Saturday, 18 June 2016

Who's Watching the Watchers?

 Everyone is Spying on Everyone

It's the age of ubiquitous surveillance, fueled by both Internet companies and governments. And because it's largely happening in the background, we're not really aware of it.

Most people are unaware of the threat and, if they do, they don't understand their part in ensuring that privacy laws are enacted and enforced.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
— Edmund Burke

Spying is Big Business


Spying is big business, whether it is the collection of "meta data" or the information we provide to join Facebook or to register a product. All of this is valuable information being used to sell to us more effectively.

There are two reasons for this:
  1. the technology to do it is much cheaper to use; and
  2. people are completely unaware of how valuable this information about them is or the dangers that it creates.

The Technology

At one time it was very expensive to employ surveillance, whether in a criminal investigation or for commercial purposes.

Once upon a time if you (or the police) wanted to follow an individual it required one or two tracking teams around the clock. Current technology allows a simple tracking device placed on either a vehicle or an individual so a single person can monitor several suspects from a central location (or simply get access to their cell phones).

Corporate Bulk Data Collection


Corporations collect huge amounts of information about what we click on when we visit their site.

  • Facebook collects information not only on their users but on those that visit any site with a Facebook "Like" icon.
  • Target was able to tell that a customer was pregnant before she knew, based simply on the data about buying habits and other data they'd collected.

It originated with the electronic collection of information by corporations. Then the government wanted in on the deal and pressured Internet companies like Yahoo, Google and AOL to provide the information passing through their servers.

Government Intervention Needed

Of course, this information was basically provided by you for free, so corporations refrain from securing that data like they would their own. This is resulting in mass data breaches that tend to hurt the consumer more than the corporations that experienced the breach.

One example, the Equifax data breach, is a good example of this. Not only did Equifax use the poorest security available but their board placed a higher priority on selling their shares than in letting us know our data had been stolen. This data was of the most sensitive nature, enough to commit identity theft on most Americans, Canadians and others.

Market failures like this can only be solved through government intervention. By regulating the security practices of companies that store our data, and fining companies that fail to comply, governments can raise the cost of insecurity high enough that security becomes a cheaper alternative. -- Bruce Schneier

Privacy and Your Phone 


The police would love to have free access to your phone records, especially for your cellphone.

Your Smart Phone is Reporting Your Location Constantly


The ubiquitous smart phone continually reports its location to the cellular provider in order to be able to be able to deliver text messages, phone calls, etc. This information can be used for other purposes, even some that completely remove our privacy. Many of the apps on your phone want this location information and use it to monitor other apps.

You don't think the FBI request for Apple to unlock a suspect's phone was only about that one incident, do you? It is about the ability to view everyone's phone.

Don't believe me? How about a change in the law that assumes that anything encrypted should be investigated?

Rule 41 regulates the official holidays for court sessions and similar routine tasks, yet was used to legalize hacking by police. I strongly recommend you read the details.
The Department of Justice is using an obscure procedure to push through a rule change that will greatly increase law enforcement’s ability to hack into computers located around the world. It’s an update to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. If Congress does nothing, this massive change will automatically go into effect on December 1. -- EFF Report on Rule 41
Police forces have used devices like the StingRay to capture cellular data for some time, often intercepting and collecting data from innocent parties. This created a stink in Ottawa when government officials wondered if they were the target. The shoe was on the other foot and rather than regulate the collection of personal data, legislators made sure they weren't being affected.

Information Can be Beneficial or Hijacked for Profit

That Fit bracelet you're wearing could provide information that would allow for huge breakthroughs in medicine or could simply be used by your medical insurance company to raise their rates.

Even though the payment structure for health insurance and services is designed so that everyone pays for the collective risk, it would be much more profitable to identify the high-risk users and charge them more. If past experience is followed, it is unlikely that the overall group would benefit as much as the high-risk users would lose.

Protection from Terrorists?


Our governments are spying on their citizens (not to mention the citizens of other countries).  Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance consisting of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States that shares data between these countries. The U.S. government has built a huge new facility in Utah to store this data.

Governments used the incident in 9/11 to tell their citizens that the unbridled collection of personal data is the only way to protect them from terrorists. Whenever questioned, the FBI and other police agencies routinely cite protection against terrorism or child pornographers or hackers for the need to invade our privacy.

Paul Joseph Watson notes that Americans are just as likely to get struck by lightning as they are to be killed by terrorists. If the risk isn't as significant as we're led to believe, then why would the government exaggerate the risk and promote the huge expense of anti-terrorist measures?

Fear measures are being used to justify this agenda and the result is the very definition of a police state.

Other governments have done the same, often getting around the rules that prevent them from spying on their own citizens by having other governments do the spying then sharing the results. The Americans spy on the Canadians and British. The British spy on the Canadians and Americans. The British and Canadians spy on the Americans.

Reinterpreting Old Regulations


Governments and police agencies have reinterpreted old laws in new ways that avoid the legislation that restricts this collection without a warrant. They argue that the information isn't "collected" until viewed. Try that one if the police find illegal material on your computer.

There is a huge difference between getting a warrant to begin surveillance on a suspect and obtaining a warrant to view information that has already been collected for the last 20 years only when someone becomes a suspect.

Technology Moving Too Fast 

Technology moves too fast for the courts to act.

For example, an old U.S. law that allowed mail to be searched only until it was delivered (i.e. while it is in transit). This same regulation was applied to email resulting in a much more liberal and inappropriate interpretation of that old regulation.

Most people now use IMAP protocol for their email that leaves it on the server indefinitely so they can view it from their cellular phone, computers and tablets.

The interpretation that your emails on the server are "in transit" rather than delivered is clearly not what was intended by those that drafted that old snail-mail law.

People are Unaware

People using technology have given up a great deal in terms of privacy. If they only knew the value of what they're giving away. When the service is free, you are the product.

Have you every searched for something only to suddenly see ads everywhere for that same product?

There is a big difference in your reaction to seeing a generic ad for treating hemorrhoids on TV and seeing the same ad on your phone or computer immediately after the doctor sends you an email indicating you have this condition. (You can almost hear the cash registers ringing.)

"Free" Webmail

Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft provide free email service, but scan your email in varying degrees to better know what sort of ads are likely to interest you.

 Windows 10

Microsoft wanted in on this huge bonanza. The free upgrade to Windows 10 took you from a relatively-secure independent computer to one that is essentially a super-Facebook where your information is collected and used to help Microsoft advertise items based upon your personal information.

Windows 10 introduced ad-filled apps rather than applications that simply did what you installed them to do. Instead of paying for Windows 10, you pay to avoid ads in your games and other apps.

Unlike the simple local search Windows 7 conducted for a document on your computer, Windows 10 sends that search request to Bing, just like it would for an Internet search. The only reason to do this is to profile you because your local content is certainly not on the Web. Another possibility is that the search function has been offloaded from the computer altogether (search as a service).

Cortana works by learning all about you -- enough to know who you mean when you ask it something. If you ask Cortana to call your sister, Cortana needs to know who your sister is, her contact information and possibly more.

Misusing Legislation for Commercial Gain

Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies are locking us out of the use of our own data and restricting what we've purchased.

The U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was  intended to stop the illegal duplication of DVDs and music CDs but has prevent researchers from looking closely at software and other goods for vulnerabilities that might affect consumers.

The DMCA allowed Volkswagen to manipulate emissions data when hooked up to testing equipment and prevented owners of John Deere tractors from legally servicing their own equipment.

Disney wants you to re-buy content you already have purchased in a new format. From VHS to DVD to Blue-Ray, Snow White provides a tremendous income for Disney even though there is no new creative content.
"If consumers even know there's a DRM, what it is, and how it works, we've already failed." -- Peter Lee, Disney Executive in 2005.

Learning More

If you're interested in learning more about this I'd recommend reading Bruce Schneier's book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World. It looks at the collection of personal data and how it is being used to manipulate us.

9/11 was used to convince us to give up privacy for security, but the additional information hasn't helped. Schneier describes this exercise as looking for a needle in a haystack of needles.

John Mueller's Terrorism Since 9/11: The American Cases (PDF) shows how misleading the use of the term "terrorism" is and how difficult it is to track actual cases. It is worth scanning if only to better grasp this term that has been used to scare ordinary and innocent citizens into giving up their rights.

See also the resources on my website including Your Privacy at Risk and Social Media: Are You Sharing Too Much?

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Changing Perspectives

A combination of projects in the recent past have me thinking about perspectives and how they affect how we interpret the various devices and operating systems out there.

Rebuilding My Site Using HTML 5 and RWD  Techniques

The first project was a total rebuild of my own website to incorporate the principles of responsive web design (RWD) and HTML 5. These are two different aspects how today's websites are built.

HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) is a markup language that provides hyper-linking capability.

  • Instead of repeating information, you can link directly to the source so visitors can see for themselves.
  • Markup allows you to change how the content is displayed. 

Think of how you add bold or italics to a document and you'll get a general idea of what markup is but it it also allows for more powerful presentation when using the capabilities of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to layout the content and to enhance features.

There has been a progression of HTML versions, the most recent being HTML 5. This version has approached things a little differently in that it aimed to work with both current and older hardware and software. The visitor might not see all the latest or even prettiest content, but the information would be visible and usable.

The second component is the responsive layout, the design of a site so that it was optimized for the visitor's device whether it was a smart phone, tablet, laptop or huge TV screen.

How the Sites Differ

Those familiar with my older sites remember the site navigation was located on the left side:

This was done because more items could be included in the navigation than was practical on a top-based navigation system without using technologies the visitor might not have like JavaScript. However, when viewed on a small screen, the visitor was forced to scroll horizontally to see all the content — not an ideal situation.

The newer design uses two main columns: the main content area (the full width content at the top) and an aside (the column headed by my photo):

 The Computer Services and Web Design Services columns are part of the main content area, but use a technique to split the content into two columns.

As the view port (the technical name we use for the size of the screen) becomes narrower, the content collapses into the smaller area. First the aside slides under the main column then the two-column section of the main content area slide into a single column, the Web Design Services content underneath the Computer Services content.

At the same time, the top-level navigation narrows until it is no longer practical (it would overlap or the overflow would move underneath the remaining navigation items) and it is replaced with a graphic representing the navigation.

The image below shows the home page of my website when viewed in a narrow screen (320 x 480 pixels). Notice the site navigation uses the 3-line menu symbol for site navigation. When the viewer clicks of the navigation, it displays the six navigation elements in six full-width text lines.

Firefox users can see this using the developer tools. Ctrl+Shift+M should bring up a smaller view with some tools at the top. Here's how to use them:

  • The x will close the window and restore the default view of the browser.
  • The 320x480 indicates the current size of the window in pixels. Clicking that button gives you the other size options.
  • The arrow will rotate the screen so you can view it landscape mode such as with a smart phone held horizontally.
  • The finger button will simulate touch events like you'd experience using a tablet or other touch-enabled device.
  • The camera allows you to take a screen shot of the current view.

Redesigning the Content

Because the site was redeveloped from existing content, I was limited in how I might best lay it out. Realizing that the majority of the site visitors were bound to be viewing on a laptop or desktop computer rather than on mobile devices, I opted to optimize the content for these larger screens.

Mobile-First Becoming Dominant

This is opposite of the general rule to build for mobile first (the simplest layout) then add enhancements for devices that were capable of wider displays. Because of this, the sidebar information (which is floated to the right of the larger screens and therefore more visible than content further down the page) is placed below the main page content on narrower devices. This was not ideal, but better than either floating it to the top of the page or not displaying it at all.

Decision Time

I was forced to make some decisions about how content collapsed and that affected how the page was laid out. No longer able to specify the width of the screen, I had to alter several design assumptions.

Many of the old site's graphics were floated left or right (one reason for the fixed width of the content area) but this didn't always work with the new site. Mostly content fell down below the content above it.

Rather than a large centered logo and text, the image was resized smaller and floated left (with a small margin to the left to keep it from bumping against the side of the screen). Smaller devices would resize this so that it would never be larger than the view port.

Issues with the Aside Content

The main change was the aside (narrow right column) which dropped below the main content and was therefore not easily seen in a narrow device. On the home page, there wasn't much content and this was not as much of an issue. Site visitors could scroll past the Web Design Services and Computer Services content to find the Reasonable Rates aside content.

However, there is much more content on my Resources pages so I had to change the internal navigation menu and move items around on the individual pages. I made changes to how I labelled content (particularly what was in the aside) to make sure that visitors viewing the site on a narrow device could locate the content easily.

A Large Site with Several Purposes

This is a large site containing 108 pages of content plus the stylesheets and other content to make it work for multiple screen sizes plus to have enhancements like opening external links in a new tab while retaining proper HTML protocols.

Have a look at the new site and see how I've dealt with these issues.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Death of Anticipation

I came across a remarkable post recently written by Leigh, a woman with a life-threatening disease leaving a legacy for her son.

This struck me on at least two different areas: the insight into the loss of a sense of anticipation and the realization of her perspective.

Those that have attended seminars and workshops on time management will recognize the practice of prioritizing things according to their relevance were you to have only a short time to live. Leigh's blog is intended as a legacy for her son, the things she'd say to him as he grows up were she alive at the time.

Before I received a kidney transplant in 1996 I was forced to quit work at age 40, beginning a period of uncertainty about my future while on dialysis and waiting for a potential donor. A renal patient on dialysis will die without treatment, which tends to put things into perspective and allows me to view Leigh's situation differently than those that have never experienced this.

I can see that much has changed for those born in the last few decades in terms of anticipation. I've had struggles in my life that made me who I am and many in newer generations have not yet experienced real loss or periods of extreme uncertainty. Wrapped in the illusion of safety deemed necessary by an overprotective society, these young people have lost the concept of winning and losing (and the sense of a victory it entails).

I loved Leigh's example of the ever-available strawberry and the resulting lack of anticipation of its arrival to the disappointment when tasting its lacklustre flavour.

We tend to value things more when rare (such as gold) and anticipation doesn't fare well with items or experiences that are ubiquitous. The experience is like hearing a joke told by someone that spills the punchline before the details are fully available.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Beware Online "Filter Bubbles"

In the midst of our concerns about too much information and new technologies, Eli Pariser brings a new concern. Beware of Online "Filter Bubbles" discusses how search results may be hidden from us because of previous, often impulsive, choices. This 9 minute video is a must for all thinking people.

Of course, this will affect how I think about the content on my sites and the searches people perform.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Michelle's Selections

I spent a couple of hours setting up my wife's new blog this afternoon.

She chose the Simple template for a cleaner look that was easier to post.

Michelle's Blog

Updated: August 6, 2012

Epicure Selections products are fantastic and we were looking for a business that she could do without my having to drive her everywhere.

Her blog was originally intended for promoting her Epicure business, but will instead be a personal blog.

Check out Epicure Selections products on Michelle's personalized Independent Consultant shopping site.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Time for IE6 to Die

Internet Explore (IE) has been used by Microsoft to control development of the web ever since IE "won" the browser wars against Netscape. They used the dominance of the Windows operating system by tying IE into Windows 95 after the fact (the judge was so computer illiterate he didn't know what "online" meant, yet he made a decision based upon that ignorance that had lasting repercussions).

Microsoft has since changed the rules with every version of Internet Explorer since (IE5.5, IE6, IE7), ignoring what they'd agreed would be the standards until IE8 (which is pending release). Finally, we have a Microsoft browser that plays by the rules and lets us move the ability to create stunning websites using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) as they were intended, not just to pretty up the text.
IE6 is the new Netscape 4. The hacks needed to support IE6 are increasingly viewed as excess freight. Like Netscape 4 in 2000, IE6 is perceived to be holding back the web.Jeff Zeldman, standards guru
In the meantime, web designers have had to create hacks to create pages that would view properly on a variety of versions of IE, primarily IE6. I can't tell you the frustration of trying to move ahead into a design that doesn't use tables for layout only to find that IE adds extra padding or cuts off a graphic that has been floated to the right or left of text (the guillotine effect). Position Everything has a page devoted to the multitude of CSS bugs exhibited by IE.

Now, with the release of IE8, it is time to let IE6 die. There is a community effort to have IE6 finally removed.

However, there are a number of issues, many of which were listed in the article (unfortunately, no longer available) on the site related to the image on the left, Bring Down IE6.

Many people running older Hewlett Packard multifunction printers found this out when their computers updated to IE7. Microsoft had not only made IE part of the installer for all Windows programs (now if that isn't a foolish move in terms of security, I don't know what is) but HP then compounded it by linking their printing/scanning software to a particular version of a web browser. It probably wasn't' their fault alone. Microsoft probably rebuilt the engine for IE and never gave a thought to what the impact would be on the folks they'd leave behind when things changed.

So where does that leave us? It depends upon your situation. If you're catering to a corporate intranet (internal network) that uses IE6, then you'll need to fix the site accordingly. However, most of us can probably allow the site to degrade gracefully so that content is still available, but the experience is neither as rich nor pleasant for those using outdated browsers. There will be unexpected gaps where padding is added/removed and perhaps the graphics won't display as expected.

However, we've done this for Netscape 4, just like the Bring Down IE6 folks noted. Of course, Netscape wasn't the backbone for cell phone access in a country like China either. Your decision is going to be flawed whatever it is. You'll just have to bite the bullet, either in extra costs associated with finding and fixing the bugs in IE6 or in a reduced experience for potential visitors.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Altering Blogger Templates

I haven't posted for quite some time. I've been busy with several projects over the last few months and have been readjusting priorities (see my previous posts).

However, I thought I'd share a bit about the process of discovering how to make my site and blog similar in appearance without sacrificing function for either.

The images below on the right show this blog and my personal site after it was altered to fit some of the way this blog is laid out.

My blog's design is based upon the Rounders 4 template (designed by Douglas Bowman), which I altered to display my own header photo and include a few other changes.

My blog was originally a research project to teach myself how to modify the Blogger templates so that I could place similar components on Websites as were on their corresponding blogs.

In my site, I retained left-aligned navigation and didn't place right-aligned content on my site to match the About Me and Sites of the Moment content style.

Because the blog template had rounded corners, I rounded the corners of the header image for this blog. The square corners were retained on my personal site to match the layout on that page.

Later, I took what I'd learned here to update a client site and to make three of her blogs look similar to her site:

Each of these had a different Blogger template and I converted each blog into the Son of Moto template by Jeffrey Zeldman before uploading the changed template so that all the settings and content would be retained.

This arrangement gave Sheryl the ability to alter content on her blogs, yet to retain a similar look to visitors moving between the various blogs and her site.

This is one of the big advantages of running a blog—the ability for non-HTML literate users to add content as well as change how the blog looks without losing anything or knowing what's taking place behind the scenes.

Update: The design of my personal site as well as some of the layout on this blog have changed significantly since this post was written but the examples are still valid