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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Concerns about personal online privacy growing

May 31, 2010
by Mark Ollig

Facebook sure has opened a can of virtual worms when it comes to online privacy issues.

In addition to its privacy issue concerns, Facebook is also facing a huge trust (as in lack of) issue on the part of the users of its service.

Some Facebook users I chatted with in other forums said they have left or are thinking about leaving this social networking site.

Of course, it is common sense in understanding how we must be careful about the type of information we provide over any social networking community.

How many of you have ever Googled your name to see what information would come back?

Scary, isn’t it?

The information about us is gathered from the sites we visit online. One term for this collection of online information is called “data harvesting.”

Are we living in an age when keeping private ones social online networking communications is over?

It shouldn’t be.

Some counter by saying if you are using a free social network, you should just accept having to give up your personal privacy.

I whole-heartily disagree, especially when these social networks already told us upfront how they were committed to protecting our personal privacy. Would any of us like to have our personal cell phone numbers be made available all over the Internet?

Some of the reasons I joined Facebook was to reconnect with old friends and family who were already using it. It seemed the perfect online venue to have a place to chat in real-time, send and receive messages, and to share pictures and videos. This is part of what an online virtual community is all about.

Facebook is close to having 500 million users, which makes it one of the largest online social networks on the Internet.

There are some positive benefits in having a social network this large. Many people have found lost family members, networked and found new jobs, or reconnected with former schoolmates they had lost contact with. Others are using large social networks as a tool in their genealogy research. Many businesses are now appearing on Facebook.

It is apparent that Facebook has become the local online meeting place for many of us. It reminds me of the venue we would go to when we were young – a certain place we could stop by where we knew our friends would sometimes show up.

It has become almost second nature to me when I come home from work (alright I check Facebook messages during the day with my iPod) and log into Facebook to catch up on the latest postings by my friends and family. In fact, it has become a habit.

I have found myself sending messages to family members more often using Facebook than through my Gmail or AOL e-mail accounts.

The fact that Facebook assured us new users we could be in control of our own privacy was another reason many of us joined.

Facebook’s original privacy policy simply stated none of our information would be shared with anyone who wasn’t in one of our groups of friends.

Today, their privacy policy contains more words than the US Constitution.

I am not leaving Facebook at this time, but I am anxiously awaiting Facebook’s 26-year-old founder Mark Zuckerberg’s new “simplified privacy settings” announcement (which will be released by the time this issue of Bits & Bytes is published).

If you have already decided to leave Facebook, you might want to know that today, May 31, has been declared “Quit Facebook Day” by a web site called (you guessed it)

The “quit Facebook fever” is now out in full force.

From David Lyons latest article in Newsweek magazine to Internet podcaster Leo LaPorte, many mainstream and cyber media journalists have gone negative when it comes to Facebook.

There is even a WikiHow manual on how to quit Facebook at

Well, I suppose, if I ever do decide to leave Facebook, I can always meander over to the social network community at Google Buzz.

Speaking of Google, it seems they are in a bit of trouble over privacy issues with Germany and New Zealand.

While those infamous “Googlemobile” cars (with the hyperbolic video camera on the roof) were driving the highways and byways of the world collecting its street mapping information, they were also collecting other information.

Why am I not surprised by this revelation?

Germany says Google may have been collecting information about the area’s wireless networks and information on its users whenever their Googlemobiles came in range of wireless signals.

New Zealand claims, “Google obtained ‘payload data’ while photographing New Zealand streets for their Street View.”

“Maintaining people’s trust is crucial to everything we do. . .” wrote Alan Eustace, Google’s Senior vice president of Engineering and Research, in a recent Google blog post I read at

Can’t disagree with you there, Alan.

For starters, let’s first see if Facebook can regain the trust of its users.

In the meantime, we all need to be on guard and not become complacent regarding the information or text we make available over Facebook or any other social network.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Diaspora versus Facebook gaining momentum and dollars

May 24, 2010
by Mark Ollig

A definition of Diaspora: “Any group that has been dispersed outside its traditional homeland.”

Facebook has become the social networking homeland to many of us who are online.

However, with the negative publicity about Facebook’s privacy concerns being brought to the surface during the last couple months, some Facebook users have deleted their accounts and are looking for an alternative social network.

When I think of all the personal information, pictures, videos, and messages people have uploaded and stored in the “cyber-cloud warehouses” of social networks like Facebook, I realize one has the right to be concerned about how secure and safe that information really is.

Leo LaPorte is well-known in the online world for his video podcasts of “This Week in Tech” or TWiT episodes (which this columnist watches).

LaPorte recently made news over the blogospheres when he deleted his Facebook account while doing his video podcast live over the Internet.

Many users are concerned whether or not the social network they are using is actually keeping their private data safe and secure.

These users are also concerned about their private information being sold to various marketing web sites.

I understand social networking sites need to pay the bills; however, it is deceitful when they promise their users control over their own content and privacy, when in fact they are actually providing this information to third parties.

Yours truly is on Facebook and has found controlling who or what has access to personal content via the privacy settings somewhat confusing.

I truly believe Facebook makes it confusing on purpose.

Enter four New York University students who have gone public with their plans to create a brand new “safe and secure” social network called Diaspora.

Dan Grippi, 21, Max Salzberg, 22, Raphael Sofaer, 19, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, 20, are the four young programmers who are writing the software code for Diaspora.

However, they needed some living expense money and so they posted the need for funds on a web site called Kickstarter.

Kickstarter, according to their website is “. . . a new way to fund creative ideas and ambitious endeavors . . .”

The four NYU students posted this message on Kickstarter: “We are four talented young programmers from NYU’s Courant Institute trying to raise money so we can spend the summer building Diaspora; an open source personal web server that will put individuals in control of their data.”

They came up with $10,000 as the dollar amount needed to meet expenses while writing the code for Diaspora over the summer months.

Their message obviously resonated big-time with the online community.

It only took 12 days for $10,000 in donations to arrive.

As of May 19, Kickstarter shows the amount donated for the Diaspora project at an incredible $173,250.

This amount was donated from 5,191 individuals.

The power of the Internet is pretty awesome isn’t it?

It seems thousands of people out there want an alternative to social networks like Facebook.

The amount of money received was obviously a bit mind-blowing to the group of four as they posted this message on their website, “. . . we’ve been overwhelmed by the degree of the enthusiasm about Diaspora, and we wanted to wait a few days to let the craziness settle down.”

They added, “. . . we’re going to build a great lightweight decentralized social networking framework and release it as AGPL software. We’re going to use the extra money to help us reach that goal and to keep improving Diaspora after this summer . . .”

AGPL is “Affero General Public License,” which is a free software license authored by the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

The four plan on distributing the working software code for free.

This code will be openly available, in order to allow other programmers to build and improve upon it.

The students define their Diaspora as “the privacy-aware, personally-controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network.”

The main driving force of Diaspora is that the individual should control their own data, not the social network it resides on.

A video the four created says all of Diaspora’s individual user data will be “fully-encrypted” for complete privacy.

The Diaspora web site says each user will access their own “. . . . ‘Diaspora seed’ a personal web server that stores all of your information and shares it with your friends. Diaspora knows how to securely share your pictures, videos, and more.”

The four currently have an elementary prototype of Diaspora operating on their computers.

I believe we will be hearing more about this “David” called Diaspora versus Facebook’s “Goliath” in the weeks ahead.

The link to Diaspora is

A video the four made explaining what the project Diaspora is can be seen at:

The Kickstarter website is located at

The current status of funds donated to the Diaspora project can be seen at

For those of you on Twitter, you can keep up with the latest Diaspora tweets by following “joindiaspora.”

You can follow my rants on Twitter at “bitsandbytes.”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Effects of Gulf oil spill tracked by university students

May 17, 2010
by Mark Ollig

They are part of “The Louisiana Bucket Brigade.”

A recently launched grass-roots effort began a few weeks ago by students at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA.

Their new web site page is in response to the April 20 British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon drilling unit platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, which claimed 11 lives and caused the current oil spill in the region.

The students are using a web-based virtual “Oil Spill Crisis Map,” which is updated in real-time with submitted testimonial reports using a program called “Ushahidi,” a Swahili word for “testimony.”

The Ushahidi program is a “crisis-mapping” software tool.

Ushahidi was created in 2008, when a Kenyan woman blogger, Ory Okollh, was covering the violence occurring during the country’s post-election.

In her blog, Okollh asked this question: “Any techies out there willing to do a mash-up of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?”

Within two days, a couple “techies” responded to her and wrote an open-source user-friendly code, which became Ushahidi.

Ushahidi provides the means to map in real-time the information submitted by citizen reporters who send in their e-mails, Twitter tweet messages, blogs, mobile text messages, voice calls, and various Web source links.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade web site page uses Ushahidi and is asking residents living near the oil spill to send in reports of how the spill is directly affecting their lives and the communities they live in.

“By mobilizing information from affected communities, the immediate purpose is to contribute useful data. As time goes on, these reports will serve as a record of this tragedy, so that others may never have to bear witness again,” said Mariko Toyoji of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

The information provided by these eyewitness citizen journalists/reporters is used to show the government and responders to the crisis the location of where help is most needed.

I recently visited the BP oil spill web page on The Louisiana Bucket Brigade site.

Here are the report categories under “BP Oil Spill” which contain submitted information:

• Oil Sheen.

• Oil Onshore

• Wildlife.

• Odor.

• Health Effects.

• Smoke.

• Birds.

• Marine Wildlife.

• Livelihood Threatened.

• Property damaged by oil.

• Solutions.

Selecting one of the categories displays a visual indication of the number of currently documented reports on a Google map of the Gulf of Mexico region near the southern US.

The reports are color-coded and contain hyper-linked text.

Clicking on the hyper-text message shows the location, date and time the report was made and if the report was verified. It also shows the complete detailed Incident Report Description provided by the person making the initial report.

I selected the Marine Wildlife category and 15 reports appeared on th,e Google map.

Clicking on one of the links opened a report from New Orleans which read: “Thin film of oil spotted, along with dead young crabs.”

The Oil Onshore category showed seven citizen reports. One report said: “Oil and dead jellyfish at New Harbor Island.”

Selecting The BP Oil Spill category, itself, shows all the reports on the map. One report I chose read: “Golf-ball sized balls of tar reach Dauphin Island.”

Another report, from May 7, said: “5 control burns on Friday.”

The data collected from the people contributing these reports is analyzed and plotted on the interactive Google map in near real-time.

Your Bits & Bytes columnist took a “snapshot” of the information from one of the reports and combined it into a single picture you can see at this shortened link I created:

By using this hashtag: “#BPspillmap,” Twitter users can participate in the online conversation concerning the oil spill and can also submit information to The Louisiana Bucket Brigade using this hashtag in their tweet messages.

You can follow and directly communicate with The Louisiana Bucket Brigade via their Twitter user name: “labucketbrigade.”

To see the real-time status reports on the updated Google map, visit The Louisiana Bucket Brigade at:

The web site for the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, which provides regularly updated information on the Gulf of Mexico oil crisis, is:

The official web site of BP is located at:

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Online social networks started years ago

May 10, 2010
by Mark Ollig

In early 1993, I was reading Howard Rheingold’s book “The Virtual Community.”

With the turn of each page I began to understand the potential benefits a “virtual online community” could bring, and how it would significantly change the way we interacted with each other.

So I was off and running – praising those pioneering online users while asking others the question: “Are you online yet?”

With today’s popular social networks like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, how many of us take the time to think back to those earlier years – before Tim Berners-Lee created his web browser which would dramatically change how the Internet would be used.

Prior to today’s social networks and web sites, online socializing meant many of us were dialing into Bulletin Board Systems.

Logging on to a hobbyist dial-up computer Bulletin Board System or “BBS” required using communication software like ProComm.

Users of the BBS communicated with each other in virtual conference rooms via “text-mode” which meant we just used the QWERTY board.

BBSs were not using any video cams back then, either.

Users on the BBS communicated their personal viewpoints on a variety of discussion topics.

This new online BBS culture meant having a convenient venue for real-time interaction with other people. We were free to express our opinions on many issues – the true BBS culture recognized and respected opposite opinions as well.

Discussing new computer software and hardware were the purposes of some BBSs, others were dedicated to individual hobbies like astronomy, chess or genealogy.

In the days before websites, many companies started a dial-up BBS to allow customers online access to product information.

I recall schools and cities across the country starting BBSs in order to share their information and communicate with the growing online public.

By the early 1990s, yours truly was thinking of a new way to contribute and be a more active participant in the online “virtual community” scene.

I had talked with operators of other Bulletin Board Systems and decided to purchase a popular software program called “The Major BBS” which was made by Galacticomm. I installed some dedicated local telephone lines to my home computer via 19.2 kbps modems and started my own text-based (I later installed a Graphical User Interface) BBS called “WBBS OnLine!”

BBS hobbyists such as myself would spend many hours maintaining, promoting, and operating the BBS. Most did not charge any fees to access them.

The BBS System Operator or “SysOp” duties included moderating the real-time conference room chats, adding new menu choices, utilities, games, and caring for the software and hardware needs of the BBS.

I was so obsessed with starting and operating a successful BBS, I even published ads in the local paper and created flyers which I posted all over town.

Some folks in Winsted might remember when I changed my car’s license plates to “WBBS” in a shameless self-promotional effort on my part.

Did I mention how obsessed I was?

In a couple of past columns (June 12, 2006 and Dec. 3, 2007) this former SysOp wrote about how the BBS culture brought people together online and provided a venue for any type of topic or discussion.

Sometimes, users logged on to the BBS just to play the online games, check for messages from other users, and share “free-ware” software, which included mostly DOS utilities and games.

Many early BBS users were not only learning about the potential use of this new online medium, but were also finding mutual camaraderie in the world of the BBS community, which was one of the main attractions I discovered, along with the satisfaction of operating my own BBS.

Popular nationwide BBS services such as Prodigy, America Online, and CompuServe charged a monthly subscription fee for access.

In 1990, I had subscribed to the Prodigy dialup service.

Prodigy incorporated a colorful Graphical User Interface (GUI) which required us to install Prodigy’s “client software” (from floppy disks) onto our computers.

Prodigy offered e-mail, active user participation forums, updated news, weather, sports ,and online shopping services.

Gosh, I still have my official Prodigy coffee mug in the shape of a monitor and keyboard.

Ah . . . memories.

I wonder what that mug would go for on eBay these days.

To see a snapshot of how Prodigy’s login screen looked around 1990, go to

Twenty-five years ago, Steward Brand and Larry Brilliant started one of the earliest and most popular online BBS communities called “The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link” commonly known as “The WELL.”

In Howard Rheingold’s 1993 book, he says that after a year of participating as an active member on the WELL “. . . it seemed evident to me that the cultural experiment of a self-sustaining online salon was succeeding very well.”

Even today there are active dial-up BBSs operating. Some of them are strictly dial-up and not linked to the Internet at all.

A number of BBSs are reachable over the Internet via telnet protocols.

The virtual online community has come a long way.

Today, we are no longer tethered to a telephone modem and a desktop computer. We are able to stay connected with our online social networks in real-time via wireless mobile computing devices.

This past year, I was in contact with author Howard Rheingold and he personally acknowledged my appreciation for his 1993 book.

You can read the complete online electronic version of “The Virtual Community” at