Tag Archives: internet

“Privacy”

fingerprint copyFingerprint (not mine – combination of this image and this image)

Maybe you’ve noticed that Facebook is separating its messenger application from its mobile application. “That’s strange,” you think, “I like things the way they are. They’re integrated, which works well. Why would they change that?” Good question. According to Facebook, there are lots of reasons that your new experience will be richer and better.

But, according to this article on the Huffington Post, users who download the Messenger app agree to terms of service that are “unprecedented and, quite frankly, frightening.” For example, by installing it, you agree that the Facebook Messenger app can:

  • call phone numbers and send text messages without your intervention
  • record audio, take pictures, and take video at any time without your confirmation
  • share data about your contacts,
  • share your phone’s profile information including the phone number, device IDs, whether a call is active, and the remote number you are connected to
  • access a log of your incoming and outgoing calls, emails, and other communication

Some of these are a bit scary — recording me without my confirmation? who are you, the NSA? But maybe you’re not surprised that Facebook is collecting and sharing your information because users get the app for “free,” which basically means you pay for it by giving over your data. And anyone who agrees to those terms and conditions gets what they signed up for, right? Well what if something similar was happening on the World Wide Web? Spoiler alert: it is.

Think turning off cookies keeps websites from tracking you? Take a look at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Panopticlick. Even if you don’t let websites store cookies — small files that websites use to track you — on your machine, it’s likely that the combination of your operating system, browser version, browser plugins, time zone, screen size, fonts downloaded, and a few other configurations are as unique as a fingerprint. And websites recognize you by your device’s fingerprint every time you visit.

In fact, your browser history alone is another giveaway. Think about how links to sites you have visited are purple while links you haven’t are blue, then consider this thought experiment: If a website picked a handful of websites and linked to them on its webpage, it would learn about you when you visited based on your combination of blue and purple links. As the number of links grows, there would be a greater and greater chance that your specific combination would be unique. And, based on your combination of blue and purple, and the demographics of visitors to those sites, some information about you could be predicted. For example, if you have visited Martha Stewart’s website on your computer and I’ve visited Hot Rod Magazine’s website on mine, a website could predict a few ways in which we are different. And, again, the longer the list of links, the more accurate the prediction becomes.

All of this information isn’t intended to cause a panic, but rather to raise awareness. Before you bust out your tinfoil hat, consider other alternatives that are more likely to keep you safe online: Check your browser’s security settings, keep your operating system up to date, and look into antivirus and anti-malware tools. And, be aware that what you are doing online is likely trackable and traceable, so be thoughtful of where you go and what you do there. As a friend of mine recently observed in response to all of this, “It’s a scary world. But also a great one.” Be careful out there.

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Know Your Meme

Have you ever encountered an internet meme like Success Kid, above?  Memes like these are spreading across the interwebs, fueled by websites where you can make variations of them in seconds.

If you come across many variants of the same meme, you can start to tease out some of the social rules that have evolved to govern their creation.  Success Kid, for example, is usually used to celebrate the mudane successes in life.

You can view many, many more examples at quickmeme.com, memegenerator.net, any of the other ubiquitous meme generating websites, or on a Google image search.  Before you click on these links, you should know that some of the content way contain profanity or otherwise be NSFW (not safe for work.)

So, you can get a read on popular memes, and even contribute to them by creating your own.  But, do you know that Success Kid is based on a picture of a boy named Sammy that was uploaded to Flickr in 2007?  No?  Maybe you don’t really know your meme after all.  That’s where KnowYourMeme.com can help.

Taking Success Kid as an example again, Know Your Meme traces the origin of the meme through several twists and turns (as I Hate Sandcastles, for example) before arriving at what we now know as Success Kid.  This website is usually where I start when I first notice a new meme flashing across my screens.  (And, when you Google any meme, the link to KnowYourMeme is typically right near the top of the results.)

Another, more current example is the Harlem Shake, which is hard to avoid on Facebook and other social media as your alma mater, favorite sports teams, and other random groups of people each create their own version.

How can this website be useful to ESL students?  Given the pace at which these memes evolve, learning about their background and meaning could help non-native students better understand and interact with their peers who use memes and reaction GIFs as conversational shorthand in social media.

A teacher could also have her students put their anthropologist hats on and track the meaning and development of their own favorite memes.  They could then compare their conclusions to the “expert” information in KnowYourMeme to see how much they were able to deduce on their own.

Either way, this website is an excellent resource that provides students and teachers with well documented information on emerging trends in popular culture.

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Online Bulletin Boards

bulletin board

Most schools and classrooms have bulletin boards, but what is the online digital equivalent?  If you are using a course management system, there are lots of tools built-in that approximate this experience.  But if not, there are various options that offer lots of options for interaction between users.

They can be used asynchronously so that people can leave messages anytime and the conversation happens over a long period of time.  They could also be used in real time so that users can interact in a very visual environment.  Messages can be various sizes, color-coded, and dragged around so they can be grouped together in various ways.

Wallwisher

One online bulletin board is Wallwisher.com, which allows a user to create a wall to which other users can add “sticky notes.”  It’s quick and easy to use, but unfortunately it appears to be a victim of it’s own success — in my recent experience the site is not loading quickly, possibly due to being overwhelmed by a large volume of users.  If these issues can be worked out, Wallwisher will be a very useful tool.

Stixy

A very similar tool is Stixy, which allows sticky notes and other items (photos, documents, and dated to-do list items) to be posted on the wall.  Clicking on an item opens a menu with lots of options for color, font, as well as placement (in the front or in the back, relative to the other notes).  You can also lock certain notes so that instructions or introductions, for example, can’t be moved around like the rest of the notes.  And the site doesn’t seem to have any problems loading due to demand.  Yet.

Squareleaf

This site also allows the creation of sticky notes, including very small word-sized stickies, which could work very well on an interactive whiteboard as a way to make fridge-magnet-poetry dragable words.

Google Docs

In addition to the sticky-specific applications above, it’s worth noting that documents created in Google Docs can be configured to be edited by a group of people.  Create a new document and use different colored boxes in place of stickies and the same effect can be achieved.

More

For information on these tools and others, visit The Pursuit of Technology Integration Happiness which includes several examples that you can test drive.

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Web Browsing in 3D

3D glasses

Everything else is available in 3D (movies, televisions, the real world), so why not 3D browsing?  I recently came across this demo video of a 3D browsing experience created using WebGL, HTML5, Javascript and the Mozilla Audio API.  Is this the future of Web browsing?

I’m not extremely fluent in all of these technologies (for more info, see Flight of the Navigator), but as a demo, this is pretty impressive.  To me, it looks a little like Second Life with tons of screens out to the internet.  In other words, slick and different, but I’m not sure how useful, or even how truly integrated this experience would be.  Would you rather navigate to different places on the Web by moving through a 3D space or by Ctrl-Tabbing to the next open tab in your browser?  Maybe I’m old-school, but the latter seems far easier to me.

Of course, there are lots of other demos posted online and it will be interesting to see where this goes.  Checking your favorite Twitter feeds in-game would certainly blur the line between the gaming experience and the real world, but is this necessary?  Probably not, but maybe that’s not the question to be asking with whiz-bang technology like this.  It certainly opens up interesting avenues for the greater integration of a wide range of technologies.  Where that takes us will be interesting to see.

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Plagiarism To Go

blackberry

We had an interesting case of plagiarism come up recently.  A teacher gave students a writing assignment based on what they had learned from a movie they had watched in class.  After collecting the papers, the teacher noticed that one of them had some interesting phrases that did not sound like they would naturally come from the student who turned in the paper.  So, like many of us do, the teacher typed a couple of sentences into Google and found the web page that contained much of the writing assignment that the student had turned in.  She then followed up with the usual information about “you need to cite sources” and “this is plagiarism”.

What’s so strange about this particular case?  All of this occurred in the classroom during the twenty minutes that the students were given to write.  Clearly, the student must have accessed the internet via a cell phone, searched for some keywords, and written down parts of a passage from a website.

cellphone cheating

Cheating via text is so 2008.

I was a bit stunned that this could happen, but in retrospect I shouldn’t be.  Smart phones are literally putting the Internet into our pockets, so why should students’ habits online be any different whether they are at home or on the go?

All of this technology can obviously be a very good thing when used appropriately.  For example, many students have dictionary apps on their phones which makes a useful resource very accessible.  But occasionally “checking the dictionary” is not just checking the dictionary and it is becoming easier and easier to confuse the two.  This experience served as a good reality check for us.  We are now more keenly aware of how easily students can access these resources and how important it is to teach them how to use them appropriately.

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Walking Through Caves

cave

Games present an interesting environment in which students can learn and practice a language.  The Cave is an interesting game that was created for a Sony Pictures movie back in 2005.  I came across it on a recent timely post on Digital Play — just in time for Halloween and just after 33 miners were rescued from a mining collapse in Chile.  (Obviously, a teacher will need to determine whether this is an appropriate game for younger students.)

Digital Play is a great resource for online games for students because each one is couched in a simple lesson plan with suggestions for whether the game is appropriate for a classroom, computer lab, or independent use. Interestingly, Digital Play includes a walkthrough — a solution to the game — in the form of a diary account of the only survivor, which they player can become upon completion of the game.

Many games have walkthroughs available online.  Most are created by users or fans and some are created collaboratively as the game is solved.  Walkthroughs are very popular with the latest cutting edge games that can take tens of hours to complete, but solutions are available for almost every game.  Just Google the name of the game along with terms like walkthrough, solution, or help.

The way the walkthrough used in the case of The Cave is a very creative solution.  It can serve as additional reading for students to support their understanding as well as assisting students in completing the game.  Walkthroughs can also be good resources for teachers who want to support students that get stuck on one part of a game.  In a language classroom, getting stuck actually presents an opportunity for students to interact with each other by making requests and helping each other, so a teacher jumping in with the solution should not be the first resort.  In fact, it has been argued that walkthroughs ruin the experience of a good game because it can be too easy to look for the answer instead of working to solve the problem for oneself.  But, for teachers who are nervous about using games in the classroom, it’s good to know that solutions are available.

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How Safe Are You?

dog

My dog, whose name is "12345."

The photo above is from a poster I see around Ohio State once in a while.  The caption reads, “Someone stole my password… now I have to rename my dog.”  I think it is an elegant way to state what is a very important message: choose a strong password.

What is a strong password?  One that cannot easily be guessed.  It’s easy to find lists of the most common passwords used online and, invariably, password and 123456 (or similar) is at the top of every list.  When I see this, I’m reminded of the movie Spaceballs, which was released in 1987.  In one scene from this Star Wars parody, Dark Helmet learns that the combination to the air shield around planet Druidia is 12345, which Dark Helmet observes is the kind of thing an idiot would have on his luggage.  The punchline, below, occurs when the air shield’s combination is revealed to President Skroob (Mel Brooks).

Besides being a chance to insert a gratuitous Spaceballs clip, what is the point?  Well, even before we’d ever heard of email, 12345 was a bad password.  Adding a 6 didn’t make it much better.

But even the brightest among us — celebrities — haven’t learned this lesson.  It seems like every couple of weeks, there is a story about how Paris Hilton’s phone, Sarah Palin’s email, or Lindsay Lohan’s MySpace, Blackberry, and Gmail accounts have been hacked.  All of these attacks were due to weak passwords, or easy-to-guess password reset questions (according to Wired, Tinkerbell – password reset answer, Wasilla High – password reset answer, and 1234 – password, respectively.)  Startlingly, trying the top 10 or 20 passwords (and their variants such as 123, 1234, 12345, etc.) could unlock as many as 20% of online accounts, according to John P. on One Man’s Blog.

So, maybe you’re not Lindsay Lohan, but you probably still have information you want to protect.  And gaining access to one account can probably lead to access to all of them.  So even if your Facebook isn’t important enough to warrant a strong password, what information in that account could be used to access your email and then your online bank account?

What makes a strong password?  When students set up their OSU email accounts, I direct them to OSU’s password policy, which requires passwords to be at least 8 characters and some combination of alphabetic, numeric, and punctuation characters.  Also, an OSU password cannot contain the same character three times or more in a row, fewer than four different characters, or easily guessed phrases and words.  You can even rate your new password at the top of the page to see if your password is acceptable.  1234 returns the message “Unacceptable – Your new password is too short.”  (Sorry, Lindsay Lohan.)

Still having trouble?  John P. has some good tips in his article.  One approach is to substitute numbers and punctuation in place of some letters in a word.  This can make your password exponentially tougher to crack.  For example, gobuckeyes could become g08uck3y3$.  But even a n00b knows we could do better.  Instead of starting with a word, consider taking the first letter of each word in a phrase or song to create an easy to remember, but seemingly random string.  For example, the first letter from each word in the first two lines of Carmen, Ohio would give us oclsopastamr.  Now substitute  numbers and symbols for a few of these letters and you have a pretty robust password: 0c1$0p4$t4mR.

(Incidentally, I wouldn’t recommend using that or any of the passwords you read here because any one of the tens of people who read this could then guess your password, but you can see how a strong password could be generated.)

Not feeling creative enough to make your own password?  Another approach is to use one of several password generators available online.  For example, grc.com has a page that generates strings of random characters each time the page is loaded.  Take as many as you need to create a strong password.  Another resource is onlinepasswordgenerator.com which generates 10 passwords at a time and can be configured to include numbers, punctuation, and capital letters, depending on your needs.

One final concern is having to remember passwords for so many different accounts.  Consider creating a simple algorithm that will alter the password slightly for each account.  For example, once you’ve committed 0c1$0p4$t4mR to memory, you could use 0c1$0p4$t4mRe for your email account, 0c1$0p4$t4mRb for your bank, and 0c1$0p4$t4mRfb for your Facebook account.  By adding the letters to the middle of the word and including the number of letters in the name of the account, each individual password would seem even more random, but all of them would be easy for you to remember.

I hope this post helps to make the internet a safer place for you.  If you recognized any of the passwords I’ve included here (especially the ones near the top), go update your accounts.  Or, change your dog’s name.

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