What price privacy?

My last post was written on a Windows Phone and I was wondering what it was going to be like to use and whether or not I’d be able to blog more frequently. Well, I’m still not blessed with vast amounts of free time, but I’ve got time for this one.

There has been quite a lot of coverage over the last week because Google has changed its privacy policy so that your personal information can be shared across all its services. I am not quite sure why people have been so shocked by this- after all even though Picasa, Google Earth and the rest were acquired separately, they are now part of a single company. So why shouldn’t Google be allowed to share the information? As an analogy, if a supermarket chain buys a string of convenience stores and re-brands them; you, as the consumer, benefit from lower prices and a consistent choice of product ranges; they in turn are able to capture your loyalty card profile in all their stores. So why should it be any different for a company that sells information about you?

Well, to me at least, that last point is the critical aspect. How much information do we want other people to know about us? And how much do we want to be involved with the decision? There are good arguments for an organisation that wants to sell advertising space to know a bit about me- after all I am a forty something year old male, so advertisements for female hygiene products are going to be a waste of time, space and bandwidth for all concerned. So it can easily be acknowledged that a little targeting is a good thing. But where should it stop?

Google used to provide a page where you could see what it knew about you- for example it had worked out that I am male, aged between 35 and 45 and interested in technology, mobile phones and a few other things. Google knew that my wife is female, about the same age as me and interested in celebrity gossip. This had all been worked out from our web history. I found this interesting and told a few people about it- not surprisingly it was pretty much spot on for everyone. And although this information had been collected without my explicit knowledge, I could at least see what Google had worked out about me.

And now Google has created a single overall privacy policy and is conducting a charm offensive like no other to convince you and I that we should trust them with our personal information. And to aid in this there is a new Ad Preference Manager where we can explicitly block certain advertisers. This is largely a good thing. I have a mantra that I use in my professional life “explicit by statement, not implicit by omission”- this means that if you are building a system that is going to deliver this functionality but not that, then you should state somewhere that “we will NOT be doing that” instead of just leaving it out. Google are adopting this approach through two methods:

  1. You can explicitly state what interests you have
  2. You can control who you do not wish to see advertising to you (up to a limit of 500 advertisers at least).

However, what one hand gives, the other takes away: it does not appear possible any more to see what Google knows about you. So have they deleted the existing profile? I think not. My best guess is that the old inferred profile will be combined with the new explicit interests and you will hopefully finish up with even more accurately targeted adverts. The question is, do you want this?

The start of this post stated that I had been using a Windows Phone, with an operating system written by Microsoft. Now Microsoft have a huge number of detractors, but as far as I know, they don’t particularly care who I am. They care whether my copy of Windows is Genuine and whether I am using the latest version of Office. But they don’t care about me. Unlike Google. My test of the Windows Phone concluded with the decision that the OS is really nice, the app support is significantly weaker than either iOS (from Apple) or Android (from Google) and the overall price probably somewhere between the two. So you are faced with an interesting choice: it can be argued that Android is the ‘best’ mobile phone subsystem at the moment, but you have to give away your privacy. With a Windows Phone you pay more, get less functionality but keep yourself to yourself. And with Apple you pay even more, you may or may not keep your information private and join the mass of fan-boys.

So what to do? How much more am I willing to pay to keep my information private? And how much functionality am I prepared to forgo for the same aim? And what about you?

Advertisements

Ranting and Privacy

The advent of web sites such as Facebook and Twitter has given people a place to let off steam: A large attraction of Facebook and the sole purpose of Twitter is to publish what you are doing or how you are feeling right now. This is great for friends (real or on-line) to feel as though they are involved in your life, laugh with you at the amusing things that happen and possibly even provide comfort and support should things not be going well.
The only downside to this concept is that the very immediacy of the publishing and the public nature of the internet means that thoughts and words that should, at best, be muttered under your breath or even locked and trapped in the dark recesses of your mind find their way out, into the public  domain and in the best traditions of Pandora’s box, once opened there is no recalling the tweet or status update.
A recent lawsuit highlights the possible consequences of such utterings and there have been numerous cases of people being fired for updating their  Facebook status with ‘God, I am bored. This job sucks. My boss is a complete to$$er’ or something similar.
Now obviously I am aware that only ‘friends’ can see your status on Facebook and you can protect your tweets on Twitter. So you could argue that anyone dumb enough to post something that could conceivably be libellous or even just offensive gets everything they deserve, but other recent events mean that even if you are careful, the privacy police may be after you.
If you apply to work for the city council in Bozeman, Montana you are now required, at the interview stage, to provide the interviewer with your username and password to all the social network sites that you are a member of. This means that your future employer will be able to see your thoughts and actions that were previously only known to your friends.
Alternatively, if you are at school, you may be required (not requested, required) to provide your username and password if members of staff believe you have posted something that may be offensive.
Both of these situations worry me. A lot. Yes, we should have right to privacy. Yes, you are pretty dumb if you post something on Facebook that could offend (even if it is nothing more than ‘Sarah, the Cheerleader has a big fat butt’) but the very purpose of these sites is that you are able to post to your circle of friends and should be unafraid of the
.
I recently had a really crappy day at work. I wanted to post something to this effect, but I was concerned that, somehow, this would become public and my bad day would get far worse. So I didn’t post, I showed the best stiff upper lip I could and got through the day. But I wish I could have vented a little. It could have helped. Maybe

A new empire

Here’s a number of odd things; first up, this is the first post in over two years- let’s see if we can start to generate regular posts and increase readership.

Secondly, I am suffering a bit from single source syndrome. A few years ago we all hated Microsoft- you pretty much had to use their Operating System (in which ever flavour of Windows you wanted); most people were stuck with some form of Office (or even worse, Works) and sitting on top of the heap was Internet Explorer.

Then Firefox came along, OpenOffice made a decent stab at things and you could even get adventurous and try your hand with a ‘consumer’ version of Linux. I have used these alternatives, frequently with a conscientious effort to avoid the Microsoft solution and along the way I came to some conclusions

You can Linux if and only if you never want to try anything beyond basic browsing, possibly some e-mail and the occasional letter that you are going to print out. That is of course, unless you are a total geek and want to get right under the hood. So, Linux appeals to the very top and very bottom of the tech knowledge scale

OpenOffice does apppeal to a wider audience- most people can get it to work. In fact, to many people it looks just like MS Office used to look. Which is kind of the problem. Love Microsoft of loathe them, every now and then one of their usabilty innovations actually works. My feelings on the ribbon are documented but over the last couple of years (and in particular with the advent of Office 2010 and the ability to modify the ribbon) I’ve come to accept the change. What I can’t deny is that non-techy users do seem to like the ribbon approach and it does look more modern than the traditional install of OpenOffice.

Firefox managed to plough the most successful furrow: Now not only do you have Firefox, you have Chrome and if you want to feel like a Mac fan-boy, you can even install Safari. All work well as browsers- in many cases actually better than Internet Explorer and so you can now feel a nice heterogenity. You are not beholden to a single vendor for your complete IT solution. But why is this important? Why should you care? After all there are many, many people who buy everything from Apple. OK, yes we do make fun of these people. But if it works for them, why was there the backlash against Microsoft all those years ago? And why should we maintain a hybrid solution?

The best analogy I can come up with is financial planning and investing. The ‘best’ strategy is to spread your portfolio across a number of sectors, with different investment funds etc. So it is with computers- less so for the fact of making money and more keeping the vendor honest.

Which is why I am currently having such a problem. The world has changed since I last thought about the IT solutions we use, not least of which is the power available in the ‘permanent presence’ category. We are bombarded with advertising to buy the latest iPhone, Blackberry, Android or even a Windows Mobile smartphone. Not so much on the Nokia front, but that’s the subject of a whole other rant.

I honestly can’t justify the cost of an iPhone, Windows Mobile is still immature (I’ll wait til Nokia kicking out some handsets to reserve judgement on that platform), Blackberry costs too much to implement as a (very) small business and Android seems to have all the momentum. Which is why I now find myself with a very sexy little HTC Desire S sat beside my on my desk. It seems to do all the things you need of a phone i.e. make and receive calls and text messages. And it does the smart things too: It plays music, takes photos, allows you to watch videos and keep the world updated with what you are doing right now (even if it is still beyond me as to why you would want to let anyone know what you are doing- though I will be updating that thought process in a little bit).

OK, it is all a little bit more complicated to do all these things than it is on an iPhone, but with a bit of gentle persuasion you can get it to work. The problem is that I feel as though I’ve swapped one empire (Microsoft) for another one (Google). And here’s the thing- Google may profess to doing the right thing, but there’s a number of areas of the phone that really bug me:

  1. Why does the MarketPlace need to submit data in the background? No, if I want to buy something, I go to shop. I don’t want you working what I might need in the backgroun
  2. Don’t link my Facebook account with my phone book and my LinkedIn account. They are separate for a reason; I don’t want my boss to know that when he calls I have replaced his real name (Alan) with my nickname for him (Dylan) because he reminds me of a character on the Magic Roundabout
  3. Oh and if you do link me in, you should make it just as easy to unlink the accounts after, not a some obscure submenu of a security setting.
  4. Why do I need to use some many applications from Google just to listen to a podcast offline?
  5. Don’t put adverts for songs in my music player. As with the MarketPlace issue, if I want to browse for a song on Amazon’s MP3 store, I’ll go there. Don’t suggest new music when I am listening to my old music

There’s more in terms of frustrations and maybe I’ll rant about them later. But what really concerns me is the level of information that Google is receiving about me- and much of it ‘in the background’ or put another way ‘when I am not looking’. I have a  straightforward request, you want me to you send me stuff, tell me and make sure I know exactly what it being sent, possibly each and every time. You want to worm your way into my social, financial and other preferences: SOD OFF!

Watching a train crash

A blog is an intensely personal form of communication. It is, for the writer, an immediate and occasionally quite intimate outlet for the thoughts, feelings and emotions that is coursing through your veins. But writing a blog is also an incredibly public process. I have no control over who reads this or any other post. Furthermore, I have no control over who copies, archives or otherwise keeps a record of what I said, even if I have since deleted the post. Of course, I would like to think that anyone keeping a copy will delete any record they have when I delete my version, but I am not so naive to assume that is so.

Although most bloggers realise this, sometimes emotion overtakes us and we allow ourselves to vent without thought of the consequences. I read several blogs and most of them are well thought out and the author will be able to look back at the post in years to come with no fear or recriminations. But just occasionally, even smart people will forget; one blog I read has been describing what appears to be somewhat of an emotional breakdown of an otherwise perfectly healthy woman.

I know neither the blog author nor her friend and the first posts in the series, whilst slightly uncomfortable reading, were acceptable. The recent posts have made me genuinely fear for the friend- for her mental and even her physical well being. The feeling of impotence as I watch this train crash be described over a number of days is extremely unpleasant. Compounding the problem is that I have neither the skills nor the ability to do anything for these people. I don’t wish to be a ‘white knight’ riding in on a charger (though there are other scenarios in life where that image might be fun) but that doesn’t ease the feeling. I don’t know how that story will end, I fear that the answer is ‘not well’, and I am even afraid to look at the blog again. It feels like watching a train crash-you can’t take your eyes off it, no matter how much you want to.

The other example has less actual danger but highlights the danger of venting without thought of the recriminations. As anyone who knows me will tell I am not particularly politically correct. I tend to say what I think and frequently damn the consequences. However, I do try to care how I say things and I try to always include the requisite amount of etiquette in anything I write, say or do. OK, less on the say, but certainly when it comes to the written word I try to take care. So when I come across professional people who either publish very pointed blogs or send curt, incomplete and brusque e-mails; well I generally cringe inside. And the real problem is that by the time I get to read the words they have already been read by the intended recipient. So there is very little I can do can to prevent the damage- it is already there. In this situation the train has already crashed- all I do is to try some form of clean-up.

So with these examples out there in the blogosphere (or the world of internal e-mails) I hope I don’t ever offend anyone by the contents of this blog. If I do feel I am saying something negative I will endeavour to hide or disguise the person concerned so much that they are unaware of the point I am making. Conversely, if I am complimenting someone I will generally let them know directly (especially if I know the person). I feel I owe this to whoever I am communicating with, whether I know them or not, whatever personal feelings I may have or whatever medium I am using. Perhaps I should remind others of this, but I fear that the advice would not be taken well (but that may be due to the aforementioned lack of political correctness and subtlety in my communcation of the message)

(Re)connecting through social networks

No one can deny the massive impact that social network sites are having on the internet world. Of course there is always the bigger question of what percentage of the real world the internet world really represents, but that is a question for another day.

I have used different social network web sites for the past 2 years (except that at the start I didn’t even know what a social network web site was, I just knew that LinkedIn had huge performance issues) and have found that the ability to reconnect with old mates is one of my favourite features. The question becomes: What do you do once you have connected via the ethernet? Ping an occasional e-mail and catch up or actually meet in real-life again.

I have tried both approaches and found that the impact of actually meeting is far greater than any number of e-mails, instant messages or pings or nudges. These are the same issues that all people who meet through the internet face: Suddenly there is no where to hide, no back space key to remove ill conceived thoughts and, worst of all, no easy way to duck out of the conversation if things are going badly. The pressure of these situations is well known on the first date, but what surprised me was that it is still present when reconnecting.

The net result of this is the that meeting can rapidly head into one of two directions:

  1. You realise that you really need to see this person more and can’t believe that you ever fell out of touch
  2. You realise that the intervening years have taken you in markedly different directions and you really have nothing in common any more

Of course when #2 occurs it is best to retreat a quick retreat, but when #1 happens…..

A(nother) cool web 2.0 site

OK, this one might go into the ‘cool but pointless’ category or it could be the greatest thing to hit the computing cloud, I can’t decide which and I guess that only time will tell.

There appears to be 2 ways to move into the true on-line world and I think they differ in their point. The approaches are:

  1. Integrate your desktop with your on-line world (not a desktop machine, but your compute desktop)
  2. Migrate all the functionality on-line

Desktop Integration

The integration approach (taken by Xdrive) allows you to open a Windows Explorer window that looks just like any other- except that the drive you just opened (cunningly called X: ) is nowhere near your local area network. This allows you to run all your local, desktop applications and save documents and files to the on-line storage. The advantage of this approach is that you have pretty damned good integration with your desktop. The disadvantage is that if you use multiple local machines, you have to make sure that they are all set up identically if you wish to duplicate the experience- for example ensuring that all the applications are installed on each machine.

On-line Functionality

On-line functionality takes everything away from the desktop and runs in its own little world. Meebo takes this approach- so all your IM contact details, your chat logs etc are stored remotely. This has the advantage that everything is going to be the same no matter what computer you use to access the functionality. The downside is that (currently) most apps focus on a single piece of functionality e.g. IM or Calendar or file managment

Unfortunately, what all of this means is that many of the apps are simple re-packaging of what you can already do, just not do it on-line. This means that every on-line desktop provider I have tried (Xdrive, GMX, Omnidrive) has a folder for ‘My Music’, ‘My Photos’ etc and I have no way of taking my data from the on-line applications off-line (though you could argue why would I want to- it is just the Generation X insecurity in me)

And then I came across Jooce (www.jooce.com) that gives the whole world a shake upside down: What Jooce does is create a complete desktop, just like your main desktop, but it does it inside a browser. So now you can file your documents away nicely or just leave them on the desktop.

As I said as the start, I have no idea if this is the coolest thing to hit the way we use computers or a total waste of time. In my mind, the key to creating a cool Web 2.0 app is to try to break down what we use a computer for and then either identify something totally cool that you never knew you needed to do or make something that you do already available in a new and interesting way. I don’t see Jooce doing either of these, but I can’t deny that when I saw that I had the ability to rotate a picture on my desktop it made me smile with glee.

Jooce Desktop with a rotated picture

Jooce Desktop with a rotated picture

But then small things always did amuse me… and a good job too.

What I use (2)

Six months ago I posted about the various pieces of (mainly web) software that I use. Well, in this world of rapid software development, six months is a long time. Not least of which is because I am slowly catching up with the rest of the world as to what is the latest ‘cool’ app. I am still using the same personal social network (Facebook), professional social network (LinkedIn), photography site (Flickr), bookmarking site (del.icio.us), travel site (Dopplr) and calendar (Google Calendar) but I have now made some decisions, expanded in other directions and discovered some new apps. So, here goes with the new things that I am using:

  • Web mail: GMX. You may not have heard about GMX, but they have been dominant in Germany for years and have recently made their service available to the rest of the world. Now I know that there are lots of people who rave about Gmail and Yahoo has fought Hotmail/ LiveMail (or whatever brand Microsoft has given it this week) to be the biggest webmail on the block, but I have tried ’em all, and so far GMX is knocking them all out the park: IMAP, slick UI, fast response and no adds. Damn this is good. Oh and it can collect all your mail from all your other accounts. Just about the only thing it doesn’t do is a WAP interface, but smart phones are just downloading mail straight to your phone, so that is not as essential
  • Instant Messaging: On a desktop I have been using Adium or Pidgin, but I really like the way Meebo works on the web. The thing about IM is that there is no need to have a desktop client, because how can you chat if you don’t have an internet connection? So it would seem a perfect case of a web app. As far as I can make out, the only down side is that you can’t encrypt the conversation (e.g. with OTR)
  • Online storage: Originally there was Xdrive, then AOL bought it and it still offering the best deal (5GB for free, as opposed to Yahoo’s 30MB) but Microsoft’s Live Spaces is coming up hard on the rails. I am trying to stick with an alternative: Omnidrive. When it works it is just great: only 1GB storage, but that is OK for what I need. But I keep having issues getting it to work on my Windows machine- it works magnificently on OS X (seriously, the UI is so good it is yet another reason to switch)
  • RSS reader: Last time I didn’t know whether to go with Yahoo or Netvibes. Well, Netvibes won, but I still miss some of Yahoo’s functionality. Oh well, you can’t win ’em all

There may be more, but with those three (GMX, Meebo and Omnidrive) I think that I am starting to see a trend: the big players (Microsoft, Yahoo and Google) all offer the same functionality and all in a one-stop-shop. So why I am using all sorts of odd little players and not just stick with 1 offering? Many, many reasons including truly picking the best of breed, supporting the little guy or just trying to be different. But probably the main one is just trying to stick one to ‘the man’: It is possible to survive in America without sucking up to the blandness of corporate ubiquity- Dave Gorman proved it by driving coast to coast (with a few, OK a lot, of detours on the way) and making a film and book about it; America Unchained is well worth the read. Mind you, Dave also attempted to live exactly according to his horoscope, so maybe holding him up as a role model is not entirely a good idea.

In the meantime, I’ll keep doing what I can do be independent.

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook