Are you concerned about the privacy of your internet activities?

Magnifying glass over computer keyboardA lot of people just shrug their shoulders at this question. They just don’t care what information is being collected about them or their online habits and activities.

Others – including me – think that the “default position” ought to be that only the minimum information should be collected to permit an online function to happen and that no data should be kept unless it is required to protect one or both parties in a contract situation (such as a purchaser giving a full invoicing address).

Someone recently told me that she thought it was “freaky” that Google ads are appearing in her email for products she had recently been looking at on seemingly unrelated websites. Along similar lines, I was recently training a silver surfer client in the use of Gmail and noticed a lot of ads for militaria. I asked him if he had recently had any contact with the army and he said that he had been involved in a veterans’ dinner.

Now, to some people this spying on our activity and fine-tuning on-line ads to capitalise on what they have learned about us is nothing more than a logical extension of how traditional advertising has always worked. After all, if you were selling a boat and wanted to advertise it, you would put the ad in a boating magazine because you’d know that the reader was interested in boats. Is there any difference between that and Google targetting ads about militaria to a Gmail user who has been discussing an army veterans’ dinner in his email correspondence?

If I ask people under 30 this kind of question, their eyes glaze over and a look comes over them that suggests that they’ve just realised they’re talking to a nutter and now they’re wondering if I’m dangerous as well. Ask the same thing to someone who’s old enough to remember the days before CCTV cameras (silver surfers in particular) and I’ll usually get a different response.

For what it’s worth, my own opinion is that it is an outrageous invasion of privacy for Google to read people’s email and use the knowledge gained to target ads to that person. OK, I do realise that it’s a machine that’s doing the reading and not humans. That doesn’t change the principle. Apart from anything else, it’s widely thought that Google never ever throw data away, so anything they’ve recorded about you could, in principle, be checked over by humans or machines at any time in the future. I also acknowledge that Gmail is “free” to use and that people are quite capable of choosing different methods of handling their email. However, that should only give them the right to read a Gmail user’s outgoing – and not incoming – email. If I send an email to someone who uses Gmail what right do Google have to read that email? I haven’t given them permission to do so: I don’t use Gmail.

I’ve been reading a book called “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser. Click here for an interview with The Independent.

"The Filter Bubble" book coverPariser discusses the fact that Google and other huge websites such as Amazon, Facebook et al, not only bombard you with ads that they have tailored to what they know about you, but that they are also tailoring content to show you what they think you will like. So, if you perform a Google search and I perform the same search we may be presented with different results depending on what Google knows about each of us. And I’m talking about the Google organic results, here, not the Google advertising presented in sponsored links. Facebook are likewise filtering which of your friends’ updates are displayed to you depending on how much interest you have shown in that friend in the past. Pariser argues that these online organisations are creating a “filtered” view of the universe such that what you see on the internet is biased in favour of what you already know and like (ie you are in a “filter bubble”). Pariser maintains that, at the very least, this is presenting a distorted view of the world and most people are just not aware that such filtering is going on. I’m not sure about some of the implications that Pariser considers because I suspect that he over-estimates the importance of the internet in influencing our worldview. Nevertheless, I found this book informative, thought-provoking and worth reading (and thanks to Elaine for telling me about it).

If you belong to the part of the population that doesn’t care about privacy and doesn’t care where all this data gathering and filtering may be taking us then you won’t read my blog next week as I’m going to list some of the steps you can take to try to protect your privacy. l feel like a cross between the boy with his finger in the dyke and King Canute, but I do feel happier taking at least a few steps in the right direction and maybe you will, too, if you find things like targeted advertising “freaky” and disturbing.

I am aware that I am open to charges of hypocrisy. I advertise my computer services using Google AdWords and www.google.co.uk is still my home page. I do also buy stuff on Amazon (but not books). That doesn’t mean, though, that I have to approve of their definitions of acceptable boundaries when it comes to information gathering, retention, and use. My stance is that taking small steps to protect my privacy is better than taking none at all.

What are you looking at when you have performed a search in Google?

There are typically two sections to the results. The first section is listed towards the lefthand side of the screen and is known as “organic results”. The second section is listed down the righthand side of the screen and is called “ads” (it used to be called “sponsored links”).

Google Search Results highlighting organic results and ads

Google Search Results - figure 1

This clear distinction can be blurred a bit by Google sometimes showing several “ads” at the top of the “organic” listings (as in figure 2). You can tell when the first “organic” listings are, in fact, Google AdWords ads by the off-white background colour to these ads. It has to be said, though, that it’s very easy indeed to forget – or not notice – that the first two or three so-called organic entries may, in fact, be part of Google advertising.

Google Search Results highlighting ads at top

Google Search Results - figure 2

So what’s the difference?

On the face of it, Google are showing you the organic listings that they think are the most relevant to the search term that you entered. No money changes hands for Google to list a website in the organic listing. The implication is that the organic listings are “impartial”, “fair”, “accurate”.

The “ads”, on the other hand, are part of the “Google AdWords” scheme. 97% of Google’s income comes from advertising (source). They are expecting advertising income in the UK in 2011 to be about £2.5 billion. In fact, this year they are expected to out-run ITV as the biggest earner from advertising in the UK (source).

The way that these ads work on Google results pages is that the advertiser “bids” up to a defined amount to have his ad displayed when searchers enter certain words or phrases into the search box. But it’s not the actual displaying of the ad that costs the advertiser money. It costs him nothing unless the searcher actually clicks on his ad (which then takes them to the advertiser’s website).

So why should I care about the difference?

A lot of people maintain that they are never swayed by ads, never read them, would never click on them on a Google results page etc. These same people are happy, however, to use Google search to provide them with apparently “fair and impartial” organic results.

Well, I think that those people need to re-consider what’s actually going on here because the “organic” search results are most definitely NOT unbiased, value-free, simple reflections of the websites that are the most pertinent to their search term.

Google do not divulge how they work out which websites to display and in which order (known as ranking). They do, however, issue guides as to the kind of things that are most likely to impress them so that they show a particular website in their results and, just as importantly, how high up the list. They develop ever more complicated “algorithms” that are meant to fine-tune the validity of the results they display. “Validity”, however, is defined – in this context – by Google themselves and evaluated by their (secret) algorithms.

Since a good, high, listing in Google search results is a valuable asset to anyone wanting more website traffic, it stands to reason that it’s worth spending time (and money) honing a website so that it will be looked on favourably by the Google-gods. This means jumping through all of Google’s hoops (both known and guessed-at) to get the website up the rankings.

A whole industry (called “Search Engine Optimisation” or SEO) has developed to cater for this. If you own a website your are quite possibly being bombarded with unsolicited email and phone calls from so-called SEO experts promising to get your website ranked near the top of page one of Google results. As a provider of computer support, I would suggest that Google advertising in general, and SEO optimisation in particular, may well be marketing tools that you should investigate, but be very careful in selecting a company to act on your behalf.

So, my point here is not that we shouldn’t use Google search. After all, they have over 90% of the UK search market (source). My point is that all those purists who claim never to click on ads because they “never take any notice of advertising” (which is, of course, utterly impossible in our society) are being illogical by clicking on Google’s organic results as these organic listings are no more free or unbiased than the entries which are more openly listed under the heading of “ads”. Their appearance and prominence has just been paid for in a different way.

Many people have Microsoft Office but have never used the spreadsheet application (Excel) that is part of it. Every now and again someone asks me what a spreadsheet is, so I’d like to give an overview. This is not a tutorial for financial or computer geeks: it’s just to give you an idea of whether you think spreadsheets could be worth investigating further.

A spreadsheet is a computer application that stores and calculates text and figures on documents that are like sheets of paper divided into rows and columns. These “sheets of paper” can then be saved in much the same way as Word documents.

Excel spreadsheet example with data

Excel Spreadsheet - figure 1

Each row and each column of the spreadsheet is labelled (with letters for columns and numbers for rows). Therefore, each individual box formed by the conjunction of a row and a column (called a cell) will have its own unique address – eg C2 or F19. Rows go down the page and columns go across the page.

Looking at Figure 1:-

  • The cell that is labelled C2 contains a piece of text (“Year 1″). It is actually possible to perform calculations on pieces of text but in most cases – as here – the text in the cell C2 simply labels the data that appears below it.
  • The cell C3 has a number in it (200), as do the rows below it.
  • The cell C7 contains a calculation. In this case, the calculation tells the spreadsheet to add up the contents of the cells in the rows above and to place the answer in the cell C7. The actual calculation placed in the cell in this case is “=sum(C3:C6)”.
  • The calculation in cell E3 tells the spreadsheet to subtract the contents of C3 from the contents of D3. The actual calculation is “C3-D3″.

For the sake of clarity I have colour-coded the cells in this example. Blue cells are text, orange cells are numbers, green cells are calculations. We enter text, numbers and dates just by typing in the data. To enter a calculation we begin by typing the “=” sign and then enter the formula.

Now, the beauty of spreadsheets is that having created this structure we can change any of the data and all of the formulae will be re-calculated immediately. So, for example, if we change the 200 in C3 to 500, then the totals immediately change as highlighted in yellow in figure 2 below:

Excel spreadsheet example with changed data

Excel Spreadsheet - figure 2

This means that we can create a structure that we want to use time and time again but only have to create that structure once. So, I might create the following structure (figure 3) and save it with the name of “expenditure template”:

Excel spreadsheet example with of template

Excel Spreadsheet - figure 3

This template has the text and calculations in place but no actual figures. When I want to put in figures I open this spreadsheet, enter my figures, and then save it with a different name (using the “save as” command) so that I still have my empty template available to repeat the process in the future and also have a saved copy of the spreadsheets that include my figures. I can, of course, do this as often as necessary (eg monthly).

Spreadsheets can range from the very simple to the enormously complicated. The calculations I showed above include just the instruction (known as a function) to “SUM” (ie “add”) the contents of some specified cells, and the simple arithmetic operation of substracting the contents of one cell from another. There are many in-built functions and operators that can handle, for instance, date arithmetic, statistical functions, logical comparisons etc, but you don’t need to be intimidated by all this power. It is fairly simple to grasp enough of the concepts and techniques to handle most daily requirements.

Something it’s difficult to appreciate in this static article is that it is easier to create the structure and the calculations than you might think at first. This is mainly for three reasons:

  • We can select the cells we wish to include in the calculation by “pointing” at them rather than manually typing in the cell co-ordinates.
  • Once we have created an initial calculation we can “copy” that calculation to other rows or columns where that makes sense. For instance, having created the calculation in E3 (where the calculation is “D3-C3″) we can just copy that calculation down to the next four rows. The program will automatically adjust the cell references (eg “D4-C4″, “D5-C5″ etc) as it makes the copies.
  • Rows and cells can be inserted and deleted and the contents can be moved around as well as copied. The spreadsheet will automatically make changes in the calculations to adjust for these changes. This means that the design process can be very fluid: we don’t have to get it right first time.

A slightly different use of spreadsheets is to keep a kind of “database” of information (although I hesitate to use the word database as that has a more specifc meaning in computer terms). For instance, you could have a list of names, addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses etc in which each record (each person) is contained on one row and each different piece of information is in a different column (eg name, landline number, mobile number). This kind of list also has the advantage that in a modern spreadsheet application such as Excel, email addresses and website addresses are automatically recognised as links so you can click on them to create emails or go directly to websites (actually, the email part of that statement won’t work if you only have webmail on your computer).

Some of the different spreadsheets that I have cover the following uses:

  • Comparing budget (or target) figures with actual figures.
  • Comparing expenditure between different time periods.
  • Keeping simple lists of items with values and their totals.
  • Analysing the results of Google AdWords advertising.
  • Computer support logs.
  • Costings.
  • Price lists.
  • Sales figures.

Some of these spreadsheets are “one-offs” that help with specific individual projects and others are repeated on a regular basis, with the structure evolving over time.

If you have requirements that you think could be helped by using the Excel spreadsheet program just give me a call. I can offer 1:1 basic computer training so that you can then develop your own spreadsheets and/or help with developing specific spreadsheet structures.

Combinatin lock superimposed on a laptopI have been asked several times recently, in relation to IT support, whether it is possible to password-protect sensitive data in Windows. Considering how long Windows has been around, you would think that by now there would be a simple way of protecting a file or a folder so that the contents can be neither listed nor opened without a specific password.

There isn’t.

This is one of those omissions that truly astonish me. Another such omission is that there’s nothing in Windows to allow you to synchronise the contents of two folders with anything resembling sophistication or control. That’s another matter, though. Let’s stick with passwords, for today.

So what can you do if you’ve got some files that you want to access regularly but don’t want others to see?

  • You can add a password at the bios level so that Windows won’t even load up without the correct password. This prevents anyone from starting your machine but the hard drive could be removed and connected as an external drive to a different machine. The files could then be accessed just as if they’d been stored on a flash drive. Also, a bios password does not protect you at all if the machine is already switched on and you leave it unattended. I use a bios password on my netbook computer so if I leave it on the tube one day at least no-one can just switch it on and get at everything on it without any effort.
  • You can add a user account in Windows with its own password. This is ok as long as you keep all the data you want to keep private in your “Documents” folder. If you are in a semi-public place (eg an office) you may also wish to activate a screensaver so that the password is required before resuming activity.
  • There are ways in Windows to allow or deny access to files, but these can be subverted by someone logging on as an administrator and the files are still visible even if the contents are inaccessible.
  • You can store your sensitive files on a USB flash drive and not on your hard drive. The flash drive itself is, of course, vulnerable to loss, theft etc.

TrueCrypt

TrueCrypt logoIf you really want to go industrial-strength in hiding certain content, then I recommend a program called TrueCrypt. With this, you create a special, password-protected, file of a chosen size (it can be huge). You put anything you want to keep private in this special file. This is achieved by “mounting” the file so that Windows sees the file as a new hard drive of the size you specified when creating the file. You can then access this “virtual drive” – and the sensitive files on it – in the normal way. When you want to hide the contents you just “dismount” the virtual drive. Prying eyes can only see that there’s a (possibly huge) file present but they can’t access it without knowing that it has to be “mounted” with the TrueCrypt program and without knowing the password you allocated to it. If you are really, really, paranoid you can even create a Truecrypt file within another one.

There are several benefits to the TrueCrypt approach:

  • No-one knows what’s in the file. They don’t know how many files are hidden, of what type or size, or the names of the files, or anything.
  • A casual snooper would not even know that they have found a file with hidden contents. All they see is a filename and you could give the file a completely meaningless name – such as “system execution derivatives” (??)
  • Even if the file is suspected to hide private data the snooper would then need to know (a) that TrueCrypt is the program needed to access it and (b) the password to mount the file.
  • You only need to remember one password (to mount the TrueCrypt volume) and not separate passwords for each file in it.
  • It’s free (but users are invited to donate).

There are some minor downsides:

  • It takes a few minutes of concentration and application of grey matter to get your head around how TrueCrypt works. After that, though, everything’s easy.
  • You can not back up the individual files that are inside the TrueCrypt volume without making those backups vulnerable to snoopers. Therefore, you have to back up the entire TrueCrypt volume. That’s no problem in itself (it’s just an ordinary file in this respect) but it’s a BIG file. If you’ve allocated, say, 2gb, as a TrueCrypt file then it’s going to need the time and space to back up a 2gb file even if you’ve only put a single 1mb file inside it. You can create your own compromise, of course, by creating two or more smaller TrueCrypt files.

I’ve been using TrueCrypt for a year or two now and I don’t recall ever having a single problem with it.

TrueCrypt is available for Windows and for Macs.

Remote Support may be suitable for this topic

© 2011-2014 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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