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Back when I got my Palm Prē, I noticed that it wanted to store various of my information on Google’s servers. I thought I’d kept it from doing so; I sure wasn’t using Gmail on a regular basis. I configured the Prē’s email client to check my own account on mactane.org, and I thought everything was fine.

Eventually, I gave up on the Prē and switched to my current, Android-powered Samsung Epic. I figured I was in for a boring day of transferring my contacts over manually… until I discovered that many of them had been synced to my Gmail account, and so they showed up in my new phone without me having to do anything.

Considering all the work I had to go to in order to get my to-do list items, memos and notes transferred over manually… I decided that having stuff transfer automatically was actually pretty damn cool. Since I got my Epic, I’ve been picking “Save contact to Google” whenever I create a new contact. So, if I accidentally drop my phone on the street and it gets run over by an 18-wheeler and then the fragments get kicked into the bay and sink to the bottom, I can just buy a new Android phone and have all my contacts “magically” appear there.

On the other hand, all my contacts are sitting on Google’s servers.

Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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Why I’m In Favor of WikiLeaks’ Professed Ideals and Aims

I am not a fan of government secrecy. Maybe some things should be kept secret, but by and large? Our government has overused that excuse to the point of absurdity. We can no longer trust the government to keep its citizens informed about what it’s doing.

Since the run-up to the Iraq War, it’s been pretty obvious that we can no longer trust the news media to keep us informed, either. At that point, journalism utterly failed in its civic duty to question the government and inform the populace about critical issues. Someone needs to step into that gap.

Why I’m Not Pro-WikiLeaks

Some of the information they leaked includes data that identifies people in the field. This puts real people at real risk — people who are trying to do good. This is not responsible reporting.

For all the reasons that it was bad when the Bush Administration blew Valerie Plame’s cover, it’s also bad now that WikiLeaks has blown the cover of various sources in the field. I can’t support that.

Why I’m Very Much Anti-Anti-WikiLeaks

For all the danger that WikiLeaks’ cover-blowing has caused, I feel much more threatened by the attempts to censor the Internet and shut down discussion. The idea that Senator Joe Lieberman can ask ask Amazon to pull the plug on any organization’s Web presence and have it done in under a day is absolutely chilling.

Now, upstream providers are denying service to WikiLeaks mirrors as well. There’s a concerted effort to turn WikiLeaks into the Internet equivalent of an unperson. And “unpersoning” people is not the action of a free society. It’s the way a totalitarian regime operates, not the way I want my democracy to behave.

I’m disgusted with the number of financial institutions that will happily process donations to the Ku Klux Klan, but not to WikiLeaks. It’s been pointed out with some accuracy that it’s now easier to send donations to al-Qaeda than to WikiLeaks.

This says something about who and what it is we really oppose. And I don’t like what it says. We need to stand for freedom, for an informed citizenry, and for justice.

(In that vein, AlterNet’s list of Six Companies That Haven’t Wussed Out of Working With WikiLeaks is somewhat encouraging.)

Regarding DDoSes as A Form of Protest

I agree with the EFF’s statement that it “doesn’t condone cyber-vigilantism, be it against MasterCard or WikiLeaks. The answer to bad speech is more speech.”

Regarding the Pentagon Papers Parallel

The argument that this is in any way different from Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers is ridiculous. The two are very similar. If you ever wonder how you would have stood during that incident (”sure, it’s easy to see in hindsight what was right… but would I have done the right thing back then?”)… take a look at your reaction to WikiLeaks. The two parallel each other pretty well.

To the journalists who are calling for Assange’s prosecution: Are you mad at him because he’s doing the job you should have been doing? Are you so full of spite that you’d advocate to eviscerate the First Amendment that protects your own profession? Oh, right — many of you weren’t really making use of the First Amendment’s protection anyway, since you’re not rocking the boat. That’s why Assange had to rock it instead.

Regarding Rape Allegations Against Julian Assange

There has been a lot of disinformation about this. The pro-WikiLeaks side have been claiming some things that are completely untrue. The only reason I can think of to spread such disinformation is that they don’t want anyone to know the real allegations. That doesn’t make them sound like they’re very confident in Assange’s innocence, by the way.

The charges against Julian Assange include allegations that he tore a woman’s clothing off, that he had sex with a woman without her permission while she was asleep, and that he held a woman down by her arms and pinned her with his body weight.

These are real charges of real rape activity, and the things you may have heard about “a condom broke”, or some bizarre thing called “sex by surprise” are all 100% fiction.

Furthermore, the pro-WikiLeaks side’s false claims haven’t just been about the charges against Assange, but also about the women who brought the charges. For example, there’s a claim that one of them is “a feminist” — as if wanting equal rights should be used as an excuse to deny her justice? There’s the claim that she wrote some kind of “article about how to get even with men”, which is also completely false: she translated a preexisting English eHow.com article on revenge in general, not “against men”. Then there are the claims that either or both of the women are in the pay of the CIA — claims that have not a shred of evidence to back them up.

Assange’s supporters have gone beyond simply smearing these women, and have posted their names, addresses, and other identifying information. In many cases, people claiming to support Julian Assange have threatened to rape his accusers. Then they’ve gone ahead and harassed and bullied other women who had the temerity to point out that the “it was just a broken condom” claim was a lie. And of course, that harassment includes death threats — threatening to kill people merely for trying to speak out publicly.

This behavior is completely unacceptable. It’s inhuman. It’s disgusting.

I am in favor of the free flow of information. But I’m also in favor of taking rape charges seriously. And I’m in favor of whistleblowers, accusers, and those why cry “An injustice has been done!” being able to get a fair hearing without being subjected to death threats. That applies to the Swedish women’s accusations against Assange just as much as it does to WikiLeaks’ revelations about the actions of world governments.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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It’s awfully convenient for Google that their famed corporate motto, “Don’t be evil”, doesn’t actually specify or define what counts as “evil”. And without any definition, they’re pretty much free to do anything they want, and just declare it not-evil.

Now, some of the things they’ve done have just been misguided. For example, I really, honestly believe that when they sniffed people’s unencrypted wifi traffic while doing Street View mapping drives, they weren’t being purposefully malicious, just absent-mindedly misguided. (I also have trouble getting too upset about sniffing unencrypted wifi signals — yeah, it’s kind of bad, but if the people who owned those networks really wanted privacy, would it have been that hard to turn on WPA?)

And then there was the bit where they auto-subscribed everyone with a Gmail account to Google Buzz — which, by default, made huge amounts of information public that shouldn’t have been. This was a really massive mistake, but given the way Google backpedaled from it, I still believe that they were just misguided and didn’t think things through at all, rather than actively wanting to cause harm.

But when Google Checkout tried to impose a “no adult content” rule on Dreamwidth? That’s a lot greyer. In essence, what Google did was tell an organization devoted to enabling free speech that it had to muzzle its users.

Google has the right to choose who it wants to do business with, based on whatever criteria it wants. But just because their choice is legal doesn’t make it “non-evil”. It’s not clear just exactly what “adult content” would have included, but there’s a strong likelihood that it would have included things like:

  • safer-sex information, including family planning, contraception, and how to use condoms properly;
  • discussion of rape, including rape survivor groups;
  • promotion of equal rights for sexual minorities

Keeping information like that off the Internet? Is not helping the world. Suppressing that kind of information harms the world, and I’d qualify it as a straight-up evil act.

It’s possible, though, that they only mean “actual pornography” (however you define that). As much as I personally may like both pornography itself, and the right to disseminate and receive it, I have to admit that simply choosing not to do business with a company that helps people publish it is not, in itself, evil.

So what about entering into secret back-room agreements to try to do an end-run around Net Neutrality and everything it stands for? And then promulgating a legislative framework proposal for Internet governance that would turn the principle of Net Neutrality into a defanged, loophole-ridden and corporation-appeasing shadow of its former self — while pretending, on the surface, to support it?

In effect, this means a full-scale attack on the core of a free Internet. This is something that reminds me of when Microsoft was going to try to “de-commoditize [the] protocols” that formed the basis for the Internet and World Wide Web, back in the first Halloween memo.

If there is a way in which this isn’t evil, can someone please explain it to me? Because it sure looks evil to me.

In the meantime, there’s one tiny problem with trying to boycott Google: They make some damned useful products. Still, if you want to start reducing your reliance on Google, here are some pointers that may help.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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So, Palm was recently caught spying on its users. Major kudos, by the way, to Joey Hess, who initially broke this story. For those who haven’t kept up, various other news outlets and blogs have also been reporting on it.

Palm’s response to this problem is a single paragraph of corporate PR-speak:

Palm takes privacy very seriously, and offers users ways to turn data collecting services on and off. Our privacy policy is like many policies in the industry and includes very detailed language about potential scenarios in which we might use a customer’s information, all toward a goal of offering a great user experience. For instance, when location based services are used, we collect their information to give them relevant local results in Google Maps. We appreciate the trust that users give us with their information, and have no intention to violate that trust.

The problems with this statement are:

  1. There is no indication of how to turn off this particular piece of data collection. Not on Palm’s web site, not in the user manual that came with the Prē, and not in the Prē’s user interface.
  2. For all the “detailed language” in Palm’s privacy policy, there is no slightest indication — anywhere — that they collect information about what applications the user runs.

It’s particularly interesting to look at the “On-Device Services” part of the privacy policy: It mentions types of data that will be collected “If you use services we provide” (emphasis added). For example, they say, “When you use a remote diagnostics or software update service, we will collect information related to your device (including serial number, diagnostic information, crash logs, or application configurations)”. This is the only mention of collection data about a user’s applications, and it clearly starts with “when you use a diagnostic service”.

It doesn’t say “once per day, no matter what”.

Other items under “On-Device Services” start with “When you use a back-up and restore service…” and “When you use location based services”.

All of this suggests that users have some sort of control over what gets sent and when. The Palm Prē’s “Location Services” preferences item has a control labeled “Background Data Collection”, with the caption: “Allows Google to automatically collect anonymous location data to improve the quality of location services.” (This is after other controls labeled “Auto Locate”, “Use GPS”, as shown at right. If you turn on Auto Locate, you also get a control labeled “Geotag Photos”.)

It doesn’t say that Google (or anyone else) will collect data on what apps a user is running. And it strongly implies that this data will only be collected when I actually run an app that uses location services — for example, Google Maps, or OpenTable (which wants to know where I am so it can try to find nearby restaurants).

And it blatantly claims that if I turn off that switch, it won’t send my data off to big corporations any more.

So far, I’ve verified a few things:

  1. The application data log includes installs, uninstalls, and launch and close times for all apps, not just Palm’s official ones. Homebrew and third-party apps are included.
  2. Flipping the Background Data Collection switch does not turn off the contextupload process that’s responsible for sending the information to Palm’s servers.
  3. Nor does it stop logging application launch and close times. I’ll repeat that: My Prē is still logging application launch and close times into /var/context/contextfile, even though I have Background Data Collection turned off.

We in the technology business have a technical term for what Palm is doing when it claims that it “offers users ways to turn data collecting services on and off” in the context of this particular data. That term is: lying. Palm is lying to us, pure and simple.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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