Cyber culture: Don't want your data to be mined by the web giants? Time to talk like an Egyptian
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Thursday 03 May 2012
One of my earliest internet memories is of geeks enthusiastically using PGP keys, an almost military-grade encryption tool that ensured messages could only be read by the person who sent them and the person who received them.
So mind-bogglingly secure was PGP that it was classed as munitions by the US Government, and the inventor, Phil Zimmermann, was for a while investigated for exporting it without a licence.
As email use expanded, PGP came to be seen as unnecessary faff used only by the unnecessarily paranoid. But today, with our every utterance on the web being recorded, stored and used in a whole range of mildly annoying ways, might we re-embrace the idea of encrypted communication?
The people behind a new service, Scrambls, certainly think so. Unlike PGP, there's no accompanying assertion that "scramblsed" code is unbreakable, but it has been made incredibly easy to use. It comes in the form of a browser plug in; when you sign into the service, any messages you post online are transformed into a series of random hieroglyphics that can only be deciphered by people who are also using Scrambls and upon whom you've bestowed the honour of belonging to your inner circle. It's a phenomenally effective two fingers to data scrapers at Facebook, Google et al, because you're posting in a language that can't be made sense of. As a result, your social media presence becomes this curious mixture of public and private.
It's not quite a no-brainer, though. While testing I found myself accidentally sending scrambled messages to people by accident and then having to red-facedly explain why. Forum owners could see the hieroglyphics as spam and crack down on their use, while friends and acquaintances could start to exhibit paranoia and resentment when they notice they're being excluded. Most people, as with PGP, will see it as unnecessary; they have nothing to hide, after all. But for those who are genuinely irritated by the fact that Twitter owns the content of your tweets, or that Google serves up adverts based on your love of gardening, it's as good a solution as they'll find. All the benefits of the connected web, but with an added layer of subterfuge.
How to stop anonymous cheapskates: bring out the smiley face
Ever since Radiohead (below) released an album four years ago using a pay-what-you-want (PWYW) system, there's been much musing about the psychology of the model, when it works and when it doesn't. One survey indicated that as many as one-third of people who downloaded In Rainbows chose to pay nothing at all, but any subsequent analysis seemed to be compromised by the fact that Radiohead were – and are – a phenomenally successful band, and perhaps not the best basis for a study.
A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US has been looking into PWYW, and attempting to make sense of what goes on in our heads when confronted with a question mark instead of a price tag. In one test it was found that people were happier to spend $5 on a photograph of themselves than hand over a sum of their own choosing for that same photograph, indicating that we're wary of being judged as being cheap. It's intriguing that shopping can be so bound up with issues of identity and self-image – but on the internet, of course, anonymity means that there's no one judging us and we can get away with snaffling goods for the lowest price possible. So is there a way of making us feel guilty?
A few years ago, a study at Newcastle University found that a poster of two eyes positioned above an honesty box caused people to put in more money than if the poster depicted flowers, and this model has been used very cleverly by spam filtering service Akismet. When you choose to donate money for the product, an on-screen slider allows you to select the sum while simultaneously changing the expression of a cartoon face next to the slider. When the slider's at zero, the face is glum; when it's at $120, the face is positively beaming. And, for some reason, you can't help but raise the slider to a level where the face at least looks mildly happy. We're such simple creatures, aren't we?
Flashback malware could wipe the smugness off Mac users' faces
For decades, Mac owners have exuded an air of smugness about their supposed immunity to computer viruses. While PC users equip their machines with software products from the likes of McAfee, AVG and Symantec, that erect barriers against incoming gremlins, Mac owners point and laugh at similar products for their own machines. "Why on earth would I waste my money?" they say, in unison. "It's like packing a parka for a trip to Tangiers – totally pointless," they continue, in unison. And to be fair, their smugness is justified. Malware creators wanting to create maximum havoc are hardly likely to bother producing code for a platform that's still relatively niche; Apple products still only account for around 12 per cent of the PC market in the USA, for example.
But there have been signs over the past few weeks that things are changing. Security flaws in Java software have been successfully exploited by a Trojan known as Flashback, with the latest variant, Flashback.S, contaminating more than 800,000 Macs worldwide. Apple recently provided a patch via its Software Update service which substantially reduced the incidence of the Trojan, but copies are still being disseminated that allow infected Macs to be remote-controlled without the owner even knowing.
Security experts Sophos recently put out a bulletin stating that around one in five Macs are carrying some form of malware; in many cases that's dormant, but nevertheless has the potential to be passed on to other computers.
The concern is that Macs are becoming easy targets; they're machines that generally don't have anti-virus software installed, they're used by people who are blasé about the potential threat and they generally have higher disposable income. Flashback is now the most substantial malware threat to Macs, and it's worth Mac users at least beginning to take the potential threat more seriously. How long it might take for that ingrained smugness to evaporate, however, is another question. I know that my own is pretty deep-rooted. Let's say that I'm working on it.
I'd like a tummy tuck, Botox for my forehead and a Skype chin
Chin-implant operations have surged in the US in the past year by a staggering 71 per cent. This wouldn't normally be worthy of comment in the technology section of The Independent, but the president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons has attributed the increase to the growing use of video-chat services such as Skype and FaceTime. (Indeed, one plastic surgeon in Virginia has been offering a "FaceTime Facelift".)
This constant reminder from unflattering webcams that our jawlines are lacking definition is causing people to reach for their wallets and blow $10,000 on implants.
But I'd recommend a cheaper solution, as a wobbly-chinned person myself: just hoist the camera up a bit. For God's sake, don't look downwards. Put it a couple of feet above your head. And about 10 feet away.
Make yourself barely visible. Save your money to spend on delicious treats instead.
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