Monday, April 21, 2014


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Why Technology-Penetration Rates Are Worthless

This is a guest post by Katy Pearce, an assistant professor in the University of Washington's Department of Communication.
 
Governments and policy pundits frequently cite technology-penetration rates -- Internet, mobile phone, or social media -- as meaningful proxies for deeper concepts. Despite this, in fact, penetrations rates are futile.

Why should anyone care? Because inferences into what social-media- or mobile-phone- or Internet-penetration rates represent are dangerous.

When pundits or government officials mention penetration rates, it is often in support of a bigger social or political goal: "84 percent of women in Country X have a mobile phone"..."[Thus] women's empowerment through technology is possible." Or: "With 80 percent of the country using the Internet, we can say that we've achieved our economic and technological goals" or “most African-American households have Internet access, so the digital divide is over” or 1 million Facebook users means that there is freedom of expression. Given the challenges in measuring technology penetration, it is astonishing that speakers continue to make such statements. 
 
Why is technology penetration so difficult to measure?
 
1. The contributing factors to technology adoption are well-known, but become embedded within discussions of penetration rates.
 
Technologies tend to diffuse in similar patterns, with similar factors determining early versus later adopters. In nearly all societies, the wealthier, the better educated, the more urban, and the younger adopt new technology earlier than the poorer, the less educated, the more rural, and the older do. Thus, it is unsurprising that in societies with more wealthy people or better distributed education systems, there are higher technology-penetration rates. Similarly, societies with higher proportions of younger people will have higher technology-penetration rates.
 
At a macro level, telecommunications systems, competition, price, and national wealth can also influence penetration rates.
 
Thus when comparing countries or other entities based on percentage of individuals that have adopted a technology, analyses that do not control for these differences are misrepresenting the actual technology landscape.
 
2. Counts are notoriously inaccurate.
 
Counting technology users is difficult. In lieu of a properly sampled nationally representative survey (which is not perfect either -- social desirability and response biases abound), penetration rates generally come from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency that is responsible for information and communication technologies.
 
Where does the ITU get this data? From "administrative data sources" -- which are "mainly telecommunication operators, and are collected by governments at the national level (ministries or regulatory authorities)." Without a doubt, some governments have reason to inflate penetration rates and there are few checks on this by the ITU. In an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, a representative of the Azerbaijani Telecommunications Ministry cited the ITU data as an authoritative source of Internet penetration in the country, without acknowledging that it was his own ministry that supplied that data. 
 
Another issue with measuring penetration rates is the nature of the technologies. Mobile-phone subscriptions, for example, are notoriously inaccurate. Most count SIM card subscriptions, without acknowledging that it is incredibly common in many countries for individuals to possess multiple SIM cards -- for business purposes or to economize on voice versus data rates. Therefore when one hears that 75 percent of the world has a mobile phone, it is more accurate to say that there are 75 SIM cards (some active, some inactive) per 100 people in the world. The number of people with an active phone in their hand is much less.
 
With social-media platforms it is very difficult to determine the true location of a user. With choices about listing location and proxy servers that can allow a user to appear to be located in a different country than s/he is actually in, accuracy is questionable. Further, these penetration rates include all of those social-media accounts that were opened and never used again. Additionally, sites that produce social-media penetration rates (like Socialbakers.com) are interesting to get a sense of over-time growth, but because these sites are for profit entities selling analytics to marketers without transparent (in the name of good science) methodologies for determining penetration rates, these too are unreliable.
 
3. "Ever used" is a fairly meaningless category.
 
Another issue with penetration rates is that they are all-inclusive. An Internet user includes not only the young woman with a smartphone, a tablet computer, and a laptop who is online for all of her waking hours, but also the older man who went to an Internet cafe once four years ago and never went back or the person who Skypes with a distant relative every few months. All of these individuals are experiencing a different Internet and benefitting from their technology use differently as well.
 
A more useful measure would be of Internet frequency, because daily users are different from monthly users. Even so, measuring perpetually connected people's Internet use is futile. Consider this: how many hours are you online each day? Does checking your e-mail while waiting at the dentist’s office count as five minutes of use? If your smartphone is constantly connected to the Internet are you online 24 hours a day?
 
4. Speed matters.
 
While for many Americans and Europeans, nonbroadband Internet is a distant memory, for many in the world dial-up Internet, mobile-based connectivity, or metered limitations are daily realities. Multimedia sites and videos are something that a resource-constrained user has to consider before opening. While more sites have low-bandwidth mobile versions, the Internet becomes more bandwidth-intensive all the time, which can leave resource-constrained users behind, essentially creating different Internets.
 
5. Activities matter.
 
People assume a lot about what others do with technology. The average North American may spend their day checking Facebook, reading news stories, texting, and e-mailing. This may not be the case for everyone. An Internet user concerned about resources, for example, may be more cautious in her use. A recent academic study, “'Facebook is a Luxury': An Exploratory Study of Social Media Use in Rural Kenya,” explains that there is a cost associated with every phase of signing up for and maintaining a Facebook account -- beyond the Internet cafe (and travel costs to get to the cafe) or mobile Internet fees (and fees associated with charging the phone’s battery), users felt compelled to scan their best photographs for profile pictures, then pay to upload them, and continue using the site. Certainly these users are experiencing a different Facebook than my American undergraduate students do.  
 
It's important to acknowledge that people do different things with their technology and that these different activities are not only determined by access to resources, cultural norms, and personal characteristics, but also have different outcomes. News reading is enriching for some things, while a first-person-shooter game may not be. Watching videos of cats falling off tables has a different impact than taking an online course does. So when penetration rates are cited, it is entirely possibly that many of those users are watching pornography, playing Farmville, or reading celebrity blogs. 
 
So what is to be done about this problem? There are a few options. One may be to stop caring about penetration rates. This is not a race. Given the numerous contributing factors to these rates, the actual percentage is essentially meaningless. Given the way that these are manipulated, deemphasizing penetration rates may be best. Another solution would be an attempt at better measurement. Surveys would be best. Nonetheless there are many things that can go wrong within a survey. Governmental control, poor capacity in some places, and difficulties in cross-cultural comparison would also need to be dealt with.

Perhaps the easiest solution is an educational campaign to train journalists, governments, and pundits to be more critical consumers of statistics. While a revitalization of the global high-school statistics curriculum is a lofty goal, promoting basic statistical literacy and specifically the issues surrounding these penetration rates, the ability for manipulation could be reduced.

-- Katy Pearce

The Woman Behind CryptoParty

Asher Wolf

In August, the Australian Parliament passed a new cybercrime bill that increased the powers of law enforcement to require Internet service providers to monitor and store their users’ data.

The country’s privacy advocates were up in arms. One of them was Asher Wolf (a pseudonym), a 32-year-old who had built up a following on Twitter for tweeting news about WikiLeaks and the Occupy movement and who cared deeply about online privacy. A friend of hers, @m1k3y, tweeted that in light of the new legislation, maybe now was the time to have an “install-the-crypto-apps party,” referring to the programs for computers that help protect a user’s privacy. Wolf half-jokingly agreed: “Let’s get together in the backyard with some chips,” she said, “let’s have a CryptoParty."

Less than four months later, there have been more than 30 CryptoParties held worldwide, many in the West, but also in Manila, Cairo, and on November 27, Tunisia. The concept of CryptoParty is simple: people get together to learn how to use tools to better protect their privacy.

CryptoParty doesn’t have a unified position on which tools it recommends, but Wolf says there is a focus on teaching three core technologies: Tor, which enables users to remain anonymous online; PGP (pretty good privacy), a program often used for encrypting e-mails; and Off-the-Record (OTR), a protocol that encrypts instant-messaging conversations.

"We want to make it bloody hard for governments and businesses around the world to invade the privacy of citizens. We want to teach people responsibility for keeping their information private and we want to give them the tools to do that," Wolf says.

A decentralized, leaderless movement, no one CryptoParty is the same. Wolf says that they tend to attract a diverse crowd. At the ones she’s attended there have been mothers, university students, and journalists who don’t want to expose their sources.

Cryptography, the practice of communicating securely, has always been in the hands of elites. Once it was the sole domain of governments and the military who believed that, in the wrong hands, keys, codes, and ciphers could be as lethal as weapons-grade plutonium. The growth of the cypherpunk movement in the 1990s changed all that. These activists argued that cryptography should not just be the preserve of governments but should be used by civilians to protect their privacy against the "surveillance state." Cryptography, they argued, wasn’t just for militaries and governments -- it was for everyone.

Except for a while, it wasn’t. It remained in the hands of a few devoted activists with sophisticated tech skills, many of them deeply antigovernment and with strong libertarian streaks. The cypherpunks developed the programs and the protocols, but for the average computer user many of the tools were intimidating and hard to use.

A single mom with a toddler, three years ago Wolf didn’t even own a laptop (she used a smartphone) and was using Facebook instead of the more privacy-conscious Twitter. After studying communications media and criminology at university, she worked for an NGO and does not have a computing background. “I call myself a citizen technologist,” she says, “which means I stuff around with things I don’t really understand completely yet.” After her 3-year-old goes to bed she teaches herself how to use the tools to better protect her privacy online.

Usability Vs. Security

For Wolf, CryptoParty has always been about bringing the conversation down to the level of the average user. “You have all these people turning up who are experts in the fields of cryptography and have expert skills in things like Tor and OTR and PGP and they’ve actually never tried to teach anyone to use them before," she says. "Suddenly they stand in front of a group of journalists and university students and activists and they begin talking about command lines and everyone looks at them like, ‘What the hell is this?’”

This summer, a piece of software called Cryptocat became the focus of much attention on listservs and in the tech press. (Read about it here, here, and here.) Cryptocat is an instant messaging platform that is installed in a user’s browser. Part of its initial appeal was that the user didn’t have to bother installing additional software and it was very simple to use. But critics of the software said that it was flawed and vulnerable to certain attacks.

The discussion about Cryptocat touched on a broader debate within the crypto community about the tradeoffs between, on the one hand, usability and design, and on the other, security. A simple-to-use tool that offers lousy security or a highly secure tool that can only be understood by someone with a computer-science degree are both of little use to activists. (The holy grail is the tool that offers near-perfect security and click-and-go usability.)

Against that background, for Wolf, CryptoParty isn’t just about teaching people how to better protect their privacy, it's also about creating a feedback loop between developers and users. What’s needed sometimes, she says, is to tell developers, “your app is great, but the accessibility and user features are sh*t or really difficult for the average user to understand.”

When Wolf first started promoting the idea of CryptoParty on Twitter, she says she felt resistance from some in the crypto community. She felt that people were saying to her, “Come kneel before us and lick our feet.” But instead of getting riled, she called their bluff. “If you think that our way of dealing with cryptography is flawed or teaching cryptography is flawed, then please show us how to do it better. We invite you to come along and we’ll shout you a beer,” she says. “It sorted the critics from the people who were just whiners. And very quickly you found the people who had a real commitment to cryptography.”

In its short lifespan, CryptoParty has mushroomed and more and more cities are planning CryptoParties. It has received messages of support from Electronic Frontier Foundation activists and many others in the crypto community. As veteran hacker Oxblood Ruffin said in an e-mail, “CryptoParty is Anonymous for grown ups.”

The movement faces some challenges. A 392-page CryptoParty Handbook, created by CryptoPartiers in Berlin, took some heat for its technical errors and for recommending what some experts thought were less-than-secure tools. And some within the digital-activism community believe that the CryptoParty model is more applicable for Western democracies than repressive states. (Holding CryptoParties openly would be a giant red flag to the authorities and put attendees under more government surveillance.)

One way around this, Wolf says, is to hold CryptoParties online or in closed sessions. “We certainly wouldn’t be promoting people holding CryptoParties in certain countries.” She gives the example of a CryptoParty in Egypt which was closed and not advertised.

In fact, rather than an organization, Wolf sees CryptoParty more like a meme. “We’re spreading a meme and that meme is privacy, the right to privacy.” CryptoParty is both cause and effect: it is helping move the needle in terms of greater privacy-awareness, but it is also a product of our more privacy-conscious culture. “Memes are things that we always knew, we just didn’t have a way to express it.”

Originally, Wolf says, the idea behind CryptoParty was selfish. It was about her wanting to learn how to protect herself better online. “I wasn’t thinking about Tunisia when we did this,” she says.

“I’m just doing it because when I look at pictures of LOLcats to relax at 2 a.m., I really don’t like the idea of thinking, well, everything I look at and every conversation I have with my friends in Europe, that every part of me that’s special or private gets handed to somebody in some banal bureaucracy somewhere,” she says. “I want something more for my life, for my child’s life. And this is my way of pushing back.”

Video 'We Are Legion' Is A Great Film, But Anonymous Deserves More Scrutiny

I got a chance to see "We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists" recently. It's a great film and in 90 minutes packs in plenty of interviews with Anonymous activists and experts, putting Anonymous in a broader context of Internet culture, protest movements, and hacktivism.

The film is particularly good on how Anonymous became politicized, how the movement (for want of a better word) went from pranking to taking on the Scientologists through to supporting WikiLeaks and helping out Tunisian revolutionaries. There is plenty of nuance here and the film rightly portrays Anonymous as a multifaceted and diverse movement that's hard to pin down -- it covers, for example, the splits between the so-called moralfags and hatefags, between those Anons who wanted to do good versus those who just wanted to wreak havoc.
 
Where the film is less good is when the director, Brian Knappenberger, seems to be too enamored with his subject. Many of the Anons interviewed in the film speak a lot about "freedom" -- an inoffensive mix of John Perry Barlow, Occupy, and the Arab Spring. “Their [the government’s] opinion no longer mattered because someone was out on the Internet kicking ass,” says one of them, Mercedes Haefer, who could face up to 15 years in jail for her alleged role in distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on PayPal. You won’t find too many people disagreeing with the notion of holding governments and corporations more accountable.



Yet, the problem is that Knappenberger never really attempts to unpack or challenge these sentiments. What exactly do they stand for? What do they hope to achieve? Like the film’s soundtrack, Anons talking in grandoise terms about freedom gives a seductive and intoxicating sense that something truly momentous is happening, but ultimately, when left unchallenged, it all ends up sounding a little empty.

The only person who falls under real scrutiny in the film is Aaron Barr, the security consultant who got monumentally pwned after his company intimated that it was going to expose the identities of Anonymous activists. In the film, Barr rightfully gets grilled by the interviewer about his role and he flails and stumbles when answering questions. Good, his company, HB Gary, deserves that scrutiny. But I was left thinking: why doesn’t the filmmaker take the same harsh line of questioning with the Anons? Why do they get a free pass? You can still be broadly supportive of something, yet still put it under scrutiny.

“We Are Legion” does mention some of the nastier things Anonymous has been alleged to have done, such as posting flashing GIFs on epilepsy forums. But they are just glossed over with a filmic shrug. Or as one activist says, Anonymous has done some pretty off-color things in the name of getting cheap laughs, “but that’s part of the culture.” Anonymous’s nature as a leaderless, decentralized nongroup, where anyone can act in its name, has advantages, but also disadvantages. It gives Anonymous the ultimate plausible deniability -- "that might of been in our name, but it wasn’t us" -- but it also means black-hat hackers can use the Anonymous brand to get media attention for their nefarious exploits. We hear plenty of Anonymous rhetoric about the hive mind, about the power of collective action, but there is a downside to that. What happens when the hive mind becomes the groupthink of the mob?
 
Underneath all the savvy visuals and revolutionary rhetoric, there are troubling aspects of Anonymous’s activism. Take the case of Amanda Todd, a young girl who committed suicide after being bullied. (The case happened well after the film was made, but it’s still a good example.) Some Anons, acting with what seemed to be decent motivations, exposed the identity of her tormentor. Except they didn’t. They got the wrong guy. Even if they had got the right guy, is that how we want society to function, with roving bands of online vigilantes seeking to expose people's identity, outside of the judicial process?

Or take the case of the 2011 DDoS attacks on Sony’s Play Station Network, which was claimed by Anon activists. Anonymous carried out the action in protest against Sony’s case against hacker George Hotz. But, while attention is given to Anonymous motivations, there is little thought given to the thousands of gamers who are prevented from using a service they have chosen to spend their money on. Whether you think taking down Sony is a legitimate form of protest or not, let’s not pretend it’s a victimless act. Just because it “happened online” doesn’t mean there are no consequences.
 
Of course, there are many, many Anons who get this only too well -- that, after all, was much of what the “moralfag” movement was about. There are many who spoke out against the Sony hack; there are many Anons who spoke out after LulzSec hacked PBS. Speaking in the film, security researcher Joshua Corman puts it in the context of the rise of the chaotic actor working outside the system -- sometimes they do good like Robin Hood, sometimes they’re more like the Joker.

What Anonymous did do, as one of the commentators points out in the film, is give journalists and the general public something to hold on to. There was this chaotic and amorphous Internet subculture, hard for outsiders to understand, and suddenly there was a Guy Fawkes mask and a vaguely ominous, robotic voice. It was brilliant PR and branded a movement that almost defied categorizing.
 
In years to come, Anonymous might be recognized more for its cultural legacy than its political acts. More than just the revolutionary PR, the 2012 U.S. presidential election was dubbed the “meme election,” a reference to the online virals that were pervasive in the campaigning. The meme has gone mainstream. We owe that to Anonymous and 4Chan, that open petri dish of thriving Internet cultures. The dog-eat-dog world of Internet memes, the ethos of remix, of irreverence, the humor, and grotesqueness -- we have Anonymous to thank for that.

"We Are Legion" is a great film, but a little bit more scrutiny and distance from its subject would have made for an even better film. Corporations and governments need to be held accountable for their actions, but so sometimes do people on the Internet.

Tags:Anonymous


Hacktivists Take Down Far-Right English Website, Access Group’s E-Mail

A screenshot of the defaced website

A group of hacktivists, known as the ZCompany Hacking Crew (ZHC), has defaced the website of the far-right English Defense League (EDL) and hacked into the group’s Gmail account. 

“We will chase you, expose your racism and even remove you from the web,” a message from the hackers read.

The defaced website also shows e-mails taken from the EDL’s Gmail account which ZHC claims shows a misuse of subscription fees and harassment of “innocent people.” The hacked englishdefenseleague.org now redirects to englishdefenceleague.net. (Screenshots of the hacked website are available here.)

The EDL is a street movement that sprung up in 2009 following a protest by an Islamist group against returning British troops. It is accused by critics of being racist -- a charge the organization denies -- and Islamophobic.

An activist from ZHC told RFE/RL on Facebook chat that the e-mails show that “the EDL Admins are using EDL funds for their own personal gain and many innocent people are being charged into the EDL fund not knowingly.”

ZHC didn’t provide any details of the nature of the exploit, but did say their team included social engineers and defacers.

The EDL haven’t responded to request for comment. Nor have the owners of the Gmail accounts highlighted on the defaced page.

The ZHC activist said that their group of hacktivists got together in 2008 to protest “oppression in Kashmir.” “We have grown tired of brutality against people in Palestine, Muslims, and the occupation of the Indian Army in Kashmir,” the hacker said. 

The group received notoriety at the end of 2010 for their role in what they described as cleaning up Facebook. The Daily Beast had details at the time:
 

Soon, a digital flier began to appear on the Facebook walls of groups and pages the hackers say are Zionist, right-wing, and anti-Islamic. Its message: "On the evening of the 31st of December 2010 (New Years Eve), TeaM P0isoN and ZCompany Hacking Crew will clean up Facebook.”

The social network, which now boasts more than 500 million active users, was not doing a sufficient enough job deleting these Pages, it read, "so therefore we are taking action."

Starting at midnight, the two hacker groups—they called themselves “sister groups”—began working in unison. They claimed to have found an exploit—a glitch in the code much like the one Facebook admitted to today. It was unleashed when Facebook updated to its new profiles and the hackers were using it to alter the offending pages so that they appeared blank.

 

One of the deleted Facebook pages belonged to the EDL.

The EDL has been hacked before. In February 2011, a hacker known as TriCk, a member of TeaMp0isoN, defaced the EDL’s website. In 2010, unknown hackers breached a database containing the personal details of supporters, causing the EDL to apologize.

According to the ZHC, there may be more to come. “Details of supporters and donors of EDL will be made public soon. A racist organization like you don’t deserve to exist. And we ZHC will leave no stone upturned in exposing your lies,” the message from the hackers read.


Kindle Porn: Our Growing Affection For Our E-Readers

(Photo by Anomalily)

I stumbled upon something interesting the other day: Kindle porn.

There is a Flickr group, I Love My Kindle, featuring close-ups of e-readers: Kindles next to steaming mugs of hot coffee, on the tables of hipster cafes, resting in the loving hands of their owners, alongside glasses of wine, cigars, cats sprawled on back porches. You can see plenty of similar shots on Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest.
(Flickr photo by arellis49)

Early love for e-readers tended to be more utilitarian. The early adopters spoke as if they had just come from a beautiful, exciting relationship (which eventually fizzled out) and fallen into the arms of someone a lot more sensible. People talked about the savings they could make on price, the amount of books they could now carry in their backpacks, the wide selection, and the speed of availability. They talked about the practicalities of the device: How it's easier to find a comfortable reading position in bed with an e-reader or how the pages don’t flip shut when reading one-handed. But you didn’t hear much about beauty.

(Flickr photo by stephoto27)

That seems to be changing, though, and there does seem to be a growing aesthetical appreciation for the e-reader. In these photos, you can see something familiar, something we have always had with books: a sense of place. Aside from the tactile talk -- the touch of the paper, the feel of the spine -- and the smell, when people expressed their love for books, they were often expressing love for a place, a moment. A fireplace, a favorite chair, a window with a view, tucked up in a cozy bed on a cold winter’s night. All of that pleasure -- really just the pleasure of reading -- was focused on the physical object, the book. (You can see plenty of this love on the Book Porn Tumblr.) Their love, in other words, was perhaps a little misplaced.

(Flickr photo by arellis49)

I think that is what we’re seeing here with these photos. Our love of the moment is projected onto the device. Just like opening a book, powering up a Kindle can redefine the space around us.
 
Obviously, books have had hundreds of years to get under our skin, but the early aesthetes might be a portent of how we might feel about our e-readers in the future. We are not waxing lyrical much about the soft swish as we flick a page, the rubbery security of the bezel, but we probably will soon. (Amazon has added a tactile feel to its page turns on its high-end Paperwhite.) And what’s interesting is the sense of continuity -- just how similar the aesthetics of book and Kindle porn are. 

(Flickr photo by Anomalily)

It could, of course, just be the narcissism of the Instagram generation, a fetish for consumer durables in the same vein as the “unboxing" phenomenon. But my bet is that we'll see much more of this type of thing in the future. We will continue sowing the seeds of our inevitable e-reader nostalgia years from now, when screen readers are replaced by godknowswhat.   

(Flickr photo by dianecordell)
(Flickr photo by dianecordell)

Zombies And Cyberattacks: The Pitfalls Of Russia's Opposition Elections

For the Russian opposition, the Internet has always been about circumvention. Circumventing the monotone pro-Putin media; circumventing the injustices of a political system that has shut them out for years; circumventing Putin's narrative of rebirth, national pride, and stability.
 
Thus it made perfect sense when the opposition decided to hold elections for a new Coordinating Council online. Starting on October 20, opposition supporters were given the chance to choose 45 members (from over 200) of a new Russian Opposition Coordinating Council. Over 80,000 people took part in the three-day poll.

The organizers of the online vote, however, have come under fire for potentially exposing participants' data, which could provide a database of dissent for the Russian authorities. And plagued by cyberattacks and "zombie voters," the opposition vote has shown how susceptible such platforms are to hijacking from malicious parties.
 
Things haven't been easy for Russia's opposition in recent years. A hodge-podge of hard-core leftists, Soviet-era dissidents, tech-savvy urban hipsters, and moneyed socialites, it has suffered from in-fighting and lacked a cohesive narrative or charismatic leader.
 
It was fitting then that Aleksei Navalny, an anticorruption blogger and opposition poster boy, came from the Internet. (Navalny came in first place in the online elections.) He became a symbol of this new Internet-powered civil society: diverse, atomized, and yes, mere blips on Russia's vast radar, but an emerging and important force nonetheless. Generation VKontakte weren't bound together by the ties of ideology, but rather by the social networks and blogging platforms they used.
 
The Opposition Coordinating Council is an attempt to bridge these divides and bring more organizational and ideological cohesion. In the future the council will coordinate protests and be involved in picking candidates for elections.
 
The man behind the opposition's election platform is Leonid Volkov, an IT specialist and municipal deputy from Yekaterinburg, an industrial city in the Urals. Volkov, who had once been prevented from running for the regional parliament and has called for a "cloud democracy" with virtual mayors, set up cvk2012.org, which features candidate lists, essays, discussion forums, and links to Facebook groups where participants could chat with the candidates. An independent Internet television station, Dozhd, ran debates between the candidates. Most importantly, cvk2012.org allowed people to vote for their preferred candidates.
 
The voting platform ran into trouble before the voting started when MMM, a shady pyramid scheme whose founder, Sergei Mavrodi, wants to bring down global capitalism, started registering candidates (and paying the $325 fee). Volkov claimed that the MMM has been paid by the Kremlin to disrupt the elections and blocked its candidacies.

The trouble continued when polls opened on October 20 when the website was hit by distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and down for at least 36 hours. The voting was extended for two extra days, but a new problem emerged: a flood of "zombie" voters from MMM attempted to overrun the vote. According to "Time" magazine, the pyramid scheme "allegedly blocked thousands of MMM investors from accessing their investment accounts until they registered to vote."

According to TOL's Netprophet, Volkov was criticized for not doing enough to protect the website against DDoS attacks:

Volkov previously promised that the website was locked down tight, and was prepared to withstand any attacks. That, however, was not the case [ru]. Early on, one of the voting servers was successfully taken down by a LOIC attack – a famously easy to use and effective DDoS tool. (LOICs have been successfully used by the hacktivist group Anonymous in their attacks on the Church of Scientology.) The attackers then switched to using a Botnet, which caused further problems, prompting the use of a captcha response test. Both types of attacks are very low budget [ru].
 
Volkov was further criticized by opposition bloggers and activists for a potential leak of their personal data. When participants in the opposition election registered, they gave their names, birth dates, and telephone numbers. Before the poll, Volkov attempted to reassure concerned users that "malicious persons" would not be able to access participants' private information.
 
According to Kevin Rothrock at Global Voices, Volkov said that the website would not be storing any personal data and that "every voter is logged in the commission's database by a unique code that is computed using his full name and date of birth, but it's impossible to restore this data using that code." The names, birth dates, and telephone numbers were all stored as hash values, which would provide a level of encryption.

Volkov ran into trouble when he attempted to cross-check participants' phone numbers with participants from the MMM pyramid scheme, seemingly in an effort to root out the "zombies." A California-based Russian blogger pointed out that this could give MMM access to all of the participants' phone numbers. MMM's founder Mavrodi, who cheated millions of Russians out of their savings in the 1990s and served four years in prison, isn't the sort of man you'd trust with your data, especially not in light of Volkov's accusations that he was working in league with the Kremlin.
 
While Volkov quickly admitted the "screw-up" and said that there would be a technical audit, he has been criticized for his over-reliance on weak encryption before, with one blogger claiming the personal data could be deciphered easily with a brute force attack. Rothrock also raised questions about the anonymity of the users' information (i.e. whether the phone numbers were separate from the voters' other identifying data.)
 
In recent weeks, the Russian opposition has been under increasing pressure from the authorities. A statement from the Coordinating Council, which was posted on Navalny's website, said that the government was increasingly using direct pressure on its opponents, violating the provisions of Russian and international law. Leonid Razvozzhayev, an aide to an opposition deputy, claims he was tortured and abducted in Ukraine, before being shipped back to Russia.
 
Pro-Putin deputies are already seizing on the data scandal. Nationalist deputy Andrei Lugovoi, who was the chief suspect in the death of Aleksandr Litvinenko, has asked the Investigative Committee to look into the data breach. Prosecutors are also investigating whether the opposition council has defrauded the MMM members of their registration fees.

Often heralded as an opportunity for a truer and more representative democracy, the cyberattacks and potential data leak also show the vulnerability of such online platforms and the challenges grassroots initiatives face in maintaining sound information security.

Why Do We Hate Facebook?

It started with a media report in France and in a few days the story had gone around the world. Our private Facebook messages from 2007 and 2008 were being made public on our walls. The story was picked up on U.S. blogs and was rapidly spread through Facebook status updates and on Twitter.

Facebook quickly issued a strong denial, tech journalists drilled deep, and the story was quickly debunked. Yet the message -- the cautionary status updates -- still spread, translated across Facebook's global communities. Even when faced with evidence to the contrary, people still insisted the story was true: They didn't care what Facebook said, they knew they didn't write that on their Wall, they never would have written that in public.

Our susceptibility to believe reports that Facebook is playing fast and loose with our data comes as no surprise. Facebook has let us down many times before, changing privacy settings without telling us and exposing our information. But in the social-media-powered hysteria, something else was on display. It was almost as if many of us wanted to believe it, as if we wanted to feel let down by Facebook. What the messaging saga showed us was the sheer depths of distrust and unease held by many of Facebook's heaviest users. 

I confess: I love Facebook. It is my social network of choice. I am not a basement dweller, living my life online. I live a normal life with friends and family and Facebook is an enhancement of that. I use Twitter, but for journalism and networking rather than for communicating with friends. The Twitter me is the corporate me, truncated and reined in. On Facebook, I can be more myself. Over the years, Facebook has brought me closer with many people I am happy to be closer to. If I didn't use Facebook, I wouldn't have made those connections. The technology did that. 

But sometimes, in praising Facebook, I feel like I am a rarity. Being too enthusiastic about Facebook is just not done in polite, techno-literate society. Among the general public, Facebook is the lowest-scoring "e-business company" on the American Customer Satisfaction Indexes with 61 on a 100-point scale. While Facebook has just reached a milestone of 1 billion users worldwide, there are some worrying signs for the company, for example the shrinking number of web-based users in the United States.

The sense of unease about Facebook appears in many different guises. There are those who criticize Facebook -- and social media in general -- for being inauthentic, superficial, and at odds with the "real world." There are those who take umbrage at Facebook's business model, its behavior as a virtual monopoly. There are those -- hipsters, fashionistas -- who wouldn't be seen dead anywhere other than Tumblr. There are those from the church of high-tech who ideologically oppose Facebook's closed platform, its capture of the open web, and long for a distributed open-source alternative. There are those who worry about what they see as Facebook's cavalier attitude to users' privacy, especially when those users are based in odious regimes. There are those who see Facebook as just the latest incarnation of mass consumer society, where our desires and behavior are being manipulated by The Man. And then there are those who just see Facebook, and social networking in general, as trivial and quit after getting too many Farmville requests.

While all of these viewpoints are very vocal, among the great mass of Facebook users they are likely edge cases, a long tail of elite unease. Right in the heart of Facebook's user base, though, the concern about the service is far more complex, revealing, and interesting. The low-level hum of discontent, revealed in the recent hysteria over messages is due to our evolving relationship with data. It is a relationship most of us don't really understand, but it gives us a general sense of foreboding.

The problem is that when technologists talk about data and privacy, for many of us it is still in the abstract. For technologists and computer scientists, data is a thing that lives somewhere, it has a logic and can be parsed, made sense of, organized into databases. It can be searched and ultimately sold. But as Nathan Jurgenson, a social-media theorist, points out, for most people "data is this weird nebulous concept that somebody knows something about me, but I don't know what they know." 

Ask the average user what Facebook is doing with their data and the answer will be murky. People will often say they don't like it but can't quite say why. Is it that Facebook is collecting data or that it is passing on that data to advertisers that bothers them? There have been warnings of the chilling effects "big data" could have on society. For instance, if our online shopping history affected our credit rating or if what we Googled impacted our health insurance. But for most users right now, those potential consequences are still too abstract. If Facebook mining our data meant that users somehow lost money or that it contributed to road deaths, they might care. But they don't.

The stakes for users become much higher and data starts to have meaning and consequences when things get personal. People do care about data when their boss sees a photo of them doing a beer bong on a day they called in sick. They do care when a new partner sees a recently tagged photo of them with their ex. They do care when a high-school friend makes a homophobic comment on a conversation thread with a gay friend.

"Because it's about who you are and because it's about personal relationships, it's much more immediately obvious to people what the consequences of that will be," Milo Yiannopoulos, the founder and editor in chief of the tech publication "The Kernel" says. "People increasingly do understand what is happening to their data and increasingly don't like it."

A Democratic candidate for the Maine State Senate was attacked recently by her Republican opponent for her playing of the multiplayer online game "World of Warcraft." According to her critics, the politician playing a "rogue orc assassin" was unbecoming. This collision of two seemingly different personalities -- on the one hand, a social worker and moderate politician, and on the other, a violent assassin (online) who likes stabbing things -- is what sociologists have called "role strain."

"Identities that were cultivated in little tide pools, that were conceived to be separate, come clashing together," says Marc A. Smith, a sociologist and social-media expert. "The issue now is that all of these other identities, the idea that we can perform them on separate stages and that they had separate audiences, that is collapsing and the sound of its collapse is the sound of people squealing." 

In his 1959 "Presentation of Self In Everyday Life," the sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about the idea of "front stage" and "back stage." In Goffman's theory, when they're "front stage," people engage in "impression management," choosing their clothing, speech, and adapting the way they present themselves to their audience. "Back stage" they can be more themselves, which might mean shedding their societal role. In the era of social media, Smith says that "we live in a culture where the back stage keeps disappearing." We think the conversations we are having are in private, but, in fact, they are publicly accessible and data has a long half-life. When U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke to a select audience about the "47 percent," he was, in fact, speaking to everyone. What happens in "World of Warcraft" doesn't always stay in "World of Warcraft."

A large part of the problem, according to Smith, is that sites like Facebook promise to compartmentalize our data -- so we can tweak our privacy settings and only share certain things with certain people -- but such "selective sharing" is actually a myth. It isn't just that the privacy settings are opaque or overly complex for the average user, but that if data exists it is likely to become public in the end. Data is leaked, it gets spilled, it is vulnerable to bad code.

In a blog post, Smith argues that "eventually private bits, even when encrypted (no matter how well), become public because the march of computing power makes their encryption increasingly trivial to break and their exchange over networks (no mater how well secured) is subject to leaking, intentional and otherwise." It isn't that people are necessarily against living in public in this way, they are just still getting used to it. To extend Goffman's metaphor, they are being pushed to front stage by an over-zealous director. 

But could it be something more than that? Are we seeing the early signs of fatigue about the very design and user experience of Facebook, a murmur of discontent about the way people think they are being forced to behave?

This was a recent status update from a friend:

 

I assume most of you are having a laugh, but today's posts have got me wondering what the point of Facebook is. Does everyone really get such a kick out of hating stuff these days? It's pretty sad when you see what technology has given us in our lifetime.


My first thought was that he's just blaming the technology and it is his friends who are the problem. Facebook, after all, just mirrors society and group dynamics. A 2011 University of Texas at Austin study found that people's behavior mirrored their behavior offline, meaning that extroverts were still extroverts when they logged into Facebook and introverts tended to engage less with others. But social-media theorist Jurgenson says that it would be incorrect to ignore Facebook's "role in shaping our behaviors when we're on it, and even shaping our behaviors when we're not on it."

The theories of the Canadian philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan that "the medium is the message" have been revisited in the social-media age. McLuhan argued that we should pay as much attention to the medium, as it could shape our behavior and have broader implications on society. Not considering that Facebook might have an effect on our behavior "would be analogous to the 'guns don't kill people, people kill people'" aphorism, says Jurgenson. "That the technology of the gun has nothing to do with it, it's all about the people."

"I don't think it's a conspiracy theory to think that [Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg] might want to shape our behaviors to maximize his own profits," he says.

Scientists have shown that the very act of sharing, of posting to social-media sites, releases dopamine and gives us pleasure. But for every high, there is a comedown, a period of self-examination. Perhaps some of the unease we are seeing is the collective morning-after of all that sharing. 

Facebook's business model is based on the idea that we should share more and with as many people as possible. We share what we buy, what we listen to, what we want, what we read, and what we think. We are being pushed to be as in-your-face, as forthright, as public as possible about everything we do. The design and user interface are exhaustively tested and meant to keep us there for as long as possible and to click as many things as possible.

"I don't think people hate Facebook, but I think that people are becoming increasingly suspicious of their own behavior on it," Yiannopoulos says.

Novelist Zadie Smith, among others, has argued that Facebook is an approximation of our lives, that our Facebook selves are mere reductions, devoid of nuance. Empirical evidence on whether and how Facebook has changed our behavior is still lacking, but perhaps the source of some of our unease isn't that Facebook is an approximation but rather an amplification. 

It is not the blandness of interaction but the in-your-face-ness, the hyperactivity, the constant requirement to keep up. It is not necessarily the choice of music, but the volume that might be making us weary. Characters revert to type on social media, but their attributes are turbo-charged. The annual family update ("Chloe has had an impressive first term at Brown and seems to enjoy the social life as much as the academic!") has become the hourly update. The whiny friend we once met now and again outside the grocery store is now a daily occurrence. Of course, we can hide these people on our feeds, but this is information we love to hate. That is the dichotomy of Facebook: Just like the self-destructive urge to snoop on ex-partners online, we sometimes just can't help ourselves. Facebook is a mirror that reflects society for good and ill, but it can sometimes resemble a fun-fair mirror, getting our attributes all out of proportion or rearranging them. 

The problem with analyzing Facebook hate might just be that we hear from the haters a lot more and the very dynamics of social media give their views more airtime. New York University media professor Clay Shirky wrote by e-mail: "I don't think that many people hate Facebook. They are very vocal but not so numerous." 

They are so vocal that a new genre has emerged in recent years: Facebook confessionals. "Why I Decided to Quit Facebook" or "How I Found a Life Offline After Quitting Facebook" -- the narrative is always one of sin and redemption. The confessionals are morality plays, cautionary tales, where all is going swimmingly in social-network land, friending, poking, sharing pictures of unicorns, and then it all goes wrong, relationships turn sour, jobs fester. And then the social-networking equivalent of pouring the booze down the sink, the final "goodbye, world" post, and then a new world of acceptance, discovery of life's true meaning, and redemption. 

With Facebook's global growth, these tales of woe are still edge cases. And while Facebook's interface can encourage certain behaviors, many of the confessionals seem to tell us more about the person than they do about Facebook. We hear of users crowdsourcing what to have for dinner that evening, self-destructive hot-or-not contests with high-school friends, and monitoring the relationship statuses of exes on the hour every hour. When we hear how they used Facebook, the evangelical fervor and earnestness of their confessions suddenly makes sense. It is no irony that, just as they chose to live very public lives on Facebook, instead of quietly unplugging, their confessions are made in public.

It is also no irony that the very dynamics of social media can perhaps exaggerate and overamplify our sense of unease about Facebook. Talking about the viral spread of status updates warning that Facebook was making private messages public, Jurgenson says that negative information of this sort -- the bread and butter of Facebook unease -- goes viral and travels faster than positive information. 

"One of the things that social media trains us to do is to share things that are sharable, resharable, likeable, retweetable. Social media has trained us to find things and say things and speak in a way that other people will like it and retweet it and so forth," he says. "A story like 'Facebook is now publishing all your private messages,' or 'Facebook is going to start charging $5 in January, sign this petition' -- all of those things are very sharable in a way that true information just isn't," he says.

Ultimately, much of the unease is just due to Facebook's ubiquity. Technologists and privacy advocates debate whether Facebook should be treated like a public utility. It has strong implications, for instance on freedom-of-speech and privacy issues, but for most of us, we already treat Facebook as if it were the water company.

"Complaining about the thing that you rely upon is one of the ways in which you get to pretend to have some power over it," says Smith. "Complaining about your infrastructure is a uniform trait of humanity. I know of no one who has high praise for the things, the roads, the bridges, the trains, the tunnels. They are always not as good as they would like them to be. People used to make all sorts of jokes about how late their letters would arrive."

Whether people decide to stick with Facebook (and my bet is that they will) depends on a collective cost-benefit analysis.

"We stay in relationships we shouldn't really be in because our own internal cost-benefit processes don't always function very well and we are not very good about judging our own best interests and we are not particularly good at making dispassionate analyses about things that we care about," Yiannopoulos says.

Or perhaps front stage there is a deep sense of unease about Facebook, but back stage we are not half as worried as we seem. 

 

Tags:Facebook, social media

About This Blog



Written by Luke Allnutt, Tangled Web focuses on the smart ways people in closed societies are using social media, mobile phones, and the Internet to circumvent their governments and the efforts of less-than-democratic governments to control the web. 
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