Do you need help using the Internet?

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coverI have a new book and it may just be the thing you have been looking for!  The name of the book is You’re Never Too Old to Surf:  A Senior’s Guide to Safe Internet Use. 

This book is for you if you have ever wanted to harness the power of the Internet, but haven’t been quite sure what that means or how to do it.  It is intended for the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who want to use the wide range of tools that are available today on the Internet, from simply surfing the web to buying online, using email, blogs and even social networking sites.  You may have sought guidance from your child or children  only to be annoyed at their exasperated response to your questions.  Or, you may have tried it on your own, and gotten frustrated with the tools, or had some problem result from that use (or know someone who did).  You may be using the Internet, but just not feel very confident in what you are doing.  If you fall into any of those categories, I wrote this book for YOU!  Of course, if you are the child or grandchild and are having trouble explaining things to your elders, this book could help you too.

The book is available from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.  Your local bookstore can order it too.  It is published through CreateSpace, ISBN 978-1506163857.

Please give it a try and let me know how you like it.

 

Google’s Knowledge Graph

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Last week Google announced that it had created a new kind of search called a “knowledge graph.”   Lifehacker‘s article said it would “bring[s] smarter semantic results” because it “connects your search query to Google’s knowledgebase of over 500 million people, things, and places to show you relevant info in a sidebar along your search results.”

So, what does that mean to you?  It means Google just got more useful (and it was already pretty useful!)  Google searches should bring you more information of different types.  Let me give you an example and then explain the jargon that is being thrown around to explain this idea.

Suppose you were interested in “roses.”  You would most likely go to Google and search on “roses.”  In the past, Google would bring back webpages where the letters “roses” appeared (in that order) or which had descriptions that it had something to do with “roses.”  That might mean poems with roses,  the War of the Roses, the musical group Guns and Roses,  the flower roses, or people who have first names of Roses (probably in error), or other places where the letters “roses” appeared.  The term “roses” did not mean anything to Google;  the search engine just found places where the letters were used.

Now when you type in “roses,” the new and improved Google “understands” that those letters in that order refer to something, a flower.  So, in addition to the searches that you might have gotten elsewhere, you will now get a side panel that defines what roses are and how they are classified.  You might also get a list of places at which to purchase roses (because that’s what one does to obtain them).  It also takes advantage of what other databases Google has that mention roses and what other users have found useful when searching for roses.

Why didn’t they just say that Google got better?  This is one of those examples where computer people did just say that Google got better, but they did it with a lot of jargon.  “Semantic” refers to understood meaning; in this case that the search engine behaves as if it understands the meaning of the string of letters “roses” and its relationship with other things (like stores and gardens and bouquets).   It is no longer just finding that word, but is now looking for information about the flower, roses.  It is as if you had a librarian there helping you with your search.

So, what is all this about the graph?  There is no graph on the search page.  Again, it is jargon.  To computer people, the “graph” refers to relationships among things.  So it refers to the way that Google is now connecting its databases and its relationships among pages.  It is making those connections to make the searchers more meaningful.

In Google’s announcement, they provided the search example “da Vinci.”  This provides a nice example of the new search results.  The screen you see is shown below.

As you can see from the screen shot above, the left side of the screen provides the typical Google search results.  It provides not only information about the artist, but also information about syrups, wedding dresses and surgical procedures that share the name.  The part that is different is the information on the right.  Since most people who search for da Vinci are looking for the artist, they provide information about him, taken from a variety of databases, for easy access.

How well this better informed search will work for you depends on a few things.  First, of course, it depends on how similar your searches are to those of other users.  The closer you are to “typical” searchers, the more likely you will get this enhanced information.  Second, it depends on how well you scope your search.  If you are very good and tend to give Google a precise set of search terms, you most likely get to the information very quickly and this will not help much.  If, instead, you are terribly general in your search terms, you may or may not get this information.  However, if your terms generally provide some boundary, and you are searching for items for which Google has a good network, you will probably find this enhanced search is useful for you.

As an example, earlier this evening, I conducted a search on “Paul Gray,” who is a long standing colleague and friend who recently passed away.  This search generated the enhanced results, but apparently there is a musician named Paul Gray and there was much information about him.  Most people who search on Google probably want information about him.  However, Google was smart enough to know there was another Paul Gray that might be of interest to a subset of searchers.  So, at the bottom there was another box with information:

Google can understand that “Paul Gray” is a person’s name and there are two of them.  That’s pretty cool!

A Sobering View of the Absence of Privacy

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It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and so it is with a view of privacy.   There has been much discussion in the press of late about the change in Google’s privacy policy and how that will impact Google’s ability to track everything about us.  That all by itself is troubling.  But, it is not only Google who wants to know how you search — so too do other organizations with which you do business.  To learn just how much of my behavior is being recorded, I installed the new add-on to Firefox called Collusion.  The whole purpose  of Collusion is to help you track who is tracking you in real time.  According to their website,  Collusion “shows, in real time, how that data creates a spider-web of interaction between companies and other trackers.”

There are two handy tools they provide, wonderful visualizations (as we will discuss in a moment) and an audio clue whenever information is being shared about your surfing.  The audio clue is a clicking sound that resembles the sound of a typewriter key hitting the paper.  I recommend you turn it on for a while because it quickly helps you become very aware of just how much information is being shared.   The constant clicking when you select a link — and even clicking when you are not using your browser if you have a page open and it refreshes — helps to sensitize you to the amount of information being shared.  After a while, it gets annoying, so remember how to turn it off too!

Now for the visuals.  I downloaded the application and began to do some surfing.  The map of the information sharing is shown below.

The visualization is interesting.  The circles with the halos represent places that you have visited during your surfing, while the circles in gray are ones you have not visited.  An arrow from one to the other indicates that the first site has sent third party cookies to the other site.  I recognize some of the icons like Blogger, LinkedIn, Adobe, Facebook, MSNBC, and Northwestern University.  Others have no icons or they are not ones familiar to me.

If you hover over any of the circles, you will get the URL for the site (for example as I hover over the Facebook logo, I see facebook.com).  In addition, it will highlight all of the connections to and from that site.  So, I see that Facebook sent third party cookies to bit.ly, cbs.com, and reference.com.  I also see that cbs.com sent third party cookies to facebook.com.

I was surprised by the number of hits and the links between the hits because I am careful about not accepting cookies from sites that I do not know.  So, I decided to clean out all of my cookies  and surfed some more.  The number of hits reduced for a while as shown below.

Another View of Surfing Behavior with Collusion

Things were a little better, but notice how much information is being shared even without the cookies.  That is because the websites use third party applications to collect the data and share the data.

After a few hours of surfing by my husband or myself, the map looked like:

A Map of Surfing for a Few Hours using Collusion

And, after an entire weekend, the map looked like:

The Data Collection from A Weekend of Surfing with Collusion

If you did not think people were watching your behavior before, you certainly should be convinced with this image.  Further, the links between the sites, where they now have joint data begins to paint a picture of who you are and what they might do to get or keep your business, or how they can sell your data to others who want to market to you.

The creators of Collusion recognize that the tool is a work-in-progress.  The website says they are working on adding more features, such as the ability to click on any node in the graph and tell Firefox to block third-party cookies to that site, and visualizing other methods of tracking besides third-party cookies.

Using Collusion was an eye-opening experience.  I am looking forward to that add-on that allows us to block these third-party cookies.  What I do is private, right?

Google’s New Privacy Policy

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On March 1, Google will institute its new privacy policy, which will eliminate the 60 individual policies it has now and consolidate them all into one integrated policy.  Google says that nothing has changed, and that they are not collecting any new data.  However, with the new policy, they can use the information they collect across your searches, YouTube watching, Google + postings and all of the other Google product uses to provide “a beautifully simple, intuitive user experience that treats consumers as a single user across all our products.”

Google’s position is that there is nothing new, and that we are all going to benefit from this new policy.  But is that true?  As with most policies, the answer is “it depends.”

To explain the concern that some people have, I need to refer you back to an old example.   In August 2006, AOL published 650,000 users’ search histories on its website. A random ID was assigned to  each user’s logs, and no names were listed.  However,  several users’ identities were readily discovered based on their search queries. For instance, the New York Times connected the logs of user No. 4417749 with 62 year-old Thelma Arnold. These records exposed, as she put it, her “whole personal life.”

Since that time, we have all gotten much more dependent on the search capability, and generally our searches are in Google.  We watch YouTube videos assuming we are in the privacy of our own home.  We use Google+ believing that we are communicating with our friends and colleagues.  Further, we may not even be aware of the number of services we use that are all owned by Google.  So, not only are we using the services more than we did in 2006, there are more of them that we are using.  Even if none of them are associated with our names (and that is unlikely), it would be easy to identify many of us in the same way that the New York Times did in 2006.

You might ask, “so what?”  Well, as is often the case, I worry most about the teens and young adults who might search or behave in a way that might have long term implications for their lives and careers long before they have those careers.  But, even for the rest of us, it is a concern.  While Google claims to have the motto, “do no evil,” who knows what they will be in the future.  Further, suppose that someone steals the information from Google and begins to be a disruptive force in people’s lives.  Is it really so important for corporations to be able to target me specifically to purchase their products?   Does marketing provide a compelling reason for me to lose my privacy?

Even if those things were not an issue, many of us have different components to our lives that we do not want to confuse.  When Google merges all of these different kinds of information, they will merge all of those selves.  Let me explain with an example from Amazon.  Amazon prides itself on being able to recommend relevant purchases based on your past buying history.  When my son was a religious history major, I purchased books about a variety of religions.  My husband likes to read history, and I often give him history books for holidays.  I admit that I love mystery novels and do purchase them from Amazon.  I also use Amazon to purchase wedding and baby gifts for friends and relatives, and other items as gifts.  So, when I look at Amazon’s recommendations, I often find them amusing because they try to merge all of that information together into one profile and often miss the boat.  This same “unified profile” idea is what Google is going to be selling, and maybe publicizing. This will make it difficult to keep a “professional image” and “personal image” that are separate.

If you are not yet concerned, look at the information that Google has kept about you.  If you have a Google account, login and direct your browser to https://www.google.com/history.  You will then be looking at every search you have done since you got your Google account.  There may not be any individual searches that are troubling, but what kind of image do you present when you look at them all together?  These search data can reveal sensitive information about you, including facts about your location, interests, age, sexual orientation, religion, health concerns, and more.  Is this information the business of anyone else?!

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting individual rights in the digital world, recommends that you remove your past search history before  March 1, so that it is not included in the future profiles.  If you have gone to your own history page, you can do this by selecting “remove all Web History.”  A complete discussion is provided on the EFF site.

In the future, you also need to remember not to login to Google before searching or viewing YouTube videos.  This will keep them from linking your information to you.  They will still keep the information about the use, and perhaps link it to your IP address, but at least it will not be linked to YOU.  Further, you might consider using different search engines for different kinds of information.  You can use Google for some searches, Bing for others, and Yahoo for still others.  This makes it harder for any one of them to understand too much about you. You might even want to use anonymousing software, such as Tor or Anonymizer, to hide not only your name, but also the computer.  For more information about how to protect yourself while surfing, check out the Six Tips to Protect Your Search Privacy from EFF.

Facebook Applications

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Did you know that no one reviews applications before they are made available on Facebook?  Most people think that if an application runs on Facebook that it was vetted somewhat or that it is, at least,  reliable.  That is not true, unfortunately.  Anyone can write an application with any mission in mind.  Once you give them access to your data, they unfortunately have your data and can do with it what they want.

Clearly there are multiple kinds of applications developed.  Some are developed by people who enjoy programming and want to develop something to show that they can program (many of these people are looking for jobs and putting it on their resumes).  Others have developed applications for themselves, and share it out of kindness.  These seem like harmless enough purposes, and they may well be.  However, if they are not good at programming they may inadvertently cause negative things to occur.    Then there are the people who just want to cause problems, or who want to collect information for nefarious purposes, or who are trying to scam users.

Does that mean you should never use Facebook Applications?  Certainly not.   Some of them are quite useful, or quite fun and should be used.  But, you need to protect yourself.  You could adopt what has been identified as “Sauter’s First Law of Computing” — never be the first to adopt new computing (hardware or software).  Let someone figure out how to solve the problems first!  (An associated lemma says not to adopt new computing alone … always have a friend who can help you solve unanticipated problems.)  Sometimes that is not possible, or sometimes you just don’t want to make your friends into guinea pigs.

You could first search Google for the name of the application and see what it says about the application.  Or, go to Facecrooks to see if they have a notice about problems with the application.  Or check the Facebook Security .  You can also go to the application’s Facebook page and look for information.  Click on the “information tag” … is there a description and does it tell you who developed it?  If so, check out the developers for their reputation.  Check the number of users — you do not get extra points for being the first.  Read the reviews of the application, to determine the experiences of other users.  Think about the information to which they want to give access — does it make sense, or are they looking at more than they should really need to see?  Think about the benefit of the application — is there enough advantage to make it seem reasonable?

As I have said before, use the same “common sense” in the Facebook world that you would use in real life.  Do not assume anyone else will protect you, but rather be a wise consumer of computing.

What are SOPA and PIPA? Where is Wikipedia and Why Does Google have a Black Logo??

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Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org) has become a standard source for checking facts, geography, spelling and more.  It has taken the status that Encyclopedia Britannica had when I was a child because it has the similar accuracy level to EB.  We will talk more about it another day.  If you have not used Wikipedia, you should look at it — but not on January 18 because on that day, the English version of the site is going “dark” or offline. The reason for going offline is to protest SOPA and PIPA.  They are not the only site going offline on that date — a number of sources that many of us use regularly are involved in the protest.  Even Google, which continues to be online, has a black logo in support of the protest.

So, what are SOPA and PIPA and why does Wikipedia care?  These stand for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECTIP Act (PIPA), a bill  in the U.S. Senate, respectively.  In an open letter, the Wikipedia Board said, “It is the opinion of the English Wikipedia community that both of these bills, if passed, would be devastating to the free and open web. ”  Those are pretty strong words, so we should look at what they mean!

First, what is the goal of the legislation?  The intended goal of the legislation was to protect the intellectual property rights of content providers.  In particular, it was pushed by movie, television and recording executives who want to protect their own rights to control how movies, television programs and songs.  They would like to reap the profits from their investments, and block others from sharing them for free.  We all recognize that there are huge pirating groups overseas that are selling these products illegally, and we also recognize that is a problem.

However, the legislation is comparable to trying to hit a fly with a telephone book.    First, you are unlikely to actually hit the fly with something as large and unwieldy as a telephone book.  Second, even if you hit the fly, you are likely to do much more damage when hitting the telephone book to the surface.  These laws are unlikely to actually stop the piracy for a variety of reasons and they introduce a number of provisions that would have other consequences.  Mashable.com stated the concern most succinctly:

… the really scary thing here is that there isn’t any qualification that the site be solely for the purpose of theft, only that it facilitate it. Since copyright violation is ridiculously easy, any site with a comment box or picture upload form is potentially infringing. Furthermore, DMCA Safe Harbor provisions are no defense. You, as a site operator, become liable for copyright infringement committed by your users, even if you comply with DMCA takedown requests.

They proponents claim that the bills will not affect first amendment rights because they are focused on organizations outside of the U.S.  In this day, do you really know which websites are owned by organizations in the U.S. or those outside of the U.S.?  The claim is that if the URL ends in a .com or .org, it is in the U.S. and would not be affected by this law.  That means that all a foreign company has to do is to buy a .com or .org address and they are protected?   But, what if an American company also has sites outside of the U.S.?  Amazon.com, for example, also has Amazon.com.uk and Amazon.de.  Would they be affected?

Second, the language in the bills is quite broad and could easily be misapplied.  If an Attorney General chooses to take action against a site, it is claimed, he or she must get a court order.  The court order would require that:

  • Internet service providers block your access to the site (section 102(c)(2)(A)(i)) within five days;
  • Search engines (such as Google) remove all references to the offending sites from their indexes (section 102(c)(2)(B));
  • Ad providers stop providing ad service to the site; and
  • Payment providers (including credit cards) terminate service to the site.

In other words, the Attorney General, with a court order, has the ability to censor a site without a trial or any process that allows the site to defend itself.  There is no due process of justice.  This is a very slippery slope that, once in place, is easy to abuse.  We criticize countries such as China for their censorship of the Internet.  Why would the U.S. make it easy for us to get in the same position?

Third, and perhaps most scary, is a provision that encourages ISPs to block content that seems to be providing inappropriate materials.  WOW!  So YOU might not be able to see a site because someone at your ISP thinks that site might be breaking the law.  There is no trial, no evidence and no legal recourse!  So much for our rights!

There are many people who have written more eloquently on this than have I.  If you are not convinced, I suggest you consider reading:

There are many many other articles out there that are informative and worth reading. However, you may need to wait until Thursday to read any of them.