Society’

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of David Brin’s The Transparent Society, because it provides an over-simplified version of a very complex problem. While it appeals to our general obsession with finding simple solutions, it fails to actually address a very real problem. Rather than a revolutionary or provocative idea, it’s in fact an argument for maintaining the status quo.

I’ve never quite been able to parse it out properly, but was pleased to see that Bruce Schneier (Chuck Norris of the security industry) addressed Brin’s argument this week for Wired:

When I write and speak about privacy, I am regularly confronted with the mutual disclosure argument. Explained in books like David Brin’s The Transparent Society, the argument goes something like this: In a world of ubiquitous surveillance, you’ll know all about me, but I will also know all about you. The government will be watching us, but we’ll also be watching the government. This is different than before, but it’s not automatically worse. And because I know your secrets, you can’t use my secrets as a weapon against me.

This might not be everybody’s idea of utopia — and it certainly doesn’t address the inherent value of privacy — but this theory has a glossy appeal, and could easily be mistaken for a way out of the problem of technology’s continuing erosion of privacy. Except it doesn’t work, because it ignores the crucial dissimilarity of power.

Schneier’s most recent book is Beyond Fear (which I’ve not yet had a chance to read) and also has an excellent monthly mailing list (that I read all the time) that covers topics like privacy and security. He is a gifted writer who can explain both the subtleties of the privacy debate as well as the complexities of security in terms that are informative for technologists and interesting for anyone else.

Sunday, March 9, 2008 | privacy  
Book

Visualizing Data Book CoverVisualizing Data is my book about computational information design. It covers the path from raw data to how we understand it, detailing how to begin with a set of numbers and produce images or software that lets you view and interact with information. Unlike nearly all books in this field, it is a hands-on guide intended for people who want to learn how to actually build a data visualization.

The text was published by O’Reilly in December 2007 and can be found at Amazon and elsewhere. Amazon also has an edition for the Kindle, for people who aren’t into the dead tree thing. (Proceeds from Amazon links found on this page are used to pay my web hosting bill.)

Examples for the book can be found here.

The book covers ideas found in my Ph.D. dissertation, which is basis for Chapter 1. The next chapter is an extremely brief introduction to Processing, which is used for the examples. Next is (chapter 3) is a simple mapping project to place data points on a map of the United States. Of course, the idea is not that lots of people want to visualize data for each of 50 states. Instead, it’s a jumping off point for learning how to lay out data spatially.

The chapters that follow cover six more projects, such as salary vs. performance (Chapter 5), zipdecode (Chapter 6), followed by more advanced topics dealing with trees, treemaps, hierarchies, and recursion (Chapter 7), plus graphs and networks (Chapter 8).

This site is used for follow-up code and writing about related topics.

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