New Blog Location

A decade or so ago, when my blog hosting company was purchased by Google, I don’t recall being alarmed. They assured me that they wouldn’t be evil. Alas, for the good old days!

As Google has shed their concern about avoiding evil, I’ve been pondering moving away from them. There were two factors that finally pushed me to go.  One was the lack of control over the platform, which interferes with making posts about whatever hack pact I flirt with completing. I couldn’t post my javascript stuff at all. I couldn’t use my favourite music font. The final annoyance was that I couldn’t post my new PD patches with WebPD. Unfortunately, it turns out they don’t actually run with WebPD, but anyway…

The other day, I clicked a link to find out the origin of the slang term ‘on fleek’, which took me to those well known connoisseurs of youth culture, the New York Times. I can’t tell you if their article was good or bad, as I was unable to read it. They greyed out all of their text, pending my filling out a short survey that wanted my medical history. If I had disclosed to Google surverys whether or not I have high blood pressure or diabetes, I might be able to awkwardly use slang like a 39 year old who read about the term in the NYT. Instead, I tried clicking the opt-out link, which failed to work. And that was the moment that pushed me over the edge.

I’m not exactly happy about how google analytics tracks me around the web (which they do, to me and you – with the help of website owners, they know almost everything we click on). But trying to coerce me to disclose private medical history is a step too far. My medical records are private, protected sensitive data in both the US and the EU. They have no right to know and no right to ask. If I had disclosed, they would certainly share that information with advertisers and other interested parties, something that medical privacy laws were expressly written to prevent.  Screw that.

So my new plan is to stop handing all of my data to Google. Step one, the easiest step, is to move my blog. WordPress is extremely easy to use. This is my domain and my server and I can use whatever fonts I want!

The next step is dropping Gmail. Unlike most other email providers, Google does not just deliver your email, but they also hand over keywords to advertisers. Have you ever wondered how it is that you exchange some emails about maybe buying an inflatible raft (or whatever) and then suddenly see a bunch of banner ads about rafts for sale? That’s because Google read your email. Indeed, so many people have gmail accounts, that google is likely to be reading your email even if you don’t use them.

The widespread gmail usage also creates additional issues for users. Many people are confused about their email address and keeping giving out mine when signing up for stuff.  When I briefly signed up for whatsapp, somebody already had an account with my email address.  A lot of app developers seem to have given up even providing a mechanism to get them to stop spamming you with somebody else’s email notifications.  And, indeed, as a related issue, if some other person mistypes or misspells my address when trying to contact me, the typo is likely to actually be an account name for somebody. My would-be correspondent doesn’t get a bounce message or a reply from a user who is used to seeing things not meant for them. Which is why a publisher texted recently me to find out if I was dropping out of their project, as they’d never heard any replies.

And then, finally, I need to de-google my Android phone. My gmail account does not just have all my email, it has my contacts. I helpfully type in the first name, last name, phone number and address of people I want to keep track of. So if you sign up for some_cool_dude@gmail and think that they might read your email and know you have high cholesterol, but at least they don’t know who you are in real life, well, one of your friends with a Samsung just told them you’re John Smith of 124 Some Street, etc and gave them your phone number.

I used to work on web search many years ago and remember when google was a shiny new company. Even when it was small, a lot of employees there were ‘ex’ NSA spooks. Google was happy to hire them. NSA programmers are really good at search algorithms. Google’s journey from being a really good search engine to a gateway that won’t let you pass without demanding access to extremely sensitive medical data has been very gradual. It was easy to trade a bit of privacy for a lot of convenience, but this, finally, is a step too far.

So welcome to my new blog! Theoretically, all my old posts have been moved over. If you still use an RSS reader, update your feed to:

Trying out Samaritans Radar

I’ve (temporarily) signed up for the Samaritans Radar app. I thought this would be a smartphone app, but it’s not. It’s a little twitter app that reads posts looking for keywords and sends an email if it sees anything it thinks might be alarming.
I’ve got two notifications so far. The first one comes from a tweet from before I added the app:

Oh, irony is not dead.
The other notification was for this tweet:

It sent me an email about 20 minutes after that was first posted, which is a bit late for a ‘I’m going to kill myself … right now’, but possibly ok for people building up more slowly. (A later notification for a different tweet arrived after only 7 minutes.) Gmail autofiltered the email to my Updates tab, which means it did not generate an alert on my phone. All of the updates I got have been in a single thread, so I could move it to the primary inbox if I were concerned.
The email told me:

Dear @celesteh,

Radar has spotted a tweet from someone you follow who may be going through a tough time.

Read the tweet here and find out how you can offer support.

View Tweet Now

If you need more information on how to help your friend or if you need some support yourself, please visit

Clicking through on the ‘View tweet now’ takes me to a web page.

My Radar

Hi @celesteh
This is the tweet that Radar has spotted

Are you worried about this Tweet?
[yes] [no]

Clicking yes gets a small pop up window overlaying the tweet in question:

What to do:

You’ve indicated that the tweet might be worrying. Here are some tips on what to do next:

  • Have a look at their tweets, is this a one off? Out of character? Has it been going on for long?
  • Try sending them a tweet (or perhaps a DM, Email, Text?) gently asking how they’re doing.
  • Could a mutual friend have the same worries and help approach them together?

You might want to try and meet up with your friend, or arrange a time to chat on the phone?

  • Offer Samaritans contact details and suggest they call if they want to speak to someone anonymously : 08457 90 90 90
  • For more information and help with knowing what to say visit

And that’s it. None of the pages had any queries or information relating to the nature of different relationships I might have with the potentially troubled tweeter. For example, if I got a tweet like that about an underling that I line-manage or have power over at work, that is not addressed. Nor is any mention made of the equalities act.
This tool does not give me access to any information I did not already have access to. It only shows me tweets already visible in my timeline. Therefore, concerns that it could out somebody as trans or LGB do seem misplaced, as it only shows me what people have already decided I should be able to see. I don’t know, but I suspect it will also work with protected tweets, so it will send me alerts about tweets that aren’t public, but, again, the person decided I could already see them. (This does raise larger concerns about how twitter apps run by big data companies are a way of circumventing privacy controls set by individual users.)
Again, this app draws my attention to tweets that would have been in my timeline anyway, but that I may have missed because of the massive volume of tweets that go by, or I may have scrolled past it without noticing. I can see why the Samaritans were surprised by people getting upset about privacy concerns, as this is much less invasive than is all of facebook or a lot of other twitter-based data gathering.

Previously on this topic: Posting to the Internet

Posting to the internet

I’m seeing a lot of people upset over an app made by the Samaritans. This is a twitter app that listens for some keywords and phrases that might indicate if one of your contacts is having a hard time. If they are, it gives you some nudges to reach out to offer them some support. This is obviously well-intentioned, but many are concerned about potential misuse, for example, by employers who want to discriminate against people, or bullies.
I would think the vast majority of people installing an app like this have good intentions. If your manager sees that you’re having a rough time via this app, well, they’re already following you on twitter and could very easily stumble across your unhappy posts by accident. Having this app indicates that they at least like the idea of supporting people, but, yeah, they could very well make poor decisions about what to do with a struggling underling. It’s not clear whether this app makes that any more likely. It does call attention to possibly unhappy tweets by the employee, but hopefully a well-intentioned manager is aware of the Equalities Act (and hopefully this scenario occurred to the programmers, in the user interaction between the app and the concerned person).
The bully argument is a bit more troubling, as, alas, it’s all too easy to imagine someone installing this just to keep tabs on varied target lists. This linked post is concerned about transphobic abuse, which is all too common, but its also easy to imagine this being exploited by GamerGate. In the hands of sociopath, this use is, indeed, troubling. However, it is merely automatic a task that they’re possibly already doing manually.
I think people’s major concern is the inherent creepiness of a piece of software following you and attempting to diagnose your mood and mental health problems via your public posts. This concern is not misplaced, but the targeting the Samaritans probably is. The truth is, untold numbers of apps do this already. We don’t know how many, because they’re under no obligation to tell us. Twitter makes available via their API a raw stream of everything posted to twitter. Every single post in real time. You or I cannot make use of so many tweets blasting out at us, but Big Data can.
Right now, there are programs running, looking at twitter, scanning every single tweet. They are looking for patterns. Some of this is completely benign. In the relatively recent earthquake in Napa, California, analysts were able to use tweet times and geolocation to figure out where the quake was big enough to wake people up. A lot of people, after making sure they were safe, reached for their smart devices and tweeted they’d felt the earthquake. Researchers were able to make a very nifty map, showing where it woke up the most people to where it seemed to waken virtually no one. That’s nifty, right? But it does require doing a lot of looking at where people are and whether they would normally be tweeting at that time of night. It’s not an invasion of privacy, because it’s public and maybe it doesn’t seem squeamish at all, but this is an unusual example.
Many twitter applications are looking for mentions of brands and what emotive words are used next to them. Many years ago, I tried to get a job blogging for a brand and they mailed me in the information pack every single public live journal post that mentioned their brand. All of them were public, but many of them were kind of embarrassingly personal. The authors never imagined them being disseminated to corporate types. This same thing still goes on, but a much more massive scale.
And its not unheard of to try to trace individuals. Target’s datamining certainly includes twitter.
We’re fine with giant corporations, security agencies and, yes, our bosses knowing everything we tweet. How do I know we’re fine with it? We all use twitter and nobody objects. Until some well-meaning do-gooder tries to make an accessible, helpful version of this.
Twitter’s entire business model relies on sharing this kind of information. This is not a case where they could be reformed into better behaviour. If you don’t want to be mined and you don’t want to tweet anonymously, consider using a privacy aware service to make posts like this – one that will share your tweets only with the people you say you want them shared with. So if you’re having a really really rubbish day and post, ‘I feel so down today, I’m at a loss and just don’t know how long I can carry on’ it will be seen by the people you want it to be seen by and not everyone on the entire internet and not a corporation out to sell your moods and data to anyone who will buy it.
If you want privacy control for posts, use Disapora for them. If you want the world and everyone to know what you’re thinking, use Twitter. There are times were it makes sense to use either. But even if this app gets withdrawn with muttered apologies, don’t assume you know who is reading your tweets. They’re public and anybody could be – and certainly is – gathering them.