There was widespread condemnation of Facebook when it was revealed that the social network had been manipulating users' newsfeeds as part of a social experiment. Official complaints may have been made but it doesn’t seem to have served as a lesson for other websites. Now it transpires that OkCupid -- the dating website whose slogan is "We use math to get you dates" -- has been fiddling the figures in a series of experiments on its users. The weird thing is, the site is openly bragging about it.
In a blog post unashamedly titled "We Experiment On Human Beings!", founder Christian Rudder writes that "OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing". Seems like something of an odd admission. The blog post details three experiments the dating site conducted on its subscribers. There must have been more because the post is prefaced with the words "Here are a few of the more interesting experiments OkCupid has run". Does "interesting" just mean "less controversial"? Who knows?
The inspiration for this weekend's whine, along with the reason for its slight delay are one and the same thing. An appallingly slow (often non-existent) internet connection. Well, actually it's a combination of things, a slow internet connection being just one of them. Most people -- myself included in the past -- don't give a second thought to living online. Web pages are there ready be accessed on demand. Movies are just waiting to stream. Facebook and Twitter posts stream by. And so on. At least that's how it should be. If you live out in the sticks, it's a very different story -- and it stops me from banging about Edward Snowden and the NSA.
Look at the headlines and you’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone in the "developed world" is working with a blisteringly fast connection. Forget cables, we just have our brains connected directly to the internet. But we don’t. Here in the UK, there is a very noticeable digital divide, and I know it's a similar story in many other parts of the world. I've been fairly lucky in the past. Moving house at the turn of the millennium happily coincided with the arrival of broadband in the area. Hooray! 4Mbps of downstream -- more than acceptable nearly 15 years ago. A house move later, and things jumped to 8Mbps.
Back in May, the EU Court of Justice ruled that people have a "right to be forgotten" from search results. Google fairly quickly set up an online form to allow complainants to put forward their case for censoring their appearance in results. It didn’t take long for Microsoft to follow suit, and Bing users were soon afforded the same option.
Forget.me was one service that offered to take care of Google removal requests for people, and at the time CEO Bertrand Girin promised that "if Bing and Yahoo get their Right to be Forgotten forms in order, we’ll be able to provide you with the possibility of submitting your URL to all three search engines at the same time." For Microsoft, that day has come.
Online security and privacy are hotter topics than ever. Just this weekend, Edward Snowden made an appearance at the Hope X 2014 hacker event, and called for those in attendance to help make encryption tools easier to use. Another fierce advocate of online privacy is the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), and today the group released a beta version of Privacy Badger, a beautifully named extension for Chrome and Firefox designed to stop a number of tracking techniques used online. The idea of tracking cookies is something that will be familiar to most, but tracking takes many forms, including advertising and social media. Privacy Badger aims to block this tracking.
Peter Eckersley, EFF Technology Projects Director, said: "Widgets that say 'Like this page on Facebook' or 'Tweet this' often allow those companies to see what webpages you are visiting, even if you never click the widget's button. The Privacy Badger alpha would detect that, and block those widgets outright. But now Privacy Badger's beta version has gotten smarter: it can block the tracking while still giving you the option to see and click on those buttons if you so choose".
It was quite a coup for HOPE (Hackers On Planet Earth). At the 2014 hacker event, Hope X, in New York City this weekend, Edward Snowden delivered a speech to those in attendance, advocating the use of encryption online. The former NSA analyst was not at the event himself -- he's still holed up in Moscow -- but he called on those present to help to protect privacy online. Speaking via a video link Snowden said: "You in this room, right now have both the means and the capability to improve the future by encoding our rights into programs and protocols by which we rely every day".
It was a great piece of work keeping the presentation a secret. There were, of course, fears that Snowden's appearance would somehow be thwarted: "We had to keep this bombshell quiet til the last minute since some of the most powerful people in the world would prefer that it never take place." There were certainly risks involved, but it was a risk worth taking. "[Snowden's] revelations of the massive NSA surveillance programs confirmed the suspicions of many and shocked those who haven’t been paying attention".
In the second of our (hopefully) regular competitions, we have quite a treat for you. You've read the headline so you should know what's up for grabs, but if you missed it, the prize is a year's subscription to Office 365 Home worth $99.99.
Microsoft has very kindly donated a full subscription for us to give away, but this is more than just one copy of the world-famous office suite -- you can install Office 365 Home on up to five PCs or Macs, as well as five tablets. Enough for all the family!
In a lengthy interview with the Guardian, NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden spoke with editor Alan Rusbridger about his extraordinary rise to infamy. Currently in exile in Russia, he talked about how he disseminated documents about the activities of the NSA to numerous countries: "Once you start splitting them over jurisdictions and things like that it becomes much more difficult to subvert their intentions. Nobody could stop it". He remains defiant. He may be an outlaw but "it’s been vindicating to see the reaction from lawmakers, judges, public bodies around the world, civil liberties activists who have said it’s true that we have a right to at least know the broad outlines of what our government’s doing in our name and what it’s doing against us".
He explains how during his time working as an NSA analyst, he learned about previous surveillance programs run under George W Bush. Programs that were deemed unconstitutional and, having been closed, forced the US government to assume new executive powers that were then used "against the citizenry of its own country". For Snowden the power of the state is worrying:
If you live in Europe and don't like the fact that Binging yourself throws up results you'd rather didn’t appear, Microsoft has created a form you can use to request removal of these links from searches. (Yeah, ok…Bing doesn't really work as a verb in the same way as Google. Lesson learned.) Not all that long ago, Google was forced to consider censoring search results that people considered to be out of date, incorrect or irrelevant -- it's a ruling that has been dubbed the right to be forgotten. A form was set up to make it easier for people with complaints to get in touch, and now Microsoft has followed suit and created a Request to Block Bing Search Results In Europe form.
Filling in the form is absolutely no guarantee that a search result will be removed -- and it is important to remember that this is only about removing links from search results, not removing actual content. Or, as Microsoft puts it in the form:
Google is no stranger to upsetting people, and it certainly managed to do this back when Google+ launched three years ago. The social network that finds itself the butt of many jokes has long been criticized for forcing users to reveal their real names. But this policy is no more.
As well as reversing the real name requirement, Google has also apologized for the restrictions that have been in place over the past three years. The change of heart was announced, of course, in a Google+ post, and has been welcomed by the + community.
It's a little while since a European Court of Justice ruling forced Google to start removing search links to certain articles. Dubbed the "right to be forgotten", the ruling led Google to create an online form making it easier for people to get in touch about search results relating to them thought to be "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant". But just like those requests from celebrities to stop publishing compromising images online, it seems like asking for search links to be censored serves only to highlight the existence of the web pages they correspond to.
The court's decision that people should be able to request that information about them be removed from Google searches came after Spaniard Mr Costeja González took exception to links to stories about a series of old debts he had. There are now few people who follow news about Google who are not aware that Mr González has a less than perfect credit history. It's not clear whether he regards the ruling as a personal victory, but the appearance of Hidden From Google is sure to ruffle the feathers of many who have submitted similar removal requests to the search giant.
News and review website CNET has been targeted by a team of Russian hackers called W0rm. CNET's servers were hit over the weekend, but details have only just been released.
Although CNET has not given a concrete confirmation of exactly what happened, the site explains that a representative of W0rm claims to have stolen a database containing the usernames and passwords of over a million users. It seems a security hole in the Symfony PHP framework was exploited, and it is not yet clear what the fallout could be.
When we talk about surveillance online, it is almost always with reference to the NSA and activities in the US. But US citizens are far from being the only web users affected by surveillance. The NSA has long arms, but there are also similar activities going on in plenty of other countries. This week in the UK, the government is pushing through legislation that requires phone and internet companies to store information about customers' communication, and to hand it over to authorities on request. What made this particularly unusual was the fact that this was classed as emergency surveillance legislation with little to no debate and, more importantly, no public consultation whatsoever. Edward Snowden has plenty say on the matter, likening the British government to the NSA.
The legislation covers not only UK-based companies, but also those based in other countries who have gathered data about UK customers. It is in direct opposition to a recent European court ruling that said retention of data was a violation of European law. This in itself would be reason for any surveillance-related laws to be debated, but the government chose instead to use emergency measures -- usually reserved for times of war or disaster -- to push through laws it knows will prove unpopular. As we are now used to hearing, the surveillance is not about recording phone calls, or storing individual emails and text messages, but about retaining the related metadata -- who contacted who, when, for how long, from where, and so on.
Phones hit the headlines for lots of reasons -- the biggest, the most expensive, the shiniest, or just the newest. We live in times in which security and privacy are major concerns for people in all walks of life. The activities of the NSA, as revealed by Edward Snowden, served only to heighten paranoia -- the prospect of having one's phone calls and text messages intercepted is something that fills few people with joy. Enter Vysk communicastions' Vysk QS1 phone case which can be used with an iPhone 5 or 5s, and a Samsung Galaxy S5 or S4. The selling point here is that it's not just your phone that's protected, but also your privacy.
The privacy features come in mechanical and software forms. On the mechanical front there are "shutters" that can be used to obscure your phone's front and rear cameras, and there's also a jamming system for microphones. This is described by Vysk as "Lockdown Mode", but you can take things a step further. For $9.95 you can subscribe to "Private Call Mode". This introduces encryption to your texts and phone calls, with an onboard processor taking care of encryption on the fly and sent via the Vysk encrypted network. As Vysk puts it: "No one -- not even Vysk -- will know the identity of the caller or the recipient. No data is collected -- no phone numbers, call times or content - so there is no data to record. Because nothing is recorded, nothing is at risk."
Hitting the road means luggage, and luggage is a pain -- all that… stuff… to carry from place to place. Traveling light can help to make the journey less of a chore, but there are some things that simply have to be packed: no self-respecting technology fan would go on vacation without taking a raft of devices with them. But devices need power, and this means chargers are needed. iPhones, MP3 players, Android tablets, iPads, digital cameras, Chromebooks, and countless other devices all need power -- and that means a lot of chargers.
We just took a look at the Lumsing DCH-5U 5-Port USB Travel Wall Charger which enables you to leave the chargers at home and charge up to five devices simultaneously from a single power point. And we have one to give away!
A few weeks ago I took a look at Lumsing's harmonica battery pack. Now from the same stables comes the lengthily titled DCH-5U 5-Port USB Travel Wall Charger. This is a slightly different twist on the idea of providing power to travellers' devices -- this is a wall charger rather than a portable battery pack. If you're going on vacation, taking a trip, or even just hitting the office, there are your devices to consider. Your phone, tablet, MP3 player, and other bits and pieces all need power, all need their own charger.
Except they don’t. Leave all of your chargers at home, and just take a selection of USB cables -- this 5-port hub allows for up to five USB devices (obviously) to be charged from a single wall power point. The 31W/6.2A unit has two 5V 1A ports for phones, and three 5V 2A ports for tablets and devices with higher power demands. Oddly, the ports are labelled, left to right, iPad, iPad, Samsung Tab, iPhone, and Android. It would have made more sense to simply indicate which of the five were the high-powered ports, but this is a minor niggle in the grand scheme of things.