Tag Archives: privacy

The price of free (or why I won’t be upgrading to Mavericks any time soon)

So Apple’s new OS is out and it is free. Users should be delighted, right? Um… maybe not so much. The problem is that, very quietly, Apple has gotten rid of a tiny little feature: the ability to sync locally. In fact you are now forced to use iCloud… whether you want to, or not.

Well, I hear you say, the cloud is the way of the future. Who syncs at the local level anyway? What decade do you think this is? The answer is that I know what decade it is, but I also know Apple cannot be trusted with my private data, what did you do? Sleep through the revelations that came out this past summer? Does the name Snowden ring a bell? And before you tell me that I shouldn’t worry if I don’t have anything to hide, let me tell you that the fact that I don’t have anything to hide doesn’t mean that I’m going to be volunteering to be strip searched any time soon either.

Oh, and before you decided that I’m a tinfoil hat nut, let me reassure you that I do use cloud storage on a daily basis, and I find it extremely convenient… I just refuse to use Apple’s version of the blasted thing. They can choose to collaborate with the NSA, but if they do I want to retain the right to store my information elsewhere.

Keeping school out of the kids’ hair

Is it just me, or are schools getting completely out of hand, becoming more and more intrusive with each and every passing day?

There are a couple of stories floating around that have caused me to start wondering about that.

In the most disturbing one of those a California district has apparently hired a firm to monitor their students’ use of social media, nominally in an attempt to keep an eye for a series of problems and behavioral issues (after all, they have to make it sound like they are acting on their students’ best interest), but in practice intruding on their students lives beyond the classroom. The thing is that while keeping kids safe is a worthy goal (bullying and suicide are pressing issues), I don’t like the way schools are intruding on the kids’ lives outside of school. Call me old-fashioned, but as far as I’m concerned that’s what parents are supposed to be for, though at the same time I do realize that too many parents are too busy to care, and more than happy to have the schools step in. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a way for parents (or students) to opt out of that kind of monitoring (not that I would trust a school to respect such a decision to opt out).

The second story is more circumscribed. It is about a little girl who was told by her school that her dreads were unacceptable, and whose father decided to yank her out of that particular school instead (good for him). Setting aside the racism such a policy entails (afros were also explicitly forbidden), there is the fact that some of these policies focusing on the kids hairstyles that are written into many schools’ dress codes fail to take into account that, unlike clothes, hairstyles cannot necessarily be done and undone on a whim. Children may be able to change their clothes as soon as they get home, but they can neither uncut nor redye their hair in a similar fashion, and dreads are not exactly a hairstyle that can be changed in a matter of minutes. That means that by regulating hairstyles in the classroom schools are intruding in their students’ lives long after they’ve left the premises, and it is there that I feel that they have crossed the line.

Yes, a dress code can be a good idea, at least up to a point, but there is a problem when it comes to their definition of dress. Regulate clothes? Sure, kids can change those as soon as they get home. Require some standards of hygiene? Fair enough (as long as you make some accommodations for those students whose situation does not allow them to comply, and do it in a way that does not stigmatize those students), but leave the kids’ hairstyles out of it.

After all, as important as school may be in a child’s life, it is the parents job to parent that child, and schools should really learn when to get out of their students’ hair.

Apple, the NSA, iWork and the cloud

Okay, let me get this straight: the new version of iWork (one that is sorely needed seeing how the last major update of the desktop version of that particular app suite was released back in 2009) is going to be iWork for iCloud. That means that if you want to access get some work done you have to rely on Apple’s servers and online storage, where we your files are ‘conveniently kept for you’ and where you know for a fact that you have no expectation of privacy… am I the only one that sees something very wrong with this particular picture?

Yes, I realize that Google Docs has always been a cloud-based service, and that there are a number of other such services available, but the key there is in the always part of that description. People signing up for these services knew all along just what it was that they were getting into. iWork users, who are stuck with a proprietary format, are effectively being shoved into the cloud whether they want to or not.

Now, I realize that, except for the iOS ecosystem, iWork is a pretty minor player in the field, but I am afraid that this is just the beginning, that other programs will eventually follow suit (so far other programs allow you to collaborate online, but they don’t force you to do so). To me this push towards the cloud is unacceptable.

Don’t get me wrong, I know the cloud has its uses, and I appreciate the freedom it gives me, and the comfort of knowing that my files are (relatively) safe no matter what happens,  but I want to remain in control of what I store and where I store it. I want to retain the freedom to choose a different service provider or to work off line altogether, and this move (and others like it) threaten to deprive me of that right. It is my computer, my work and my files we are talking about here… what part of MY doesn’t Apple understand? After all, given what Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and the like have done with my trust in the past, is it that surprising that I want Apple and its ilk to keep their filthy hands to themselves?

I wonder what THEY think

I was reading a story about a woman who found herself on the receiving end of a visit by the spook brigade because she was looking for a way to cook some lentils… okay so maybe it was a little more complicated than that, and there are some questions about the details, but basically what happened was that a series of innocent searches by different members of a household led someone to put two and two together and come up with twenty-two. That got me thinking: in a world in which our every search is logged, monitored and aggregated to create a ‘profile’, what would my search pattern say about me? The answer is that I suspect that my profile is likely to come up as puzzling to say the least. Why?

Well, as you know I am a writer. I may not be a great writer, or a successful one, but I am a writer. That means that some of my search terms are bound to be on the unsavory end of the spectrum. I can’t help it. If I want to write a less than pleasant character, and I want that character to come across as believable, then I have to try to understand that character’s world… and that is precisely where my research comes in. After all, the characters I have something in common with are easy, it’s the characters that are totally alien to me that require me to look things up to try to figure out just where it is that they are coming from, and at times that research can be pretty extensive. Oh, it’s not just the unsavory characters that lead me to Google’s door (the professional ones too tend to require their fair share of research), but those are the ones that are most likely to raise some eyebrows.

The thing is that doing that research can be an eyeopening experience. It can also be a puzzling one, or it can leave me feeling almost sick, but at the end of the day what I have is a situation in which what I search for says very little about who I am, what I think, or what I care about.

In defense of porn

I can’t believe I’m writing this. No, I don’t like porn, and I agree that it is too easily available (in fact at times it seems to be all but inescapable), but at the same time I am fed up with moralists who want to restrict what others see and do in the privacy of their own homes to protect their children’s innocence, or some such nonsense. Let me be clear about it: they are your children, and while I applaud your determination to shield them from the big, bad world, that doesn’t give you the right to restrict what other adults see and do. Your job -a job you signed up for- is to world-proof your child, not to child-proof the world.

What got me thinking about this is the push by the British government to force ISPs to put content filters in place, and to have them turned on by default. If you want to turn them off you have to notify your ISP, and by extension the government, of your desire to do so. I don’t know how things work over there, but in most places you have to be an adult (or have parental consent) to sign a contract… so why shouldn’t the people who sign up for a service be treated as adults by default?

The thing is that while trying to argue against protecting the children feels wrong, I can’t forget that the crew that wants to shield the children’s eyes is mostly the same crew that -using what is basically the same argument- opposes marriage equality. It is also akin to the crew that not too long ago passed a law in Russia outlawing ‘gay propaganda’… and please don’t even get me started on how wide ranging, inaccurate and unreliable those filters happen to be.

These filters have never really worked, not like they were supposed to anyway, and requiring people to opt-out of a government mandated filter in order to access a certain kind of content is, to put it bluntly, nothing but an intimidation tactic.

Oh, I’m not that naive. I know that, filters or no filters, internet activity is monitored. I know there are very powerful interests that seek to control what I see and do while online. I know that the advent of mobile platforms built with the internet in mind, ridiculously restrictive app stores you can’t bypass (at least not legally), large social networks and walled gardens has effectively enabled the corporate world to set itself as a gatekeeper to the internet, and I know that even now efforts are underway to restrict my access even further by pushing the app store model onto the desktop. In that regard a government mandated filter that denies me access to a specific kind of content in order to ‘protect the children’ is just a small step. Other kinds of content are sure to follow. The wild, untamed internet poses a threat that makes both governments and corporations uncomfortable, and they are desperate to get a hold of it.

Yes, there is plenty of content out there that I find objectionable, but as long as the content doesn’t cross a legal boundary, I acknowledge that it has a right to exist. I realize that I don’t have a right to shove my opinion down other people’s throats… and, for better or for worse, that means that porn is one of those things I have no choice but to live with.

As I said, I’m not in the UK, the proposed law does not affect me, not directly, but I fear that these laws will spread, that sooner or later they will be adopted by other countries, and once porn is gone, what will the next target be?

Blurring the lines

I saw an ad today, I don’t really remember what it was for, but it was one of those futuristic ones with a world dominated by touch-screen interfaces, gleaming surfaces and the like. The thing is that while those ads are supposed to represent a sort of utopia, they chill me to the bone. Yes, we live in a world that is increasingly interconnected, but at the same time I would like to keep some boundaries, thank you oh so very much. I would also like to retain the right to just be me… or at least I would like to retain some semblance of control. No, I’m not a technophobe, but I see no need to rush in just because some marketing guy (or gal) somewhere has new gadget to sell. I want to be able to adopt only those technologies I believe benefit me, and I want to be able to adopt them when I want to and in my own terms, but at times I feel like I can’t. One very simple example: there are a growing  number of services online that either require that you provide them with your mobile phone number outright, or that keep nagging you to supply that information every time you log in, where you don’t even have a ‘don’t ask me again’ box you can tick. Yes, I realize that an SMS message can help keep your account safe, and because of that giving your service provider your mobile phone number can be a good idea, but the thing is that I don’t know of any law that requires people to have a mobile phone (yet), and none of these companies list having a mobile phone as a basic requirement in their TOS, so why do they demand that you provide them with the mobile number you are not required to have in order to take advantage of their services?

Sure, I know this example applies only to a small fringe group. I know most people have a mobile phone (if not a smartphone) and don’t see such a requirement as a burden, but while having a mobile phone has a number of undeniable benefits, I am also aware that there are some who have chosen to opt out of that particular bandwagon, and I can most definitely appreciate their reasoning. Let’s face it, there are some distinct advantages to not being available 24/7, and to not being expected to be available 24/7. It’s called retaining the ability to set some basic boundaries because, let’s face it, just owning a mobile phone  is enough to create certain expectations that all but impossible to overcome (family time? What family time? Your boss has a right to call you whenever he/she wants, he/she expects you to pick up the phone and, seeing how you know it is your boss that’s calling you, you know you better take that call).

Anyway, I am wondering why that add bothered me so much. I guess it was because in light of what we have learned in the past couple of months about electronic surveillance I have come to distrust mobile phones more and more (not that I was ever too keen of the blasted things to begin with). I see them as intrusive, as tools that can all too easily be turned against us, and I also see the way in which they have become a de facto requirement. No they haven’t passed a law that says we have to carry a GPS tracking device with us at all times just yet, but almost.


Today I called my dad on Skype. It’s something I do often, but this time around it got me thinking… and trying to imagine what my life would have been like if such a service had been an option back when I was growing up. You see, I grew up basically half a world away from most of my family. In those days even an international phone call was a luxury, and I remember that almost as soon as I was old enough to write, writing a letter to my grandparents became an integral part of my Sunday routine. I would write a letter, have one of my parents proof it to make sure I wasn’t mentioning anything I wasn’t supposed to, and then I would write the envelope (the hope was that the fact that it was a child’s scrawl would get the letter past the post office unopened… let’s just say that there was a reason I was living half a world away from my grandparents, and leave it at that). In time phone calls became less expensive and the letter-writing fell by the wayside, but the thing is that in a way my grandparents, to say nothing of some of my aunts, uncles and cousins, remained virtual strangers (a phone call to my grandparents was a luxury, a phone call to my cousins was unthinkable).

My grandparents are gone now, and none of them ever got to use a computer at all. As for the rest of my family, we have made some efforts to reconnect over the years, but the truth is that (at least as far as I was concerned) by the time computers came along, too long had passed. Most of them were (and some of them still are) names without faces, so I wonder what Skype would have meant for my family back then. I don’t know, I can only imagine.

Selling an end to privacy

Earlier today I was thinking about a conversation I had with one of my best friends on the issue of privacy long before the subject became a fashionable one. She had a new baby, I had just microchipped one of my pets for the first time a couple of days prior (yes, it was that long ago), there was a kidnapping that was making headlines, and we were talking about safety. I remember asking her what would she do if someone were to come to her and tell her that there was a new GPS chip that could be implanted under her baby’s skin, one that would ensure that, no matter what happened, the child’s location could be pinpointed in a matter of seconds anywhere in the world. The trade off was that such an implant would be permanent, her child would be tracked for life… and that since she was the one who would making that call, her baby would have no say on the matter.

To me the idea of being tracked 24/7 was horrifying, and she was not too keen on it herself, but at the same time when she weighed her distaste for the thing against her own fears –even if those fears revolved around a very remote possibility– she hesitated. No, she didn’t want to be tracked herself, but the possibility of allaying what were some of her worst fears, fears that were actually being fanned by a media machine, was obviously alluring to her. Continue reading Selling an end to privacy

Longing for the days of Geocities

No, I don’t miss the awful design or the unbelievable slowness of the web in those early days, but I do miss the passion, the relative privacy and the freedom. I long for that web that was still mostly in the hands of its users, before governments and businesses came in and claimed it for themselves.

Okay, so maybe that web is is not really dead, if you dig deep enough it’s still there, and there are some major sites, such as wikipedia and other wikis, that still hold on to that original ethos, but the grown ups have definitely not just moved in, they have also taken over, even if it’s not always immediately obvious.

Oh, on the surface there are still free and better alternatives to Geocities, but even there there is no getting away from the marketers, trackers and the dataminers that will turn your content into a Trojan horse to find out all they can not just about you, but also about your readers (to be honest, that trend probably began when Geocities was acquired by Yahoo, but I’m talking about what was the original concept behind Geocities here, so let’s not quibble about it).

What can I say? I like privacy, and I am not to keen on the way in which the web, something that in its early days held such promise when it came to freedom, has been betrayed and turned into a tool that is used by governments and corporations to keep track people’s most private thoughts.

I don’t like it and I won’t follow

Earlier today I had a very minor problem, in fact it was too minor to be called a problem, so much so that I didn’t even record on which site it had happened, but it kind of stayed with me: as I was browsing I came across a splash screen that said something along the lines of ‘to access this site either like us on Facebook or follow us on twitter’. Now, I am used to some sites requesting my e-mail address (though I usually balk at those too), and I guess in a way it is not that different, but in another one it does feel that way… especially when it comes to a site I don’t particularly know (i.e. a site I don’t know if I ‘like’ or if I’m interested in ‘following’). I guess in a way my reaction may also have to do with the fact that I am not too keen on social media, and I have some serious issues with the amount of information these sites gather and are willing to disclose about their users.

Yes, I have a Twitter account, and I don’t find that one too annoying, though I am not a heavy user and I rarely sign in, but Facebook is a site that, while I know it is extremely popular and even useful, I don’t particularly trust. Simply put, I seriously doubt the average user knows how much information Facebook has gathered about him/her, and I don’t think that the fact that at times keeping track of their constant policy and settings changes at times can seem like a full time job is a coincidence. The fact that unrelated news sites are now making being a user of Facebook or Twitter mandatory is yet another step in a process that has caused the web to become ever more intrusive.

Oh, I know this is something that has been in the works for some time, something that is going to make us hold-outs have to choose between submitting or living with a deliberately downgraded online experience, but the attitude of ‘follow me, like me or else’ that was reflected on that simple splash screen rubbed me the wrong way. It was not an invitation, it was a command and my response to that is ‘No, I don’t like you and I definitely won’t follow you… hell, I don’t even know you!’