Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Value of Online Confessionals: Evaluating the Secret & Whisper Apps...

As addictive as Facebook has become for some people as a means of feeling validated or popular - writing posts specifically to garner "likes", and experiencing disappointment when there's not a large response - there remains a hesitation by most Facebook users to post brutally honest thoughts or confessions for fear of backlash amongst those they know, not to mention that what they post may be archived and associated with themselves forever.

Two apps address this dilemma of public confessions:  Secret and Whisper.  Secret enables you to write posts anonymously and links to your Facebook account so that only your friends can see it, even though your friends won't know it was specifically you who posted.  Meanwhile, Whisper lets you do the same thing, but the anonymous posts are visible to the general online public. 

The allure of both services is to be able to write posts without personally identifiable consequences and also, as a reader of others' posts, it is tantalizing to read brutally honest and revealing confessionals written by people you actually know in your social network.

The fact that these apps are being so widely applauded is more a sign of great P.R. departments than anything else.  Rachel Metz writes for the MIT Technology Review that people do indeed say some nasty things on these anonymous apps, but that the good far outweighs the bad.  And one can go as far back as to the founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, to read about the value of confession as a positive force.

However, while online confessionals may serve a positive psychological purpose, there are some inherent dangers related to the fact that they are online forums.  For instance, to what extent will even private confessions be archived considering that other "private" social apps like SnapChat have recently been hacked and users' private content was then made publicly available?  What other privacy concerns should individuals consider before posting intimate details about themselves to the Internet (because, ultimately, that's what they're still doing)?  What restrictions should there be on children or teenagers both writing posts and reading/commenting on others'?

Secret and Whisper can have a positive value, and they're certainly addictive to read because you're just dying to know who could have written such a thing.  But as far as using them to write your own confessional posts... maybe a healthy dose of skepticism ought to be in order.


Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Using Proxy Servers to Help the Hong Kong Protesters...

The Chinese government is cracking down on the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong using tear gas and other heavy-handed methods, and have also begun censoring Internet content and online social media.  Hong Kong, being a semi-autonomous region, typically experiences less of the Great Firewall than does most of China proper, however due to fears of the demonstrations spreading further, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, numerous blogs and wikis, search engine results, and more are all being blocked for residents of the island to varying degrees.

As reported by CNN, users cannot view images on Instagram and are instead directed to a message that reads, "Can't refresh feed".  Meanwhile...

Searches on China's top search engine sites such as Baidu and Sogou for the terms "Hong Kong protest" or even "Hong Kong students" yielded irrelevant results such as stories showing a a blissful image of Hong Kong residents picnicking on the grass or how Hong Kong is welcoming tourists from the mainland during the national holiday week.

When relevant results appeared on the Chinese search engines, the articles contained a distinctively pro-China slant and even surfaced a month-old article about a small pro-Beijing counter-protest in Hong Kong.

This can hardly be considered a surprising development, and if there is a positive consequence of the Chinese government's pattern of censorship over time it is that there is an entire infrastructure already in place to help users circumvent the Great Firewall and access the sites that are being censored.

Basically, protesters and residents of Hong Kong need to use a proxy server.  Proxy servers will tunnel users' Internet traffic through to their destination sites, while masking that destination to the filters.  Users can find available proxy servers pretty easily on constantly updated public lists.

Meanwhile, for anyone observing the events in Hong Kong from afar who would like to help, setting up a proxy server for others to use is fairly simple and free.  As with many hacktivist tools these days, no programming expertise is required.