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Web Browsing Without Prying Eyes
Wood | The New York Times
3 April 2014
Molly Wood explores services that allow you
to search online without compromising your
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Seeking Online Refuge From Spying Eyes
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Seeking Online Refuge
From Spying Eyes
October 19, 2013
The New York Times
By JENNA WORTHAM
Consider this scene in “The Circle,” Dave Eggers’s new novel
that imagines a dystopian future dominated by an omnipotent social networking
company: Mae, the young protagonist, tries to unplug from her hypernetworked
life to go on a covert, solitary kayaking trip. But when she returns to shore,
she is greeted by police officers who have been alerted to her excursion by
several hidden cameras. She quickly realizes that very little in her life isn’t
recorded, tracked and analyzed.
It’s a troubling image, one that some fear might not be limited to works of
fiction. In fact, some elements of Mae’s scenario have emerged recently in the
news. There was the report that the National Security Agency can create
sophisticated maps of some people’s personal information and social connections.
There were the recent changes to Facebook’s privacy settings that will no longer
allow users to hide their profiles from public searches. In addition, Google
recently revealed that it was considering using anonymous identifiers to track
browsing habits online, raising hackles among privacy advocates who have
described it as “the new way they will identify you 24/7.”
And, at the same time, drones are becoming commonplace — used by the government
in counterterrorism efforts and by hobbyists — prompting discussions about the
long-term impact on privacy.
These developments, among others, have spurred the creation of a handful of
applications and services intended to give people respite and refuge from
surveillance, both online and off. They have a simple and common goal: to create
ways for people to use the Internet and to communicate online without
Nadim Kobeissi, a security adviser in Montreal who works on an encrypted-message
service called Cryptocat, said the security and hacker circles of which he is a
part have long suspected that the government is listening in on online
conversations and exchanges but “have never been able to prove it.” He added:
“It’s been a worst-case-scenario prediction that all turned out to be true, to a
If nothing else, the N.S.A. leaks and disclosures have brought these issues
front and center for many people, myself included, who are troubled by how much
of our daily and online interaction is concentrated in and around a handful of
companies that have funneled data to the N.S.A.
“It’s sad that this is the proverbial kick in the butt that needs to bring
awareness to this concept,” said Harlo Holmes, who works for the Guardian
Project, a group that is building several anti-surveillance and privacy
Ms. Holmes says interest has been surging in the Guardian Project’s services,
which include tools that let people make phone calls over the Internet which the
organization says cannot be recorded. More than a million people have downloaded
an app called Orbot that allows users to send e-mails anonymously through mobile
She said it was common to assume that people who want to avoid detection online
are doing illicit things, like trying to buy drugs or look up illegal content —
and that may happen. But it is certainly not the intent.
She says the Guardian Project and its peers are built for people who live under
governments that don’t allow access to the Web or to certain apps, as well as
for people who simply don’t like the idea of their online activity being tracked
and monitored. Ms. Holmes says that most of the tools are used by people in
totalitarian states. “We get a lot of feedback from people who use it to get
access to blogs and sites they can’t access because of a firewall,” she said,
referring, for example, to a government blocking access to Twitter.
Most of these services are still relatively small. For example, Cryptocat, the
encrypted-message service, typically sees peaks of around 20,000 simultaneous
users. In recent months, that number has grown to 27,000. But it’s a far cry
from the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, that mainstream social
networking tools and services can claim.
“As good as all of our intentions are, whatever looks good and is user-friendly
gets critical mass,” she said. “That is what is going to take off.”
But those who work on these services say they don’t have to compete directly
with the Facebooks, Twitters and Googles of the world. They just have to offer
an alternative, independent space where people can interact if and when they
Dan Phiffer works on a project called Occupy.here that gives people access to a
private messaging forum by creating small, localized pockets of Internet access.
People who are nearby and whose laptops or mobile devices detect the network are
directed to a discussion board where they can interact. Inspired by the Occupy
Wall Street protests in 2011, the idea was to allow activists and organizers to
interact in a way that would be hard for police officers to track.
His project is naturally resistant to Internet surveillance, “but its original
purpose was not for countersurveillance,” he said. “What I am trying to do is
build alternative online spaces for supporting activists and those who might be
sympathetic to their cause.”
Mr. Phiffer also thinks that the project can have much larger implications and
motivate “broader political engagement by offering a tool for people who are
tired of the disregard of their civil liberties by their government.”
Of course, there is no guarantee that the Guardian Project, Mr. Kobeissi’s
project, or any others like it are safe from being broken into by a government
or a hacker or another entity. But Mr. Kobeissi said that there was an upside to
all of the disturbing security disclosures: at least now, he said, the security
world can deal with the information disclosed in leaks “on a per-revelation
basis” to make its own offerings stronger and more secure.
The truth, he said, is that “we are developing software in an unknown
environment, even though we know so much about the threats being posed.”
“The specifics are always changing,” he added.
Tools like Cryptocat, he said, are just the impetus for a larger discussion.
“It’s not an answer by itself,” he said. “It is a combination of privacy and
technology, democratic movement and political discussion that it is not
acceptable to use the Internet as a surveillance medium.”
Seeking Online Refuge From Spying Eyes,
A World Without Privacy
October 14, 2013
The New York Times
By JOE NOCERA
In his great and prophetic novel “1984,” George Orwell laid
out his vision of what totalitarianism would look like if taken to its logical
extreme. The government — in the form of Big Brother — sees all and knows all.
The Party rewrites the past and controls the present. Heretics pop up on
television screens so they can be denounced by the populace. And the Ministry of
Truth propagates the Party’s three slogans:
WAR IS PEACE.
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
Dave Eggers’s new novel, “The Circle,” also has three short, Orwellian slogans,
and while I have no special insight into whether he consciously modeled “The
Circle” on “1984,” I do know that his book could wind up being every bit as
Eggers’s subject is what the loss of privacy would look like if taken to its
logical extreme. His focus is not on government but on the technology companies
who invade our privacy on a daily basis. The Circle, you see, is a Silicon
Valley company, an evil hybrid of Google, Facebook and Twitter, whose cultures —
the freebies, the workaholism, the faux friendliness — Eggers captures with only
The Circle has enormous power because it has become the primary gateway to the
Internet. Thanks to its near-monopoly, it is able to collect reams of data about
everyone who uses its services — and many who don’t — data that allows The
Circle to track anyone down in a matter of minutes. It has begun planting small,
hidden cameras in various places — to reduce crime, its leaders insist. The
Circle wants to place chips in children to prevent abductions, it says. It has
called on governments to be “transparent,” by which it means that legislators
should wear a tiny camera that allows the world to watch their every move.
Eventually, legislators who refuse find themselves under suspicion — after all,
they must be hiding something. This is where The Circle’s logic leads.
Of course, nobody who works for The Circle thinks what he or she is doing is
evil. On the contrary, like many a real Silicon Valley executive, they view
themselves as visionaries, whose only goal is benign: to make the world a better
“We’re at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment,” says one of The Circle’s
founders in a speech to the staff. “I’m talking about an era where we don’t
allow the majority of human thought and action and achievement and learning to
escape as if from a leaky bucket.” It believes if it can eliminate secrecy
people will be forced to be their best selves all the time. It even toys with
the idea of getting the government to require voters to use The Circle — to
force them to vote on Election Day. And, of course, it has found multiple ways
to monetize the data it collects. As for the potential downside of this loss of
privacy, it is waved away by Circle executives as if too trifling to even
Is this vision of the future far-fetched? Of course it is — though no more than
“1984” was. “The Circle” imagines where we could end up if we don’t begin paying
attention. Indeed, what is striking is how far down this road we have already
gone. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that the National Security Agency has
the ability to read our e-mails and listen to our phone calls. Google shows us
ads based on words we use in our Gmail accounts. Last week, Facebook — which
has, in shades of Orwell, a chief privacy officer — removed a privacy setting so
that any Facebook user can search for any other Facebook user. The next day,
Google unveiled a plan that would make it possible for the company to use its
customers’ words and likeness in ads for products they like — information that
Google knows because, well, Google knows everything.
So, yes, while we’re not in Eggers territory yet, we are getting closer. I don’t
have either a Facebook or a Twitter account, yet every few days I get an e-mail
from one of the two companies saying that so-and-so is waiting for me to join
them in social media land. The people it picks as my potential “friends” are
very often people with whom I’ve never been a true colleague, but I’ve briefly
met at some point in my life. It is creepy to me that the companies know that I
know these particular people.
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” Eric Schmidt, the
former chief executive of Google, once said, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in
the first place.” That line could easily have been uttered by one of Dave
Eggers’s characters. That is the thought-process that could someday cost us our
last shred of privacy. “The Circle” is a warning.
(And in case you’re wondering, here are The Circle’s three slogans:
SHARING IS CARING.
SECRETS ARE LIES.
PRIVACY IS THEFT.)
Frank Bruni is off today. David Brooks is on book leave.
A World Without Privacy, NYT, 14.10.2013,
Privacy Rules for Teenagers
October 16, 2013
The New York Times
By VINDU GOEL
SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook has loosened its privacy rules for
teenagers as a debate swirls over online threats to children from bullies and
The move, announced on Wednesday, allows teenagers to post status updates,
videos and images that can be seen by anyone, not just their friends or people
who know their friends.
While Facebook described the change as giving teenagers, ages 13 to 17, more
choice, big money is at stake for the company and its advertisers. Marketers are
keen to reach impressionable young consumers, and the more public information
they have about those users, the better they are able to target their pitches.
“It’s all about monetization and being where the public dialogue is,” said Jeff
Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a group that
lobbies against marketing to children. “To the extent that Facebook encourages
people to put everything out there, it’s incredibly attractive to Facebook’s
But that public dialogue now includes youths who are growing up in a world of
social media and, often, learning the hard way that it can be full of risks.
Parents, too, are trying to help their children navigate the raucous online
world that holds both promise and peril.
“They’re hitting kids from a neurological weak spot. Kids don’t have the same
kind of impulse control that adults do,” said Emily Bazelon, a journalist and
author of the book “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and
Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.”
Facebook said numerous other sites and mobile apps, from big players like
Twitter and Instagram to lesser-known ones like ask.fm and Kik, allowed
teenagers to express themselves publicly.
“Across the Web, teens can have a very public voice on those services, and it
would be a shame if they could not do that on Facebook,” Nicky Jackson Colaco,
Facebook’s manager of privacy and public policy, said in a phone interview.
But unlike those other services, Facebook requires users to post under their
real identities, which some privacy advocates said would make it much more
difficult to run away from stupid or thoughtless remarks.
“It’s risky to have teenagers posting publicly,” Ms. Bazelon said. “The kids who
might be the most likely to do that might not have the best judgment about what
Facebook also said it made the change to let its most knowledgable users —
socially active teenagers like musicians and humanitarian activists — reach a
wider audience the way they can on blogs and rival services like Twitter.
Facebook changed another aspect of its rules for teenagers, for which it drew
praise. By default, new accounts for teenagers will be set up to share
information only with friends, not friends of friends as before. Ms. Colaco said
the company would also educate teenagers about the risks of sharing information
and periodically remind them, if they make public posts, that everyone can see
what they are sharing.
But fundamentally, Facebook wants to encourage more public sharing, not less.
The company, which has about its 1.2 billion users worldwide, is locked in a
battle with Twitter and Google to attract consumer advertisers like food, phone
and clothing companies. Those brands want to reach people as they engage in
passionate public conversation about sports, television, news and live events.
Twitter, which has been emphasizing its virtue as a real-time public platform as
it prepares to make a public offering of stock next month, has been particularly
effective at persuading marketers that it is the best way to reach audiences
talking about the hottest television show or the week’s National Football League
Facebook is reducing children’s privacy even as lawmakers are moving in the
opposite direction, grappling with difficult issues like online bullying and the
question of whether to allow people to erase their digital histories.
In September, a 12-year-old Florida girl, Rebecca Ann Sedwick, committed suicide
after extensive bullying on Facebook, Kik Messenger and ask.fm. This month,
Florida authorities charged two youngsters with aggravated stalking in the case.
Gov. Jerry Brown of California recently signed a law that allows residents to
erase online indiscretions posted while they were teenagers. And European
lawmakers are preparing to vote on changes that would give European residents
far more control over their online privacy.
In Britain, one of Facebook’s largest international markets, local policy makers
have highlighted how social networking sites have been used to target children
for either sexual grooming or online bullying.
About half of online child sexual exploitation now occurs on social networks,
said Peter Davies, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online
Protection Center, a British government body.
“Facebook is a major one but not the only one,” Mr. Davies told British
politicians on Tuesday. “The medium is not to blame; the medium might be managed
better, so that it is safer for its users. What is to blame is human behavior.”
British lawmakers also are focusing on the online bullying of children after a
series of prominent cases.
Around 70 percent of children have suffered from some form of bullying online,
according to a recent survey of 10,000 children conducted by the British charity
Ditch the Label.
Facebook has encountered controversy over its privacy policies in the past and
is now facing additional scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, which is
conducting an inquiry into other proposed changes to the company’s privacy
policies. Those policies would give Facebook automatic permission to take a
user’s post, including a post made by a teenager, and turn it into an
advertisement broadcast to anyone who could have seen the original post.
Privacy advocates have complained to the F.T.C. that with those proposals,
Facebook was violating a 2011 order that required the company to obtain explicit
permission from its customers before using their data in advertising. Facebook
said it still had certain privacy safeguards in place for teenagers that make it
harder for strangers to search and find them, but it declined to be more
Facebook Eases Privacy Rules for Teenagers,
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