On the internet, *everyone* knows you’re a dog

Paul Raven @ 07-05-2009

social network analysisWell, maybe not everyone – but some clever types from the University of Austin have determined that even when your social networking data is divorced from your identity, it’s a relatively easy job to do some analysis and fit the names to the profiles.

In tests involving the photo-sharing site Flickr and the microblogging service Twitter, the Texas researchers were able to identify a third of the users with accounts on both sites simply by searching for recognizable patterns in anonymized network data. Both Twitter and Flickr display user information publicly, so the researchers anonymized much of the data in order to test their algorithms.

The researchers wanted to see if they could extract sensitive information about individuals using just the connections between users, even if almost all of the names, addresses, and other forms of personally identifying information had been removed. They found that they could, provided they could compare these patterns with those from another social-network graph where some user information was accessible.

The prime appeal of that data is, of course, the ability to use it for targeting advertising over the most desirable demographics – which, for many people, is objectionable in and of itself. More worrying is the potential for unearthing data that –  under a restrictive regime, for example – could be used to persecute or criminalise:

For example, the algorithm could theoretically employ the names of a user’s favorite bands and concert-going friends to decode sensitive details such as sexual orientation from supposedly anonymized data. Acquisti believes that the result paints a bleak picture for the future of online privacy. “There is no such thing as complete anonymity,” he says. “It’s impossible.”

Leaving the risks aside for the moment, though, this research has produced some rather fascinating insights into the nature of social networks and human behaviour as a unique identifier:

“The structure of the network around you is so rich, and there are so many different possibilities, that even though you have millions of people participating in the network, we all end up with different networks around us,” says Shmatikov. “Once you deal with sufficiently sophisticated human behavior, whether you’re talking about purchases people make or movies they view or – in this case – friends they make and how they behave socially, people tend to be fairly unique. Every person does a few quirky, individual things which end up being strongly identifying.

I wonder if the open-source argument about security would apply here? Open software advocates say that having the source code out in the open means that everyone can work on making a program more secure and efficient, rather than just the developers and the crackers; should these analysis methods be made public so we can keep up in the arms race with the snoops and marketeers? [image by luc legay]

What’s almost certain, though, is what any good security expert will have been saying all along – if you’re even slightly worried about something about you becoming public knowledge, assuming you can put it somewhere on the web and keep it private is an act of uninformed delusion. If you want to keep your privacy, it’s down to you to do it.


Online democracy and the tyranny of the minority

Paul Raven @ 06-05-2009

The internet is the greatest potential enabler of genuine direct democracy ever, right? Well, not necessarily.

David Adams at OS News points out that recent high-profile gaming and crashing of internet polls (most notably the pwnzorage of Time Magazine by the 4chan hordes) should be taken as a caution; online direct democracy opens the gates to the tyranny of the minority, he says.

One of the dangers of direct democracy has always been that the majority of people can band together to persecute an individual or smaller group using legitimate voting, such as voting for confiscatory taxes on a wealthy individual, or restricting the civil rights of a minority ethnic group. This is called “tyranny of the majority.” That’s why no country practices direct democracy. There always needs to be a constitution to enumerate essential rights, a court to ensure that the constitution is obeyed, and a representative structure such as a legislature to insulate the nation’s laws from the whims of the voters. A tyranny of the minority is when a vote is open to anyone, but because not enough people are engaged politically, or not enough people know about it, a small group can organize itself to make a surprise assault on the poll and exert disproportionate influence.

Hmmm. Surely those marginalised by said poll would hence become more aware of the potential for engagement with the system as a result? And if the barriers to participation are so low, surely they’d be unlikely to be trounced the same way twice? But back to Adams:

… let’s assume for a moment that we could come up with a system that only allowed for legitimate votes, and we could have 100% confidence in that fact. Let’s assume that this system enabled votes to be easy to cast and easy to count. This system would probably work fine for big, high-profile elections like the presidency and congress, because the candidates and the parties are already doing everything they can to mobilize their troops to vote for their person. Where the tyranny of the minority would come into play would be the smaller races, such as school board, county sheriff, and other local ballots. These are races that are much more easily swayed by an organized group that represents a small minority of the voters but can swing the vote their direction if they’re determined enough. This is something that happens already every election, with manual voting, but with electronic voting, it would happen much more. I’m afraid that with remote e-voting, coupled with every more useful and popular regional and local social networks, Stephen Colbert would win every election in the country.

Frankly, looking at the roster of self-serving chumps we call a government here in the UK, I’m not entirely certain having Colbert in power for a while wouldn’t at least be a refreshing change, if not a political and historical turning point. I can see where Adams is going with this, but I’m a great believer in the old saw that every generation gets the government it deserves, with the corollary that we’re currently governed by shysters because we left the door wide open to them.

Maybe the early years of a direct and participatory democracy would usher in some terrible single-interest wackadoos and bigots (though I’m not entirely sure how much difference we’d notice), but I think it would also make everyone else think “well, if it’s that easy to get someone elected, we’ll give ’em a run for their money next time round”. End result – a more engaged electorate using a more democratic system. And while that’s admittedly a blue-sky scenario, I think it acts as a balance to Adams’ pessimism; it’s too early to write off the potential of the internet to reinvigorate democratic processes just because a few magazines and websites got chumped by script-kids. [via SlashDot]


A more honest and open society?

Tom James @ 15-04-2009

networkPaul Carr hits the nail on the head concerning the ongoing hysteria amongst many mainstream journos as to the relevance of Twitter, social networking et al to political culture:

…every time a scandal emerges involving the technology – be it McBride’s email or American teenagers ‘sexting‘ naked photos to each other, we hear the same crap from journalists – that the web, and email and mobile phones are making everyone behave in scandalous ways they never did before. If that’s true then I have some amazing YouTube footage of a bear shitting in the woods, which I found next to a damning video of the Pope taking communion.

The only difference between the way humans have been behaving badly for years, and how they behave badly in the internet age is the fact that now there’s always someone else watching.

And that seems to be the key point that politicians and more traditional media sources seem to have yet to properly absorb.

As networked recording devices become ubiquitous we’re going to have to learn to deal with a reduction in personal privacy. Further Carr adds:

…as a generation grows up that has never known true privacy, things will start to change. And they’ll change for the better.

This is something that’s been bothering me recently: like many people I’ve always had the vague idea I can be one person online and another in real life. This idea, however, is false. My generation and every generation hence will go through life leaving a sticky trail of hyperlinks, tweets, and FaceBook photos; an online miasma that everyone will possess and everyone will have to accept.

As privacy is reduced maybe prurient voyeurism and hypocrisy will also diminish. Part of the enjoyment of gossip is the secretive aspect of it: but if everything about everyone is out in the open then there will be no need to fear slur and innuendo.

So maybe the rise of ubiquitous recording and surveillance will lead to a more caring, more honest, and less hypocritical society?

[Paul Carr in The Guardian][image from jonbell has no h on flickr]


O NOES teh webz iz infantilizin yr brainz (yes, again)

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2009

A bearded man infantilizing himself yesterdayIf you’re anything like me, you’ve probably never heard of Lady Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, and director of the Royal Institution. But Lady Greenfield knows all about you, and how your use of social networking sites and computer games is contributing to the ongoing infantilization of the 21st Century psyche:

Arguing that social network sites are putting attention span in jeopardy, she said: “If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention-deficit disorder.

“It might be helpful to investigate whether the near total submersion of our culture in screen technologies over the last decade might in some way be linked to the threefold increase over this period in prescriptions for methylphenidate, the drug prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

[Emphasis mine – try playing the same game with the whole of Lady Greenfield’s output, kids! Should keep your attention for twenty seconds at least.]

Will no one think of the children? God only knows that when a generation grows up with things that its elders didn’t have, the fate of the human race is bound to take a turn for the worse. Just look at the pernicious long-term effects of the printing press, the germ theory of medicine, radio and popular music, and (of course) television… [image by jmr_photo]

It’s unfortunate that we’re so hard-wired for fearing change – no new technology has managed to erase that little character trait yet, it seems. As always, the TechDirt boys do a great job of shredding this week’s sensationalist backlash against Twitter:

It’s pretty clear that none of these folks have ever really used Twitter — because they all seem to interpret it as being a broadcast mechanism, rather than a conversational one. This isn’t to say that Twitter is right for everyone, but most of the people who find value in it, find value in the conversational aspect of it, not that it “broadcasts” mundane facts of their lives. […] There are still plenty of people who hate Twitter, but it’s difficult to take seriously people complaining about it when it seems quite clear they’ve never even bothered to use it.

Quite – now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to post a few naked pictures of myself to Lady Greenfield’s MySpace page. LOLZ


42Blips – do you digg science fiction?

Paul Raven @ 22-09-2008

Via Tobias Buckell (who got an early beta invitation, don’tcha know) comes news of 42Blips, a community bookmarking site that aims to bring the functionality of Digg to the sphere of science fiction.

42Blips logo

Having taken a look, the first of my fears was allayed – there are actually quite a few front-page stories about sf books and writers, as well as the inevitable TV show puff-pieces. However, there haven’t been many votes cast yet, so all that could change… which brings me to my second concern, which is whether or not science fiction is a big enough community to sustain (or even need) a project like 42Blips. It’s not like online fandom isn’t pretty close-knit already, AMIRITE?

But hey, that’s for fandom to determine, not me – so go take a look if you fancy it. Just one request – don’t turn it into the sort of puerile fool-fest that Digg itself has become, PLS? KTHXBAI.