Urban legend says facebook is listening

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There so much talk about Facebook and other west coast megacorps (the 5 stacks) listening in on our conversations. To be fair its part of the reason why I don’t like Whatsapp who own and can do what ever they like to the metadata of your conversations. It’s all become a bit of an urban legend, but to be fair the megacorps are doing an incredibly bad job explaining how things are happening (little to no transparency, but to be fair it’s not fitting with their business model).

Even a recent episode of Reply All tackled this field – #109 Is Facebook spying on you.

You can look & listen to the rising concern the public have around their privacy; and the increasing number of stories. I you can’t help but think maybe there is a change coming? Or at least I’d like to think so… but its clear there is a lack of understanding of data by the general public.

For example

“One of the things that Facebook can do is if you like something, it can advertise that thing to your friends. So the brother-in-law obviously signaled to Facebook that he was into white supremacy somehow, and Charles’ friend was liking a lot of the guy’s posts, and they were friends on Facebook, so Facebook was like, “Alright, well, why don’t I advertise this white supremacist stuff to you.”

If you actually read the Facebook EULA, it actually says this but certainly not in such clear human readable words (its been a long while since I skimmed the FB eula, so may have changed – but doubt it). In my own experience, it’s also very hard for people to envision scenarios where the links matter, hence it may not be the actual data but the links between the data which suddenly make people worry and care; the data taken out of context. Most have no idea how many categories of data Facebook alone are sorting us all into.

This is hard to show and demonstrate without going; without going all black mirror or someones eyes glazing over. In my experience when talking about data most people shrug and say things like, “nothing to hide.”

Glass room recipt

During Mozfest this year I got the chance to walk around the Glass Room on Charing Cross Road, with the people at the ingenious bar giving out data detox kits. The kits are interesting because it’s aimed at a mass audience and the advice although simple is generally useful. I also found some of the installations good, especially the one where you are swiping through your facebook timeline (it was twitter for me) and 2 mins later, given a printed receipt of your work. (Funny enough, it felt like a lot longer than 2mins but then again, its not really the thing I do regularlly)

We certainly need more of this!

Hopefully more of these public interjections will start to move the discussion on from urban legends to a proper informed discussion about ethical data use. I believe FB and others are capitalising on the general public ignorance and its got to stop.

Whats that? Peer pressure?

Whatsapp on a phone

I recently came back from mobile roaming in Sarajevo; its been a while since I’ve been to a county where data roaming wasn’t as straight forward as its become. Even doing the standard replying to the automatic text didn’t work. (Although this isn’t about roaming data, although I have a long history when it comes to international roaming data).

It was kinda weird the assumption that everyone would be on Whatsapp. I understand the limitations of text messages and the greed of the mobile operators in the past around MMS and EMS, has crippled its use. Especially at 50p per message when internationally roaming on EE.

My colleagues ask over and over again, why am I not on Whatsapp? To be fair many others have asked the same question. So here’s some of my reasons.

  1. I simply don’t trust Facebook (owners of Whatsapp); I removed FB from my mobile devices and only put the lite version of messenger with all its permissions removed (inlcuding contact access)
  2. I read the Whatsapp End User Licence Agreement, a few years ago and then didn’t  agree with the terms especially around who they share the metadata with. I assume its changed but I don’t see a compelling reason to do it again.
  3. I don’t trust Whatsapp’s security implentation of Signals end to end message encryption; and is it all mute if Whatsapp is sharing the metadata anyway?
  4. This isn’t just because its FB; I don’t use Googe Allo either. I use certain systems for certain things. I get for most people Whatsapp is their ICQ but the benefit isn’t enough to make me use it.
  5. I don’t like the net neutrality issue, with certain mobile operators giving it priority over other services.

End of the day, everyone needs to make their own decision based on real information; not on social & peer pressure. Happy for you to be on Whatsapp but I won’t be joining you.

Is silicon valleys dystopia the public sectors utopia?

I was listening to the start of This week in Tech on Monday morning as they talked about the Guardian piece titled Smartphone addiction, Silicon valley dystopia and other related stories. I couldn’t help but feel something was missing from the discussion.

The discussion focused on how to solve some of the points about unethical attention manipulation, filter bubbles, smartphone addiction, etc; all from an North American point of view. There was a sense if this was left to the government to regulate it would be a very bad thing but they were searching for a middle ground and failing. They acknowledged companies need to make money and making their services addictive/sticky is a part of this, but there was a feeling there has to be something in the middle?

Of course they never mention the public sector, as it doesn’t really factor? Its very binary and thinking about it, even in Tristan’s essay there is little notation of the middle ground.

I wonder if silicon valleys dystopia could be the public sectors utopia? However if the message is North American, it’s very unlikely to include anything about the public sector, just governments and business?

Welcomed back to the Quantified Self

Quantified Self 2017

Everytime I go to the Quantified Self conference (2013 & 2014), I walk away with something more than I was expecting. Its been 3 years since I was last at the conference and a lot has happened in that tme. The Quantified Self has shifted from the heydays of super stardom on the front of wired magazine; to everywhere and nowhere. By nowhere, I mean its not really talked about because its actually everywhere. The amount of people with some kind of app or device which they are actively tracking something is so huge. This also raises the question of Self-Tracking vs. Self-Surveillance (which Jana Beck actually covered in her breakout session); are most people self-tracking or is some other entity surveying them? There’s also a debate about how enabling they really are for most people who received a Fitbit for a present.

Garry Wolf raised the topic of what is the quantified self at the start of the first day in the opening talk. Lots of people answered the question from their point of view and it was good to hear the diversity of answers and people building on the previous one.

When back with Gary, he concluded the conversation with a final thought on the subject…

“Everyday science through examination of yourself”

Gary also noted it’s been 10 years since the first conference and threw out 10 interesting points over the last 10 years, plenty to think about; including a Michael Polanyi quote and a request for people to take part in a live experiment around smartphone use. The results were revealed at the end of the day and were quite a shock. I personally only looked at my phone twice over the first day. But as I explained I have my tablet and laptop. It was interesting to hear I wasn’t the only one to have different apps on their different devices. This lead nicely into a group discussion about smartphone use.

Its so easy to feel the fear of missing out (FOMO) at the Quantified Self conference, as there is on average 8-9 things happening in parallel. You really have to pick and if its not for you, move on. Its very much the BarCamp rule of two feet.

Like the rule of two feet, here’s my highlights of the conference.

Session 1: Show & Tells

Quantified Self 2017

I missed the first one by Jana Beck on tracking crying but I got in to see Aaron Parecki kicked off the ignite talks; he later did a session which I’ll dig into the details of with data portability and data ethics in mind. The big things for me was the micropub plugs. I’m going to simplify micropub by saying its like ifttt but open, decentralised and a W3C standard supported by the indieweb community. That was the point when I thought I need to check this out in detail because it reminded me of the media pipeline thoughts I had a long long time ago.

Ahnjili ZhuParris gave a ignite talk which was all about her quantifying her psychedelic experiences. Yes you heard right…She quantified her drugs use to improve her trips! Truly shows how diverse the things track can be. It was captivating to say the least.

Session 2: Self-Tracking vs. Self-Surveillance

This breakout session run by Jana Beck and was full of interesting points. Of course Hasan Elahi was brought up and the group tried to understand the difference between tracking & surveillance. It seemed to boil down to judgment from which entity? Both have issues including the illusion of perfection which can drive self-tracking; and of course the issues of external surveillance are very well know.

This is where I first met the open university who are working on a project called monetize.me. I also bumped into Kley Reynolds who I’ve been thinking about since 2013, when I heard him talk about using QS data to create a fingerprint for data & identity.

Session 3: Connecting Self-Tracking Data to Home Assistants

In this session I helped a out with another person as the speaker couldn’t make it due to flight problems. Myself and Jacqueline took over the session hoping someone would come with some more experience in using home assistants to track something. I had some experience with Amazon Alexia & Google Home but not for quantified/tracking. I could see how it might be possible with something like ifttt but not directly.

We didn’t have to wait long till some knowledgeable people stepped in and a discussion kicked off. I kept going back to the fact these devices are in group/family spaces. Somewhere along the line, Jacqueline & me started thinking about how you could use these devices to bring together a family and nudge them to eat more healthy through dinner time checkins. I feel theres a unpolished gem somewhere there.

Session 4: Using Your Data to Influence Your Environment

Quantified Self 2017

I ran this session and I knew with a brief skim through object media and perceptive media, Questions and thoughts would come from a very data literate crowd. I wasn’t wrong.

Lost of thoughts about the role of public in a media landscape which can be changed and modified. There was a lot of discussion about why and the true benefits of using personal data in storytelling. In retrospect I should have shown parts of my interview back in 2013: We research how personal data and storytelling can be combined.

Points were made about customization vs personalization; people felt that was a big difference and could be the cause for some backlash. There was also a feeling that they would want to know how much things are customized and why if interested. Also there was a sense negotiation was a key aspect in this all, something we are exploring with the Databox project. There was a sense you could try it with little data shared then decide to ramp it up later to see what difference it made to what you saw first time.

A interesting fact was mentioned that fruit machines can be skinned in as quick as 20seconds. This was mentioned when talking about customization of the reality around you. Which led to Minority Report discussions.

It was a positive discussion but lots of worries about how to tell stories with enough richness/depth to work with the diversity of personal data that may be shared or used.

End of the first day

There was lots of discussions following the smartphone experiment at the start of the day. A small list of good ways to stop being distracted by your smartphone started to emerge.

I used Quality Time and as said previously clocked up 2 checks and only 20secs of actual screen time. Some people ran into multiple hours.

Quantified Self 2017

This crossed with Aaron’s list deserves a blog of its own really… (coming soon – honestly!)

More than optimization (day 2)

Quantified Self 2017

The over optimization intrigued me on paper as there is always a dark sense of over quantification in the hope of perfection? I hadn’t really thought how it could be used in team sports to create personalize routines for each rugby team member instead of applying a routine to the team broad brush; it makes perfect sense right?

Session 5: Making money from your own data with Monetize.me

After meeting Monetize.me in the second session, I went along to a dedicated session. I think the plan for the session went slightly out the window but it was fruitful and it all came down to data negotiation. I did talk about the databox project and wondered how they hadn’t come across each other?

There was a lot of questions about how much is data actually worth? I pointed at Jennifer Moore and her position as the first personal limited company. I also mentioned how fresh/realtime is the data.

Of course this all lead to questions asking if you could treat all data the same? What about data discrimination and finally what are the business models which can emerge and what needs to change for it to be?

I also learned about Bitwalking which generates a crypto-currancy from the amount you walk.

Session 6: How to plan for data access with choosing a QS tool

Quantified Self 2017

I mentioned Aaron Parecki’s ignite talk earlier, and there was plenty more depth in his workshop. Aaron started out explaining the process he’s gone through with quantifying himself. He talked about the pain of data portability through broken devices and closed services. This all lead him to a checklist he uses.

  • How much effort is required?
  • How does it Sync?
  • What is the sustainability of the service/product?
  • What is the data portability options?
  • Whats the competition like?

Each point had a bunch of issues under them for example in how does it sync; breaks down to questions about centralized servers vs direct sync to a local computer/device. Sustainability was focused on business models of the likes of Apple, Google, Fitbit, Jawbone, etc. All very different and it all depends on the user which once they are comfortable they are with it (if everything is made transparent, and the user can make a real informed choice!). I talked about Gadgetbridge in connection with effort and syncing.

Hopefully Aaron will make his slides public (but this needs some more thought!)

Session 7: Self-Tracking for the Good of the World

With my public service hat on, I went along to Justin’s session. We explored some of the issues with the internet and I did say, we should be looking at the work Mozilla are doing around the internet health report, but we focused on other things.

One of those things was the packages; packages being things which are a mix of hardware, software and service. This was intriguing to me and got me thinking about opinionated software.

We talked about the public benefit of quantified health but there was a large conversation about how you compare data when the different black box devices can’t agree on a step actually is. This was when someone suggested some governance and that the Quantified Self site has a large number of devices/services/packages reviewed. Maybe there should be some kind of ranking system and clear indicator of different aspects of that thing (you could use Aaron Parecki’s indicators) . You can imagine the QS community making it clear what devices are to be avoided and best practices.

I tweeted Gary to say its time the Quantified Self got political.

Session 8: Quantified Self meetups

I drifted around a few sessions but settled on a session about the meetups, as the Manchester Quantified Self meetup stalled a little while ago. Last time I was at the conference I was inspired to setup a QS meetup. I’m still inspired to run the meetup but it was great to hear from those new and old to the meetups.

Sharing stories and hearing from Steven who is well known in Quantified Self circles was very useful. There was lots of questions about the choice of the format, use of meetup, etc. Steven pretty much said the Quantified Self will support any changes the organizers make. That would include format, event, description, etc changes.

Like Gary said at the start of the first day, things are always changing and they are flexible to these.

With this in mind, I have kicked off another Manchester Quantified Self with a different format.

The wrap ups

Quantified Self 2017

The last keynote talks were fascinating and centered around circular/cyclical time. The picture of the complexity of patterns summed up so much of it.

The people

The best thing about Quantified Self conference is the people, they are so amazing. No edge, just open and all so geeky. No matter where we were it was great conversations which spilled out from the many sessions I didn’t get a chance to attend.

Quantified Self 2017

On the first evening we started at the Casa balcony bar then had dinner at the Café-restaurant De Ysbreeker and ended up Canvas again. Love that place and its so weird seeing it become this incredible place now from the squat it use to be.

On the second night, we headed out in search of cocktails (theres a story behind this, which I never actually posted till now). We almost ended up at Prik and Blue boy which will make 3 people laugh. This time we ended up in a Amsterdam festival and then a speakeasy place called Door 74. Being a geeky quantifiers, we decided to hack friendship by trying the 36 questions in a group.

We didn’t get far, but I actually think it worked…

Quantified Self 2017

Another great time at the Quantified Self… So much learned so much to think and act on. If I have anything to do with it, I’ll be back next year for sure. Massive thanks to everyone who I bumped into over the 2 full days. It was emotional, fun and exciting all at the same time. Special thanks to the newbies who I spent a lot of time with.

Quantified Self 2017

I joined Wire… slightly under peer pressure

Wire on Linux

I looked at Wire a while ago but stuck with Signal. Some friends think I’m insane when I say I’m not using Whatsapp, but I have many reasons.

Herb asked me why I use Signal and not Wire, then a few people at Thinking Digital put the final shot in the social cannon. So I re-looked at it again and installed it alongside Signal.

They are quite different, for example Signal is very tied to a phone number while Wire is but isn’t (well you can only register one phone number which is a shame). I can login with the email across devices and it doesn’t seem to offer its self as a sms/mms client. While Signal does offer to be a sms/mms client if you accept it. But you can’t run Signal on multiple phones as it locks to that phone number.

I originally didn’t see the 64bit Ubuntu/Debian package, so ran it through Wavebox which makes websites act like native apps. But today I saw the deb.

Generally I’m thinking of Wire as something more like Ubuntu, while Signal is more raw like Debian. I’m sure some will hate that comparison but I look forward to seeing where they both go next, both are secure, open and run across all platforms.

Whisper disappearing messages

But as they move forward with features, will they keep the same data ethics (privacy, security, data ownership, identity, permission) in mind? I really hope so..

Updated

Old friend Gabby has been talking to me on Wire and pointed me at this blog post which pretty much sums up the difference I found with Wire & Signal.

Wire vs other intant messeagersOne of the biggest differences compared to other secure messengers like WhatsApp or Signal, is that Wire does not require a phone number to sign up. Anyone can register with an email on desktop or tablet and then decide if they want to use the same account on their phone or not.

Rating people, reciprocity and more…

Black MIrror s3ep1

I also like Doc Searls have a problem with rating people.

I’ve hated rating people ever since I first encountered the practice. That was where everybody else does too: in school.

After all, rating people is what schools do, with tests and teachers’ evaluations. They do it because they need to sort students into castes. What’s school without a bell curve?

As John Taylor Gatto put it in the Seven Lesson Schoolteacher, the job of the educator in our industrialized education system is to teach these things, regardless of curricular aspirations or outcomes:

  1. confusion
  2. class position
  3. indifference
  4. emotional dependency
  5. intellectual dependency
  6. provisional self-esteem
  7. that you can’t hide

It’s no different in machine-run “social sharing” systems such as we get from Uber, Lyft and Airbnb. In all those systems we are asked to rate the people who share their cars and homes, and they are asked to rate us. The hidden agenda behind this practice is the same as the one Gatto describes above.

I use Uber now and then especilaly when outside of Manchester for work. I also have used Airbnb and of course host on Airbnb. I’m under no illusion how the rating system influences peoples opnions and behaviour too. Its meant to weed out bad behaviour but always seems to cause unintended consequences. I’m sure the people behind the scence have good intentions but fail to think about the law of unintended consequences.

To be clear I don’t have a problem with rating a piece of media or something non-human, for example I rate most of the media I watch. But rating a person feels a little hostile/weird. As the Black Mirror episode nosedive (s3ep1) clearly demostrates to great effect.

Recently I have been in a few Uber’s for other people (not sharing the fee) and its been interesting to see how people have rated each other. More interestingly is the social contract/mulipulation which spring into action. It starts with the driver stopping the journey and saying “I’m going to rate you 5 stars.” My friend then turns around and says they will do the same, and does. This is classic Law of Reciprocity as described in Influence.

As I tend to think about these things too much, I also find the loop holes in the system equally interesting.

On my holiday to Iceland, the host(s) moved me to another room and I went along with it because I was fed some line about helping them out. But actually there was something dodgy going on, as I met the Airbnb which was moving into my room I had booked.

I was peed off but not quite enough to want seek a refund, I wanted other people to be aware of this and my review explained exactly what happened.  Also brought this up with the hosts the day of this happening and private messaged them through Airbnb. My rating was fair I felt because it was unfair to lie to me about their motives, especially when I’d be very open with them. No rating system could really capture this.

The system is your review goes live once the other person also writes a review. Part of the review is rating out of 5 stars which is the bit which bugs me, because boiling down everything to 5 starts seems too simple.

Generally I only rub sholders with this stuff every once in a while. For example my Uber rating is 4.92 out 5 (partly because I don’t use Uber that much and treat the drivers like people not drivers, I talk to all the taxi drivers regardless). I’m also a superhost on Airbnb because I don’t take a lot of people and very careful who I host at my own place.

Due to these ratings I get a skewed view on each of these system. On uber I only get uber drivers which are rated 4.5 upwards (I hadn’t noticed till one of the drivers pointed it out to me a while ago). With Airbnb I have the luxury of being stricter with who I accept, partly because I don’t need to have guests all the time. However as a guest myself, things are different. Here are my 3 guest experiences

  1. (Japan) was so bad I stayed for 30mins and complained to Airbnb, getting my money back after a long back and forth with Airbnb & the host in question.
  2. (Portugal) was perfect
  3. (Iceland) was good till the end when the host lied and “double booked” the room (see the review here).

But this is about rating people…

Ratings are misleading and a horrible way to understand human complexity. They can be gamed and easily used to spread inequality. We play along unaware how we all contribute to this all.