Saturday, June 20, 2009

Privacy, schmivacy -- or: iCyte = I spy?

After I wrote this diatribe against social networking tools, I decided to put matters to the test. More at less at random, I picked out the MySpace page of a young woman I've never met, who lives in another state. The goal: Find out everything I could about her, using the info on that page plus Google and some elementary-my-dear-Watson deduction. Every technique I used was quite legal.

Within about half an hour, I had this girl's entire life. I had her real name, her many photos, her place of work, her life history, her parents, her family, her home address, a picture of her front porch (by way of Google Maps Street View), her favorite drink, her schooling, her religious views, her tastes in the arts, her ambitions, her complete itinerary for that day -- and of course (since all of America's daughters nowadays feel compelled to present like mandrills), her measurements, kinks and fellatio depth. But I didn't get her telephone number, so don't ask for it.

For half a century, people have fretted about governmental theft of our privacy. That may no longer be a worry. Why should Uncle Sam steal something we're willing to give away?

Take Facebook. Facebook was funded by a "venture capital" company called In-Q-Tel, which is, or was until quite recently, a front for the CIA.

Upon reading the previous sentence, many people will scoff and make some very clever remarks about the tin foiliness of it all, even though every word of that sentence is true. (The only iffy area would be the nature of In-Q-Tel's current CIA links.) Some 200 million people post personal info to Facebook. The info is collected, collated with IP addresses, and sold to anyone who might be interested.
In-Q-TEL's primarily invests in new Data Mining Technologies.

What does that mean? essentially, In-Q-TEL ciphers the internet in search for "systems" which can help the CIA data mine with ease. Something like myspace, and facebook, essentially gives the CIA access to trends in various demographics aswell as ... thought patterns and behaviors.
The personnel behind Facebook have all sort of interesting links to the Pentagon's Information Awareness Office.

I may have stumbled across a new variant of the Facebook trick. It's called iCyte.

Not many days ago, I received a PR release for this new free free free piece of software, which is designed to help you do research on the net. (The mere fact that a free software company had paid a PR firm aroused my respectful attention.) You can see some of the promotional material here and here.
With iCyte, anyone can simply highlight the information he or she would like to save and click the iCyte icon on the browser toolbar. Then, the data can be categorized into different projects designated by the user. Tags and notes can be added for further categorization of data, creating an easily searchable database of the information each user finds most important...

Regarding iCyte’s day-to-day uses, Foley adds, "iCyte is perfect for holding expired eBay pages, keeping blog history, organizing holiday accommodation, saving online purchase order receipts, storing and sharing student research - pretty much anything that is part of your daily internet usage." iCyte is the ideal product for college students; they can use it to store important research material for assignments, along with their own personal projects.
"Sounds pretty good," I thought. Then I visited the iCyte main page and saw the dreaded words: "CREATE ACCOUNT." Yes, you have to give up personal information about yourself. Why?

I sent that question to the PR company and received a reply from the head honcho of iCyte, Stephen Foley. I also expressed curiosity about how iCyte intends to make money with a free service.
The reason why we need your name, email address and a password is so we can hold your work product under your identity. If we did not have your login information then we would have no way of knowing who you were and what work product to show you.

There are many well known "free" web sites such as facebook, twitter and linkedin who ask for similar information.
Making reference to Facebook and Twitter was not exactly the way to get in on my good side.

The bottom line is this: If iCyte becomes a widespread, industry-standard tool of doing internet research, if using iCyte becomes second nature to one and all, then all of your research materials -- including your notes and marginalia -- will be stored not on your computer but on their computers. Not only that: All of that stuff will be available to everyone, unless you mark your project as private. And even if you do opt for privacy, the folks behind iCyte will know what you're up to, and they will be able to connect your line of research directly to your email address and your IP.

No aspect of my life is more personal than my research. Unless and until I decide to publish, I don't tell anyone about the things I'm studying, pretty much for the same reason I would not go prancing down the street naked even if I were legally permitted to do so.

I'm the kind of guy who often sits in fast-food restaurants with a stack of books on my table. The books are stacked upside-down so passers-by can't see the titles. Why? Because it's nunnayerbidness if I'm reading about Jack the Ripper, and I don't want you trying to start a conversation with me based on those books.

Go ahead; call me paranoid. Sometimes, paranoia is our friend. Over the years, I've left a shoeprint on quite a few little piggies, and some of those little piggies belonged to some mighty powerful pigs. For example, my series on Brent Wilkes attracted a lot of attention. Wilkes was the con-man "defense contractor" whose life-long best friend was the number-three dude at the CIA. Any writer who focuses on guys like that had best play his cards close to the chest.

That's why I never give out my home address to anyone, even to people who want to send me free stuff.

Back to Steve Foley and iCyte: He dodged my question about the funding. Apparently, that information is, er, uh, you know...private. All we are told is that he is an Aussie, and he has private investors who appear to be fairly well-heeled. You want more data? You're not on need-to-know.

But very soon, Foley will be on super need-to-know. He will be in a position to tell Certain Interested Americans (or perhaps A Symposium of Irritating Snoops, which comes to the same thing) just who is looking into what, all over the world.

That is, if this software catches on the way Facebook did.

"Career suicide." Look, I'm not a luddite or a technophobe. I mean, I'm using Windows 7 and you're (probably) not, so neener. But even if you scoff at my tin-foilish angst about the Cigar Importers of America, you should still think twice before you dive into the great pool of social networking systems.

The following comes from the advertising materials for a new report called The Dark Side of Social Networking, by David Gerwitz:
David's 1,086 word Special Report explores the following issues:

* Employment: how social networking can lead to career suicide

* Reputation: how something you say now could haunt you for years into the future.

* Malware, phishing and identity scams: how using services like Facebook and Twitter without caution could cause you serious financial loss

* Physical security and stalking: how social networks give stalkers and other scary people an almost minute-by-minute update on your habits and haunts

Gewirtz asks, will a log of Twitter or Facebook postings provide future "palling around with terrorists" albatrosses for candidates in 2012 and beyond?

As for physical risk, he says, "The potential for horror is enormous. If a criminal can easily find out where you are, what stores you frequent, what your daily habits are, who your friends are, and even what your personal food, entertainment, and beverage preferences are, you can be targeted with a level of ease never before possible."
It's not just social networking. Everywhere you go in today's society, you run into people asking too damn many questions. The first time a Frys Electronics employee asked for my phone number when I tried to buy a motherboard, I was shocked. That event occurred many years ago -- yet I'm still shocked that they asked. And shocked at myself for answering.

My brother recently lost his beloved cat and thus decided to adopt a kitten from an agency that handles such things. Given the great number of homeless pets, one would think that these agencies would be overjoyed to encounter anyone showing any interest in feline ownership. Instead, the Cat People forced him to fill out a long, long form. And by "long" I mean long -- three pages.

They asked: Do you live in a house or apartment? What's the address? Rental or ownership? Is there a yard? What is your income? Married? Children? Smoker or non-smoker? Place of employment? How many years employed? What's your credit score? How many people live on the premises? How many other animals live in that house? How many animals have you owned throughout your life? At what age did those animals pass on? How much would you be willing to spend on veterinary care per year? What sort of food will you buy for the animal? Do you travel much? Phone number? Cell Phone?

And so on. And on and on and on.

My brother reached a point where he could no longer take this nosiness very seriously. The questionaire asked: "Are there any special rules you would impose on the cat?" He answered: "Cat may not own a gun."


Tina Tequila said...

My tin foil hat tells me that once iCyte is installed,my every search is recorded. Passwords too.

MrMike said...

What about those remote file back up services? What's to prevent some snoop agency from going thru your archived files stored off site?
On a related note. Ever notice when the cops or the feds raid some schlub's home they take everything?
Not just the computer but the keyboard, monitor and everything else?
I wondered about that until a friend put me wise, a complete system easier to auction off to replenish the doughnut fund.

katiebird said...

Is it OK for me to post a link to this to FaceBook?

I don't know anyone who posts (on Facebook) anything they wouldn't say in the comments of any blog but, maybe THAT's too much under the circumstances?

Anonymous said...

We also had to fill out a long form in order to adopt our dog. We assumed that this was done in order to prevent the dog from being "Fristed", but how effective a tool this is in stopping such treatment is debatable.

Good post with lots of info. Thanks.

old dem

glennmcgahee said...

Dear Joseph, I know you've done several stories about the fake Treasury Bonds that were headed for Switzerland. I just read a piece identifying them as fakes also. The gov't sources that said they identified them as fakes cited the fact that they used photographs of them on the web to easily see that they were fake. Now, what else have we seen photographs of on the web that many of us also thought were fake since we never saw the original and could only go by 1 single source that used a questionable photograph that was picked apart by various people all over the net, yet we were told to accept a the real thing although all requests to see the original were turned down. I'll give you a clue with the initials B.C.(Hawaii).

Anonymous said...

Most of the questions about the cat are to prevent people who really shouldn't own a cat from owning a cat...e.g. you live in an apartment that doesn't take pets...

I honestly don't see a problem with any of THOSE questions -- except the credit score question -- The Humane Society obviously doesn't want you returning the cat in 3 months because you can't keep it.

As for the rest, yes, it's voyeurism, yes it's scary. I have a Facebook account -- under an assumed name. It's only purpose is -- voyeurism. Okay, I'll admit it. I am living proof that it happens. ;-). But I use my voyeurism for good rather than find out how long lost aquaintances are doing....people whom, for whatever reason, I wouldn't dream of contacting but I'm curious about them and hoping their lives are better than they were.

And BTW, thank you for allowing anonymous commenting. Blog comments are another place where we frequently can't be anonymous.

Anonymous said...

My policy when asked for personal information is to lie.

Lie, lie, lie and lie some more.

And I despise those socialist networking thingies.

Anonymous said...

My tin foil hat thinks it is risky to even respond to this post but here it goes.

I remember an article from long ago that Google was also funded by the CIA.

And back even further I remember an old 60 Minutes report. When people were still scared to hear them knocking at the door. That described the data mining technique used to bust up the mob. I remember the simple graphics in green with the lines drawn to each connection and the data compiled on each person.

And even further back, my mom and several of her friends from work discussing the Clipper Chip in the 70s.

The govt was trying to get that chip into computers before most people had a pc in their home. While most people probably think this battle was fought in the 90s. It had been going on for two decades at that point.

Those computer geeks decided that the only way to fight such a thing is through technology. That they would outwit the govt at every step.

It was a good plan at the time. Dealing with the reality that the govt would eventually win the battle. Of course, they also viewed Bill Gates as the one that would sell out to the govt before any other company. He who steals intellectual property from another company for profit won't think twice about stealing the little guy's privacy for the govt.

So they all bought Apples.

Anonymous said...

This can work both ways. Facebook and MySpace friends reveal personal connections between intelligence personnel as well. That's a good way to do open source collection on intelligence and state department employees. It's seldom what any one of them would post online but what you can learn and deduce from following postings across a friends list.

Zee said...

Well, if things like "fellatio depth" become common dating informational tidbits, I suppose we have not only these stupid social networks to blame but also those vile reality tv shows, the sheer number of which means an entire lost generation must voluntarily poison themselves watching them.

I think employment and reputation won't be affected in the future, because everyone's dirt will become as commonplace and dull as those MTV bimbo shows.

Hey, if Jon "I can grope the Secretary of State" Favreau can act like an emotionally stunted frat boy years past college, everyone's job will be safe.

On the other hand, adopting animals will probably become more difficult. When I adopted my dog they actually called and interviewed my friends and place of employment. The amusing thing is, they had the wrong number for my work and kept calling and missing a woman with the same name as my manager. When they finally approved me, my manager said they never reached her, so some stranger ended up giving them the ok that I worked with her!

I think the more invasive they get, the more ordinary people will have each other's backs.

Joseph Cannon said...

Anonymous 6:51 -- I do not really allow Anonymous comments. Frankly, the "no anonimity" rule is a way of weeding out assholes. The quasi-literates who come here to accuse me of working for the FBI or whatever are always anonymous.

I definitely would prefer if you came up with some sort of nick. You don't have to sign in to anything. Just sign with your nick at the end, the way you would sign a snail mail letter.

Mazoola said...

Odd you should post this just now, as yesterday I emailed a few friends about a pair of disturbing experiences I recently had.

The first was discovering that had reverse-engineered (or were given) the (real name):(user ID) relationship for MySpace and Friendster. A Spock search on my real name returns links to my two [lightly] pseudonymous accounts. Nothing a diligent web researcher couldn't find in 10 minutes -- but now any yahoo (ahem) can do the same.

The more troubling incident occurred when I popped onto Facebook, and the "suggested friend" was Daniel Hopsicker. Well, I thought, it's not too surprising to find a number of my friends are also fans of Hopsicker's work, and I clicked "add as friend." Only then did I go back and check to see who we had as a mutual friend.

No one.

It later occurred to me I've corresponded with Hopsicker from the email account I have registered with Facebook; I suppose it's conceivable at some point he uploaded his address book, and now Facebook is pinging everyone it recognizes from that list. If so, that's kind of creepy -- but it's nowhere nearly as creepy as the alternative, which is that Facebook somehow discovered my interest in Hopsicker by data mining Cannonfire, BoingBoing, and related sites....

Anonymous said...

Oh, I some times post with Anonymous, but figured you could tell, from the frequent visits...etc.

Woman Voter ( can't remember my pass word)

Joseph Cannon said...

I can't believe that so many others have undergone the third degree simply because they wanted to adopt a dog or a cat. Jeez. Aren't a lot of pets being gassed? Isn't it better to chance giving a canine to Peter Pauper, as opposed to tossing the beast into Doggie Auschwitz?

We found my fearsome hell-hound Bella wandering the streets at 4 a.m. My philosophy is, when it is time for you to have a dog, the universe will drop a dog on you.

If I had had to undergone a grilling before being allowed to keep the dog -- well, I would not have been able to keep her. I'm sure that a poor person such as myself could not have passed the test. But that dog has known a lot of love since 2001. Lots of great food, lots of midnight trips to the park, lots of sleeping right next to her Daddy. Not to mention the fact that this blog has made her famous. And she has been sick only twice.

Joseph Cannon said...

By the way, although I am anti-tobacco, who the hell CARES if a pet adoptee smokes?

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thanks for this information. This is very timely for me as I just began setting up a Facebook page after being chastised by some work associates for being so remiss these past months/years. I spent my first hours on the network this past week.

I still don't get it, but I did notice you have to give a lot of info just to get into it. Now I'm going to rethink the whole thing.


Bob Harrison said...

I carry a cell phone and burn on average two minutes per month. Why the hell anybody would want anybody to know their every move is beyond me. Who cares if you're standing in line at McD's ordering fries? And that is the level of most cell phone calls, texts, and tweets. I would, however, jack into the Matrix.

Nadai said...

I find myself curious about the fellatio depth - how does one determine this? I have a mental image of marking inches with a Sharpie and then seeing where the smudging stops. I'm also unclear as to why someone would want to announce the answer to all and sundry, but that's probably because I'm old.

Zee said...

Nadai...I'm beyond knowing why or how these girls could post such a thing regarding depth...but one guess might be to exaggerate or make it up in an effort to attract more well-endowed fellows.


Joseph, regarding the dogs at our local shelter. It's a no-kill shelter. I think a lot of people from the city come here and dump their dogs because the city's shelter does put the abandoned animals down. They have a lot of pure-breds, even tho of course they usually don't come with papers. I got my pup over two people in front of me because I grew up with that breed. They charge a pretty hefty adoption fee (to cover the initial vet fees, plus extra for pure-breds) and had no clue it took every dime I had at the time for me to adopt him, get him set up with supplies, etc. I mean, he's spoiled to bits, eats better than I do, sees the vet regularly, but I have been mending his old toys and knotting odd socks instead of buying him new. It is super expensive to maintain a dog. I would go adopt another one, because so many people have had to give up theirs when they lose their homes, but that would be impossible for me at this time, alas.

Actually, many breeds have a "rescue" association, which saves certain breeds from kill shelters and fosters them until they're adopted, so I may be able to foster...and as unfair as that is to mutts and mixed breeds, many of these rescue groups will rescue a mixed breed, too, if they can recognize part of the mix as their focus breed. But as far as I know they're even more strict than the shelters... some of them refuse to adopt animals across state borders, because they don't want the animal transfered beyond where they can do a home check, and/or don't want the animals flown.

Haha, well, I can't really comment on the original topic here, because I have no clue what anyone's talking about regarding "reverse engineering" and "pinging."

Nibbles McGee said...

I do not GET social networking sites and never have. Why do people even like them, let alone spew their whole lives onto them??? It is, as Joseph posts, crazy.

Perry Logan said...

Sorry, Joe--you don't get neener privileges for using Windows 7.

Windows 7 is commercially-available software from the biggest vendor in the world--not exactly esoteric nerd stuff.

Hoarseface said...

As someone who first gained access to the internet as an adolescent using AOL with faux credit card numbers (generated, not stolen. I had no money, and it was EXPENSIVE), internet anonymity was ingrained in my nature from the get-go. To this day, I won't put my name in for the "Computer Name" when installing Windows or other software, or even supply my real name or contact info when making a Yahoo email account. To my mind, the safe rule of thumb is: If supplying real contact info isn't absolutely necessary, give 'em the BS.

Joseph Cannon said...

H, You're right. But you always do supply your IP address.

Okay, there are ways around that. But most people don't fool with proxies.

creeper said...

"Go ahead; call me paranoid."

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

I think the problem is that people are not paranoid enough. A little more paranoia might have served us well the past few years.

Anonymous said...

Another concern the applicant raised was that by providing the City with a Facebook user name and password the City not only has access to the applicant's page but also to the pages belonging to all of the applicant's Facebook "friends."
**->google for "universal adversary"

b said...

Nice one. And there's Google too - Israeli in all but the admission.

I registered a couple of domain names through an ISP and webhost that allows registration through a proxy but where you still 'own' the name. It was impossible to pay them other than through Google Checkout... But then after I gave Google my personal details to enable payment, no payment could be taken. I then contacted the ISP and they were as nice as pie. Sure, just pay them through WorldPay or whatever, which I did. But this hadn't been available before. At one time, Google were threatening to refuse to link to sites at proxy-registered domains. I think there must have been some kind of deal, wherein the company was made "an offer it couldn't refuse" to ensure that all would-be proxy registrants' details get given to Google.

I wrote to Google saying since I didn't use your payment service and won't be wanting to either, could you please delete my details. They wrote back refusing, bragging about how they would use them for "legitimate business purposes".

As well as Facebook etc., one could also mention the disgusting penchant of millions of people for carrying switched-on microwave tracking devices on their person...

We're fucked, I'm tellin' ya!

The kids just don't and won't understand.


djmm said...

I am not quite as paranoid as you, Joseph, and did have to undergo a house visit to adopt a special needs cat from a no-kill shelter group. But why anyone would voluntarily give away their privacy to join a social networking site is beyond me. They must not have read the same books I did growing up.


Anonymous said...

I downloaded and installed iCyte today. (I registered my name and email address only). Everything was fine until I went to add a photo to my profile. On browsing my local photo folder, I didn't get as far as selecting a file, my antivirus immediately blocked a trojan. Reported by Antivirus "trojan.win32.fraudpack.oyl malware package"

I have uninstalled iCyte but right clicking in IE7 still show an iCyte menu entry!

I would be very suspiscious of using this software.