Anonymous apps get bad raps, but they fill gaps: The good side of anonymity

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This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

There are a growing number of social media apps that encourage anonymity — Popular services such as Ask.fm, Secret, Whisper and Yik Yak allow people to post under an assumed name, or no name at all. A new one, called Rooms, is actually owned by Facebook — the very company that popularized the “real-name culture.”

Plenty of discussions about these services focus on the risks, but I am going to present the positive side. There is a reason why they are popular and there are some advantages to being able to post anonymously.

Most importantly, anonymity frees you from having to worry about your “permanent record.”

The good side of anonymity

Online safety experts have repeatedly warned people to think about their reputation before posting, because something you post on a service like Facebook can come back to haunt you later. And I’m not just talking about rude or harassing comments or pictures of you abusing substances, but things like sharing opinions that might not be popular among your friends or future employers. When you don’t have to put your name on a comment, you’re more likely to say what you really think, even if it’s politically incorrect within your circle of friends.

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At a panel I moderated at the recent Family Online Safety Institute, or FOSI, conference, Secret’s Dave Willner said that people sometime use anonymous apps to share good news so it’s not seen as bragging. It’s common, he said, for people to use Secret to post about a great new job, a raise or to satisfy a burning desire to share news that’s not final or official.

When you sign up for Secret, you give the app access to your phone’s contact list and optionally your Facebook friend list, so what you post is shared with people you know even though they don’t know it’s you. You can also share with people nearby so there is either a personal or location affinity with the people in your circle.

But Secret users don’t even have a profile or username, which means that others can’t form an opinion about you based on what you say because there is no “you” attached to the comments. People would have focus on what you said, not who you are or what you typically say. The service prohibits naming people in comments, except public figures.

Dealing with demons

All of the anonymous apps allow you to share things that might be uncomfortable to discuss if people knew it was you. You might desperately need support if you just lost your job or broke up with a partner even if you don’t want people to know. Perhaps you’re having troubles at home, work or school and want feedback on the way you’re interacting with your partner, parent, sibling, co-workers, boss, teacher, etc.

Apps like Secret, Whisper, Ask.FM and Yik Yak are wonderful ways to discuss things like substance abuse, illnesses, obsessions, religious doubts, sexual orientation and other issues you might not want to disclose.

Level playing field

Yik Yak CEO Tyler Droll said his service “levels the playing field and gives everyone an equal voice.”

On Facebook, he said, “the popular kids have more influence.” On Yik Yak, “the quietest kid in the class can be the funniest and the person with 20 Twitter followers can now reach a huge audience.”

Droll said that it puts the focus back on content rather than who’s saying it. Yik Yak, which is popular on college campuses, enables you to anonymously interact with people nearby.

Until recently, Ask.fm was based in Latvia and enabled people to ask questions about anything. Unfortunately, it was associated with some negative experiences, including bullying and the spreading of false rumors, before being acquired by IAC.

In an interview, Ask.FM’s new CEO Doug Leeds, who also runs Ask.com, said that the company reached an agreement with the attorneys general of New York and Maryland to establish a safety center and hire a chief trust and safety officer among moves to better police its service.

Ask.fm’s new chief safety officer, Catherine Teitelbaum, said that, while questions can be asked anonymously, they aren’t posted until answered by someone who discloses his or her identity.

On a recent visit to their website, I noticed that most questions are not at all inflammatory. “If you were going to be stuck on an island with three celebrities, which three would you choose?” strikes me as a pretty innocent question, as does “Where in the world would you like to visit” or “What’s the best movie you’ve seen lately?”

Sure, you could ask “Am I pretty” and perhaps get some pretty cruel answers, but you’re also likely to get some kind ones as well. There are still some things that I personally find distasteful, but that’s also true on Facebook, Twitter and, for that matter, the comments sections of many online news sites.

It’s also important to remember that anonymity doesn’t shield you from the law. Even though they don’t disclose it to other users, some anonymous services do know your true identity and can be compelled to respond to binding orders to reveal that information to law enforcement. There are also other ways for cops to track users, such as IP addresses or cell phone records, and there are plenty of criminals in jail who thought they were anonymous.

To repeat a phrase I used in the title of a previous article, these services do have their challenges, but anonymous is not synonymous with ominous.

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How Amazon’s unsold Fire phones will fight Ebola in West Africa

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

A few weeks ago, a friend asked if I would advise the founders of Journey, an app development platform company based in South Africa. My first inclination was to say no — I’m in the business of reviewing apps, not advising people who make money from them — but then I found out that it was a free app designed to help fight Ebola, so I couldn’t say no.

Neither could Amazon.

Brothers Malan and Philip Joubert dropped by and explained how their app, Ebola Care, can help health care workers in affected West African countries photograph, geotag and track Ebola patients and provide the relevant data to aid organizations. The app records ambulance pickups and tracks the patients’ contacts as well as monitoring quarantines. It also tracks children orphaned by the death or illness of their parents and aids in educational and outreach efforts.

Because it’s running on a smartphone, aid workers can use it to take a picture of the patient and use the phone’s location awareness capabilities to plot the exact location where the patient is located. That’s important in a country such as Liberia, where some people are in places that don’t actually have a street address.

The app replaces paper forms, which can take weeks to process, Phiip Joubert said.

“The advantage of using the app is to make information visible to decision makers in real time, to allow them to be much more proactive in dealing with the disease,” he said.

The app was based on expressed needs of aid groups in the region, who said that getting data quickly from the field is one of their biggest challenges.

For the Joubert brothers, the biggest challenge was to get enough phones to the region so aid workers could actually use the app. Although there is very high cell phone penetration throughout West Africa, there are still relatively few people with smartphones.

The app runs on both iOS and Android, but most aid workers, he said, have old-fashioned feature phones that aren’t capable of running Ebola Care or any other smartphone app. The pair donated as many phones as they could, but told me they needed 1,000 smartphones to fully equip the aid organizations they were working with.

By coincidence, the day we met was also the day that Amazon announced it was taking a $170 million write-down on its Fire Phone related to unsold inventory. That made me realize that Amazon was probably sitting on thousands of unsold phones that could be put to good use.

I asked the Jouberts if their app could run on that phone and they said that it could. The Fire phone and Amazon’s Fire tablets use a modified version of Android and although not all Android apps run on that operating system, the conversion process — if necessary — is very minor.

So, they reached out to Amazon, and the Seattle company agreed to donate 1,000 phones. The phones are being equipped with the app and other custom software and are being unlocked so that they can be used on local GSM carriers in the region.

One advantage of the Ebola Care app is that it can store data locally on the phone if there is no data connection and upload it to cloud servers when a connection is established. That’s important in West Africa because there may not always be a data connection, especially when used outside a city, or the aid organization may not be able to afford cellular service or the cost of uploading data. But once the phone does go online, either through a cellular or Wi-Fi connection, the data will be uploaded.

Amazon’s decision to donate those 1,000 phones to the cause is a great example of turning lemons into lemonade. The company may have lost a lot of money on its Fire Phone, but I hope Amazon stockholders and employees are feeling a lot better about that loss, knowing those unsold phones will be used to help save lives.

 

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Survey finds parents mostly OK with kids’ use of tech

A survey released today by the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), found that “93% of parents feel that their child is at least somewhat safe when he or she is online,” while only 37% say their child is “very safe.”

The survey found some ambivalence when it comes to using smartphone apps and playing online games where 38% felt that the benefits outweigh harms.

The study, Parenting in the Digital Age, which was conducted for FOSI by Hart Research, is based on an October, 2014 national survey of 584 parents of children age six to 17 who access the Internet.

Concern over social media

When it comes to social media, only 26% feel that the benefits of their child having a social media account outweighs harms, while 43% say “harms outweigh benefits”and 31% say that they’re about equal.

I find this number interesting considering the number of children who have Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. Maybe things have changed since danah boyd and other researchers released a 2011 study that found that of the estimated 7.5 million kids under 13 on Facebook (according to Consumer Reports), 95% of the parents whose 10-year-old was on Facebook knew about it and 78% actually helped the kid sign-up. Of course, Facebook use by kids may be diminishing, but there are plenty of social media apps and services, including Instagram (which is owned by Facebook), Snapchat, Tumblr and Yik-Yak that are popular among teens as well as pre-teens who, according to most services’ rules, are not supposed to be using them.
Parents feel they have control

Whether it’s true or not, parents do feel that they have some control over their kids’ use of tech. Just under two-thirds (64%) said that they are confident in their ability to keep track of their child’s technology use, but for parents of teens, the number drops to 58%. Nearly three quarters (73%) of parents with younger children feel OK about their ability to keep track of what their kids are doing with technology.

Nearly all (95%) of parents say they “monitor” their child’s use of technology at least “somewhat closely,” while 55% say they monitor it very closely. That number drops to 41% for parents of teens, while 68% of parents of kids between 6 and 9 say they monitor tech use very closely. Of course “monitor” is a very broad term that can range from tight controls to an occasional check-in. A slim majority (53%) of parents say they have used parental controls such as online filters while 47% report using controls to turn off in-app purchases. The use of the term “have,” though is also a bit vague. It’s not clear from the survey whether these numbers represent ongoing monitoring or, perhaps, the use of a filter sometime in the past.

In an open-ended part of the survey, parents were asked to express their concerns and a significant percentage (28%) worried about “stalkers, child molesters, predators, bad people lurking online” or “contact with strangers.” Inappropriate content was also high on the list of concerns with 23% expressing worry about the child accessing content that isn’t age appropriate. Nearly 1 in 10 (9%) expressed concerns about tech keeping their kids away from exercise while 8% mentioned cyberbullying.

Perception vs. reality

The concern over stranger danger is interesting given that the actual risk (as opposed to perceived) of a child being harm by a stranger they meet online is very low. I also found it interesting that only 8% of parents expressed concerns about cyberbullying given the amount of attention it has received, though based on the actual (vs. perceived) occurrences of cyberbullying, the number is about right.

With any survey on risks and harms it’s always important to remember that people don’t necessarily perceive risk accurately. It’s not uncommon, for example, for surveys to find concern over a growth in crimes during a period when crime rates are dropping or concern over economic decline during periods when the economy is actually growing.

So, the takeaway here is to understand parental concerns, but also understand actual risks as measured by data from organizations like the Crimes Against Children Research Department, the Centers for Disease Control, the Justice Department and others who keep up-to-date records on risks and harms.

On the positive side, it’s great to see that parents are in-touch with their kids’ use of technology and, for the most part, agree with the characters played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in the movie “The Kids Are All Right.”

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook and other social media companies.

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Americans Lack Confidence About Controlling Privacy

Read the post at Forbes.com

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Americans lack confidence about controlling privacy

Whether it’s from government snoops or online marketers, most Americans feel that they have little or no control over how their online personal information is being collected and used.

These are the findings of a study, Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era, that was released today by the Pew Research Center.

The findings don’t bode well for the U.S. government or the likes of Facebook, Google and other companies that use consumer data to monetize their services.

Companies and government

For example, 91% of respondents say that they agree or strongly agree that “consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies, while 70% of social networking site users say they are at least “somewhat concerned” about the government accessing some of the information “they share on social networking sites without their knowledge.” Neary 9 in 10 (88%) say ”it would be very difficult to remove inaccurate information about them online.”

The survey was conducted in January, 2014 with a sample of 607 adults, 18 years of age or older. There is a 4% margin of error.

Publicity around Edward Snowden’s revelations seems to have had an impact. More than 4 in 10 (43%) of adults ‘have heard a lot about “the government collecting information about telephone calls, emails, and other online communications as part of efforts to monitor terrorist activity.” Another 44% have heard “a little,” and only 5% said they have heard “nothing at all.”

We trust landlines, but that’s about it

When it comes to communications, the number of people feeling “not very” or “not at all” secure is rather startling. The only exception is landline phones where only 31% feel insecure compared to:

  • 81% not feeling secure when using social media to share private information
  • 68% when using chat or instant messages
  • 58% for text messages
  • 57% for email
  • 46% for making calls on their cell phone
    Not doing enough

The researchers found that most adults “express a desire to take additional steps to protect their data online,” with only 37% saying they “already do enough.” Only 24% “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “It is easy for me to be anonymous when I am online,” according to the report.

True, the survey did find that many Americans take steps to protect or at least monitor their privacy such as using a “search engine to look up their own name or see what information about them is on the internet” (62%). Nearly two-thirds (64%) “believe the government should do more to regulate advertisers, compared with 34% who think the government should not get more involved.” Yet, as the survey shows, many don’t trust their own government when it comes to its use of their personal information.

Low hanging fruit

The survey didn’t cover ways that people can protect their privacy but there are things you can do, including:

  • Using controls on Facebook, Google+ and other services that limit who can see what you post
  • Being aware of the privacy policy of apps and sites so you know what they’re doing with your information.
  • Making sure you use strong, secure and unique passwords and that your devices are as secure as possible
  • Using do-not-track features built into most browsers that can limit third party tracking cookies

There is relatively little you can do to protect yourself from government scrutiny, though you can use sites with strong encryption from companies that don’t store your data for long periods of time, which reduces the chance of the government getting hold of your data. Apple and Google have encrypted phone data but the government may challenge their use of strong encryption.

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Tech and Ebola — Facebook’s initiative and the Ebola Care app

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Ebola Care’s apps against Ebola is providing heatlh care workers with tools to help track, treat and prevent the disease

The tech community is rallying to help fight Ebola which has become a serious threat, mostly in West Africa with 13,000 cases so far, according to the World Health Organization.

Tech companies are stepping up to the plate, including Facebook which launched an initiative that includes an easy way to donate online, with proceeds going to the International Medical Corps, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Save the Children. Facebook is also partnering with UNICEF to use its vast network to deliver health information including information on Ebola symptoms and treatment to Facebook users in the region. Finally, they are  working with NetHope to provide communications resources to aid workers in  Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Facebook is also brining Internet service to affected areas that would otherwise not have coverage.

Listen to Larry Magid’s CBS News Tech Talk segment on tech & Ebola

Journey, a company that offers a mobile app development platform has used it own platform to create Ebola Care, a free app that’s being employed by the Liberian Government and several West African non-profits (NGOs) to help health care workers in the affected region trace those infected to prevent new infections, collect patient data, locate staff resources, coordinate with ambulance teams and care for children who have been abandoned after their parents contracted Ebola.

The App, which can run on Android and iOS (but for cost reasons, the target platform is Android or Amazon’s Fire Phone) can use the phone’s GPS to locate the precise location of the patient and the phone’s camera to photograph the patient. If there is no connectivity, the data is stored on the device until the phone can access a WiFi or a cellular network. Once connected, the data is transmitted to cloud servers that make it available to health care workers, border agents, Ebola researchers and other professionals through a link to Google docs, which can be accessed wherever it’s needed.

Easy to use

I had a chance to try out the app (admittedly from my safe and Ebola-free perch in Silicon Valley) and was impressed by the amount of data it can collect and its ease of use. There is a place to enter in all of the patient’s contacts so that they can be evaluated as well as forms to be filled out by ambulance teams to better track the patients. Because the phones are location-aware, they can pinpoint the actual neighborhoods where Ebola is present, making it easier for health care and Ebola prevention specialists to target their activities.

Data collection — essential but slow

We live in a world dominated by data and that’s as true in health care as it is in business. Data is essential to inform decision makers at the local and international levels about directing resources and employing best-practices. Whether it’s a matter of a small clinic knowing when to quarantine a particular patient or a big international agency making strategic decisions, it’s important to know exactly what they’re dealing with and where to send their limited resources.

But because of the region where Ebola is most virulent, the available technology is extremely limited so workers are mostly relying on paper forms which are hard enough to share locally, let alone internationally.

Ebola Care co-developer Phlip Joubert

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Google’s Nexus Player Review: Nice Hardware But Not Much Content

Read the full review at Forbes.com

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Hands-On With Google’s Nexus 6 Phone

Read Larry’s full post on Forbes.com

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CNET compares Amazon TV Fire Stick with Roku and Chromecast

Fire TV Stick vs. Chromecast vs. Roku Streaming Stick: Measuring the sticks

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Online harassment is a problem we must all confront

Last week was Digital Citizenship Week, which was mostly about the online rights and responsibilities of teens and children. But after reviewing the results of a recent Pew Research survey on adult harassment, I’m starting to think that we need a digital citizenship campaign for adults too.

The Pew survey found that 40 percent of adult Internet users said they had been harassed online, and nearly three-quarters — 73 percent — said they had seen someone being harassed. Young adults have it worse: Nearly two-thirds — 65 percent — of Internet users age 18 to 29 have been the target of at least one type of harassment.

And it’s not just online. The Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2014 survey found that 27 percent of employees have experienced abusive behavior at work while 7 percent are currently being bullied.

I bring up the comparison between adult and teens to illustrate that we as adults need to think about our own behavior before chastising teens for theirs. While adults should help young people learn good “netiquette,” it’s also our responsibility to be role models in that regard whether we’re parents, adult siblings of teens or just folks that teens encounter online.

The study’s open-ended comments reflected some of the course comments that I’ve observed online, such as one person who said, “Through social media, and especially when commenting on controversial issues, often my difference of opinion from others would result in those who do not agree insulting and berating instead of arguing their point respectfully.”

And lest you think that either side of the political divide has a monopoly on online rudeness, consider these two comments: “Every time I say something in favor of the President I get called all kinds of names” while another reported name-calling “because I don’t support Obama policies and occasionally get accused of being racist.”

The study also found that “those who live out more of their lives online–whether for work, pleasure, or both–are more likely to experience harassment,” which didn’t surprise me considering how much I’ve experienced as a writer and broadcaster whose work shows up online.

I write about tech, not politics, but that doesn’t stop the insults from flowing. I’ve been accused of being both a shill for Microsoft and Macintosh “fanboy.” Some think I’m biased toward Android devices while others have accused me of being on Apple’s payroll. As any tech journalist will tell you, emotions run high when it comes to our favorite technology products, but what should be a fun and spirited debate over the latest and greatest gadgets often turns into a barrage of name-calling.

My experience is nothing compared to what happened to Zelda Williams and others cited by Pew as examples of how cruel some people can be online. Williams, the daughter of the late Robin Williams, stopped using Twitter and other social media after experiencing vicious comments in the wake of her father’s suicide.

She later returned to social media, starting with the tweet, “I just want to say thank you for all the stories and letters I’ve been receiving, especially from those who’ve also lost loved ones,” demonstrating the other side of online emotions. Yes, the same technology that can facilitate cruelty can also be used to express support and empathy.

The study found that young women “experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels,” including stalking and sexual harassment while not escaping the “heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general.”

Soraya Chemaly, a social activist who (in her words) frequently writes about “gender absurdities in media, politics, religion and pop culture,” wrote a Time opinion piece arguing that “cyber-misogyny has steadily increased during the past year.”

She pointed to several examples, including the case of Amanda Hess, a journalist who had to suspend her Twitter account after countless cases of harassment along with death threats from someone with the username “headlessfemalepig.”

Chemaly’s observation about a steady increase may be correct, but these types of attacks are certainly not new. Monica Lewinsky, who became famous as a result of a sexual relationship with then President Bill Clinton, experienced it way back in 1998, years before Facebook, Twitter or even MySpace or for that matter Google.

“Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one. I was Patient Zero. The first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet,” she told an audience at a Forbes conference last week.”

In the sixteen years since Lewinsky first experienced online harassment, technology has come a very long way. Now it’s time for the rest of us to evolve, starting with online adults.

The numbers

  • 27% Internet users who say they have been called offensive names22% Internet users who have had someone try to purposefully embarrass them
  • 8% Internet users who have been physically threatened
  • 8% Internet users who have been stalked.
  • 25% Women aged 18 to 24 who have been sexually harassed online.
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