Archives For social media

surveillance camera array

On the one hand, I am somewhat surprised by recent revelations about exactly how much we’re being watched on the internet by the NSA. However, the big surprise for me is that they couldn’t get data form Twitter. Considering that it’s building an immense data center in Utah, and works with tech companies on a regular basis, is it really that astonishing that the agency is browsing through our communications metadata on a regular basis? We all suspected this was the case, so if anything the current furor is almost a required reaction of anger and hurt to have what we always thought was happening and didn’t really want to, actually is happening. The question is what to do now, in the PRISM-aware world. Citizens know they’re being caught up in the dragnet when they’re just going about their day, foreign companies are afraid of the NSA spying on them via the advanced cloud technology the United States sells across the globe, and China could sit back and laugh off American reports of its hacking and spying on the web as hypocrisy.

Another fun fact is that Americans are actually split on how they feel about the NSA’s snooping and a majority of 56% says that privacy is an acceptable casualty in trying to catch terrorists. It might also be telling that the split hasn’t changed much since 2006 and that it breaks down by a distinct partisan preference, with liberals and conservatives flip-flopping on the issue when the other party was in the White House. So while the press is incensed and investigative reporters are falling all over themselves to talk about PRISM, the American people are shrugging it off by party affiliation. I would expect everyone to carry on as normal because if Facebook and Google didn’t have a mass exodus of accounts, it’s very unlikely they will. Plus, the NSA isn’t reading all the e-mail in your inbox. It just has a record of you e-mailing someone at a given time and if you are in the United States, your phone number and e-mail should be crossed out in their system, until of course a secret court order grants the analysis access to request the whole e-mail.

Even the slowdown in purchases of American high tech gear is likely to be temporary because much of what we’re hearing from many other countries is an almost mandatory response to the revelations about PRISM. In reality, many of the countries buying these tech products have very extensive spy networks of their own and engage in cyber-espionage on a daily basis. It’s kettle calling the pot black, and it’s likely that the rumors of tech companies giving the NSA back door access into their servers are just not true. There’s a number of ways to supply data to the NSA and a number of ways the NSA could’ve gotten the data itself. I’m not going to speculate how in this post because a) I don’t know the agency’s exact capabilities, b) there are people from both defense contractors and military agencies reading this blog who I’d just annoy with speculating, and c) most of them are probably much worse than having the companies just play ball when a court order comes down and an incredibly powerful agency is knocking on their door.

Now, none of this means this isn’t a big deal. But what it does signal is that the country which is dominating the world in the tech field and serves as the key node in the global communications grid has been crying wolf about cyberwarfare and espionage while actively waging it. We were starting to be sure of this when Stuxnet was discovered, we suspected it even stronger when all of its ingenious siblings like Flame and Duqu floated into the spotlight, we had a good idea that the United State was publicly holding back when reports of its potential in cyberwarfare drills with allied nations started surfacing, and with PRISM, we now know it for a fact. On the one hand, it’s bad news because your privacy is now not only being compromised by bad security or very lax internal policies of web giants, but by the government as well. On the other, we know that we’re hardly defenseless in the cyber realm and will fight and spy right back. Make of these facts what you will. It’s not like we can put this genie back in its virtual bottle anyway…

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server connections

One of the most frequently invoked caricatures about computer illiteracy involves some enraged senior citizen demanding that something he finds offensive or objectionable is deleted from the internet because we all know that once something is out on the web, it’s out there until there are no more humans left anywhere. This is actually kind of cool. We’re a civilization that’s leaving a detailed, minute by minute account of who we are, what we did, and how we did it, mistakes and flaws included, in real time, and barring some calamity, hundreds of years from now, there could well be a real web archaeologist looking at your Facebook profile as part of a study. But that’s also kind of scary to EU bureaocrats so they’re arguing for a kind of right to forget for the web, a delete by date for every piece of content out there. This way, if you say or do something stupid when you’re young, it won’t come back to bite you in your future career or social interactions. It seems like a good, and very helpful idea. Too bad it’s pretty much technically impossible.

Sure, you or someone could delete a certain file on cue from a server. But the web isn’t ran on just one server and all major sites nowadays run in a cloud, which means that their data leads a nomadic life and had been replicated hundreds if not thousands of times over, and not only for caching and backups, but also for the purposes of anycasting. Without anycasting, getting your data from the cloud could be a miserable experience because if you’re in LA and the server that hosts your data is in say, Sydney, there’s going to be a lot of latency as it’s traveling through an underwater fiber pipe thousand of miles long. But if the closest data center is in Palo Alto, there will be a lot less territory for the data to cover and you’ll get your data much faster. Though this means that the same compromising picture, or post, or e-mail is living in both data centers. And on their backups. And in their caches. Oh, and all the other "edge servers" in all the other data centers used by the website’s cloud, directly or through third party arrangements.

Additionally, marking each piece of data with a self-destruct feature is very problematic. If data can be marked for deletion, it could easily be un-marked, and knowing that all data now has its use-by timestamp will mean a lot of very painful and expensive changes for the databases and the data centers expected to support this functionality. Putting a price tag of a few billion dollars on this sort of rewiring is probably very optimistic, and even then, it’s a certainty that a hacker could disable the self-destruct mechanism and keep your data forever. Likewise, what if you do want to keep a certain picture or e-mail forever for its sentimental value and lose track of it? Will you still be able to stumble on it years later and relive the precious moment? Yes, embarrassing stuff on the web for the foreseeable future and beyond is a big deal, but there is a purely non- technical solution to it. Think twice before posting, and understand that everybody has done an embarrassing thing or two hundred in the past, and will continue to do them in the future.

In five to ten years, we would’ve been living online for roughly two decades and seen generation after generation enmesh themselves into social media with mixed results. Barring something far too alarming to ignore, like current proud and vocal bigotry, someone’s past missteps shouldn’t be held against them. We’ll eventually forget that the pictures or posts or e-mails are even there and when we unearth them again, we’ll be dealing with a totally different person more often than not, so we can laugh them off as old mistakes not worth rehashing because that’s exactly what they are. The current legal tooth-gnashing about the eternal life of digital information is coming up because this is all new to the middle aged lawyers and senior judges who have been used to being able to hide and forget their youthful indiscretions and being unable to find out anything of potential shock value about someone’s past without digging for it on purpose. Generations used to a life in public are almost bound to have a very different, much more forgiving view.

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paranoia

Recently, word got out that a major defense contractor has been working on Riot, an application that tracks people across the web to figure out what they’re doing, and give those using it some sort of an idea of their routine. In the demonstration video, an employee is accurately placed as a morning gym rat who can be found on a treadmill at 6 am, should anyone want to ambush him with a warrant or start trailing him for one reason or another. Sounds kind of creepy, huh? It’s a massive computer system that knows where people are, their friends, and gives faceless agents of various three letter entities a deep look into their lives. But of course there’s a caveat to how scary Riot really is and that caveat should worry you, the average internet user, a lot more than anything that can be done by Riot. For all its predictive and tracking abilities, Riot can only use public data, data you shared with social media sites which can be read with an RSS feed. So the efficacy of Riot is essentially based on its victim rather than a backdoor into his digital life.

Don’t want yourself targeted by Riot or whatever Riot 2.0 is being cooked up? Keep as much as you can off Facebook and make sure you and your friends stay on top of your current security settings. Turn off any automatic geolocation services on your smartphones and on your favorite social media sites and clients, and don’t check in on any of them. This would make you virtually invisible to the application. You’d be little more than an occasional blip on the radar which isn’t all that easy to decipher. Now, if Riot was able to crack your passwords or install a backdoor into your social media accounts and your phone, then you’d have to start worrying. But what I saw in the demos shows a sales pitch for an automated way to do something many intelligence agency analysts can do by hand nowadays and reliant on internet savvy but security naive users to do much of the data mining on themselves, handing over their lives via FB and Twitter.

If anything, the leaked video shows how easy it is for those who live on the web to expose a lot more than they think they’re exposing to the outside world, that is if they’re even aware of how freely they release intimate details about their lives and daily routine to complete strangers. And of course, those who are mindful of how much data is being collected on them and how easily an overlooked security setting can put information meant solely for friends and/or family can spill in the social media world, will take care not to expose themselves the way Raytheon’s test subject did, rendering the use of this app to find potential terrorists and spies rather moot. The digital medium allows for all sorts of interesting cat and mouse head games and false trails can cover a spy’s trail, leading analysts to dead ends and making them waste hours on wild goose-chases as they try to establish routines and patterns from fictional data being fed into social media sites on a daily basis. And this is why Riot is likely still in its proof of concept stage…

[ illustration by Sven Prim ]

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locked door

An obscure company called Silent Circle wants to secure your smartphone using nifty tricks you wouldn’t think are out of place in a Bond film, if movie studios could manage to get a technically literate edition of the franchise out there. Not only will its app secure your data with some really powerful encryption algorithms, it will also allow you to build a self-destruct into e-mail, text, and media messages, and the data about how you used the company’s services will be deleted from their servers after a week, data that could easily be anonymized to protect you even further. Oh and the servers happen to be in Canada, where digital privacy laws are much stricter than in the United States, meaning that by the time anyone wants to file a subpoena to get to your data, the data in question will either be long gone by the time it could be reviewed, or not exactly usable. It’s nice to have this sort of data protection and privacy as a consumer, isn’t it? And if anything, Silent Circle’s approach to your privacy should be adopted by the next iteration of the web.

Basically, the whole Web 2.0 business model is predicated on giving you free tools in exchange for the ability to mine data about everything you do. Social networks are basically stalking you, not for something nefarious mind you, but to show you ads, thinking that somehow they can use your online data to predict your tastes. Unfortunately, this has the nasty side-effect of leaving a lot of digital fingerprints easily accessible to pranksters, criminals after your credit card number, and hackers working for an authoritarian regime that would like to see you silenced. Likewise, it allows any company offering a service tied to a mapping app on your phone to see not only the places you go, but how often you go there, how long you stay, and thanks to Facebook’s utter lack of respect for your privacy settings from version rollout to version rollout, with whom you go there should you fail to keep on top of every setting on a regular basis. To be blunt, very few of your tracked behaviors, if any, offer any real predictability in your buying habits, so most of the free Web 2.0 services just log everything, hoping to find the magic formula for ad makers.

Now, with cloud storage easily accessible to all, and more and more of us trying to keep rather important data online just in case, hopefully in encrypted file lockers, we need more privacy and social media data that allows hackers to guess answers to our security questions, narrow down our password guesses, or track when we’re out of the house and about how long we’ll be gone, compromises this privacy. So for the sake of their users, companies need to track users less, to log fewer of their actions, to stop following them around with ads they didn’t opt to see, and do a periodic log purge not to hand hackers treasure troves of sensitive data should anyone ever get into their backend servers and snoop through a few of their databases. This would mean that a typical online user would have to pay a small fee to make the service viable, but considering the return on investment will be security and privacy, isn’t a few dollars a month worth erasing huge, exploitable chunks of data about him or her from the web? Of course no security scheme can ever be perfect, but any security and anonymity is better than the flimsy pretenses of it used by major online services now. And that goes double for their vast logs of everything you do…

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internet cat

For the last few years, we’ve all been told that ill-considered pictures on social media sites were going to come back to bite us. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter if you had a few crazy or wild pictures from your college days on Facebook because you’d just limit the access to your friends and it’s college so those days are past and should have nothing to do with your ability to do the job for which you’re applying. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Employers are judgmental and your privacy settings can be manipulated or circumvented, and lately there have been too many cases of employers doing exactly that. And without a court order and a lot of hard work, you will not be able to prove that you were rejected for a job not because you didn’t have a high enough GPA or enough years of experience, but because a picture of you having — gasp! — some fun once in a while, made a prudish HR manager purse his lips in disapproval and ditch you.

To help remedy this state of affairs, Viviane Reding, a high ranking European politician, is now trying to introduce a "right-to-forget" law which would mandate that pictures you no longer want on social media sites are removed and stay gone. Technically, social media sites already comply with takedown requests but the process can be slow and cached versions can still rear their ugly heads if someone knows how to rephrase a search. This law basically wants the image to vanish from the web as much as possible, and by doing, is asking too much. Once a picture is out on a website, it can be downloaded and reposted, cached, and distributed at a whim and any picture that goes viral can have literally thousands of different copies residing on servers around the world. Just try to track all of these copies down. You won’t be able to because the very nature of the internet today will be against you. That means that if you become internet famous for taking some very awkward body shots at a bar snapped by an amused stranger, you’ll just have to live with knowing that there’s little you can do to make sure that picture is wiped out.

So this is a bit of an issue, isn’t it? With everybody carrying around a camera linked to a social media ecosystem that’s not going anywhere anytime soon, despite its poor profitability, you will either have to watch your every step, become a homebody, or just deal with the consequences as they come. We can no longer get away with stashing embarrassing or questionable photos of ourselves in a shoe box or throwing them in the trash. How do we handle that? My suggestion is purely non-technical. We adapt our culture to deal with it and think twice before anything goes online under our names. That’s all we can really do because adding more filters, blocks, hacks, and privacy settings just tends to create new security holes and rarely deter determined sleuths with a good grasp of how social media and exploits work. And employers looking through profiles on social media sites will need to stop looking just because they can, since so many of them will already perform background checks, credit checks, employment verifications, education checks, and drug tests. Really, that should be more than enough.

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dartboard

During the heady, pre-IPO days of Facebook, the tech world was being told that because half a billion people were registered on the site, not only would it become the platform for virtually any business venture or marketplace, it would also harness the contents of its massive data farms to drive customers to the right advertisers. The concept was that mapping out the connections and likes between people and their favorite pages could target ads to precisely fit someone’s profile and served as part of a news feed or a handy sponsored link in the sidebar. This social web was supposed to be the way, the word, and the light of all social media to a viable business model. If we go by the performance of Facebook’s stock, that’s not exactly what happened, and the rather mediocre returns on investment advertisers are seeing on the site only add insult to injury. Just as many users click on blank ads as they do real ones, suggesting that when they do click on a sponsored link, it’s likely to be a mistake. So much for hypertargeting as the future of social.

Here’s the problem a lot of large social media sites trying to make money can’t seem to solve. All the millions of users they have are so used to having everything free and have gotten so adept at filtering ads screaming at them from every direction, they’re using the tool for its social benefit while treating what’s now supposed to be the site’s bread and butter as an annoyance they just have to tolerate to use the awesome free tool. This is why Facebook or Twitter can’t even joke about a paid subscription to keep using their sites. Maybe about 1% of hardcore users who do need to keep using their tools will switch over while the other 99% flock elsewhere. If people are not used to paying for something, they sure aren’t going to start unless there’s simply no way to get what they want otherwise, and even then, many will just choose to go without, figuring that a monthly or even annual fee is asking too much for how little time they spend on these sites. And this is why we were being pitched the social web as the answer to the question of how any social media site should make enough money to truly live up to its hype. Instead of selling a small and controversial monthly subscription, they’ll just sell your data to companies instead.

However, the social web concept also suffers from an underlying flaw. It doesn’t account for a lot of human behavior because the interactions on the site effectively obscure them. You might get an ad for Nike running shoes because you liked a comment by your friend about how much she loves running in her new Nikes. From a computer standpoint, it makes perfect sense. You were friends for years, you comment on each other’s’ posts on a regular basis, you must be at least a little swayed by your friend’s opinion, right? But how does Facebook know that you’re friends on the site only because your parents know her parents and it would look bad if you declined her friend request? Where do you specify that you are on a completely different part of the political spectrum than her, couldn’t care less about running or tennis shoes, and only interact with her for the sake of appearances? She could say that Nike shoes cured her guinea pig’s cancer and you still wouldn’t care, mostly because you just ignored her status update in your feed, like you do for nearly every one of her posts. In this case, the social graph delivers a dud.

Human behavior is a very complex subject and there’s a wide variety of reactions humans have to the same ideas, events, and things. Trying to reduce them into predictable formulas to build a graph designed to predict how they’ll act is a fool’s errand. It will either be too specific, or vague to the point of being utterly useless. You’ll be relying on the belief that people are exactly who they are and what they are online, a real stretch considering that we have trouble figuring out if people are who they say they are or believe what they say they do in person. Add to that all the changes we experience throughout our lives, changes shaped by hormones, big decisions and their consequences, and even small events that inspire us to do something new and different at a moment’s notice, and you may as well try to call your social web Laplace since it would have to summon a variation of its metaphorical demon to get any sort of consistent accuracy when put into action. To ignore this was either wishful thinking on Facebook’s part, or an complete lack of familiarity with how humans generally tend to work out in the wild of the internet and IRL…

[ illustration by Bogdan Suditu ]

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One of the great things about writing a blog is that you never know who might just show up and opine on what you wrote. Back in September, I wrote a post about the complexities of human behavior in a post-Singularity scenario in which we’d exist as data on servers, kind of like virtual Sims or avatars in Second Life, using an odd interview from one of Second Life’s famous sexual performers as a starting point. And wouldn’t you know it, months later, the very performer in question dropped by to offer a link to her older talk on how the web and technology in general are changing our sexuality. It was a whirlwind tour of sexual kinks and fetishes on the web today and yes, it has some NSFW images and content so you know when not to check it out for yourself, but when you get the chance, I recommend at least a review of the second half. Basically, it posits that sexual behaviors have made their way to the web and we’re creating new fetishes out of them, and that technology is setting the stage for future cultural and societal changes, making us bolder and more sexually inventive. But it also seems to drastically overstate how much of an impact technology can ultimately have on our sex lives…

Unlike the previous article on sex and the web we reviewed, this one thankfully eschews cheap sexism and personal bitterness, providing a solid overview of the kinks that thrive on the web. However, when told that the technology we use to simplify communication is changing the way we satisfy our biological urges, I tend to be a little skeptical. Sure, there are plenty of red light districts on the web and I’ve written about how and why just about every type of NSFW content will not just survive, but thrive in all iterations of the web, but we need to ask ourselves whether the web is creating new phenomena or if it just gives us an arena to discuss what has been around for a while. As noted by the author, humans have always been trying something new and exciting behind closed doors. And as we know, a lot of fetishes we think are new, have actually been around for a very, very long time. Yes, even furries, which seem a lot like a modern spin on the various sexual imps or demons of the Middle Ages and post-Enlightenment religious communities. The web hasn’t created any of them, it just left a very public and easily accessible record of what was once hidden in rare books and spoken about when no one was listening. Just as much as we are living in an age where instant global communication is the new norm, we’re also living in an age of T.M.I. thanks to social media and Web 2.0.

Of course this is not to say that having more and more people discussing their kinks more openly has no real effect on society in general. We learn that some of the urges we thought were shameful and rare are actually far more frequent and shared by a lot of other people. We learn that gender stereotypes are often quite wrong. We find new communities and explore new things. Above all, discussing what was repressed with shaming by fiery, often hypocritical demagogues who appoint themselves authorities of right and wrong, gives us the chance to deal with these complex and important issues more productively. But that in itself doesn’t change a whole lot about our sexual nature. It just lets us come to terms with what’s already there and gives us an outlet or two for self-discovery. When we get right down to it, sex is a biological issue and it’s the biology that has the ultimate say in what human sexuality will be like until our species either goes extinct, or if transhumanists are to be believed, turns itself into mostly mechanized cyborgs with completely different methods of reproduction. Though, come to think of it, were we to pursue the machine route, sex as we know it could go extinct because the reproduction itself might change beyond recognition. If new humans are assembled or grown without any sexual interaction taking place, all the energy evolution invests in our sex drives may go elsewhere.

All that said, I do have to acknowledge that modern technology has given rise to at least one new fetish known as techno-sexuality, or ASFR. In its simplest form, it’s a sexual attraction to robots because robots could be a perfect companion provided they either mimic humans or human personality enough to elicit some emotional response. However, it’s very doubtful that we’re going to see a huge explosion in ASFR anytime soon because for many, the robots are more of a surrogate for a human object of affection than an entity they completely and totally separate from humans. Why else would ASFR art incorporate so many human elements into it or focus so much on the human form? Of course I could be wrong, but as far as I’m aware of, they haven’t been any in- depth studies of techno-sexuality dealing with the origins and evolution of the fetish. So if you’re a psychology major interested in researching sexuality and looking for an original thesis, here’s one to consider.

[ illustration by Margherita Premuroso ]

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before. There’s this brand new thing all the kids are using and it’s completely and utterly rotting their brains, turning them into a bunch of lazy slackers who don’t listen to their parents, don’t eat their vegetables, and don’t do enough homework. Sounds like the war cry of every older generation when they see the younger ones embracing something new, something around which they really can’t wrap their minds, and frankly, really don’t care to do so. First there was the outrage against a couple of hippies with long hair in tie-dye t-shirts, then we had them looking for Satanic messages in rock music, then the moral outrages over the popularity of urban culture thanks to the commercial success of hip hop and gangster rap, and now, they decided to go after the web, particularly social media sites, you know, before they rot all the kids’ brains just like apparently every new fad, idea, technology, and social shift before threatened to do if it weren’t for all these brave, introspective critics ready to leap to the rescue with books trumpeting the imminent mortal dangers…

I know that the Guardian calls it tech skepticism, but actually this is just old-fogeyism with a new target. We’ve had the very same attitude with every new mode of communication and every new trend that captured younger generations. For every new idea or every new jump forward in communication and entertainment, you can find a panel of self-appointed experts who insist they know that whatever the particular new trend is, it’s awful and measures must be taken to curtail the threat. Back in the 1950s, these so-called experts were warning kids about the dangers of comic books, which just so happened to be taking off at the time and weren’t very much liked by older generations. In the 1980s, they shrieked about sinister Satanic cults manipulating Dungeons and Dragons games, because one mother coping with grief and too creative of an imagination decided that a nefarious, supernatural plot is unfolding in basements where nerds do what we tend to do best: argue about technical minutia. In their quest to "protect youth’s fragile minds" and to sell a few books, they’re on the lookout for anything new and different so they can sound the alarms and write vacuous books warning us of phantom menaces that typically exist only in their own minds and provide no real supporting evidence.

For example, take the treatise of Nicholas Carr, highlighted by the Guardian. As we’ve already seen, Carr’s big revelation about how the internet is overwhelming people’s brains is based pretty much on his own inability to read a magazine article or a book without wandering off to check his e-mail, and if he can’t stay focused, then by the noodles of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, neither can anyone else and the web is turning us all into meat with eyes and a severe case of ADHD. Like Carr, other technophobic crusaders have also made a habit of generalizing sad anecdotes and making wild, baseless claims while citing breezy, lackluster studies, an immense disservice to any shred of legitimate critique they might have since it gets buried under hundreds of pages or thousands of words which really boil down to "things are different, I don’t like them, therefore, they’re bad, and they’re bad for kids." What social media did was expose more and more about people’s behavior as they mindlessly share things they shouldn’t or make comments that reveal their shallowness or callousness, and in all too many cases, utter factual illiteracy. It’s those displays that these technophobic old fogeys can’t wait to cite in defense of their arguments, spectacularly missing what’s going on when they do.

If you blame social media for people who show themselves to be shallow, ignorant, ill-mannered, or will just come off as complete jackasses, you’re not even blaming the messenger, you’re blaming the vehicle that let him deliver that message. Social media is just another method of communication which gives you the digital equivalent of a blank page and you can use it to write a profound insight to share with the world, something to put a smile on people’s faces, or abuse it to emit ignorant spew and settle your petty scores in public. Social media doesn’t create all those the old fogeys eye as victims of the web’s corrosive powers, it just gives them enough rope to hang themselves, and hang themselves they do, often spectacularly. And if anything, a world using social media tools is one where we can no longer hide how rare real talent and real wisdom is among the oceans of mediocrity. Maybe that’s what the old fogeys miss? That illusion of our greatness generated by those with talent and skill emitting their signal over the noise of those who couldn’t be bothered to do anything with their lives? Well, it’s gone now and the noise is louder than ever. But instead of blaming the culprits who might buy your book, it’s much easier to set out on a vendetta against technology, even when it doesn’t make sense and will serve only to continue a very unnecessary and detrimental status quo

[ illustration by Taylr ]

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For the last week or so, there’s been a new meme making its way across the web, a Failbook post in which a particularly devout and ignorant person declares that a mere ten foot difference in our orbit is all it would take for Earth to become either an uninhabitable hothouse, or a frozen ice cube of a world. Someone with a shred of sanity and some basic knowledge replied to his friend to politely explain why that’s impossible, and in what can only be described as cementing one’s idiocy, the original poster demanded not to be corrected again. It’s truly a frightening display of imbecility to behold, and it may have served as an inspiration for Phil Plait to give us a basic rundown of the 3 million mile change in our orbit from aphelion to perihelion, and end it with an odd and out of place invitation which dealt with something that wasn’t even mentioned until then…

Oh, and hey, one more thing. Every now and again I’ll hear from a kid or parent who tells me that they had a teacher or friend claim that if the Earth were just a few thousand miles closer or farther from the Sun we’d burn up or freeze. That’s clearly silly, since over the course of six months the Earth’s distance to the Sun changes by 3 million miles! Not only that, but the Earth is 8,000 miles across and spins once a day. That means at noon you’re 8,000 miles closer to the Sun than you are at midnight, and I don’t general see people bursting into flame and then freezing in a block of ice every 12 hours. So if you ever hear that particular bit of silliness, refer ‘em here.

Now far be it from me to say that Phil was responding to this massive failure of critical thinking featured on an offbeat blog cataloging people’s inability to self-censor on the web, but it’s certainly up his alley. And really, if all it takes is ten feet from one perfect spot to either freeze or burn up, then we should be all extinct three times over. As noted by the voice of sanity in that thread, all those recent quakes in the Indian Ocean, Pakistan, Haiti, China, and Chile should’ve moved us so far off our ideal orbital niche that our planet would be utterly devoid of all life. Since this hasn’t happened, I could only assume that her assertion is wrong, and if she quotes such a ridiculous and easily debunked claim with a straight face, attributes this supposed fact to God’s powers, then growls at being corrected while managing to have friends who approve, it’s actually a very scary indictment of her and her friends’ education. I’m sorry, I meant lack of education. And it really does scare me to know that a whole lot of people go on to parrot nonsense like this without a second thought and choose to remain proudly ignorant when confronted with the facts because admitting that they’re wrong is an alien notion to them.

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They’re out there, looking at your social networking profiles, party pictures, comments on news sites and even what your family and friends are doing online. They’re employers who receive your resume and decided that to make a proper decision about your potential at their company is to cyber-stalk you. In fact, some 70% of them rejected you for what they saw as an online transgression in an accelerating trend since 2008, when some of the first tales of corporate cyber-stalking during the hiring process came to light. Supposedly, they only want to check if you’ve been misrepresenting your job history by looking through your social media accounts. But it’s not exactly a comforting thought to know recruiters browse through whatever they can find out about you while saying they’re “just checking things out” and making silent, and sometimes costly judgments about your fate.

Sure, you can argue that anything that goes online is fair game and if you don’t want anyone seeing a photo or a comment, just don’t post it. Plus, you could always use your privacy settings to lock your profile down. But we should remember that employers aren’t just looking at Facebook anyone but searching for anything about you. And that’s when the real trouble starts. What if they come across a blog you’ve started and get incensed after a post catches their eye? At that point it doesn’t matter if your blog gets ten or ten thousand views a day, all it will take for your resume to be hurled in the trash, or your job offer to be revoked is just one view that disagrees. It can become a way to discriminate based on political affiliation and religious beliefs (or lack thereof) in a way that makes it much harder to address. Did you write something in praise of the health reform bill, or authored sympathetic odes to tea party zealots? Got something to say about the merits of atheism or state your explicit religious beliefs? Oh too bad, so sad, your resume just wasn’t up to par for Acme Corp according to recruiter Jane Doe after a really, really careful and thorough review…

Of course proving all this in a court of law would be very difficult. Unless you have your own blog and know the methods for tracking down IP addresses of visitors to find someone accessing it from a corporate computer, you won’t know who viewed whatever information was used to ultimately discard your application. And even if you do, once you start getting into the realm of a thousand daily visits, it would become a full time job to watch where your readers really are. When it comes to Facebook or Twitter, you’re on your own. To find any proof that you were the victim of discrimination based on your personal information would require a subpoena or two for the histories of the recruiters’ corporate networks and even then, it’s your word against the recruiter’s. You say he left a nasty comment on your post about the politicians you support, or your story of leaving your childhood faith, then threw away your resume. He says you weren’t as qualified as another candidate whose resume he can’t produce because it would violate privacy policies. And the comment wasn’t from him anyway since the IP which was registered was just the gateway IP for the company’s private network.

The most important thing to note here though, is that sifting through your personal information online to find a proper candidate who will make a perfect ideological fit at a company has nothing to do with that candidate’s professional abilities. Maybe if she’s applying to be a PR manager or a social media strategist, a slick profile that’s designed to attract employers would be a bonus. But for a programmer, an administrator, or an analyst, this kind of scrutiny is a case of recruiters sifting through personal information just because they can and they just happen to find it. They’re not supposed to and they can always claim they’re not digging into way too much detail, but really, its there at your fingertips and chances are, you’re going to look and you’re going to judge. An entire entertainment industry has been build on the human propensity for gossip and voyeurism so pounding your chest with your fists and declaring that you’d never look at really personal data isn’t very convincing. Even worse, this development gives ever more leverage to those who want to censor bloggers they hate by outing them in the hopes that employers will do the dirty work of rejecting their hated writers for jobs or firing them in the urge to avoid any and all controversy, even an ultimately meaningless one…

[ illustration by Sven Prim ]

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