Saturday, July 30, 2011

Boomers, Should You Use Gadgets to Spy on Loved Ones?

Recently, here in my home state of New Jersey, an appeals court ruled that it was just fine for a woman to put a GPS tracking device in the couple’s jointly owned car to spy on her spouse.  A N.J. court also ruled that police can use cell phone signals to track suspects without having to get a warrant.

Both cases, in my mind, are two sides of the same coin. Most of the mobile gadgets we use today have the ability to pinpoint their locations.  In addition, you can buy lots of cameras and gadgets that do the same thing, like monitor car use for teens, for example. The question is: should you take advantage of these capabilities and use them to spy on your significant others or your children?

The idea for this blog post came in part from a newsletter article by my colleague,  J.Gerry Purdy of MobileTrax, who discussed his negative reaction to an ad from Brick House Security “offering a number of different hardware and software products clearly designed and being sold to people who want to spy on their spouse, kids or significant others.”  Gerry doesn’t recommend spying in the least. He calls it “intent to gather information without the other person’s consent,” and an invasion of privacy.  

He says that if your relationship is “tenuous or, even worse, on the rocks, I recommend you talk about it rather than resort to using spyware. It basically gets down to building your own self-esteem and trusting in your relationship, so that you don’t worry about with whom your spouse is communicating or meeting.”

I have to agree, although I think there are exceptions to this rule. Would you read your kid’s diary or journal? I never did, if they even had a diary. I was adamant about letting them keep private things private. Yet, if I had suspected drug use or other harmful, illegal or life threatening activity, I probably would have violated my own rule. They knew that I would not spy and that I expected responsibility on their part in return.  Of course, I did look at any papers that were left open for all to see on computers. I wasn't a saint.

Yet, in this day and age, I don’t fault parents who put tracking and limiting software on their children’s computers as many police and school officials suggest. I have a friend who monitors her daughter’s computer use closely, and I understand that she is afraid of the predators out there and not sure about her daughter’s judgments. 

However, my friend’s daughter knows that her computer is being watched. She’s been informed that her mom will read her text messages too. She is not being spied on per se, because she knows she is being monitored. Yet I worry if monitoring too closely will create a person who cannot make significant judgments about right and wrong. Like the high school kid who has never taken a sip of wine and then goes to college, only to over indulge in alcohol, will kids who are sheltered from the dangers of the internet be able to cope when restrictions are taken away?

As to police reading texts and emails, I have mixed feelings. I’ve always wondered why electronic communications like email, texting and wireless phone calls are not subject to the same stringent protection of privacy requirements as are land lines and “snail mail,” but they are not. It’s a Federal offense for someone to open your postal mail. It’s not for someone to open your email. (I've been called to task here. Apparently, under some circumstances it CAN be a federal offense! Lawyers out there, please correct me.)  If illegal activity is transacted via postal mail, the police would need a warrant to open it. In the case of a civil case, they would need a subpoena. Both of these are difficult to obtain, protecting people against misuse. Yet with email, the police can start and build investigations with fewer hurdles.

This distinction makes it easier for police to track illegal activity being carried out by texting and over cell phones. And it makes it easy for court cases to hinge on emails that were sent.  All of that seems like an invasion of privacy to me, whatever the legal reasoning behind it.

My colleague Gerry Purdy says that using spyware destroys trust in relationships. “On some level everyone has experienced the destruction of trust in a relationship. I can tell you from experience that it’s better to have an open and trusting relationship than to destroy trust with gadgets.”

Along with Gerry, I urge you to “Use mobile technologies to build relationships not destroy them.”

My thanks to Gerry Purdy for his inspiration for this post.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

How to Opt out of Personalization on Google

I'm writing this blog post as a result of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a cousin who felt that some of the personalized ads that were following her on Google were downright creepy. Google calls this "Interest-based advertising." In truth, I've found it a little disconcerting too.  I once looked up a certain kind of shoe and then later, when I wasn't thinking about shoes, received an ad for a local shoe store. It felt a little weird, like someone saying to me, "Hey Esther, I know you wanted shoes yesterday so I found some for you today."

Anyway, I promised my cousin that I would figure out how she could "opt out" of interest-based ads, and then let her know. What I didn't realize was that it would be difficult to fulfill this promise. Thank you to my daughter for helping me locate the right pages to point to for this blog post.

The best way to get to this function is to search for "Google Ad Preferences" on Google. Click on the exact match to that phrase and you'll go to this page.  Here is a screenshot of the page:

As you can see, this page shows you what categories of interests Google has associated with you. It also allows you remove certain categories of ads to be delivered (or "served" as it is called in the industry). For example if one of the categories of ads Google has chosen for you is banking, and you don't want any banking ads, you can ask to be removed from getting them by clicking the "Remove" button.

You can also press the "Opt Out" button, and be removed from all personalized ads provided by Google. You have to realize that Google doesn't want you to press that button, but it is your right to do it. Google believes that by personalizing the ads to your demographic profile, it is "serving" you ads you'll like better than random ads. Here is the screen that you'll see when you've successfully opted out of these ads. Doubleclick is the name of the company Google bought that brings you this technology, and is now Google's personalized ad division.
On the page above, Google warns you that you have to "Opt Out" on each browser that you use. So if you use more than one browser likelike Internet Explorer, FireFox, or Safari or if you use more than one computer, you will have to "Opt Out" on each browser on each computer. Google tells you how to "Opt In" again. And Google explains that you may not be permanently "Opted Out." To permanently "Opt Out," you have to download some software from Google at this page:

In addition to taking action to restrict personalized ads from Google, you can head to the webpage for an organization that lets you opt out of personalized ads from a number of advertising networks and companies. The Network Advertising Initiative doesn't let you opt out of ALL internet advertising; it simply lets you opt out from seeing advertising that is tailored to your web preference and usage patterns.

Here is a screenshot of the Network Advertising Initiative page.  A tool on this page looks at the browser you are using and detects if you have a "cookie" from each of the initiative's members. It tells you, and you can choose to "Opt Out" individually, or by choosing "Select All," "Opt Out" of them all.

My cousin didn't mention it, but maybe she was annoyed by the personalized ads in her G-Mail account as well. I'm told that there is no way to completely opt out of personalized ads here, but to opt out of those that are formed by using the collective information in your emails, you need to take a different route. First locate the little star next to your name in the upper right hand corner of your G-Mail Account.

Now click on "Mail settings" and make sure you are on the "General" page. Scroll down the page until you get to this:

If you want to "Opt Out" of these personalized ads, simply click "Don't use these signals to show ads." Even after you do this, you may still get personalized email messages based on the email you are reading. Google thinks that the ads could be of interest to you and on the Learn More page, will try to convince you to allow it to use signals to predict the kinds of ads you'd like to see. The company says: " if you’ve recently received a lot of messages about photography or cameras, a deal from a local camera store might be interesting. On the other hand if you’ve reported these messages as spam, you probably don’t want to see that deal."

Of course, Google thinks that all rational people will take the time to report all spam. In fact, many of us just ignore it. When I get an email from a company I know is legitimate, but the offer isn't of interest to me at this time, I don't report it as spam. I might want to see other offers from that company.  Yet I'd be annoyed to see an ad in my email for something similar to the offer I'd ignored, simply because I didn't report it as spam.

Personalized or interest-based ads may be something you are happy about receiving. However, for those of us like my cousin, I hope this information gives you a way to make your web surfing and email experiences more pleasant.