Erase Online Infamy: Lies, slander, binging, sexting

I wrote this article under contract to the leading European security magazine and Blog, at which I typically write under my real name. (Ellery is a pen name).

Upon submission, my editor haggled over the usual issues of regional euphemisms (not allowed), eclectic metaphors (encouraged) and brevity (my submissions tend exceed the word limit by 3 or 4x). But this time, she also asked me to cut a section that I feel is critical to the overall thrust. That section is titled “Create Digital Chaff”

I am neither a stakeholder nor an editor at that magazine. Their editors have every right to set the terms and tone of anything they publish. But sensing my qualms over personal ethics and reputation, my editor released the article from contract and suggested that I publish in a venue with an edgy approach to privacy. I considered farming it out to Wired, CNet or PC Magazine, but it was written at a level and style intended for a very different audience. And so, it appears here, in my own Blog. The controversial section is intact and in red, below. Of course, Wild Ducks will see nothing controversial in a perfectly logical recommendation.

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The web is filled with tutorials on how to block tracking, hide purchases and credit history—even how to shift your identity deep under­cover.

But what about search results linked to your name, organization or your past. What can be done?

Legal remedies are rarely effective. The Internet is untamed. Data spreads like wildfire and it’s difficult to separ­ate opinion from slander. But, you can counter undesir­able content.

Catalogue the Irritants

Start by listing and prioritizing your pain. Search your name in all the ways you are known. Try several search engines, not just Google. Check image results and Usenet (news groups).

Record disparaging search results in 7 columns:

  • Search terms that yield the offending page
  • URL                       address of unflattering material
  • Severity                 damage to your reputation
  • Owner or Author   contact info of traceable party
  • Which role?           author, site admin, hosting service?
  • Inbound links         search on “Links:{Page_URL}”
  • Disposition             left msg, success, failure, etc

Sort pages in descending order of severity. As you resolve issues, reduce severity to zero, but save entries for follow up. With just a few offensive pages, it may take a few hours to perform the tasks described.

The Process

Most posts boil down to an individual author rather than a faceless organization. You can appeal, bargain, redirect, bury or dis­credit a source, sometimes employing several strategies. With reputation is at stake, all is fair.

Removing or Correcting Content

First, determine if you are more likely to influence the web developer, site host, or author who cre­ated unflat­tering mater­ial (start with him, if pos­sible).

Ascertain if the author is likely to influence readers that matter to you. After all, without creed, rants cannot Infamy Callout 1ado much damage.

If the source is credible, appeal directly. In some cases, re­marks about you may be immaterial to his point. If it is impos­sible to find the source or if there is no meeting of minds, con­tact the site owner or hosting service—daunting, but not im­possible. GoDaddy, the largest host­ing site[1], often takes down entire sites in response to complaints.

Try pleading, bargaining or swapping favors. (But never pay! Extortion is best handled by courts). Negotiate these actions:

  • Change names, keywords and metatags. Avoid taking down the page for 2 weeks.
  • Point domain or URL to a different site
  • Post an apology or correction at searchable pages that contain offending material. (Avoid describing the slander. Use different phrases).
  • Add chaff (below). It reduces discovery.

Takedown the Search Cache

Check the page cache of each search (click the arrow to the right of Google results). File takedown requests, especially if material is obscene or you can argue it is untruthful or slander.

Check referring sites. They may excerpt or echo defamation. In the UK, freedom of expression is becoming a gray area. Nevertheless, in practice, the Internet gives everyone a soap box. So our next technique employs misdirection and ‘noise’ rather than confrontation.

Create Digital Chaff

To protect from missiles, some aircraft eject ‘chaff’. The burning strips of foil lure guided munitions by presenting a target that is more attractive than the plane. Likewise, you can de­ploy digital “chaff” by planting information Infamy Callout 2that overwhelms search results, leading viewers away from de­famatory links via redirection or con­fusion. Your goal: change search result ranking.

Chaff-s

US Air Force jet ejects burning chaff

Consider photos or events that you find untruthful or embar­rassing. Ask friends with popular web pages to add content about the photo associating ficti­tious names (not yours). Con­versely, get them to post your name in articles that dis­tance you from the activity in ways that seemingly make it impossible for you to fit the offensive descriptions.

Use your imagination, but don’t make up lies. Eventually, they catch up with you. Instead, fill the web with news, trivia, reviews, and all things positive. Create content that pulls the focus of searches that previously led to pages you wish to suppress.

Finally, avoid SEO tricks to lure search engines,[2] such as cross-links, robot-generated hits or invisible text and meta­data not directly related to con­tent. Infamy Callout 3Search engines de­tect rigging. Manip­ula­tion or deceit will de­mote your page rank, negating hours of hard work.

Looking forward, consider ways to avoid letting your own data lead to future embarrassment…

Social Media

Facebook isn’t the only social media site. They include any site with ‘walls’, feeds or link sharing. Likewise, Blogs and Blog comments create a threat beacon.

Social media can ruin reputations as surely as it shares photos and connects friends. Searchable from within and outside, they spread online activities like vines. Your wall and timeline will easily outlive you!

Learn privacy controls. Start by enabling all restrictions and then isolate friends and colleagues into circles. This partitions friends and colleagues into venues asso­ciated with your various hats. Of course, friends can be in several of your circles, but it gives you the ability to restrict your wall or photos to individuals likely to appreci­ate the context and less likely to amplify your accidents and oversights.

Faced with privacy concerns, Facebook recently added granular controls and Google unified privacy policies across services. Most sites offer ways to enable and disable features or even temporarily suspend tracking. If yours doesn’t, find a more reputable service.

Scrutinize, photo tagging options. Facebook users can block tagging of photos and remove their name on photos that others post. (Don’t take too much comfort—They also use facial rec­ognition to encourage other users to ID you. In the universe of photos that include you, only a fraction was posted by you.)

Clean up Cloud Services

Do you use iCloud, Google Drive, or Skydrive? Infamy Callout 4How about Dropbox, SugarSync or backup services Carbonite or Mozy?

Cloud services are great collaboration tools. They backup folders and stream personal media. Like social networks, they present another leaky conduit for your private life.

Check that sync folders are encrypted or unlikely to convey personal or unflattering material. Review shared links: Never grant access to everyone or let anyone access everything. Administer your friends, family and colleagues on a need-to-know basis. Your data needs a defense perimeter.

Create an Alter Ego

Ellery isn’t my real name. It is the alias with which I publish AWildDuck. But the fact that I acknowledge that I have another identity and occasional references to my career, geographic location and age, demonstrates that I am either very foolish or not making a serious effort to prevent discovery.

Archival Sites

Unfortunate news for anyone trying to erase history: The Wayback Machine at www.archive.org takes snapshots of the entire Internet every day. Visi­tors click a calendar to travel back in time and view a web or page as it once appeared.

Al­though content does not appear in search results, the com­ments you posted about the boss’ daughter are viewable to any visitor—no login required! Advice concerning archive sites: “Get past it!” They are not likely a threat, but they remind us that in the Internet Age, history cannot be erased.

A Dose of Prevention

Putting anything online—even email—lets a cat out of a bag. You can corral it and hope that it doesn’t eat the neigh­bor’s daisies, but you cannot get it back into the bag. That’s why we focus on disguise, chaff and misdirection. If the neighbors are looking at your shiny car and the cat looks more like a dog belonging to someone else, it is less likely to draw attention.

As you hunt authors of unflattering detritus and imple­ment containment, make a resolution to watch what you say online. Online content is never private. Cameras and recorders are everywhere and they aren’t operated by friends. Your trail will easily outlive you.

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[1] In April 2005, Go Daddy (aka Wild West Domains) surpassed Network Solutions as the largest ICANN-accredited registrar on the Internet [domain names registered].
Source: web-hosting-top.com. Stats of 4/27/2005, and up to the date of this posting.

[2] SEO = Search Engine Optimization

SOPA: Barricading the Information Superhighway

If you haven’t heard about SOPA — the Stop Online Piracy Act — you will soon. The bill aimed at halting digital piracy is being debated in a Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives. It is expected to pass both the House and Senate.

Despite the likelihood of ratification, it is almost comical how former supporters are defecting and trying to distance themselves from it as a vote approaches. Most notably, GoDaddy, the giant of Internet hosting and domain registration. They pulled their support as they became the target of a grass roots boycott

Will it pass? Perhaps. Can it be enforced? Of course not! Will it change anything. No. This leads to an obvious question: Why bother? The answer is typical of Washington politics: SOPA is supported inside the beltway because law makers are out of touch, because Hollywood and the music industry have effective lobbyists, and because it makes for good politics. [continued below]…

But what about the underlying issue? Is digital piracy wrong? Is it reasonable and just to at least try to stem the tide? The cause is just but the proposed mechanism of enforcement is not. In fact, almost any effort to stop digital piracy is futile. The problem must be addressed by rethinking the very purpose and nature of copyright law.

I have mixed feelings about casual consumer piracy of copyright content (music, movies, books and software). My brother will not watch a movie streamed from my home server, because he questions the legality of the original source or rip. Yet he allows his children to use my Netflix account even though it is not authorized for access from his home TV. (He rationalizes that at least someone has licensed the content!). I get it. I realize that some of my music and movies were copied without permission, but I actually own most of the originals. It was simply easier to grab it from Napster or Bit Torrent than to locate and RIP my own CD, DVD or Blu-Ray. Without trying too hard to get into the philosophical argument (is it theft? is it fair? is it enforceable?), SOPA goes too far. It doesn’t criminalize behavior (digital pirates are already breaking the law). Rather, it makes a snitch out of the carrier and then requires the carrier to actively participate in blocking the transmission.

This is feel good politics at its worst. What’s wrong with it?…

  • It can’t work. The economics of free content combined with improving mechanisms of anonymity guarantee that digitized works will spring eternal through other channels. Political restrictions only undermine the growth and influence of the Internet, but not it’s distributed and empowering nature.
  • It leads to a police state – and a very slippery slope!
  • It shifts the burden of protecting content & policing users to the wrong parties
  • It defies the principles that make the internet robust, open & productive. While this may sound like a cop out, I honestly believe that we should not cripple the medium. There are other ways to skin this cat.

By now, Wild Ducks know the drill: So sayeth Ellery!

Filter a child from online porn? Stop worrying

A columnist in my local newspaper recently lamented about the difficulty in “protecting” her child from online pornography. Her child wasn’t searching for the stuff, she explains. But porn is so pervasive in everyday media, that you needn’t search for it to be saturated with it. Not just the subtle innuendo of marketing & commerce—but the hard core variety and even the illegal variety. It appears in many web searches and it is often marketed in a deceptive manner designed to appear across all venues.

The idea of a child coming across something for which they lack context, experience and the curiosity that grows with hormones is disturbing. A common reaction is to shriek, shut off the screen or become hysterical. But what really works? I have an unorthodox approach to the issue of online safety and brief exposure to sexual imagery…

Today, I was contacted by a porn-filtering organization that seeks my endorsement. Like spam filters (a necessary technology) they offer a technical approach to the problem. Of course, they don’t condemn my approach (it’s called parenting), but they claim that an electronic babysitter (I call it a censor) will block exposure to horrific content: Apparently, the potential exposure of a child or preteen to any image of a naked adult fits their definition of “horrific”.

I say, “Why bother?!” Exactly what is the goal of this shield? Will it protect your child’s values, chastity or save her from nightmares? In my opinion, it defeats all of these goals. And so, here is my response to the founder of a porn filtering vendor…
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Hi Martin. On your web page for My Porn Blocker, you say:

“One day while at the dinner table my 7 year old daughter
asked me why some people are naked on the computer.
My wife and I nearly fell out of our chairs.”

Additionally, your marketing video begins with a description of your “horror” in finding a racy web site on your son’s PC.

I also have a young daughter and, of course, she occasionally comes across online pornography. After all, it is pervasive – and clearly – it is important to many adults

A naked human. I’m ruined for life!

(either the soft core type used for marketing, or the hard-core material that is a market unto itself). That’s why there is so much of it.

While I respect your desire to shield children from material you find offen-sive or contrary to your values, I am puzzled by parents seeking technical help in filtering what children see on the internet or in media. The answer is parenting. Of course, porn will continue to pop-up, even if you surf the web with your child. But consider a more thoughtful response to her curiosity. Why not answer truthfully and in a manner that is age appropriate?

  • Mommy! Why are there so many naked people on the internet?

There are many photos like these, because some adults like to view naked people. The world is filled with all sorts of different people. They have many different preferences – and viewing naked people is something that lots of people seem to enjoy.

  • What is this person doing? It looks painful!

No—They are not in pain. In fact, they are either having a lot of fun, or they are actors pretending to do these things. In either case, they are doing things that you are not ready for—both physically: it would hurt, and emotionally: you need to develop other types of relationships before you play the adult games shown in these pictures.

Some photos are patently offensive, I won’t fault you for closing a sexy or violent web page before answering. But make no mistake: It is you who cannot handle the momentary exposure of off-topic content–and not her. As you move on to other web pages, you will be surprised by the maturity with which your child accepts an age-appropriate response.

Will she ask friends at school about the lewd photos? Of course! That’s life. Discussion is a healthy response to anything that is unexpected or shocking. But if you are consistent, loving and non-hysterical, your daughter will assess all available information through the lens of a consistent upbringing and shared family values.

We have used this approach with our child since she was 4. Since the age of 8, she has owned her own PC. We allow her to surf the web unattended. Although we don’t overtly monitor activity, the computer is in an open location. We have never felt it necessary to log and track the web sites that she visits – and we certainly don’t user filters.

Are we fooling ourselves? I doubt it. By 6 or 7, she was aware that sex is fun for adults and culturally pervasive. She knows that older teens talk about it frequently and she is peripherally aware that adults have individual, unique and sometimes very odd predilections. That is, they engage in a broad & seemingly bizarre array of behavior. Most kids figure this out because they listen to adults and because they are not blind to web sites & films that allude to unusual fetishes.

Should you care? I certainly don’t lose any sleep. My daughter will make up her mind about these things when her hormones and values tell her that it is time to explore. And even at 8 and 9, she realized this. As parents, we guide her to make the right decisions with our experience and insight, rather than attempt to censor web sites.

Prior to that time, I am convinced that shielding children from accidental exposure to porn is both futile and counterproductive. Of course, the parents are shocked—but for a young child, porn lacks the prurient stimulus that it has for adults. It may prompt occasional questions or discussion with peers, but this is not a bad thing! Believe it or not, a consistent message at home will trump the input from a few dissenting peers.

I typically end these personal pearls of advice with the glib and über confident tag line: “So sayeth Ellery”…but not today. I realize that, like Martin, many WildDucks want to control their children and reinforce values by blocking content. For what it’s worth, you now have another side to this story. That’s my 2¢.