My own Creepy Facebook Surveillance Moment

February 17th, 2019

I've heard any number of stories from people about creepy things Facebook or other ad systems have done. "I was talking about X with a friend, and that evening an ad for X popped up on a web page!" The insidious thing is that it *could* have just been coincidence. You can't prove anything.

Well, this week it happened to me, and I don't even use Facebook. I can't prove anything. But it's deeply disturbing. TL;DR: Blank Facebook account I opened 8.5 years ago and never used receives recommendation, out of the blue, to check out a small store I only just learned existed and started patronizing.

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We need GDPR in the US before Facebook dies

December 20th, 2018

Facebook is in hot water these days, as their lies unravel. Maybe—hopefully—this leads to their shutdown, and even to new privacy laws in the US like the EU's GDPR. But one problem occurs to me: We need a GDPR equivalent before Facebook dies.

Picture the alternative. Facebook is hemorrhaging users (to where, I don't know) because people have finally gotten fed up enough to explore the alternatives that have existed all along. Maybe some of the alternatives are even more ethical than Facebook. So far, so good. Facebook stock crashes, advertisers put their money elsewhere. Facebook's investors start knocking at the door: Where's their money?

There are few ways a dying Facebook could pay back their investors, and none of them are good. Outright selling the user data (rather than giving it away for favors, as we now know they have done.) And regardless of how poorly Facebook treats its users, I'm not willing to bet that Facebook is the worst possible holder of such detailed and sensitive user information.

I think the best scenario we can hope for is that GDPR gets adopted by the US with minimal changes, turning the screws on Facebook until it becomes valueless and the user data becomes toxic in the eyes of possible buyers. The investors lose their money, as well they should.

One can hope.

How can a privacy-positive social media site gain meaningful adoption?

August 18th, 2018

There is a fundamental tension when designing social media software with a focus on privacy: The more posts are set to friends-only access, the harder a time the network will have in gaining adoption.

Since social media to a large extent lives and dies by network effects, some combination of these are necessary to grow the network beyond a critical threshold and keep it lively. It must also stay reasonably competitive with other social media systems in attracting users. There are many reasons a person might choose to 1) create an account and 2) "friend" other users rather than sticking with what they already have:

  • Being encouraged to by their existing friends
  • To see what all the fuss is about (if it's in the news)
  • By seeing interesting posts by people they may or may not know

Privacy-positive social media software is by default at a disadvantage in the last category. How can it be made competitive with the likes of Twitter and Facebook without compromising on values? In this post, I consider the notion of "socially local privacy" as a partial solution to the discovery problem.

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Can we have online journaling while maintaining privacy?

November 27th, 2016

I've been blogging for over 11 years now, for better or worse. I cringe a bit when I look back at some of my older posts, but I'm loathe to delete them, because it's who I was then. I've also maintained a Livejournal (LJ) or Dreamwidth (DW) account for almost as long, where I've made posts of a more personal nature. How did I decide where to post, where the dividing line was? It came down to two things: 1) How personal the post was, and 2) where my intended audience was. Back in the mid-00's, many of my friends and acquaintances had public blogs, but were no on LJ. That meant that if I wanted them to know how I was doing, I had to post for the world to see, even if that meant future employers with boundary issues would see those posts out of context. As the blogosphere slowly deflated and I entered Boston-area social groups where LJ was more common, the choice became easier. Then Facebook rose to supremacy, and I chose not to jump off that particular bridge... but now it's much harder to have an online social life.

I really miss that, but Facebook is not an option. How can we return to the days of easy journaling? I'd like to lay out what I see as (a) central problem, then ask you for ideas in solving it.

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How to move personal publishing to the desktop

May 11th, 2011

You can do everything "in the cloud" these days, from blogging to posting photos to running servers. Most impressively, you can now also lose control of your files and personal information with unprecedented ease, or simply lose it, period. This is exactly the worst possible feature for the personal publishing use-cases of cloud computing. Possibly the most distressing aspect of cloud-based publishing is that it firmly designates the intangible network as the primary resting place of one's data. (I will note here that this aspect is itself what I am using to define "cloud computing" for the purposes of this blog post.) If the first place you put your creations is some hosted service on the great wide interwebs, you're playing with fire.

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