Space Aliens Read Your Thoughts!

     |    Wednesday November 28th, 2012

Boy, reading Facebook yesterday was a drag. A relatively innocuous document (that link’s only readable by people with Facebook accounts, by the way) from them, sent to all its users last Thursday, announced among other things that allowing users to vote on proposed changes “created a system that incentivized quantity of comments over the quality of them,” so they were going to implement a new way to deal with this. Anyone who attempted an online petition back in the Internet’s early days will figure out why this happened. As someone who’s deeply suspicious of everything anyway, I read every word of the document, shrugged, and went back to doing whatever I was doing.


But, as you’re probably aware, not everyone did. Read every word or go back to what they were doing. Out of nowhere, a legal-sounding statement started appearing on people’s Facebook pages, complete with cites of some unknown laws and the notice that these laws were administered by “the Berner Convention,” which makes me think that perhaps the first version of this thing originated in Germany, because that’s how you’d refer to it in German. At any rate, cooler heads pointed them to Snopes, always a good place to have bookmarked in any event, and eventually the New York Times’ tech columnist David Pogue weighed in with a crystal-clear explanation on his blog. Not that that stopped anybody: all day long, people swearing fealty to their posts’ independence and supporting their ownership of them alternated with “get a grip” posts from others and the occasional wit weighing in on how much fun they’d had at the Berner Convention…if only they could remember most of it.


What this points out to me, though, is how very little the average user of this brave new world actually understands about it. I’m certainly including myself, because really nobody’s immune from the occasional mistake or misapprehension. I got my first computer in 1994, and got a Compuserve account immediately. This was an amazing leap forward for me, even though Compuserve was a private network and not at all connected to the Internet (although we could send e-mail to people who did have Internet access eventually). One day I got an e-mail from a friend warning me not to open an e-mail with the subject line “Good Times” if it appeared. It would, the e-mail claimed, do all sorts of heinous things to my computer. Now, at the time, I didn’t now many people with e-mail, and most of the ones I knew were capable of taking care of themselves, but my Aunt Ruth, well, she was an old lady, and probably didn’t know her way around so well. So I sent it to her.


Boy, did I get slapped! This little old lady replied almost immediately, reminding me that the act of opening an e-mail itself couldn’t do a thing (although, of course, opening attachments could), and that as far as she could tell, this was a hoax perpetrated by some University of Florida students. I was embarrassed by the first part of her e-mail (dammit, I knew that!) and very, very impressed, when, a year later, the National Security Agency revealed that the “Good Times” hoax was, in fact, a hoax and had been…perpetrated by some University of Florida students. Dang, they could have just called Aunt Ruth!


Of course, it can work the other way around, too. Early in my Compuserve-using days, I awoke one morning to hundreds of messages, most headed “Remove” or “Discontinue.” I had no idea what had happened, and some of the messages were pretty unpleasant. One of them, though, was from someone I’d never heard of, asking if I’d gotten hundreds of messages that morning. I wrote back and said I had. They then asked for permission to deal with it, and I gave it. I also asked what had happened, and a few hours later got an e-mail saying they weren’t at liberty to disclose any details, but there were a couple of teenagers in Denmark who were going to regret having bought computers. Still, you can’t always count on a white hat to come riding in like that.


And these days, the exploits get bigger: It wasn’t long ago that LinkedIn reported that a bunch of their user information had gotten hijacked, and sure enough, my spam folder soon filled up with invitations. I’d had an account, and got rid of it pronto. (To be honest, I never did see what good it could do me, although friends in the software industry swear it’s a great recruiting tool. You do not want me writing your software). But if we’re online, we’re taking risks anyway: how much information do you have out there, with places like Amazon? Or the bank or utility companies? I’ve already had my bank account emptied once (after calling their security to alert them that someone in “West Chicago, Tennessee,” which doesn’t exist, had taken a penny out of it: they told me not to worry) and I constantly get “notices” from my electric company that my direct debit had been refused by my bank, which isn’t how I pay my bill.


As for Facebook, really, there’s almost nothing up there I’m the least bit nervous about people knowing or seeing, which is more than I can say about some folks. I post to promote my other blog, when I have a radio segment up,  or the latest Ward Report. I comment on other people’s stuff, promote the odd political cause, and have never ever, to the best of my knowledge, ever posted a picture of a kitten. (I am also not one of the 800 million people who’ve seen PSY do the Gangnam Style dance. Really.)


In the end, it’s all very simple, and I almost feel embarrassed by reminding folks of this: don’t put up anything on the Internet, whether on Facebook or elsewhere, that you don’t want every single person in the world knowing about. Duh. But people do, so that’s where the Berner Convention comes in, I guess.