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home : opinions : letters May 1, 2016

7/24/2014 1:51:00 PM
Letter: Our virtual world is fed to us by self-serving, ambitious people with personal agendas


The VI's editorial decrying Facebook's lack of respect for the users of its "free" social media service drew little debate. Apparently, there is consensus that what Facebook did was wrong. But how many users left Facebook in protest? How wrong must Facebook be before Facebook users are willing to express their displeasure with their virtual feet?

This wasn't the first time Facebook users were unwittingly influenced. During the 2012 election campaign, Google CEO Eric Schmidt put together an IT team for Obama that was able to analyze personal data and enlist Facebook members in hotly contested districts to "share" pro-Obama/anti-Romney links provided by the campaign. Next election, we can expect the Republican candidate to do the same.

Control over what is shown to users is not limited to Facebook. Providers of web search services do not publicize the algorithms they use to determine the order of their search results. If your search providers have a bias, they can adjust search results to support it, and they can do so based on personal information about you. (If you search on a controversial topic and the first 100 results have a similar bias, do you keep looking?)

The fact is, even online news media outlets have the ability to adjust what they show based on who is looking. And the more personal information they have, the more effective such filtering can be.

It's not difficult for a service you use regularly to collect information you don't realize you're supplying.

To use Facebook, you must accept Facebook's cookies--tiny data files stored on your computer and only accessible to the internet domain that set them. The Facebook symbol you see on web pages actually comes from the Facebook's servers, so your visit to any such page can be recorded by Facebook, as can any likes or dislikes you click on that page. (Similar data collection is used by Google+, Yahoo, Disqus, and other commenting sign-ins.) And your personal data is not limited to what you provide on the internet. Data from purchases using credit cards and retailer "rewards" cards is also for sale and can be cross-referenced and combined.

This is not to say all this public knowledge is bad or good. It can be used for either. But we should realize that our virtual world is fed to us by self-serving, ambitious people with personal agendas, and never stop questioning our reality.

David Perrell


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Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Article comment by: Mary Heartman

@ David Perrell and One of these days
I appreciate the assurance that I'm not imagining manipulations. Thanks for some constructive suggestions, although fancy browsers and blockers are out of my league. I'm not paranoid, just annoyed at the time consumed. But I guess it was inevitable that once the means were created, power brokers would use them to gain advantage and control people. Still, the internet is a tremendous resource. Even butting heads with Google, you can find more in an hour online than you could all afternoon in a college library. One thing that works for me is to jump ahead in XX-page increments and then work backwards. I find some interesting tidbits that way, connections I wouldn't have thought to input. As long as people know what's going on and look for ways to circumvent it, the manipulators could be outsmarting themselves.

@ Peter of Yavapai County
Ditto. Facebook, et. al., always seemed like a self-aggrandizing fad to me, and it has to make its money somehow.

But it isn't easy to stay disconnected with the grandkids and nieces and nephews all collecting "friends." One thing all those so-called friends give them is a much larger audience than the VI offers. That counts for something, especially to teens for whom getting connected is a major pursuit.

So what do you do? Like party lines in my day and chat rooms yours, the only thing that won't destroy the benefits of instant messaging is to keep telling them itís a useful tool only if they use it wisely.

Posted: Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Article comment by: David Perrell

For those like me who don't like installing new "free" apps to monitor old "free" apps, there are couple of things you can do to help prevent tracking and other unwanted actions. (Beware, however, that some news organization require acceptance of third-party advertiser access in order to view their videos.)

1. You can set your browser(s) to refuse third-party cookies.

In MSIE, select "Internet Options => Privacy => Advanced" and select "Block" under "Third-party cookies".

In Firefox, select "Options => Privacy". Under "History", change "Remember history" to "Use custom settings for history". Change "Accept third-party cookies" setting to "Never".

In Chrome/Safari, select "Settings", scroll down, and click "Show advanced settings". Under "Privacy", click "Content settings." Select "Block third-party cookies and site data".

Except in Firefox, these actions won't prevent external domains from reading their existing cookies, but it will prevent them from setting or altering them.

2. In MS Windows, you can install a custom "hosts" file that blocks ALL windows programs from accessing tracking and malicious websites listed in the file. The hosts file (a text file, not an app) is updated regularly. For details see http://winhelp2002.mvps.org/hosts.htm .

Posted: Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Article comment by: David Perrell

I think you're right, Peter. A pen pal is far more companionable than 10,000 strangers who agree to gather around your virtual soapbox while you tell them incessantly where you are, what you're doing, how you're feeling, and what you like.

Posted: Monday, July 28, 2014
Article comment by: Peter, Yavapai County

I like your letter, David. I have never opened a Facebook account because I don't trust their intentions.

Freedom is an interesting phenomenon. Our veterans fought and died for liberty and freedom. Today many of us take for granted that freedom and freely give away our personal information in a vain effort to get more "friends".

Mark Zuckerbergs genius (for lack of a better word), was to become a multimillionaire by changing the definition of word: friend. An acquaintance of mine now brags that she has over 10,000 friends! What does that even mean?

I'd rather have 3 friends who I actually know and trust with my personal information.

Posted: Saturday, July 26, 2014
Article comment by: One of these days

David - I imagine there are a few people out there who think you are paranoid but I happen to agree with you 100 percent. The Prism program and the compromise of Google searches made me particularly concerned. I now use DuckDuckGo browser. (I found that a Tor browser is too much trouble to use). At the DuckDuckGo site I found some good tracking blockers - Ghostery, DoNot TrackMe and Disconnect. I also installed the awesome ABP ad blocker. As for search algorithms I don't know what to do about that apart from trying to be objective with my searches and reading a variety of sources. I am careful signing up for things and I always use a secondary email if I am unsure, which is most of the time. Twitter? Please. Just the word makes me edgy. I deleted my Facebook page years ago for privacy concerns. Well, that and it is a colossal waste of time. Later I found that I had to create a fake Facebook page so that I could see important information from my extended family. So I put in a picture of my pet and a bunch of fake info into an account. I never post anything but now I can see baby pics and such from the fam. All these precautions cannot retrieve personal information that remains buried in servers all over the world. No I'm not a felon on the run nor a member of a sleeper cell. But it makes me feel better to fight back a little bit. One of these days people might truly regret that their personal information is a thing of the past.

Posted: Friday, July 25, 2014
Article comment by: The Cowpoke

Perhaps this social media site should be called Two faced Book. What Mr Perrell describes is akin to cyber fraud. It is no less the same as journalists reporting news with half truths, omissions and distorted statistics. Google is another cyber monopoly. Something like stuffing the ballot box. This adds credence to the fact that Citizens have lost control of their spawning defacto socialism.The end result of a distorted Democracy.

America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.
Abraham Lincoln
Don't be so sure Abe there is a joker in the crowd!

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