The Roundup for February 3-9, 2018 Edition

Layers, 2018, Toronto by Christopher Parsons

We generate a vast amount of digital exhaust which imperceptibly lingers around us. The metadata and content that’s left behind us is typically regarded as harmless until it’s used or abused, or until it’s misappropriated by someone.

Part of this exhaust follows from our regular shifting between services as our tastes, interests, attitudes, ambitions, and desires change. Social media platforms are adopted and abandoned. Fitness tracking systems that were exciting one year are dull the next and then forgotten, with the tracker consigned to a trash bin or electronics drawer and data residing in perpetuity with whatever service was collecting it. The data we’ve contributed to all those services lingers: it can come back to haunt us in ways we don’t understand or appreciate when signing up for the service, and it can be challenging to undo the associated harms when they befall us.

As part of my ongoing effort to clean up some of the exhaust I’ve left behind, I deleted an old Fitbit account a few weeks ago. It was a bit annoying — you need to contact support, click yes to some emails, and then support will delete the information — but after ten minutes or so the account and its data was consigned to the dustbin of the Internet. Similarly, I blew away over 32,000 tweets this week. I left the last six months data behind or so, but it means that there’s a long trace of exhaust that’s gone.1 And I’ll be undertaking similar operations for the rest of the year, or at least so I’ve planned.

In the case of the Fitbit data, it now rests securely in Apple Health, giving me a broader understanding of changes to my fitness activities than I previously enjoyed. I downloaded a copy of my tweets before wiping them away. And for personal blogs, I’m either consolidating them here or into a semi-local digital journal so I don’t lose what I’ve previously written. But if I’m serious it’s unlikely that I’m going to re-read (that many) of my old blogs. And I’m not looking at daily variations between today’s fitness regime and that of 2008. The data could do a lot more in other persons’ hands to harm me than in my own hands to benefit me, especially as I’ve moved away from where those blogs were active and the fitness communities where members engaged with one another.

The only thing that bothers me is that, in removing things from the Internet, I’m breaking the links that were inbound to those respective pieces of content. But…did anyone really link back to old tweets and, if they did, do I have a responsibility for their linking to what I tend to perceive as off-hand comments? Do I have to maintain and support now long-abandoned accounts on the presumption that someone might someday want to follow a link?

For a long time I would have said ‘yes’ to either of those statements. But I just don’t think that that’s a healthy attitude: humanity forgets. And then we rebuild the old it is in slightly different formats and in the (perceived) image of the past. I can’t imagine those old tweets, blogs, or fitness tracking data being so important that anyone will want to rebuild or remake what they once were and, if that is the case, then they’re welcome to follow in humanity’s ancient footsteps of imaging the past and superimposing their own aspirations, dreams, desires, and fears upon it.


Inspiring Quotations

Writing for friends and yourself can clear your thoughts, help you plan and invite the discovery of new ideas. Writing with the intention to put your thoughts out there leads to real writing. Writing gets real when it is read. Before that, it is a dream in letters. Writing to get read makes you careful, responsible, and considerate. It forces you to think as simply, clearly and understandably as possible. It forces you to think about how what you say may look and feel from the outside. Writing to be read may not be desirable for everybody. But if you feel that you have something to say, write to be read. Don’t search for something to write because you want to be famous or rich. If you want fame jump from a cliff into a butter bucket on YouTube. If you want to be rich, get into finance.

New Apps and Great App Updates from this Week

Great Photography Shots

I love these shots of Ice Caves in Iceland.

Photography by Matěj Kříž
Photography by Matěj Kříž
Photography by Matěj Kříž

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

Footnotes

  1. Of course if a company or organization has previously scraped that data, which does happen, then those records will persist beyond my public deletion of the tweets.
  2. I’m really finding this great background music for just getting work done. Great moody music.
Quote

There’s another theory floating around as to why Facebook cares so much about the way it’s impacting the world, and it’s one that I happen to agree with. When Zuckerberg looks into his big-data crystal ball, he can see a troublesome trend occurring. A few years ago, for example, there wasn’t a single person I knew who didn’t have Facebook on their smartphone. These days, it’s the opposite. This is largely anecdotal, but almost everyone I know has deleted at least one social app from their devices. And Facebook is almost always the first to go. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other sneaky privacy-piercing applications are being removed by people who simply feel icky about what these platforms are doing to them, and to society.

Some people are terrified that these services are listening in to their private conversations. (The company’s anti-privacy tentacles go so far as to track the dust on your phone to see who you might be spending time with.) Others are sick of getting into an argument with a long-lost cousin, or that guy from high school who still works in the same coffee shop, over something that Trump said, or a “news” article that is full of more bias and false facts. And then there’s the main reason I think people are abandoning these platforms: Facebook knows us better than we know ourselves, with its algorithms that can predict if we’re going to cheat on our spouse, start looking for a new job, or buy a new water bottle on Amazon in a few weeks. It knows how to send us the exact right number of pop-ups to get our endorphins going, or not show us how many Likes we really have to set off our insecurities. As a society, we feel like we’re at war with a computer algorithm, and the only winning move is not to play.

There was a time when Facebook made us feel good about using the service—I used to love it. It was fun to connect with old friends, share pictures of your vacation with everyone, or show off a video of your nephew being extra-specially cute. But, over time, Facebook has had to make Wall Street happy, and the only way to feed that beast is to accumulate more, more, more: more clicks, more time spent on the site, more Likes, more people, more connections, more hyper-personalized ads. All of which adds up to more money. But as one recent mea culpa by an early Internet guru aptly noted, “What if we were never meant to be a global species?”

As much as I’d like to believe that users will flee Facebook, I still think the network effect will keep them inside the company’s heavily walled garden. It’ll take a new generation using new applications and interested in different kinds of content creation — and Facebook not buying up whatever is popular to that generation — for the company’s grasp to be loosened.

Aside

Can @Jack Save Twitter?

A long read by the author of Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal, which unpacks the return of one of Twitter’s co-founders. It’s an instructive read into the poisonous culture of Twitter and the backbiting that characterizes the company…and seemingly has meant that it’s been unable to really determine what it’s about, for whom, and how it will be profitable to investors. The end is particularly telling, insofar as Twitter is seen as having one last chance — to succeed in ‘live’ events — or else have to potentially sell to a Microsoft or equivalent staid technology company.

Link

Social Media Privacy – Part I

Social Media Privacy – Part I:

One in three anglophone Canadians say that not a single day goes by without checking into their social media feeds. Use of such applications has increased. On top of that, there is growing concern over how much information is being shared online and who may have access to it. Has the government been doing enough to protect Canadians? Is the social media industry being proactive or reactive? Will government institutions such as CSIS and CSES increase their monitoring of users in light of recent events? We will explore the current situation, what the future holds and what social media users can do to protect their information.

This week’s expert guests are:

  • Christopher Parsons, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Citizen Lab in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and a Principal at Block G Privacy and Security Consulting
  • Avner Levin, Director of the Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute at Ryerson University, Associate Professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and Chair of the Law & Business Department
  • Sharon Polsky, President of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada

 

Link

The Canadian Government Wants to Pay More People to Creep Your Facebook

The Canadian Government Wants to Pay More People to Creep Your Facebook:

But government social media monitoring could very easily cross over into a legal gray area. Christopher Parsons, a cybersurveillance researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, said the collection of personal data from online sources needs to be rigorously justified, and even when it is, the data needs to be handled and stored safely.

“The government can’t just collect information about Canadians—even from public sourced data repositories such as social media—just because it wants to,” said Parsons in an email to me. “There have to be terms set on the collection, handling, disclosure, and disposal of personal information that the government wants to gather. As a result, even when data is collected for legitimate reasons that doesn’t mean the data can then be used in any way that the government (subsequently) decides.”

Strict oversights into how the government gleans and uses this intelligence—even in the service of testing policy reactions, as Parsons thinks this service will likely do—is required.

According to Parsons, that comes in the form of internal “privacy impact assessments” related to the specific social media surveillance program.

“Government agencies are supposed to conduct such assessments before collecting Canadians’ personal information and explain the specifics of how and why they will collect Canadians’ personal data,” said Parsons.

In the medium term, it appears Canadians can count on more of their tweets to be sucked up into a government social media surveillance system—then potentially shared across government departments.

Parsons told me that the sharing of the personal data of Canadian, in general, is only becoming more pervasive across government agencies.

“There has been a marked increase in the sharing of personal data between and across different departments because information is initially being collected for vague or far-sweeping reasons. Were social media information collected for similarly vague reasons then the government could then try to expansively share collected information across government,” he said.