Saturday, May 14, 2011

Privacy: More insights and ramblings

The Internet has brought forth some amazing innovations in the time of its public existence, but the debate over privacy could be the one thing that ultimately delays, or even puts a stop to innovation online. Privacy is a double-edged sword. It can bring sensitivity and alertness to consumers, but it can also “kill off” Internet produced goods such as online media. However, we can solve this severe problem by setting up a definition of what is online privacy.

The current problem with privacy online is that web services right now do not give privacy enough focus, and some services discount privacy altogether. Supposing that some companies and service providers on the Internet do consider privacy to be important, they probably still don’t protect a consumer’s right to privacy as well as they should.

Consumers on the other hand, expect complete privacy, which is ridiculous considering that that model is entirely opposite of what the web was designed for. The Internet was designed for collaboration, not isolationism. If a consumer really desired privacy, then they should not connect at all because the web was not designed for security and privacy. Albeit, there should be a certain expectation of privacy online.

There’s another reason why we can’t expect one hundred percent privacy online. Hint, it has to do with media consumption. General web users need to have the fundamental understanding that when they’re consuming online media, chances are they are being tracked by advertisements. This allows advertisers to know their audience and allows an online media organization to continue to receive revenue for these advertisements. It is ethical for Internet media companies to track you through advertisements online since it provides you with affordable or even free online content. If it wasn’t for those advertisements, chances are that the price of content would be dramatically higher. Now, when I say it is ethical for ads to track consumers, there are a big set of exceptions and rules to this.

One of those rules to ads that track consumers is that it must be clearly stated by the content producer or organization that the advertisement is tracking you. There must be full and proper disclosure that advertisements may be tracking you or logging personal data from your visits. If the organization has properly disclosed that advertisements are tracking you, then it’s not a problem.. Media sites must also comply with the rule that advertisements can only track and log certain types of data. [S1] For instance, ads on a given site could reasonably track your time and date of visit, or the amount of time you’ve spent on that site. Advertisements could also track your dynamic IP address, which is not a fixed address for your computer, but rather, is one that changes often and only provides a relative location of where you were when you visited the site. This location data is not very precise and is simply relative. This data could be logged within reason. Now what can’t be logged is another thing. Data such as an email address, if you’re logged into the site that stores your email address, cannot be logged. Phone numbers, a person’s full name, a person’s social network picture, and so forth, should also not be stored. To put it briefly, logging of data for ads is acceptable, it it’s not logging anything too personal.

Corporations and web services also have the responsibility of providing users with the option to opt-in rather than having to opt-out. In other words, users should have to explicitly accept, or opt-in to tracking services, instead of users being forced in there, and then have to intentionally opt-out, which is a corrupt privacy model. The user should understand the consequences of opting-in, which should be clearly communicated by the service providers, and then the user could make an educated decision on whether to opt-in, or deny the service altogether.

If web content providers put into practice the “opt-in model” and the “proper data collection” model, then privacy won’t become another problem for a company, but instead, just another part of their online strategy.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Why Sony and I aren't friends.

In mid-April, Sony’s PlayStation Network, which allows PlayStation console owners to play games with other PlayStation owners through the internet, was hacked. It was not immediately apparent to Sony, who owns the PlayStation family of products, that the PSN, or PlayStation Network, was hacked. The breach was detected after Sony was detecting some strange amounts of traffic coming in from a device other than a PlayStation. Sony hired an outside security firm to analyze their network for any possible intrusion. The results came in as positive. The PSN was hacked by a small group of hackers.

The PlayStation Network breach is known to be one of the worst Internet service interruptions ever, as witnessed by its customers, whom were not able to access the network for the past three weeks. Undoubtedly, this has upset PlayStation owners quite a bit. And to make matters worse, PlayStation Network users have had their data compromised. This data includes user names, email addresses, and all gaming achievements, or virtual goods unlocked on the PSN. Sony also notes the “possibility” that billing information could have also been compromised as well.

To combat this problem, Sony has emailed their PlayStation Network users to change their passwords once the service is officially restored. Unfortunately, the service has not been restored and Sony is still investigating the issue. Sony’s CEO, Howard Stringer has commented on the security breach, however, I don’t think his comment is relevant so I decided to leave it out.

I’m appalled by the poor communication of Sony and how Sony has not provided an adequate response to the security nightmare. The lack of good communication really goes to show you cannot put your complete trust into a corporation’s network. Although Sony’s communication on the matter was poor, I do not believe PSN users will leave in a mass exodus.

Sony used strange words, in their email to customers, to cover up and to make an inaccurate generalization of the problem. It was more than evident that Sony’s ability to handle PR issues is quite poor. However, if Sony would’ve had a better equipped PR team, then maybe users might’ve been less outraged.

The true reason I’m writing on this issue is because of the security aspect. Of course, I can’t speak regarding Sony’s security practices, since I have no affiliation with them, but I can say this. Sony has no intention of making security a number one priority on a free service, such as the PlayStation Network. Their number one priority is to make a good profit off PlayStations, games, and other digital content and services. If Sony would only learn from all the other security breaches that occurred in the past year, then maybe they wouldn’t be in this mess right now.

In summary, the Sony PSN breach is serious. Users’ data was compromised and left every user vulnerable. What I find ironic is that everyone including the media has taken this situation seriously. Well, everyone except Sony that is. Not that I'm bitter. After all, I don’t own a PlayStation.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The status of web development

With the launch of Apple’s iOS App Store, and the launch of the Android Marketplace, the attention has shifted away from web-based applications and content, to apps, or applications. People thought that the idea of having a centralized source for content in the form of an app, was much more convenient. To a certain extent, aggregating content such as games or video or news, through an app is convenient, but it moves us back into the “suburbs”. The application model is “a gated community”. Applications lock you into this ecosystem and move you away from the web, whether intentionally or not. If we had a centralized source for web-based applications, that was actually practical, then everyone would be using that instead. Therefore, I thought today I would describe the status of web development as it is right now, and then talk about how we, as consumers, could make improvements.

In its current state, web development is difficult due to the sheer fact that there are many display sizes and many hardware and software vendors, all with different requirements and specifications. One might think that web development would be easy since there are no strict rules or guidelines. Even though web development being an open specification that should interoperate between all the different types of devices, is still difficult for a variety of other reasons.

Another challenge in web development that exists is that there is confusion among consumers about the difference between web applications, or content on a website, and an application that you run on your device. Local applications, also known as the ones that are stored on the device or computer, are often much easier for consumers, because these applications are accessible at the touch of a button, without having to know any URL. However, even though apps might appear to be more convenient, there is a down side. When someone is using an application, they’re receiving content that is pre-packaged and is not modifiable. The user has no control over the experience or the content. People right now do not give enough attention to Internet-focused apps. People tend to have a bias for the convenient style of doing things. As well as convenience, consumers are not willing to pay as much for web applications, as they are for local applications, since they are often more affordable compared to web applications. The stereotype that application marketplaces, such as Apple’s iOS App Store, which serves iOS users with local apps, have set upon consumers is that local applications are the better way to go. It is obvious that Apple with their iOS App Store and Android with their Marketplace, want to encourage people to invest in local applications, rather than web applications because it gives Apple and Google a great source of income. However, if consumers can overcome the big corporations that are encouraging these types of “gated communities”, then we can make a confident transition into Internet content. We need to eliminate the stereotype that web apps are not worth as much, in terms of currency, as local apps. Change is most certainly necessary here. However, that change can only occur if we change people’s opinions about web applications.

Some “die hard”, or devoted developers, are weary of using the web to host their content because they are afraid that they are going to run into serious obstacles or that the web cannot provide the functionality they are looking for. I have some fantastic news for those developers, there’s no need for this concern! In fact, HTML5 alongside JavaScript and CSS3 is very powerful. In many ways, it would be easier for developers to develop in these languages because those languages are widely accepted now in most modern browsers for desktops and mobile devices alike. The overall development process would be a lot simpler, and a lot cheaper than a developer dedicating him or herself to a specific platform.

I have only described some of the obstructions in the way right now for web developers. There are much more and I could go on forever describing them, but those are just the main problems that we need to focus on as consumers, and web developers need to tackle as well. Despite these roadblocks, I am optimistic in that these challenges can be beat. The experience using web-based content will be greatly improved and may eventually be much more desirable compared to applications. Sure, it will take some time for all the changes necessary to take place, but in the end, it’ll be worth it. Consumers will just have to be patient in the meantime.