PODCAST

Facebook’s Bid to Spread You Across the Web in Graphic Detail

I hope your friends have good taste, because if you’re on Facebook, you’re about to learn a lot more about what they like, what they read, and what pages they surf. So are advertisers. Facebook hosted its f8 developer conference recently, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg unwrapped new details about what the company calls “Open Graph.”

The name sounds vaguely dermatological, and kind of gross, but what Open Graph is is a new API platform and strategy that one-ups the company’s old Facebook Connect platform. Open Graph will stick Facebook’s nose into new corners of the Web using a new, more powerful “Like” button. It’s that icon you click when one of your Facebook friends does something that amuses you or enlightens you or gives you a general urge to say “right on!” I think doing that gives them a food pellet or something, not sure. Anyway, visitors to various websites — 30 major sites for the initial launch — will have a chance to view content based on the likes and preferences in their Facebook profiles. Friends who have posted comments or “likes” on the same sites will be highlighted. All this without having to log in separately to those participating websites. Sites can implement various Open Graph interfaces by dropping in some new code.

The f8 audience seemed to like the changes and the possibilities that could come with them. But the scope of Open Graph made some privacy advocates’ jaws drop. EPIC’s Ginger McCall told us her organization is already getting to work on a complaint to the FTC. She said the extent to which profile information is going out to be shared is far larger than she anticipated. “They’re actually setting it up so that the companies have access to your entire, quote, ‘graph’ — your connections, your network of connections, your friends, the things that you like, the places that you visited. All of this information is going to be out there in what they call the ‘Open Graph.’ The fact that they’re using cookies to track people around the Web is also problematic.”


Listen to the podcast (18:48 minutes).


Leak Week, Part 1

If you’d just escaped from a tightly secured technological research and development laboratory after months of being poked and prodded by white coats, where’s the first place you’d go? The fourth-generation iPhone made me proud with its answer: It headed straight to the beer garden and got itself picked up by a stranger.

That’s apparently what happened. According to certain blogs — some of which have enjoyed extremely high traffic since scooping up this news — a next-generation iPhone model was spotted recently in a Bay Area bar. And by spotted, I don’t mean someone snapped some low-res, badly lit photo. The phone was actually obtained after its user (an Apple employee who was given the responsibility to take it out and test it around town) reportedly got drunk and left it on his bar stool. The guy sitting next to him ended up leaving with it, and he later figured out what it was he was holding.

The blog Engadget was first with photos. They showed something that looked like it might be a real next-gen iPhone. But look hard enough on the Web and you’ll find a million crappy photos that people claim are “the next iPhone.” The vast majority are bogus.

It’s what another blog did that really threw geeks into fits of dementia. Engadget’s arch rival, Gizmodo, posted a video of one of their staffers having a little hands-on time with what looks to be the actual device. There’s also a long writeup of what’s inside. Gizmodo acknowledged that they’d bought the phone for five grand from that guy who left the bar with it.

The operating system won’t fully boot anymore, possibly due to a remote wipe. Perhaps Apple needs to start packing a little C4 into these things for a proper self-destruct. But it is a real device with intact guts, not the bleary-eyed photos Apple is sometimes suspected of anonymously leaking to bloggers on purpose. If those stories are true, they’re just to gauge public reaction, and they tend not to stand out very much from all the false BS and rumors out there. This is very different. If Apple’s PR geniuses really are playing some kind of game, they went to a hell of a lot of effort.

And that’s where the Aeron Chair gadget detectives came in. Suddenly everyone had a theory or a supposition. Someone tried to make it look like a hoax by making a hoax photo of their own. It was studied like an alien autopsy. If a flying saucer had landed on the White House lawn and a green-tentacled blob got out and handed the President a cellphone — well, that might have gotten more news play, but not by much.

Finally, Apple all but verified its authenticity by writing Gizmodo a short letter asking for it back. They obliged. So I suppose this phone really is the finalized version of the next-generation iPhone — or at least a real test prototype designed and built by Apple. But it’s certainly called into question the effectiveness of Apple’s ability to keep a lid on things.

Apple’s secrecy is notorious. While it was developing the iPad, it allegedly kept its prototype so locked down that developers could only view it in a windowless room while naked and surrounded by 12 armed guards. Then they had to spend a month in a sensory deprivation tank until they weren’t sure what they’d actually seen and what they’d hallucinated. Allegedly.

But that legendary level of secrecy and security does not match the scenario apparently playing out here. Did the company really take its super-secret, not-even-officially-in-existence gadget out of a fortified dungeon laboratory only to hand it over to a young engineer and let him skip off to happy hour? Who decided to let that happen? Some news outlets have identified the employee by name and given his age, and unless he’s just a player in some amazingly elaborate PR hoax, then he’s probably feeling quite low right now.

He did do something careless, but given Apple’s clear desire for secrecy, what manager would allow the phone out into such an uncontrolled environment in the first place? For lack of a better term, stuff happens, and he could have just as easily lost it through no fault of his own — if he was mugged, for example. Point is, this story is either very fishy or it’s a multiple-level screwup on something Apple just does not often screw up on — keeping customers in the dark about upcoming products.

Anyway, I guess we’ll all know whether or not this thing was the final model in June, when it’s widely expected that Apple will officially unveil the next iPhone. Or maybe they’re so mad that the surprise has been ruined that they’ll just cancel the whole thing till next year.

They really like their surprises.

Leak Week, Part 2

Meanwhile, Dell’s secret product security team is either seven times worse than Apple’s, or it’s seven times more aggressive at planting intentional leaks. Someone spilled the beans on over a half-dozen mobile products Dell’s planning to release soon, and the beneficiary this time was Engadget, which broke the story.

Leading the pack is the Lightning, which Engadget thinks is the strongest product of the set. It’s a powerful WinPho 7 slider phone. Then there’s Thunder, an Android smartphone; and another Android called “Smoke,” which appears to be targeted at the corporate market. The Aero is a relatively simple device with a 3.5-inch touchscreen. Among tablets, we have the Streak, which runs Android and should hit this summer; and the Looking Glass, a larger 7-inch tablet with an optional TV tuner. Then there’s the oddball of the group, Flash. It’s an Android device with a 3.5-inch LCD screen carved out of a curved piece of glass.

Odd that so much information would be coming from Dell so soon after Apple’s spectacle, so a reasonable question to ask is whether Dell might have let some of this info leak on purpose — just to grab the attention of all those people drooling over the next-gen iPhone and remind them that other nice phones are on the way too. Dell didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Engadget’s Chris Ziegler told us they have no reason to believe it was a strategic leak.

Try Again

Garmin more or less took a mulligan on the handset it released late last year. You couldn’t blame it for trying. Smartphones are elbowing into its turf with their various navigation apps, so Garmin thought, “Fine, I’ll go walk MY dog in YOUR yard and make my own phone.”

The result was less than triumphant. Critics slammed the Nuvifone for a variety shortcomings: unresponsive touchscreen, creaky Web browser, confusing menus, wimpy battery, all for 100 bucks more than the $200 line being drawn by most flagship phones at the time. And where were the apps? Nuvifone may have been celebrated as a great handset a couple of years ago, but by late 2009, it just did not stack up.

Lesson learned: Pick a platform, something established and familiar but also customizable. Android’s the natural answer for that, and that’s the OS Garmin’s new Garminfone has inside. The company hasn’t forgotten its navigation roots, though — nav features figure prominently into many of the Garminfone’s functions.

But is it enough? Is it enough to make navigation your phone’s main draw, or is that like trying to market a car when your top selling point is that it has a comfy arm rest and plush steering wheel? 451 Group’s Chris Hazelton isn’t sold. He told us, “The Garminfone is targeting a shrinking market in that navigation is no longer a primary activity on a handheld device, but a feature found on almost all smartphones. The BlackBerry, the iPhone, and other Google Android devices provide good enough navigation, but they also excel at other features like email, Web access and multimedia.”

Bad Medicine

A tainted security update has fried the brains of thousands of PCs, and it was brought to you by the numbers 5958 and the security vendor McAfee.

Antivirus vendors regularly run online updates for their definitions — basically teaching the software that resides on customers’ PCs how to identify and stomp out newly discovered threats. But definition file 5958, which McAfee sent to users a few days ago, misidentified a vital part of the Windows XP SP3 operating system as malware. Even though it’s just one little file, quarantining it would be sort of like removing just one little chunk of your brain stem — you’d be rather dysfunctional without it.

Sure enough, a great many PCs became stuck in an infinite restart loop. Those harmed include everyday consumers, businesses large and small, and even some public services like hospitals.

The effect of this update did bork up a fairly old operating system, but it’s one that’s hung around for a long time, no doubt thanks to all the loathing surrounding Windows Vista. Some businesses still run XP, and if they updated their McAfee and definitions before they learned they were a poison pill, they may well have ground to a halt.

McAfee has apologized to customers, and it says it’s working hard at making things right. But understandably, there’s still quite a lot of anger and resentment and talk of huge lawsuits floating around in the wake of this disaster, so the actions it takes over the next few days and weeks could be critical.

I Know You Are …

Google’s still taking in the gut for that Buzz debacle. To dig up some unpleasant memories, recall that Buzz was Google’s attempt to build a social network around profiles that Google users already had, like their Gmail accounts. Sounds like a sensible enough venture, but where Google slipped was that it didn’t clearly explain its privacy settings, and some people inadvertantly exposed information they didn’t want certain other people to see. Many others were merely creeped out by the stories going around about it, and the end result was that Google Buzz was born into a sticky, stinky PR tar trap, where it remains to this day.

That was months ago, but some people — most notably a group of data protection commissioners from 10 countries — are still steamed about it. They’ve launched an effort to put social networks and other online information depositories in their place when it comes to individuals’ privacy. Another target they ripped on was Google Street View, which lets anyone in the world take a drive-by glance at a city’s streets the way they appeared the last time the Googlemobile drove by with its 360-degree roofcam.

The commissioners’ statement reads, “It is unacceptable to roll out a product that unilaterally renders personal information public, with the intention of repairing problems later as they arise. Privacy cannot be sidelined in the rush to introduce new technologies to online audiences around the world.”

Google responded that it tries to be upfront about the info it collects, but it didn’t have much to say about the commissioners’ statement itself. Instead, it tried to shine the spotlight on what it called a new transparency tool, which it released at about the same time.

… But What Am I?

Google’s new tool is a bit of a table-turner on the issue of user privacy. As those privacy commissioners were raking it over the coals for playing too loose with Buzz and plastering images of people’s homes on Street View, what Google introduced is something that shines a bright light on how often governments themselves try to find out user data — and how often they attempt to censor the Web.

Google’s Government Requests website gives a simple country-by-country breakdown of how many times government agencies ask Google to provide them with user data or remove certain content. Brazil leads with 291 takedown requests and 3,663 requests for user info. China is currently a big question mark — it considers censorship demands state secrets. Information will be updated on a six-month basis.

In most of the listings for takedown requests, Google will say what percentage of a country’s demands it complied with, and whether a court order was involved. Google claims that the vast majority of these sorts of demands are quite legitimate — removing access to child pornography and the like. That level of detail isn’t currently provided in the category of government demands for personal user data, though.

Government Requests may not be 100 percent transparent, but it did win the applause of Wendy Seltzer, a senior researcher with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and founder of the Chilling Effects website. For the future, she hopes to see it provide more info about the nature of specific requests, like listing what law the government relied on as a basis for demanding content be taken down.

Ready for Another Load of It?

Billion-dollar corporate litigation cases aren’t normally known for being courteous and civil affairs, but usually the nastiest stuff stays behind closed courtroom doors. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Viacom’s battle with Google. The media conglomerate has taken to publicly airing court documents that its says support its case. Viacom’s putting them right up there on its own website for all to see.

Viacom claims its most recently posted documents show that right up until the moment Google bought YouTube, Google had the same opinion about the video-sharing site that a lot of media companies had: that its business model was pretty much sustained by illegal postings of copyrighted content. But Google went ahead and made the deal anyway.

After it did, according to Viacom, Google purposely took a lackadaisical approach to whether content being posted on YouTube was kosher or not — especially if that content was quick to rack up clicks. Viacom says Google also started using YouTube as a cudgel. It would try to cut content-sharing deals with media companies, and if things weren’t going its way, Google would allegedly tell them, basically, “Look, if you don’t make it easy for us to put your stuff online legitimately, someone out there is just going to post it on YouTube.”

The documents may not be all that they appear, though. Google’s Aaron Zamost told us, “These documents aren’t new. They are taken out of context and have nothing to do with this lawsuit.” He also said it’s “revealing” that Viacom is attempting to try this case in the press.

Jeepers Peepers

Remember Lower Merion School District? It’s located in a pretty well-to-do pocket of Pennsylvania. It can afford to give its students their own laptops that they have the option of taking home. But earlier this year, Lower Merion earned fame in all the wrong ways when it was revealed that school officials there had sometimes remotely activated the webcams in students’ laptops without their knowledge — and that it sometimes happened when the laptops were in students’ homes, and that they’d captured images of students doing things when they thought they were alone.

Previously, officials there claimed that they’d remotely activated cameras just 42 times, and each time it was strictly for the purpose of locating a lost or stolen computer. It was rarely used, they said, and it was all done in the name of high-tech crime fighting, just like CSI, SVU, CTU, or whatever. It’s just that on one occasion, they happened to catch this kid shoving handfuls of colorful morsels into his mouth, and we all know that any time you see a teenager shoveling handfuls of bite-sized bits into his mouth, there’s a 5 percent chance it’s candy and a 95 percent chance it’s $700 worth of kitchen-fresh ecstasy. They’d be foolish not to intervene, so they confronted himwith the evidence and attempted to discipline him.

That student and his parents were just a little bit mortified thathe’d been spied on, and the subsequent lawsuit and investigation opened a giant can of worms. A motion filed by the plaintiffs allegesthat school officials collected thousands of images, about 400 ofwhich were pics of the 15-year-old male student. Some of them showed himsleeping, and some of them even showed him “partiallydressed.”

In fact, a Philly.com report claims that the district actuallyactivated the cams about 80 times — twice as often as the districtinitially claimed. In some cases they were left on for days at a time,resulting in a total of over 56,000 captured images, including photosof students, pictures inside their homes and copies of the programsrunning on their monitors. Philly.com says its source was a schooldistrict lawyer.

The plaintiff’s motion also singles out Carol Cafiero, a technologycoordinator for the district who’s taking a little time off presently,though she’s still getting paid, so good for her, I guess. Accordingto the document, an IT staffer wrote Cafiero an email stating thatwatching students from the computer webcams was like a little soapopera, to which Cafiero replied, “I know, I love it.”

The district isn’t happy about the way this information is seepinginto the public’s view, drop by filthy drop. The president of thedistrict’s board of school directors said, “We do not feel itis appropriate for anyone other than the investigators to dictate thetiming of the investigation and the release of complete findings.”

So that’s their view when it comes to the appropriate conduct of aninvestigation, but depending on what those findings reveal, we maylearn a lot about what a few Lower Merion officials think isappropriate use of a remotely activated webcam when it comes toteenagers and private space.

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