Archive for June, 2013

Anyone feel a chill in here?

June 23, 2013 4 comments

I was about to follow a socialist acquaintance on Twitter this afternoon, and hesitated for a second. It wasn’t rational–it was just a feeling: Is this smart? Is someone watching who is watching radical people?

My own politics are pretty moderate, bordering on boring–I try to see both sides of issues. But I love far left folks–they make me think. And it appalls me that I hesitated with the “follow” button. This is the chilling effect of indiscriminate surveillance.

Categories: privacy, social computing

What does it mean to stay in touch with everyone?

June 21, 2013 3 comments

I backpacked around Europe the summer after I finished college.  On a tour of the catacombs in Rome, the tour guide stopped in a room full of skeletons to slowly and ponderously pronounce:

The early Christians came here not just to be with their dead but also to be with one another. Because as we Christians know, it’s not just the community of the living or the community of the dead, but one community, the community of God.

At that moment, the guy behind me snorted.  He was trying not to laugh, but he couldn’t contain it any longer.  I liked him immediately.  And we spent the next couple days together, exploring Rome.  He was a motorcycle biker from Australia.

I thought of that story today because my friend Clara Fernandez posted on Facebook about how much she enjoyed the sewer tour of Vienna.  And it occurred to me that if Facebook had existed in 1987 when I was in that catacomb, I would likely still be in touch with my biker friend–we’d be Facebook friends and would have kept in casual touch with one another’s lives all this time.  What does it mean to keep a link to everyone you ever had any kind of meaningful contact with?

Actually, it’s remarkable that I’m still in touch with Clara. She was a graduate student at Georgia Tech many years ago.  Thanks to Facebook, I know about her cool new job. And about her vacation with the cool sewer tour.  And I’ve been playing a casual game lately, Candy Crush Saga, which as I complete a level shows me Clara’s photo, because the score she got on that level is inevitably higher than mine.  So I have an odd sort of sense that we’re hanging out together.  I wonder if anyone who is a few levels behind me has a sense that they’re hanging out with me.

Still being in touch with Clara, even just to exchange quick updates, is a positive addition to my life.  Would still being in touch with my Australian biker friend be positive?  We have much less in common I’m sure.  But a connection to someone with a totally different life might be interesting.  Though I have tons of Facebook “friends” I don’t actually remember and some I never knew.  Is there a point at which the sum of it all is just too much? Does having too many trivial connections dilute the value of connections that could be more meaningful?

If we met in a catacomb in 1987, please do drop me an email!

Categories: Uncategorized

A Targeted Ad on Social Media that Worked!

In an imagined happy future, targeted advertising brings you what you want when you want it, alerting you to quality products and services you actually need.  It’s a win-win—the consumer is happy, the vendor is happy, and the social media sites that made the targeting possible are happy. But it’s not working quite like that yet, is it? 

Several weeks ago I went shopping for a new clock for my office and my kitchen.  I made my purchases.  And the next day my Facebook page was still covered in clock ads.  The sites I was shopping on (Amazon and Etsy) shared the fact that I was interested in clocks with Facebook (probably through ‘cookies’—little pieces of information stored by the sites I accessed on my computer.)  It’s weeks later, and I am still getting clock ads.  I have never been less likely to buy a clock—I just bought two.  

Or take the case of my son’s bathing suit.  We bought him a matching bathing suit and swim shirt a few months ago, and got the suit one size too small.  It fit him in March, but doesn’t still fit him now in June.  Ooops.  The top still fits, so a couple days ago I went on the Gymboree website to see if we could get him the bottom a size bigger.  Unfortunately, they’re out of his size.  Ah well.  But a picture of that bathing suit is still showing up as my top ad on Facebook.  I think it’s taunting me. Image

When you think of the data and social subtlety required to solve these problems, it seems like a daunting task.  OK, the first one might not be so bad—maybe if someone actually completed a clock purchase, the system should infer that they might not be interested in more clocks?  But it’s hard to fathom how they could solve the bathing suit case.  From the data trail I left, it looks like I might be interested in that suit but hesitated.  The idea of a system that would have enough data to solve the problem is frightening.  A system that knows the browsing was for my son and not for a gift, and knows my son’s correct size? I can’t always get his size right myself.

So it was with genuine appreciation that earlier this week I realized I had received a social media ad that worked—it was what I wanted, when I wanted it.  PhD student Casey Fiesler posted on her Facebook page several weeks ago that she recommends the book Ready Player One.  She said it was the first good cyberpunk she’d read since Snowcrash.  She included a link to the book on Amazon.  I had a look, and decided to buy it.  It is quite possibly the geekiest piece of media in any form I have ever encountered—and I loved it.  It’s a page turner. 

What I didn’t realize until this week is that it was not entirely accidental that I saw it in Casey’s Facebook newsfeed.  Facebook offers ‘promoted posts’—you can pay a few dollars to increase the chance that your friends will see something you post.  If you have more than a few Facebook friends, you likely are seeing only a fraction of what your friends are posting. The algorithm that determines what you see and don’t is proprietary.  Did Casey pay to promote her post?  Of course not.  Amazon did.  Amazon is paying Facebook to raise the profile of postings that include URLs to products on their site.  My friend genuinely recommended that book to me—Amazon just helped make sure I saw it. Violá—a targeted ad that made everyone happy!  I hope they invent more clever techniques for win-win advertising.

Sean Munson points out that this technique results in people seeing links to Amazon products with joke reviews over and over. Some people post links to products just because the reviews are funny–like the infamous Bic for Her pen reviews, where one review was found helpful by currently over 31,000 people. But I saw that post so many times that it became maddening. Two key points: 1) There is such a thing as over-promoting, and 2) Social subtlety is hard!

The Sexism of the Stay-at-Home Mom

June 12, 2013 7 comments

I was walking my first grader into elementary school a couple months ago, when one of the other mothers said to me as we passed (with comically exaggerated intonation):

I was just saying to Susie—“Evan’s Mom is here—what a suuuuurprise!”

This was months ago, and I’m still replaying it in my head.  If I have a sensitive spot, she found it and jumped up and down on it with both feet. 

In general I feel like I’ve experienced less sexism than I expected in life.  But the sexism that has caught me by surprise is the sexism of a certain class of wealthy stay-at-home moms.

I wish I had more time to volunteer at our school.  Our elementary school is excellent, and a great part of the reason why is because of superb parent involvement, primarily by stay-at-home moms.  They invest tremendous amounts of time, and my children benefit from their efforts.  I appreciate their efforts, and feel guilty that I can’t contribute more. 

I have made different life choices, and I accept the tradeoffs involved.  My home is not as impeccably furnished or as neat.  My children are not as neatly dressed.  But I read to them more, and they’ve been taken to more museums than probably anyone you’ve met.  My time is tight, so I prioritize.

Notice that the sarcastic mom did not comment on the fact that my husband is rarely at school.  Nor are any of the fathers in our class.  They’re not expected to be.  They’ve got jobs, after all.  Well, I also have a job.  But somehow I’m expected to do everything the stay-at-home moms do and everything working dads do?  Really?  It’s not possible. Her sexism is so blatant and yet I’m sure she’s entirely unaware of it.

OK, I can tolerate a frosty attitude from a fellow parent—not a big deal.  But where it begins to bother me is that this negatively affects my children.  It turns out that the stay-at-home moms in my son’s class meet sometimes after school in the park—with a bottle of chardonnay on Fridays.  The moms chat, the kids play.  And they get to be friends.  And the moms who are friends arrange playdates for their kids on weekends.  So the children of stay-at-home moms get invited to playdates and birthday parties when the children of working moms get left out.  No one planned it that way, but that’s how it happens.  And the crazy thing is that who the children actually like and play with at recess has little to do with it—it’s all about which moms are friendly. 

To my working mom friends: Don’t let this catch you by surprise.

To my stay-at-home mom friends: Thank you for everything you do for our school!  It is sincerely appreciated.  I respect your choices, and I hope you will make a bit more effort to understand and respect mine.

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Checks and Balances on Surveillance of US Citizens: The Role of Watchdog Organizations

June 10, 2013 1 comment

The surveillance of US citizens by the US National Security Agency (NSA)’s PRISM program revealed in the media this week was reviewed and approved by a court (the FISA Court).  I’d like to know more about what kind of review that court actually conducts–do they automatically approve requests, or are requests given detailed scrutiny?  I’m skeptical that going on a fishing expedition through everyone’s data is wise–it seems like the antithesis of what was intended in our constitutional protections. But on the other hand, I’m somewhat comforted by the knowledge that at least some kind of court review took place.  The main safeguard of our liberty is the system of checks and balances between branches of government.  Today the ACLU published a nice blog post explaining why check and balances are the key issue in this controversy.

Are checks and balances functioning as intended?  And what about provisions of the USA Patriot Act like National Security Letters (NSLs) that circumvent checks and balances entirely?

A bit of historical context will help. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, we were left with a quandary: when is it OK to spy on people?  Clearly it’s not OK to spy on other political parties in the US, but what if we suspect someone is actually spying on us for a foreign power?  What if we want to spy on foreign powers? The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) set up rules, and created the FISA court to make decisions about where to draw the line.  FISA sets up checks and balances between branches of government–the judiciary (The FISA Court) oversees what the federal government and law enforcement are doing and helps them figure out what is allowable. The people going after the bad guys are expected to pursue their targets with maximum enthusiasm using every tool at their disposal, and the judiciary sets limits and helps them draw the line in an appropriate place. As far as I can tell, FISA did a nice job of balancing privacy and security.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the USA Patriot Act eroded that balance.  It is an enormous document that legislators literally could not have read before approving.  The time between introduction of the bill and congressional approval was too short for anyone to have even read it through once. Two areas are particularly concerning to me: National Security Letters and Section 215.

When the government issues a National Security Letter (NSL), it can obtain access to all of a person’s records of any kind, even if that person is not suspected of a crime.  The information merely needs to be declared relevant to an ongoing investigation of terrorism or espionage.  Anyone receiving a request for documents under this provision is barred from telling anyone–a “gag order.”  There is no court review.  In March 2013, in a case brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, NSLs were declared unconstitutional and the government was barred from enforcing gag orders on them.  This is just latest in a long series of legal battles, and an appeal of this decision is expected.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act modifies FISA to allow the FBI to request “books, records, papers, documents, and other items.”  Like NSLs, the materials merely need to be deemed relevant to an investigation–the targets need not be suspected of any crime.  Fortunately, section 215 requests do undergo judicial review. However, such requests are made ex parte–the person themselves is never notified of the request and has no opportunity to oppose it.  In 2003, the ACLU brought suit against the government on behalf of a Mosque in Michigan that believes its membership records had been obtained by these means.  Slate believes that section 215 has been used to authorize PRISM.

I give a lecture each year in my class CS4001 Computer, Society, and Professionalism on FISA and The USA Patriot Act.  And it’s a labor of love–I spend more time updating my notes for that class each year than for any other half a dozen classes combined.  This stuff is insanely complicated and confusing.  (And if there are experts who see any errors in what I’ve written, corrections are greatly appreciated!)  There are provisions of these acts that are important to our safety and security.  For example, wiretaps used to be restricted to a particular (land) phone line in a particular jurisdiction.  In the age of cheap disposable cell phones, The Patriot Act allows law enforcement to get a warrant to tap the phone of a particular individual, whatever phone they are using and wherever they are located.  That’s just common sense.  The USA Patriot Act is a complicated combination of essential tools to help law enforcement in their important job, and egregious erosions of our liberty.  In a 90-minute lecture I feel like I barely scratch the surface of the topic. Although I have been able to glean a bit by reading original legislation and court documents online, much of what I have able to figure out is thanks to documents posted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  They are both bringing lawsuits on the public’s behalf, and educating citizens about the issues.

If you care about these issues, please support EFF and the ACLU.  The defense of our liberty is supposed to be done by checks and balances between branches of government.  But since those checks are sometimes lacking, our nonprofit watchdog organizations have a key role to play.

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