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Anonymous Buzzkill
February 18, 2010 1:05 PM   Subscribe

A worrisome set of posts from Princeton University's 'Freedom to Tinker" Blog:
In many situations, it may be far easier to unmask apparently anonymous online speakers than they, I, or many others in the policy community have appreciated. Today, I'll tell a story that helps explain what I mean. Second post: what BoingBoing knows about John Doe. Third, and most concerning post: The traceability of an online anonymous comment. Related post: a well researched review of the privacy concerns around the roll-out of, and push-back against, Google Buzz.
posted by Rumple (41 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great post.
posted by Damn That Television at 1:24 PM on February 18, 2010


and when you call someone a pig in Indonesia Matt doesn't just give you a time out, the authorities put you in jail (AskMen, not necessarily appropriate for work)
posted by caddis at 2:05 PM on February 18, 2010


I suppose the moral is: don't post defamatory stuff; or post it from an internet café you've never been to before; or post it from the computer of some luckless bastard who's left it unprotected. I wonder if that last possibility is adequately recognised in court.
posted by Phanx at 2:05 PM on February 18, 2010


On google Buzz and facebook's privacy issues, I think there's this trend of trying to 'tie together' all social media. Not because it adds value for the user, but because it ads value to the aggregator. Why on earth would we want to tie our real names to everything on the web? Yet, facebook is pushing it's logon as a single sign on, complete with your real name and (on the servers if not sent out) your whole friends list and everything about you.

Then you have Google trying to tie it's services together. That's great if it's a new service I havn't used before, but if it's something like youtube, well, why would I want people who know me to know every video I favorite or add to a playlist on youtube? Thankfully I was only given the option of linking my google and youtube accounts.

In my view a lot of the 'social consolidation' (as opposed to 'social media' in general) is incredibly stupidly implemented. I mean, these are incredibly intimate details of our lives, and the idea is to randomly take them and deliver them directly to the people who would be most interested (people who know you). Not because it's convent for you, but because it's essentially free content that they can monazite.

It really creates no value whatsoever for the user. With twitter the account is totally separate from your other accounts. You don't use your real name or anything like that. With facebook and Buzz they are tied to your real name and your pre-established online activities.

This is what happens when people try to create "services" that have nothing to do with actually providing value to the user, but are simply about trying to monetize people.
posted by delmoi at 2:08 PM on February 18, 2010 [11 favorites]


Google buzz slapped with class-action suit. Hell yeah.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:08 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


One option is to have a browser installed (Chrome for example) set to delete cookies after every session, set to run no scripts, and set to clear your history after every browsing session (or store no history to begin with). It is this browser that you would use, from open access public networks, for anything that might get you sued.

It's a fair bit of work, but too bad, and likely to succeed.
posted by oddman at 2:10 PM on February 18, 2010



Google buzz slapped with class-action suit. Hell yeah.


In addition to the ftc complaint the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed.
posted by cashman at 2:14 PM on February 18, 2010


It's a fair bit of work, but too bad, and likely to succeed.

Actually chrome has this "Incognito Mode" that basically, and just for that window cookies are deleted on exit. So you can browse the web normally with your cookies, but then also have another session going where everything is private.
posted by delmoi at 2:25 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is another reason I generally browse with privacy settings set to refuse 3rd party cookies.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:31 PM on February 18, 2010


The problem goes far beyond cookies as the blog posts explain - part of it is the customization of the URL to encapsulate your account ID or other information. There is also the question of browser fingerprinting:

Your browser fingerprint appears to be unique among the 647,809 tested so far.

Currently, we estimate that your browser has a fingerprint that conveys at least 19.31 bits of identifying information.

posted by Rumple at 2:37 PM on February 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


On the internet, everyone knows if you're a dog.
posted by dchase at 2:42 PM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


I feel better about using NoScript, Cookie Monster, BetterPrivacy, FlashBlock, RefControl, privoxy, and my tinfoil hat. Makes actually using a lot of sites a pain, but convenience and security have been bitter enemies since the dawn of time.
posted by Zed at 2:52 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


delmoi: ... it's essentially free content that they can monazite.

And as everyone knows, that Monazite is valuable stuff!
:)
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:06 PM on February 18, 2010


delmoi: "In my view a lot of the 'social consolidation' (as opposed to 'social media' in general) is incredibly stupidly implemented. I mean, these are incredibly intimate details of our lives, and the idea is to randomly take them and deliver them directly to the people who would be most interested (people who know you). Not because it's convent for you, but because it's essentially free content that they can monazite.

It really creates no value whatsoever for the user. With twitter the account is totally separate from your other accounts. You don't use your real name or anything like that. With facebook and Buzz they are tied to your real name and your pre-established online activities.

This is what happens when people try to create "services" that have nothing to do with actually providing value to the user, but are simply about trying to monetize people.
"

Delmoi, I think the issue that a lot of people aren't seeing is that what Google is ultimately trying to do, is to provide multiple levels of networks. That's why they keep talking of the "social graph" -- Brad Fitzpatrick (of LJ fame) is working on this. He did it right in LJ, and I haven't seen any other network do it right... FB is *starting* to catch up -- Twitter added lists (but only to read, not filter people from your own posts). Google does have filtering and lists, but it's still kinda limited (and IMO, isn't ready for primetime).

I think brad's vision (though I can't vouch for Google or any other corporate entity) is to give the users control over who sees what and when. This also means that I can see all my friends from each network, if I have access in one single place instead of having to trudge from network to network. I could have a single unitary feed of all my friends regardless of which network they're on, as long as we're all verified.

This of course, will require all social networks to adopt common standards.

I think it's a long way off, but I think that's the ultimate goal. Honestly? I like this. I don't like that I have to post 3 different networks the same thing, that some of my friends are on all 3, but others aren't. I don't like that I have to make separate lists for all my friends on each separate network in order to filter things to each group.

I want one list of friends, filtered, and able to read and share from one location.

Whether this will ever happen is another question. Whether it can happen while still keeping all these privacy concerns in the clear is another one... I'm hoping that this is a problem that's solvable. And I'm hoping those powers that be will ultimately decide for the good of the user's own control over their own networks (which google, admittedly, did fail at)
posted by symbioid at 3:07 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I like Google a lot, but I think they deserve whatever fallout they get on this. Even if it isn't malicious, I'm just stunned at the incompetence of not forseeing this kind of thing. They give the impression that they are overgrowing their ability to forsee necessary privacy issues these days, and they need something to make them slow down and think a bit. I mean geez, I feel like I could have brought this up in an employee meeting and prevented it before it happened, it seems so obvious.
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:10 PM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Even more stupidly, Google already made a nearly identical mistake with Reader.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:45 PM on February 18, 2010


From the BBC article Freedom to Tinker linked in the Google Buzzkill post:

Many of the firm's new services are tested by the so-called Google Trusted Tester program, a network of friends and family of Google employees who are given confidential access to products before they launch.

Buzz was not tested by this program.


Jesus. You can bet your ass that as soon as Buzz went live, all sorts of folks in all sorts of areas - politics, journalism, corporate espionage, police, organized crime, whatever - were crazily scouring it for private data they could use against someone. Hey, Google: that generic "we're very sorry for the concern we caused" shit doesn't even *begin* to cover how much you've almost certainly fucked up some people's lives.
posted by mediareport at 3:45 PM on February 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


Actually chrome has this "Incognito Mode" that basically, and just for that window cookies are deleted on exit. So you can browse the web normally with your cookies, but then also have another session going where everything is private.

Safari has this, too (Private Browsing.)
posted by davejay at 4:01 PM on February 18, 2010


mediareport,

Do you actually know what Buzz exposed?

No. Most people don't.

Buzz basically collapsed "sign up for a social network" and "merge contacts from your friends and contacts" into one step instead of two. Now, it's not that there aren't situations where you want to pick and choose, and it's not that it wasn't a screwup. But a whole bunch of people see this as "OMG Google published all gmail contacts and emails" and that's just not what happened.

In other news, wake me up when every plugin fully signs up for private browsing.
posted by effugas at 4:09 PM on February 18, 2010


Buzz automatically let people follow me without my consent.
Buzz automatically signed me up to follow people without my consent.
I was apparently part of Buzz even though I never turned the service on or created a public profile.

Fuck you, Buzz. I hate you.
posted by Afroblanco at 4:49 PM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


I wonder whether Buzz is going to end up like Vista- an eventually-good product whose market adoption is terrible because it was introduced so badly.
posted by Jpfed at 5:10 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, following people on Buzz (and allowing them to follow you) forces you to follow them on Reader (and forces them to follow you).

So, basically, buzz reiterated the reader bug in its service and screwed up reader again!
posted by oddman at 5:11 PM on February 18, 2010


Afro--

So, how is what you describe different than me posting a link to you on my blog, and sending you emails every time I post?

I'll grant that it's lame and spammy, but apocalyptic?
posted by effugas at 5:29 PM on February 18, 2010


"OMG Google published all gmail contacts and emails" and that's just not what happened.
No, that is what happened. Google pre-selected a list of people for users to follow, based on who they email most frequently. And the lists were public by default. That meant, obviously, that lists of people who you email most frequently were published for the whole world to see. I'm sure what's complicated. It didn't publish all of the contacts, just the most frequent ones.

That is exactly what happened.
Do you actually know what Buzz exposed?

No. Most people don't.
I'm not sure what would make use say this. Mediareport is correct about what happened, and you are incorrect. And more then that, it's pretty easy to understand: Google published lists of everyone's most common email contacts.
posted by delmoi at 7:32 PM on February 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


What's hilarious is the interview Serge Brin gave like the day after Buzz launched. He was talking about how they would succeed at this (unlike Yahoo and MSN) because they would get "The details right".

And actually Buzz is kind of nice for the most part, but just a few little details got messed up in a way that not only made people not interested in using it, but actually actively hate it.
posted by delmoi at 7:44 PM on February 18, 2010


If I were an important person at Google the lesson I would take from this is "holy crap we are deeply out of touch."

The design of features like auto-follow and exposure of email contacts &c., combined with a confusing UI (especially with respect to turning the damned thing off once you had opted into the service to check it out), was just so fundamentally dumb and misguided it's hard to believe.

The Google seems to have some serious institutional stupidity or naivete problems.
posted by herodotus at 8:21 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wait, what do they know about me?
posted by paladin at 8:25 PM on February 18, 2010


effugas, delmoi put it more succinctly than I would have. I'm really not sure what you're trying to say.
posted by mediareport at 8:48 PM on February 18, 2010


There's a PC World overview linked in the last link in the post. The last paragraph talks about how Buzz requires a lot of tweaking to work the way you want it to (e.g., keep your contacts private). Google is pretty much the anti-Apple on UI/UX. Apple gives you the 20% of the functionality 80% of the people use, and if you're in that group, you don't need to mess with the settings much. If you're a power user, you end up frustrated or going with the non-Apple solution (this is me, sometimes). Google goes the other way: it gives you a crapload of functionality but it makes you check out every bloody setting to use the product the way most people would want to.

The privacy issues are real. I'm sure in my own mind Google exposed our contact information, if not deliberately, with deliberate negligence and lack of care about the consequences. People don't want to think Google would deliberately expose your contacts (making them potentially saleable information, at least in the aggregate) and use Gmail to leverage their new social network for ad dollars, because Google's motto is "don't be evil". At this point, I feel like the only people who don't think Google is being evil are inside Google's reality distortion field.
posted by immlass at 9:15 PM on February 18, 2010


effugas, this happened to me and while that's comparatively minor and hopefully did not have consequences on the other end, it was crystal clear to me how much more serious it could have been. This is the first time I can recall being actually angry with Google. Please don't affect breeziness over this; I'm talking about real-world fallout.
posted by dhartung at 9:51 PM on February 18, 2010


Google is pretty much the anti-Apple on UI/UX. Apple gives you the 20% of the functionality 80% of the people use, and if you're in that group, you don't need to mess with the settings much.

I don't think that's true at all. They just guessed the 20% of the functionality wrong. Google Buzz is really easy to use if you just want to make posts and reply. It's also pretty easy to set a specific post to whatever level of privacy, or to send it to whatever groups.

But Google didn't spend any time trying to make it easy for people to control their privacy, or even figure out how their privacy was even being affected.

Email is something that most people would like to keep private, and Google Buzz was big, confusing imposition into that. If Google had really studied how to make it easy for people to figure out the privacy settings and keep things secured, it could have been popular.

They also made a huge error when they tried to make things "easy" for people by preselecting their followers. Now I suppose followers were just going to see "public" Buzz posts, but the implication was that random people you've emailed were going to get some kind of window into your life, regardless of your actual relationship. I think that was the thing that offended people the most, the imposition by Google's software into their actual real world relationships. Not even facebook does that, they just make suggestions.

And a lot of that had to do with thinking that actually picking out your own contacts was an "80%" feature that only 20% of the people would actually use. And that's probably true. But their solution really pissed people off.

--
Also the 80/20 rule is partially B.S. it's true that most people won't use most of the features. But if you look at which features they use there's a lot of diversity. I remember someone complaining about the new MS Office ribbon, he brought up the 80/20 rule and then complained that it was hard to figure out how to include the file name in the footer of a document That was part of his "20%" but he was completely oblivious of the fact that, duh, that's not something most people are going to need.
posted by delmoi at 9:55 PM on February 18, 2010


But Google didn't spend any time trying to make it easy for people to control their privacy, or even figure out how their privacy was even being affected.

This is because Google doesn't give a shit about user privacy, in direct contradiction to their "don't be evil" motto. If you want privacy, you should have to hunt around and figure out how to get it, because by $DEITY if you're going to use a computer, you should have to learn how to find all the options in howmanyever different places to make it work the way you want. (That was the contrast I was making with the company I won't be dumb enough to mention again in this thread. Sometimes I forget that mentioning it is a form of accidental trolling.)
posted by immlass at 10:19 PM on February 18, 2010


The google thing is interesting mainly as a user interface issue - and perhaps if Google had done their usual "invite" system then they might have figured this out earlier. But the concern for me is mostly this kind of thing, from the second post:

Take for example the popular online blog Boing Boing. Upon loading its main page while recording the HTTP session, I noticed that my browser is automatically redirected to domains owned by no fewer than 17 distinct third party entities: 10 services that engage in advertising or marketing, five that embed media or integrate social networking functionality, and two that provide web analytics. By visiting this single webpage, my digital footprints have been scattered to and collected by at least 17 other online entities that I made no deliberate attempt to contact. And each of these entities will likely have stored a cookie on my web browser, allowing it to identify me uniquely later when I browse to one of its other partner sites. I don't mean to pick on Boing Boing specifically—taking advantage of third party services is a nearly universal practice on the web today, but it's exactly this pervasiveness that makes it so likely, if not probable, that all of my digital footprints together could link much of my online activities back to my actual identity.

To make this point concrete, let's say I post a potentially defamatory remark about someone using a pseudonym in the comments section of a Boing Boing article. It happens that for each article, Boing Boing displays the number of times that the article has been shared on Facebook. In order to fetch the current number, Boing Boing redirects my browser to api.facebook.com to make a real-time query to the Facebook API. Since I happen to be logged in to Facebook at the time of the request, my browser forwards with the query my unique Facebook cookie, which includes information that explicitly identifies me—namely, my e-mail address that doubles as my Facebook username.

posted by Rumple at 11:21 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


immlass, I think you make a good point.

I suspect instead of active malice though, Google has a group of mean age 23* working on Buzz, each with a desire to beat Facebook at their own game, as well as managers much older who really don't have a clue about much of anything these days although they did 5-10 years ago.

I also suspect the GOOG people will think, in the both cases mentioned above, "these people complaining are so dumb."

Because they are so confident they only hire and retain The Best. Therefore it's by definition the smart and right thing to do (and if apologies and backtracking is necessary here, like it was with Reader, just give it time until the proles finally get with it).

Everyone knows there's a reality distortion field around Google and its employees. Doubly so for its young employees who came there straight from college.

* -- programmers ("engineers" in the silicon valley parlance) lose about one year of maturity age for every year one spends working at Google. So this is more flexible than it seems.

Maybe time for them to get a clue.
posted by herodotus at 11:47 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Buzz automatically let people follow me without my consent.
Buzz automatically signed me up to follow people without my consent.
I was apparently part of Buzz even though I never turned the service on or created a public profile.

Fuck you, Buzz.


This. Plus, if I wanted to be in Orkut I would have joined when I got the invite.
posted by flabdablet at 4:05 AM on February 19, 2010


“I absolutely believe that online anonymity will be relatively rare in 2020. Not necessarily because of bio‐markers or scans, but because models of data analysis will generate new fingerprints ‐ ones behavioral in nature. I believe that a company like Google, that has access to a wide swath of behavioral data ‐ search logs, email traffic, and web visits across many domains ‐ can actually create a new ‘type’ of fingerprint, a data fingerprint. As a result of these new forms of identification, online anonymity will be severely curtailed.”
-Fred Stutzman, School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina‐Chapel Hill

From the newly released Pew Research Center's Future of the Internet (2020) report [48-page PDF]. HTML version.
posted by cashman at 10:32 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, that is what happened. Google pre-selected a list of people for users to follow, based on who they email most frequently. And the lists were public by default. That meant, obviously, that lists of people who you email most frequently were published for the whole world to see. I'm sure what's complicated. It didn't publish all of the contacts, just the most frequent ones.

That is exactly what happened.


Cite, with evidence please.

That's exactly what a lot of people seem to *think* happens, but I'm telling you, every time I dig in I get this "Welllllllllll, you had to use Buzz, BUT THAT COULD HAVE BEEN REALLY EASY" stuff.

Show me a screenshot of this thing you say, and I'm totally on your side here. dhartung, you say it happened to you...what, exactly, happened?
posted by effugas at 4:22 PM on February 19, 2010


effugas, this is from EPIC's page on Google Buzz:

Whether the user clicked on “Sweet! Check out Buzz” or “Nah, go to my inbox,” Google Buzz was activated, and a list of followers and “people who you follow” were already populated using frequent contacts. These lists were publicly viewable by other Gmail users, and if a user had a Google profile, this information was publicly indexed by search engines.

This has also been reported all over the place; I found these pages with simple searches like "buzz privacy." I'm not sure what more evidence you could want.
posted by RogerB at 7:27 PM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


RogerB--

OK, that's a concrete claim. Investigating.
posted by effugas at 9:20 PM on February 19, 2010


Cite, with evidence please.

Well, when I first logged in I could see people's followers. Also, RogerB's links are fine: this was reported everywhere, including the NYT:
New users of Buzz, which was added to Gmail on Tuesday, found themselves with a ready-made network of friends automatically selected by the company based on the people that each user communicated with most frequently through Google’s e-mail and chat services
...
Many users bristled at what they considered an invasion of privacy, and they faulted the company for failing to ask permission before sharing a person’s Buzz contacts with a broad audience.
...
In an e-mail message, Todd Jackson, product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz, said, “Google remains completely committed to freedom of expression and to privacy, and we have a strong track record of protecting both.”

Mr. Jackson defended the setup of the Buzz service. He said that Buzz came with a built-in circle of contacts to provide a better experience to users and that many liked that feature. He said that it was very easy for users to edit who they were following on the service and who could follow them. He also said that anyone could hide their list of Buzz contacts with a single click.
I'm not sure why you're so confused here. This is common knowledge for anyone who's been following the story, and google isn't even denying it, just claiming it was easy to turn off.
posted by delmoi at 1:52 PM on February 20, 2010


delmoi--

It's the assertion that if you did nothing with Buzz, it still published your contacts. That's where I think there's an open question. EPIC's claim is the first I've seen that even if you rejected Buzz, it published stuff.

Remember, pretty much every social network will raid AIM, and probably gmail, to add contacts. So it's not like they invented that.
posted by effugas at 3:41 PM on February 20, 2010


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