Facebook and Email

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Last week Facebook decided to replace everyone’s default email address with a Facebook email address for everyone.  For example, they changed my email address to vicki.sauter@facebook.com.  I never saw an explanation for why they made this change, but I heard a lot of the discussion of the problems that it caused.

First, this change impacted how people could search for friends.    We all know you can search by putting a name in the box at the top of the screen labeled “search for people, places, and things.”  However you can also put in an email address there.  Suppose, for example, you were looking for John Smith.  There are a large number of John Smiths from which to choose and maybe your friend doesn’t have a photo, or is using a photo of his children, dog, or an interesting plane as a profile photo.  It may be impossible to know which John Smith is actually your friend.  However, if you search for his email address, let’s say jlsmith1234@yahoo.com, you will find him directly.  Once Facebook changed everyone’s email addresses, they hid real email addresses, so that this kind of search was no longer possible, thereby making searching difficult.

Second, there is no facebook.com email agent.  Yes, you can check messages by clicking on the globe icon on the left top of your facebook screen.  Not all messages sent via email seem to have been put there, however.  You also need to look in your “other messages” file;  I’ll bet you didn’t know there was an “other messages” file!  To get to these messages, click on the word “messages” on the left hand menu when looking at your newsfeed.  This click should show a another file called “other messages.”  I have not yet discovered how Facebook decides to deliver messages between your message folder and your other message folder.  However, you should check both.

Third, many people have smart phones and other smart devices that try to keep all of your contacts from different programs consistent.  If you have one of these, you should check your contacts and their email addresses.  Some devices replaced known email addresses with the facebook.com email address for all contacts.  This meant that you lost the real email address, which might cause problems for you if you need to actually email them.

Other devices decided that the contacts with these new email addresses at facebook.com were new contacts and therefore created a new profile for them in the contact/phone book list.  If you have a lot of connections between the your Facebook and phone book list, this can cause a lot of confusion.

What can you do?  Go to your “home” page (not your newsfeed) and click on “info.”  Scroll down to “contact” information and see if the accounts you want to be active are active. If you still have an email address at facebook.com, you can change it here.  (If you instead have the Timeline, click on “about” and edit your contact information.)

 

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!

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.

Google Searches and your Privacy

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Google has been a most wonderful search engine since its inception. Most of us do not think twice about using it to find information on the Internet. But, have you thought about how it has affected your privacy? Type in your name to Google and see what it finds about you. After entering “Vicki Sauter,” I found over six million items. I doubt they are all about me, but many of them are and that is what I would expect since I have published extensively, have a large internet presence and am involved with a number of not-for-profit organizations. (The number gets smaller very quickly if you limit it further — If you search instead on “Vicki L. Sauter” you get “only” about 90,000 items, and if you search for “Vicki L. Sauter” + Internet, you get about 6,000 items.) My point is not to brag about how many times it found a reference to me, but rather to make you think about how much information can be gathered about you simply by typing your name into Google. Your professional and personal accomplishments, and even interests may be available for everyone to see.

If the person searching is clever, he might be able to find out even more information about you. Did you know that someone can put your phone number into Google and get a reverse lookup?  Many sites will be found, but most of them will point back to your name, address and city/state information.   If your phone number falls within a range used by a company, that information might be located as well.

There are other services available as well.  If you put a phone number into the white pages, not only will it list your address, but it will provide a map to your home. In addition, it will provide a range estimate for your age and a list of other people who also live at that address (whether or not their information is included in a directory listing).

Did you know that if you use Google Maps and type in your address that it is likely to bring up a photo of your home? In fact, it is likely that a user could not only see your home, but navigate up and down the block to look at how your home fits in with others in the neighborhood.

There are many more ways someone can find information about you via the internet. As an example, let me share an experience I had about several years ago. For reasons that are not important to this story, the people from my elementary school and high school did not keep in touch over the last forty years. Neither did they, their parents or siblings live in the old neighborhood. One day out of the blue, I received an email from a name that I did not recognize that had the name of my elementary school as a subject line. I opened it and realized it was from an old friend who had changed her name when she married. We exchanged some emails and decided to start looking for others in the class. Within a few years, we had located about two-thirds of the people in the class. People had moved, some as far away as England and Greece, changed their names, and some even had died. Yet, with a certain tenacity, we found them. What is nice is that some group of us get together annually for a reunion, and most of us keep in touch via email or Facebook. We clearly could not have had that level of success without the Internet.

While that is a positive story, I want to remind you that people who have less positive motives can also use these tools. That is why it is so important to be careful about what information you share and whose email you answer.