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".
The official Twitter app may be good enough for casual Windows Phone use, but only a third-party client has all the right features for the social network's power users. While there already are a couple of good picks available in Store, the arrival of Tweetium, best known as one of the most fully-featured Twitter clients for Windows 8.x, just beefed-up the selection.
The developer, B-side Software, has released Tweetium as a beta. It is meant to be tested just by "select" existing "customers", according to its Store description, but we can still take a look.
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.
Windows Phone developers should be commended for the great job they are doing with third-party apps, which are, sometimes, even superior to the real deal. But, while they cover quite a few popular services, like Dropbox, Gmail or YouTube, I have yet to come across a competent client for Google+. For some reason, all Windows Phone apps I have tried either did not work as advertised or were acting as a wrapper for the mobile site.
As a result I have stopped trying to use Google+ altogether on Windows Phone, switching over to my laptop or tablet whenever I want to reach followers on the social network. But, thanks to G.T.F.O. Productions and its gPlus app, that might change.
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.
Twitter may have an official Windows Phone app, but the offering is sorely lagging behind its Android and iOS counterparts in the features department. That is because the updates come only a couple of times per year, and, even then, they fail to bring the latest goodies on the platform.
Luckily for those who are willing to put up with the offering, Twitter has finally released a new update for its Windows Phone app, the first one to come in 2014. And to show just how much it cares about the platform and its users, Twitter has not even announced the update on its blog (but, Microsoft did).
We already knew that the dragnet style of data collection employed by the NSA resulted in a huge level of collateral damage. As revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden the agency had been intercepting huge amounts of web traffic -- often with the assistance of web firms -- on an almost unbelievable scale. The NSA has tried to improve its public image by playing the national security card, as well as releasing a "transparency report" but there's no getting away from the fact that countless innocent web users got caught up in the net. But an investigation by the Washington Post reveals the true extent of the impact on the average internet users -- and it's far worse than many thought.
A four-month investigation by the newspaper found that the number of average internet users who had their data intercepted far outweighs the data of targeted individuals. And not just by a bit -- by a factor of nine. Data provided to the Washington Post by Edward Snowden shows that an astonishing 900 percent more innocent users than intended targets fell victim to the NSA's surveillance. (For the purposes of accuracy the exact figures are closer to an 11 to 89 percent split). These are staggering revelations. There has already been very vocal opposition to the NSA's activities but these were essentially "blind" complaints. Without knowing the scale of operations, it was difficult to know just how upset to be. Nine out of ten people who had their data collected were nothing more than collateral damage caught in the extremely wide net cast by the agency.
The idea of a closed internet is hardly new; turn your eyes to East Asia, and the Great Firewall of China looms large. The Chinese government is well known for the control it likes to exert over the levels of access its citizens have to the internet, and there have been numerous well-publicized cases of censorship and access being restricted to pages that refer to certain events in the county's history. The country is highly defensive of its image, and goes to great lengths to fight off western influence -- including going as far as banning Windows 8 on government computers lest machines furnished with Microsoft's most recent operating system be used for spying on the People's Republic of China. Now it looks as though Russia could be going down a similar route.
Russian parliament has just passed a law that requires internet companies to store data about Russian citizens within the county's boundaries. The move can be viewed in a couple of ways. It is no secret that the Russian government, and Vladimir Putin in particular, is no fan of social media -- social networks were used by Russians to voice their disapproval at Putin's activities. It is thought that the move to contain citizen's data without Russia is a bid to create a Russian version of China's closed internet.
The revelations about Facebook's emotional experiment with users' newsfeeds back in 2012 has seen the social network fighting off a torrent of criticism. Users were upset to learn that the content of their newsfeed may have been manipulated as researchers tried to determine the effects exposure to positive and negative newsfeed content had on users' subsequent output. Now an official complaint has been lodged against the social network by thee Electronic Privacy Information Center. Epic filed a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission, alleging that "the company purposefully messed with people’s minds".
There are several lines of attack in the complaint, but the main thrust is that Facebook neither obtained permission from the 700,000 affected users, nor informed them about what was happening. Epic also complains that Facebook failed to warn users that their data would be shared with researchers at Cornell University and the University of California. The complaint points out that "at the time of the experiment, Facebook was subject to a consent order with the Federal Trade Commission which required the company to obtain users' affirmative express consent prior to sharing user information with third parties".
We looked yesterday at the ten most serious security breaches of recent years, but the threat landscape is constantly changing. So what will happen in the future and which threats should we be most concerned about?
A new report by PewResearch, as part of its series marking 25 years of the internet, looks at how things might be in 2025. More than 1,400 experts in various fields were canvassed for their views on future threats.