Welcome to the Neighborhood 2.0

VOX header

Surely you’ve heard by now that Six Apart’s new neighborhood platform VOX has launched.

I really like it. In fact, it’s the first online “place” that my mom’s signed up with, who was shortly followed by my brother (who found me initially on Facebook and I cajoled him into joining VOX).

Now that they’re both on it, I actually feel pretty comfortable about them giving it a go without me chaperoning them along.

Don’t get me wrong… I mean, there’s a bit of complexity in VOX, but I kind of feel like, if they play around a little — with the teasers that incite you to actually contribute and connect (suggest a neighbor feature on the invite page is genius) — they might just get into all this “Web 2.0” stuff I’ve been yammering on to them about for ages.

So now, imagine going home for Thanksgiving and rather than having to explain “feeds” or “Flickr”, we can just follow up on posts that they read but never commented on… or photos of my neighbor’s that they liked… Imagine using VOX, with its facile design and attention to detail, to finally connect with folks who normally could care less about this stuff.

Yes, finally.

It’s funny, but lots of people talk about “designing for Grandma” or “soccer moms” or other supposedly technically inept audiences (though, who in reality are often just as — if not moreso — savvy than the folks making such comments). But I think VOX has gone further than many who have come before and have successfully built a product and a community that I wouldn’t mind introducing my mom to (in fact, I did just that) and who I wouldn’t mind taking her through so that I knew it made sense and so that she could get the most out of her time spent on it.

In fact — and this is critical — once she’s set up and off on her own, I trust VOX to not get in her way or insult her intelligence. Perhaps I’m belaboring the point, but there are just so many nuances that make VOX feel friendly and worth working with that it’s important to point out that VOX is, above all, an excellent example of applied restraint and the execution of clear intention.

The one geeky thing I’ll add is that I’m eagerly awaiting OpenID integration so that we can start pushing forward with making the experience of grassroots identity consolidation as easy and good looking as VOX.

Symantec/Norton on OpenID/Cardspace train

For posterity (emphasis added):

Users, and not Symantec, will control their identity information, Salem said, addressing the main criticism that led to the demise of a similar effort from Microsoft called Passport. Also, Symantec will not create new technology standards, but plans to use Microsoft’s CardSpace and the open-source OpenID technology, Salem said.

Civil libertarians should get hip to personal data harvesting

Despite my tonqe-in-cheek title, I wanted to take a moment to respond to this article, because, though it is likely well-intentioned and in fact rather truthful, it glosses over a more important discussion that should be going on.

Despite my tonqe-in-cheek title, I wanted to take a moment to respond to this article, because, though it is likely well-intentioned and in fact rather truthful, it glosses over a more important discussion that should be going on.

Whether anonymous Internet usage will ever exist is not important. What is important is that companies become aware that Internet activity is easy to monitor from a variety of locations, even when data encryption is in use.

In context:

There are several jokes and cartoons out there that play on the idea of the “anonymous” Web, an Internet where you can be whatever and whoever you want. Most mainstream computer users willingly buy into this concept, deceived by the ability to adopt cryptic usernames and e-mail addresses.

Anonymous Internet usage is an appealing concept to many people, but whether it’s actually possible is a different matter. Generally speaking, it’s relatively simple to intercept–and at the least, monitor–the transmission of digital information.

Every time you transmit data from a computer to or from somewhere else using the Internet, literally dozens of places can exist that are monitoring the transmission. Clear-text protocols offer no built-in protection from eavesdropping. In addition, the transmission leaves traces of “evidence” on your computer–regardless of if you use data encryption or one of those software “evidence eliminator” packages.

An anonymous Internet, if such a thing existed, would be immune to eavesdropping entirely, and it would have no record of a communication ever existing. Anonymous Internet usage is like a “cash” form of communication: It would leave no traceable evidence.

In certain countries, the government restricts and/or controls Internet use. For example, China has one of the most extensive Web proxy server and monitoring capabilities in the world, aptly dubbed the “Great Firewall of China.”

The Chinese government controls, monitors, and censors Internet access at will. Dissidents and those opposed to the Chinese government, including other governments, constantly try to bypass the censors, but the Great Firewall soon discovers and blocks these noncensored “anonymous” proxy servers.

So it’s understandable why some people see the benefits in leaving no traces of any communication, especially when there’s a fear of reprisal from a government or other organizations. It would be as if the transmission never happened. There’s no record of it ever occurring, and therefore it doesn’t exist.

But, however appealing this concept may be to some, the fact remains that it isn’t realistic. Companies and individuals alike need to be aware that there really is no such thing as anonymous Internet usage. If someone wants to determine what a computer is doing on the Internet, there’s always a trail to follow.

Computer users leave traces of information with almost every data transmission. In fact, an entire computer subindustry has evolved to deal with removing these traces of information, but these companies can only remove what’s on a computer. There are so many other points that can record the “digital footprints” of Internet activity that it’s impossible to completely guarantee anonymity.

Whether anonymous Internet usage will ever exist is not important. What is important is that companies become aware that Internet activity is easy to monitor from a variety of locations, even when data encryption is in use.

Jonathan Yarden is the senior UNIX system administrator, network security manager, and senior software architect for a regional ISP.

If we take the author’s premise as a given (that anonymous internet usage will never ever exist), then the important discussion to have is what information should be collected about you, and if collected, who has control over it and what can you, as the source of that information, do to control its use, administration and distribution?

If one persists with a blanket notion that personal information collected about one’s behavior on the internet is bad, the future will be very difficult to cope with. The fact is that more and more companies, big and small, are amassing huge databases of information about people. Frankly, if you’re really concerned about this kind of thing, you should stop using your ATM and credit cards because as it is now, it’s easier to track your behavior through your purchases than through your web browser.

But that is going to change. And the dangers are such that, unless a cogent counter-argument is made that fairly deals with the benefits that come with the harvesting of this data, it will be increasingly difficult to take back control or change corporate policies once they’re instated (as with a civil liberty lost is nearly impossible to get back).

So what am I driving at? Well, I think that a more realistic and proactive attitude is needed from the civil libertarian camp that shows its understanding of the value in this kind of data. I also think that a more nuanced attitude towards privacy is desperately needed because all or nothing is not going to cut it as technology gets simpler and better at collecting information about you. I also believe that civil libertarians can benefit from this kind of data collection in ways that I don’t think have been realized. Once we start to see data collection as a strategic tool rather than as an invasion of our private space, we may indeed become powerful enough to take back control over our data.