Firesheep, a Firefox add-on released on Sunday is attempting to create awareness about current internet privacy issues by allowing the average internet user to abuse insecure networks. According to TechCrunch, Firesheep allows users to use any open Wi-Fi network to capture other users cookies to masquerade as the user when they access unsecured sites. Social networking has become the obvious target, with Facebook and Twitter being the top two. Among others are the popular Gowalla and Foursquare, Amazon.com, bit.ly, CNET, Evernote, Flickr, Github, Google, Windows Live, NY Times, tumblr, WordPress, and Yahoo.

Creator Eric Butler argues he created the plug-in as a way to promote awareness, according to his blog:

Websites have a responsibility to protect the people who depend on their services. They’ve been ignoring this responsibility for too long, and it’s time for everyone to demand a more secure web. My hope is that Firesheep will help the users win.

Unusually, the coverage and uproar about this development has been remarkably understated. The argument has been limited to those who already understand security controls, or the lack thereof, and are therefore unaffected. Social media coverage has been demur, though it has been rumored that Facebook blocked any links referencing Firesheep.

The lack of public interest, even fear about this add-on seems to establish we are either so desensitized that people are unenthusiastic, or that we’ve reached a point that we accept the current lack of privacy on the sites we visit. Neither are production options. Thanks to open accessibility to the code, anyone can modify the extension for other, possibly more sensitive sites such as student accounts or other email accounts. It’s not any more effective for people to be petrified to ever open up a laptop at a Starbucks again, but we still need to be cognizant of the dangers when we do. Awareness is not about having to boycott social media or completely ignore the privacy issues, it’s about what you perceive to be the value of your information. A comment in response to Eric Butler regarding Firesheep put it simply:

Whether you should lock something and how secure you make it isn’t a binary decision – it depends on the value of the thing you’re protecting and the likelihood of an attack.

For those who want to safeguard their information on unsecured networks for the time being, try the Force TLS 2.0 add-on for Firefox to prevent from unknowingly (or knowingly) stumbling upon unsecured sites, and adding additional security protocols on those unsecured sites.

Privacy and the Internet Photo via FlowingData
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Net neutrality isn’t a new argument, and neither was this PSA Google put out about the issue. However, it is important to remember how little has been actually been achieved.

Not long ago, it was a battle of Google against Verizon, AT&T and the other big network companies. It seemed that just maybe, in this instance, the actual people could win, thanks to having Google’s protection and support. We were hopeful, inspired, and felt safe. In August of this year, Google changed its tune by creating an agreement with Verizon that underhandedly gives over control of the internet to the major corporations, called the Verizon-Google Legislative Framework Proposal. It’s painfully vague with enough loopholes to make it utterly inefficient. For example, on discrimination:

Non-Discrimination Requirement: In providing broadband Internet access service, a provider would be prohibited from engaging in undue discrimination against any lawful Internet content, 
application, or service in a manner that causes meaningful harm to competition or to users. 
Prioritization of Internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination 
standard, but the presumption could be rebutted.

The whole article is along this grain: that everything will be free and open but they can choose at their own discretion when they don’t want it to be free and open to everyone. The Huffington Post summarized the document most poignantly:

This is the proverbial toll road on the information superhighway, a fast lane reserved for the select few, while the rest of us are stuck on the cyber-equivalent of a winding dirt road.

What is disappointing is how understated the arguments for and against net neutrality actually are. It has become an almost taboo trigger word, a hot button for tech-minded folks but seemingly untouchable and uninteresting for the average internet user. Whether you choose to be for or against net neutrality, without education on the topic we’re unable to actually make any decision on an incredibly important topic. Whether you use the internet for research, pleasure, or business, this argument effects you more than most people realize.

As we wait for the FCC to either hold their ground or bow to the will of the major corporations, make a personal decision, and be part of a solution. As someone who lives and works on the internet, I value the internet as a manifest of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. In August John Stewart of the Daily Show asked Google to stand up for their initial promise to “not be evil” and embrace all the new Amazons and Googles as they emerge, instead of fearing them. In a technological horizon, competition will be what propels us forward, assuming we have the freedom to do so. MC Seigler of TechCrunch agrees:

Net neutrality is great, but the FCC needs to do exactly what the cable and phone companies don’t want them to do: create more competition in the market. If there’s true competition, net neutrality would be less of an issue because people would just switch to a different provider if the one they’re on tries to block certain sites, or throttles others. Unfortunately, right now, consumers can’t do that because ISPs have monopolies in many areas of the country.

We’ve been in a bit of a lull waiting for the FCC to step up the plate. The glimmer of hope in this debate is that Google and Verizon don’t make the laws, they just propose them. There is still opportunity for us to voice our thoughts on the issue and be more active citizens in a digital age.

 

The State of The Internet

October 26, 2010

A recent investigation by The Wall Street Journal revealed another breach in Facebook privacy thanks to popular applications such as Farmville, Causes, Mafia Wars and Quiz Planet. With Zynga’s Farmville having 59.4 million users alone, this revelation certainly hasn’t done much for Facebook’s already bad track record for user privacy. The WSJ study detailed for the first time, how exactly individual information is being transmitted:

The information being transmitted is one of Facebook’s basic building blocks: the unique “Facebook ID” number assigned to every user on the site. Since a Facebook user ID is a public part of any Facebook profile, anyone can use an ID number to look up a person’s name, using a standard Web browser, even if that person has set all of his or her Facebook information to be private. For other users, the Facebook ID reveals information they have set to share with “everyone,” including age, residence, occupation and photo

While in theory this couldn’t have too poor effect, companies such as RapLeaf in San Fransisco have proved how dangerous even that bit of information can be. RapLeaf, like many others, compiles and sells profiles of individuals based off of individuals by their comprehensive online history. This means that the “ID number” system that Facebook has in place is practically useless against companies like RapLeaf finding the missing pieces to your identity.

However, what the WSJ has revealed is nothing we didn’t already know, and it’s not entirely Facebook’s fault. As Gigaom points out, many companies and media (including the Wall Street Journal) sell information about their subscribers to third parties with similar goals to RapLeaf, who in turn sell it to marketing and ad agencies.

Social networking has completely redefined what one considers privacy, both from social and corporate spheres, and everyone is pointing the finger at someone else. As individuals we blame the corporations, the corporations blame the third parties, the third parties blame the marketers and the marketers blame the individuals. Modern privacy must achieve certain objectives so that everyone can stop blaming and feeling threatened.

1. Accountability of the Creator

Both the creator of the information, i.e. the Facebook or Google user is accountable for the information they put online, and the ripple effect that may have, personally or otherwise. We must recognize that if we take part in the online social network we run the risk of anyone finding out information that perhaps we would not share otherwise. Similarly, we are responsible for choosing to skim over privacy agreements for the sake of convenience. If we want more security over our online information, take control. Read the privacy agreements, read the updates. Change your settings to suit your comfort. Applications like Privacy Check give you a score on how secure your Facebook profile is, and if you type http://graph.facebook.com/user-id (replacing “user-id” with the username of any user you can find out exactly what information Facebook is releasing about you. Here’s mine, username “creativetaboo”:

{
   "id": "1149750692",
   "name": "Madelynn Martiniu00e8re",
   "first_name": "Madelynn",
   "last_name": "Martiniu00e8re",
   "gender": "female",
   "locale": "en_US"
}

2. Accountability of the Corporation

It is the responsibility of the company (i.e. Facebook, Google or RepLeaf) to provide easily accessible information on privacy. If it is as big of a concern to the general public as it has proven to be, the information on privacy needs to be at the top of the Terms of Service, not all the way at the bottom, as it so often is. Similarly, if a user chooses to change their privacy settings for any reason, instructions should be easily available and it should be simple to understand. The corporation does not get to wipe out existing changes to user-chosen privacy settings every time there is an update.

3. Equality

If a user wants to participate in a network but does not wish to participate in sharing their information to companies or social networks, they should be allowed to do so. No application or corporation should be able to only allow users to access their service if they relinquish control to their privacy. There are far too many applications that won’t allow a user to activate them without letting them access your information and provide it to third parties.

4. Anonymity

Corporations should be able to find a way to collect data while still allowing users to have some semblance of anonymity. The little information Facebook has on me has made me a demographic number rather than an individual, and I prefer to keep it that way. Companies like RepLeaf that have the ability to cross reference that information with my search history, and more specific data collected over my span of accessing the internet allows companies not only to know that I exist, but can create a detailed profile of my personality. This breaches a line from indirect advertising to direct advertising; as companies are no longer targeting my demographic, but what they have collected about my online personality. To breach anonymity into direct advertising can quickly turn social networking into a hostile landscape bombarded by sales.

In conclusion, these online “privacy scares” will continue to happen, and not just with Facebook, and we’ve yet to see any substantial number of people boycott social networking as a result. All companies involved obviously have something to work on, but so do the individuals voluntarily participating in the internet. Just as an individual would protect themselves from viruses on their computer, or choose different personas to portray to certain people, these are both skills that need to be reminders for all those who enter the murky waters of privacy online.

Photo by Picasa user Jeff Reitler under Creative Commons License

Evernote announced today that it has raised $20 million to expand features and ultimately boost the number of paying members for its product. According to Gigaom, Evernote has created 4.7 million users of the application in two and a half years, thanks to desktop applications and mobile devices, and has been adding 10,000 new customers a day over the last two months alone. As someone who only recently heard about Evernote, those numbers are overwhelming and curious. Gigaom places the success of Evernote in converting non-paying users such as myself into paying members on the freemium model, known to be successful with cloud-based services such as Dropbox.

Evernote isn’t a new application, nor is the concept of cloud-based note-taking. But Evernote has seamlessly integrated all of it’s uses with online, desktop, and mobile applications, and with the addition of the Trunk – a host of hardware and applications that easily integrate with Evernote make it much more successful than other similar software and applications. Lifehacker makes a good case for Evernote’s triumph over many other cloud-based note applications.

A universal capture application is only as good as its ability to catch information no matter where you are and what you’re doing. With support for accessing and adding notes from your cellphone, through any web browser, or through the desktop version, the most popular note-taking applicationEvernote is perhaps the closest option to a true universal capture tool available next to plain old pen and paper.

Between articles, reviews, and my own preliminary experimentation with Evernote, I’ve yet to be entirely convinced, but there are some key features that Evernote does better than most. what are the features that make Evernote

1.Evernote allows you to capture virtually anything, on any platform.

Evernote is the most fully integrated universal capture tool I’ve yet to come across. Too many are based on just one operating system, or web browser to be truly effective. For example, as effective and streamline as MobileMe is, despite claims that it does work with PC it ultimately is meant to work more efficiently with Mac, and only Apple mobile devices. Bookmarks work equally as well with Firefox as Safari, and equally for Windows and Mac (I’ve yet to see much about Linux). Similarly on the Mobile front, there is rave reviews for iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile.

2. Evernote supports both advanced tagging and advanced searching

One of the features I fell in love with immediately when I got my first Mac was Spotlight, and it is by far the most used feature on my computer to this day. Similarly, the advanced tagging feature of Del.ici.ous Bookmarks made me an easy convert. Evernote combines these two features by allowing users to effortlessly tag every note, clipping and picture they create or upload. In return, Evernote makes it incredibly simple to then search the tags you have created to find specific information.

3. Evernote optimizes your handwritten notes

Evernote’s ability to recognize text in images – i.e read my shoddy handwriting is an incredible tool for those of us who still take handwritten notes from time to time. I’ll often get crazy with an idea on a pad of paper, and dread transcribing it on the computer later. Not only will this do a good job of transcribing hand-writing, it also becomes another set of searchable tags to easily access later. This, in conjunction with tools like Livescribe make it a great multi-media note-taking tool for a variety of situations.

I’m not an easy convert, but Evernote definitely has proven to be a great introduction to universal capture for those who have yet to experience its functionality. For informationphiles like myself though, Evernote still runs the risk of becoming more of a mind-dump hub than an actual organization tool. I have high hopes for Evernote’s development and growth with this new funding.

Photo from Flickr user verbeedlingskr8 under Creative Commons license.

This is a capture of my ideas so far, thanks to Bubbl.us. Please don’t steal this for your own use.

With all my ranting and raving about open source education, an interesting concept struck me. In another one of my debates with myself of the worth of an university education for someone who believes in completely redefining educational values, I finally came to the conclusion that I would stay. Like so many others, while I know I could do okay without the degree, in a failing economy I don’t want to be unable to find a job in an emergency because I don’t have that piece of paper.

I also began thinking about how many smart, bright, young people are in unusual educational situations, whether of their own choosing or circumstance. I have friends that have recently graduated and regretted going through college so fast, those who work full time while going to school, who’ve dropped out and done wonderful things, and others who dropped out and didn’t do so well. Those who traveled, who changed their major 12 times, who transferred from a private, expensive school to community college. These people have chosen to adapt a disorganized school system to fit their needs, whatever they may be.

When I first heard about life hacking site Hack College, I thought it was about ways to adapt the university system to get what you want out of it. While I am an avid reader of the blog, I was disappointed to find out how little there was on the subject. Most books, even, are for the entering freshman, and are more about being an adult and how to study for tests than how to make decisions about what you want out of college, to inspire people that they can do more, and to reassure them that other people are as frustrated as them.

So here’s my next project. In a changing horizon of experts and amateurs, let’s give students the opportunity to test the boundaries of the American educational system to see how much they can, or can’t do. Let’s mind hack the universities to give students a less black and white view of what “getting a degree” means, why you don’t have to go by the book and find out why most universities won’t let change happen.

Making Money on Blogs

October 12, 2010

I’ve been reoccurring curious as to how so many of the bloggers I follow, even those of a less “professional” caliber make money. There is a misconception I found about the possible monetary gains of blogging that says either you make no money off of your blog, or you must sell your soul to the ad companies to make it worthwhile. While I’ve seen both, it would seem there are ways to make money off of your blog, with a little bit of work and dedication. This will begin a series of articles on steps to marketing your blog for profit. I’ll be testing some of the suggestions on a new blog project for university students coming soon.

To begin, what is very much stressed at the introduction of all the articles about blogging for profit is to understand your own goals. There are people who blog for profit (myself as one of them), but those articles are not the same as what I put on my own blog, though there is overlap in article content. What we are covering, however, is using your blog for profit, whether using an existing blog or creating a new one.

It is important to be realistic, if not almost cynical about this process for it to work. Though there are an amazing amount of ways to make profit on blogs, most of the suggestions won’t make enough to matter on their own, but combined they can come out to something. Could it come out to a hefty sum? It’s possible, but you are competing in a heck of a crowd. As the blurb on ProBlogger says:

Whether it be to earn a few extra dollars a week to feed their coffee habit, or making enough money to stop them having to get a part time job to get through college, or whether they’ve got it to a point where they are able to make a full time living from their blogging – there are tens of thousands of bloggers who make money blogging.

Darren Rouse’s article on the same site has a list of rules to wake up the dreaming blogger who thinks they’ll make a ton.

1. It takes a concerted long term effort

2. It takes luck

3. It takes a lot of work

4. Many don’t make much money blogging

5. It’s hard.

So after all that tough news, why try? It’s the key question that needs to be addressed before even starting to look at marketing, ads, selling links, and all the rest.  From the articles I read, it would seem that the majority of those who start blogging specifically to make profit, fail. It’s those who started making no money, but did it anyways because they loved the subject and were passionate about getting the information to the general public who have the drive and patience to actually make money off of this endeavor.

The blog I’ll be starting isn’t for profit, but I think it has a more realistic chance of getting a lot of people interested, and wanting to be connected. Will I continue if it doesn’t pay? Of course. But with all that I’ve learned and continue to learn, why not use this as an opportunity?

 

Perhaps the most important part of the previously discussed Local East Village project is the vastly understated Virtual Assignment Desk application that made its debut with the project. Made by students at New York University, it is essentially a WordPress plugin that enables the users with a seamless interface to interact in the process for picking, producing and shaping news journalism. Users of the Assignment Desk can point to stories they find particularly interesting or important for someone to cover, or can volunteer to cover the story themselves. Those who don’t want to write stories can vote for suggested stories.

This technology is still in constant development, but they’ve been updating to a new version quite consistently. The feedback forums are full of suggestions and bug fixes, all of which have been addressed in a timely manner. The description on the WordPress Plugin Directory says:

Assignment Desk hopes bring any community member into the story production process in a structured way. But it could also be used to manage a large staff of professional or semi-pro contributors and distribute assignments to them, while permitting them to suggest ideas, as well.

The larger implication of this interface is vastly underwhelmed in this statement, though it still holds that glimmer of possibility. While the LEV project may not last, Assignment Desk has vast potential to redesign how online journalism is currently presented.

An interesting journalism experiment has caused some recent buzz, for better or for worse, on matters of journalism ethics, blogging, and student labor. The Local East Village, or LEV is a collaborative project launched by The New York Times and the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University to cover the East Village borough of New York City. It is presented as an innovative experiment to change the way that journalism can, and should be taught, in an age where such specifications as majors in “print” journalism are leading students to an increasingly obsolete job market. According to the website, the project is defined as such:

The site is designed to reflect our community, report on its issues and concerns, give voice to its people in a wide-reaching online public forum and create a space for our neighbors to tell stories about themselves.

We hope, too, to provide innovation: For years now the lines between those who produce news and those who consume it have become increasingly blurred. And so we hope to bring our readers even more into the process of producing news in ways that few other sites have tried before.

NYU isn’t the first to use this model, either. Ryherson University in Dundas Square, Toronto has created the Digital Media Zone as a tool for motivated students to build their entrepreneurship skills and create innovative new ideas. Says the website:

…the Zone is an incubator that offers workspace, equipment, utilities and services to help further develop your business plan, to network and to showcase your projects. This means significantly reduced start-up costs so that you, the entrepreneur, can focus on getting your product or service out the door.

Sounds familiar. Like a hackerspace(.edu), perhaps? Matthew Ingram got it right in his Gigaom article “Helping Journalists Become Hackers and Entrepreneurs”, but that’s no surprise. While inspirational, LEV is full of lofty goals for a news organization that is in a perpetual hiring freeze, and like so many other classic media organizations, struggling to keep monetary gain high enough to provide substantial income. It provides a good framework for redefining journalistic education for different media and a modern readership, by focusing students on building their tech savvy and encouraging entrepreneurship, all the while still teaching classic interview etiquette and writing skills. For all its promise, there are too many bitter edges to make it a true success. One, it’s placed in an area that is already frustrating local media with a lack of interesting material, according to Laura Kusisto in a New York Observer article. Second are the poignant conversation starters from an online article from The Awl regarding the ethics of using free student labor to keep a failing news media afloat, while continuing to give students hope that their over-priced journalism school degree will lad to a financially stable lifestyle.

Regardless of the negative commentary, it’s a trend to watch. Though the New Jersey equivalent has already failed, LEV is still up and running with content uploaded daily. The writing of the articles are strong, as should be expected from a team of undergraduate and graduate students and NYU, but the content seems stale. New York is a vibrant city with so many undiscovered stories, and it takes just one talented writer to begin to bring them to life. Though the LEV project may be short lived, it has created the opportunity to revitalize inspiration and innovation in online journalism, all the while promoting the downfall of the traditional newspaper empire.

Photo from Flickr user matt.hintsa under Creative Commons license.