Entertainment

Reputation Misrepresentation, Trail Paranoia and other side effects of Liking the World

trafficspike

A few months ago, I wrote up some quick observations about Facebook’s then just-launched “Like” button, pitching “Newsfeed Spam” as a problem exacerbated by the new Like Buttons. The post went “viral”, so to speak, bouncing off Techmeme, ReadWriteWeb / NYTimes, even German news websites. Obviously this is nothing compared to “real” traffic on the Internet, but it was fun to watch the link spread. This is meant to be a follow-up to that post, based on thoughts I’ve had since.

In this post, I'll be writing about five "issues" with the Like button, followed by four "solutions" to these issues. Since this is a slightly long post, here's an outline:


Big Deal!


facebook stats

The Facebook Like Button has been huge success. With over 3 billion buttons served, and major players such as IMDB and CNN signing up to integrate the button (and other social plugins) into their websites, the chance of encountering a Facebook Like button while browsing on the web is quite high; if not certain. Many folks have questioned whether this is a big deal -- IFRAME and javascript based widgets have been around for a long time (shameless self-plug: Blogsnob used a javascript-based widget to cross polinate blogs across the internet as early as 8 years ago). Using the social concept of showing familiar faces to readers isn't new either; MyBlogLog has been doing it for a while. Then why is this silly little button such an issue? The answer is persistent user engagement. With 500 million users, out of which 50% of them log into Facebook at any given day, you're looking at an audience of 250 million users. If you're logged into Facebook while browsing any website with a social plugin, the logged in session is used. Now if you're like me, you'll probably have "remember me" checked at login, which means you're always logged into Facebook. What this means is that on any given day, Facebook has the opportunity to reach 250 million people throughout their web browsing experience; not just when they're on Facebook.com[1]. So clearly, from a company's perspective, this is important. It is a pretty big deal! But why is this something Facebook users need to be educated about? Onwards to the next section!

Issues with the Like Button


Readers should note the use of the word "Issues", as opposed to "Security vulnerability", "Privacy Leak", "Design Flaw", "Cruel Price of Technology", or "Horrible Transgression Against Humankind". Each issue has its own kind of impact on the user, you're welcome to decide which is which!

Screen shot 2010-07-21 at 1.37.51 AM

To better understand the issues with the Like button, let's understand what the Like button provides:
1) It provides a count of the number of people who currently "Like" something.
2) It provides a list of people you know who have liked said object, with profile pictures.
3) It provides the ability to click the button and instantaneously "Like" something, triggering an update on your newsfeed.
All of this is done using an embedded IFRAME -- a little Facebook page within the main page that displays the button.

In the next few paragraphs, we'll see some implications of this button on the web.

Reputation Misrepresentation


The concept of reputation misrepresentation is quite simple:
a not-so-popular website can use another website's reputation to make the site seem more reputed or established to the user.

Here's a quick diagram to explain it:

reputation misrepresentation

Simply put, as of now, any website(e.g. a web store) can claim they are popular (especially with your friends) to gain your trust. Since Facebook doesn't check referrer information, Facebook really doesn't have the power to do anything about this either. A possible solution is to include verifying information inside the like button, which ruins the simplicity of it all.

Browse Trail Inference


This one is a more paranoid concept, but I've noticed that people don't realize it until I spell it out for them:
Facebook is indirectly collecting your entire browsing history for all websites that have Facebook widgets. You don’t have to click any like buttons, just visiting sites like IMDB.com or CNN.com or BritneySpears.com will enable this.

Here's how it works:

browsetrail

Here, our favorite user Jane is logged into Facebook, and visits 2 pages on IMDB.com, checks the news on CNN, and then heads to Yelp to figure out where to eat. Interestingly enough, Facebook records all this information, and can tie it to her Facebook profile, and can thus come up with inferences like "Jane likes Romantic Movies, International News and Thai Food -- let's show her some ads for romantic getaways to Bali!"

(Even worse, if Jane unwittingly visits a nefarious website which coincidentally happens to have the Like button, Facebook gets to know about that too!)

Most modern browsers send the parent document's URL as HTTP_REFERER information to Facebook via the Like IFRAME, which allows Facebook to implicitly record a fraction of your browsing history. Since this information is much more voluminous than your explicit "Likes"; a lot more information can be data-mined from it; which can then be used for "Good"(i.e. adding value to Facebook) or "Evil"(i.e. Ads! Market data!)

What I like about this is that this is an ingenious system to track user's browsing behavior. Currently, companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft(Bing/Live/MSN) have to convince you to install a browser toolbar which has this minuscule clause in its agreement that you share back ALL your browsing history, which can be used to better understand the Web(and make more money, etc. etc.). Since Facebook is getting all websites to install this; it gets the job done without getting you to install a toolbar! I'll be discussing how I deal with this in the last section, "My solution".

Newsfeed Spam


In a previous post, I demonstrated how users could be tricked into "Liking" things they didn't intend to, leading to spam in their friends' newsfeeds. A month later, security firm Sophos reported an example of this, where users were virally tricked into spreading a trojan virus through Facebook Likes, something that could easily be initiated by Like buttons across the web, where you can easily be tricked into liking arbitrary things.

Again, this issue has the same root cause as Reputation Misrepresentation: since all the Like button shows you is a usercount, pictures and the button itself, there really is no way to know what you're liking. A solution to this is to use a bookmarklet in your browser, which is under your control.

"Likejacking"


This interesting demo by Eric Kerr demonstrates how to force unwitting users into clicking arbitrary like buttons. The way this works is by making a transparent like button, and make it move along with the users mouse cursor. Since the user is bound to click on the page at some point of time, they're bound to click the Like button instead.

Like Switching


likeswitch

Like switching is an alternative take on Like Jacking -- the difference is that the user is explicitly shown a like button with a prestigious like count and familiar friends first. When a user reaches out to click on it, the like button is swapped out for a different one, triggered by an onmouseover event from the rectangle around the button.

"Solutions"

Given these issues, let's discuss some solutions, responses and fixes. Note the use of quotes -- for many people can argue that nothing is broken, so we don't need solutions! Regardless, one piece of good news is that the W3C is aware of the extensive use of IFRAMES on the web, and has introduced a new "sandbox" attribute for IFRAMES. This will lead to more fine-grained control of social widgets. For example, if we can then set our browsers to force "sandbox" settings for all Facebook IFRAMES, we can avoid handing over our browsing history to Facebook.


Facebook's approach


While I don't expect companies to rationalize every design decision with their users, I am glad that some Facebook engineers are reaching out via online discussions. Clearly this is not representative of the whole company, but here's a snippet:
Also, in case it wasn't clear, as soon as we identify a domain or url to be bad, it's impossible to reach it via any click on facebook, so even if something becomes bad after people have liked it, we still retroactively protect users.

I like this approach because it fits in well with the rest of the security infrastructure that large companies have: the moment a URL is deemed insecure anywhere on the site, all future users are protected from that website. However, this approach doesn't solve problems with user trust -- it's relying on the fact that Facebook has flagged every evil website in the world before you chanced upon it -- something I wouldn't bet my peace of mind on. It's as if the police told you "We will pursue serial killers only after the first murder!"Would you sleep better knowing that? In essence, this approach is great when you're looking at it from the side of protecting 500 million users. But as one of the 500 million, it kinda leaves you out in the dark!


Secure Likes

As we mentioned in the Reputation Misrepresentation section, another interesting improvement would be to include some indication of the URL that is being "Liked" inside the button itself. An option is to display the URL as a tooltip when the user hovers his/her cursor over the button, especially if it disagrees with the parent frame's URL. Obviously placing the whole URL would make the button large and ugly. A possible compromise is to include the favicon(the icon that shows up for each site in your browser) right inside the Like button. The user can simply check if the browser icon is the same as the one on the like button to make sure it's safe. This way, if a website wants to (mis)use BritneySpears.com's Like Button, it will be forced to use BritneySpears.com's favicon too! Here's a mockup of what "Secure Like" would look like for IMDB:

securelike


A browser-based approach


Screen shot 2010-07-26 at 5.11.57 AM

This approach, best exemplified by "Social Web" browser Flock and recently acknowledged by folks at Mozilla, makes you log into the browser, not a web site. All user-sensitive actions(such as "Liking" a page) have to go through the browser, making it inherently more secure.

My Current Solution


dock

At this point, I guess it's best to conclude with what my solution to dealing with all these issues is. My solution is simple: I run Google and Facebook services in their own browsers, separate from my general web surfing. As you can see from the picture of my dock, my GMail and Facebook are separate from my Chrome browser. That way, I appear logged out[2]. Google Search and Facebook Likes when I surf the web or search for things. On a Mac, you can do this using Fluid.app; on Windows you can do this using Mozilla Prism.

And that brings us to the end of this rather long and winded discussion about such a simple "Like" button! Comments are welcome. Until the next post -- Surf safe, and Surf Smart!

 

 

Footnotes:
[1] To my knowledge, there is only one other company that has this level of persistent engagement: Google's GMail remembers logins more aggressively than Facebook. When you're logged into Gmail, you're also logged into Google Search, which means they log your search history as a recognized user. This is usually a good thing for the user, since Google then has a chance to personalize your search. Google actually takes it a step further and personalizes even for non-logged in users.

[2] Yes, they can still get me by my IP, but that's unlikely when I'm usually behind firewalls.

 

Cite this post!:


@article{reputationmisrepresentation,
title={{Reputation Misrepresentation, Trail Paranoia and other side effects of Liking the World}},
author={Nandi, A.},
year={2010},
journal={{Arnab's World}}
}

Chat Roulette

Short Filmmaker Casey Neistat has a wonderful 6 minute film about the video chat rage Chatroulette, with statistics and more:

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Nerds are the new Rock Stars

We’re seeing a new breed of rock stars these days: Scientists.

Apparently there is a Night Club for Nerdy People in the Big Apple :

The crowd is young and hip, mostly in their 20s and 30s, eager to gain entry to tonight’s hot-ticket entertainment event. Once the doors open, about 50 lucky people secure chairs, while another 50 stand four-deep around the room, and another 50 are gently turned away at the door.
“This is the third time I haven’t made it in,” a disappointed young woman sighs.
A mixtape of music plays through the speakers and the audience sips drinks from plastic cups while waiting for the featured act to begin. It won’t be the latest indie band, or an up-and-coming comedian. This is not the typical New York club scene. This is the monthly meeting of the Secret Science Club.

Then there’s DorkBot, which has branches everywhere:

the main goals of dorkbot are: to create an informal, friendly environment in which people can talk, […] to give us all an opportunity to see the strange things our neighbors are doing with electricity.

Meanwhile, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “Dr. Evil” and the “Mexican Multiplier” have dueled it out till the very end, in an attempt to write the largest number on a chalkboard.

Finally, here’s an awesome ad from Intel’s amazing marketing team:

She takes care of people

Just discovered the San-Fransciscan band Rupa and the April Fishes :

With musical influences that include French chanson, Gypsy swing, tango, Latin alternative, Indian music and beyond, Rupa & the April Fishes create music that is lively, romantic and instantaneously appealing. Based in San Francisco, the band’s accessible and multicultural sound has earned them a reputation as one of the most exciting groups in the Bay Area alternative scene.

Frontwoman Rupa Marya isn’t your ordinary rockstar. She’s also a practising doctor:

(via anuj)

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y!Vmail - voice mail for your Yahoo! Mail

Yesterday Dan, Pradeep and I presented “y!Vmail: voicemail for your Yahoo! Mail” at the Yahoo! University Hack Day Contest, winning the award for the 2nd best Hack! (jump to the demo video )


Our team with judges Paul Tarjan and Rasmus Lerdorf

The adventure started when I heard about Yahoo!‘s Hack U event:

Join Yahoo! web experts including Rasmus Lerdorf, the creator of PHP, for a week of learning, hacking and fun! You’ll hear interesting tech talks, hacking tips and lessons, and get hands-on coding workshops where you’ll work with cutting-edge technology. The week’s events will culminate with our University Hack Day competition—a day-long festival of coding, camaraderie, demos, awards, food, music and jollity (it’s a real word, look it up).

Years ago when I was in my teens, I was an avid participant on the school / college tech fest circuit. Almost every major institution in and around Delhi would organize annual technical festivals, hosting programming contests and software demo competitions. This was where I got a chance to showcase my creations and meet other hackers. Winning these events became a good way for me to pay off those telephone bills — web development in the dial-up age was an expensive hobby!

I decided to enter the Hack Day contest just for fun; it had been a while since I participated in one of these. It wasn’t about winning this time; I just wanted to do the whole “idea to execution to demo” thing with a group of friends, and spend hours screaming at each other over STUPID hard-to-find bugs that are actually staring at you in the face, high-fiving every hour as a feature milestone was scratched off the todo-list. The reward: to be able to stand in front of a group of people and say “Hey guys, look what I made!.” (If it’s hard to appreciate what this feels like, this video might help.)


Yahoo! gave away a bunch of t-shirts, this was on one of them

3 days before the Hack Day, I had an idea about building a phone-based interface for email. The idea was simple enough to build in a day, but fun enough to make an enjoyable demo. The only problem: I was already in the midst of a “hack” daymonth of my own; VLDB was due 3 hours before the start of the Hack Day, and I was already sacrificing sleep for LaTeX and Python for more than a week. There was no way I was going to be able to do this alone. Enter fellow grad students Dan and Pradeep. I told them about the contest and my idea. While they are both expert hackers, I totally forgot about the fact that people in Operating Systems research don’t really do a lot of Web Programming: “PHP….? I’ve never…” said Dan. I pointed them to the Yahoo Developer Network site and returned to my research paper writing madness. Hopefully by Friday evening, I would have a web-savvy hack team.

On Friday, I took a quick nap after my paper deadline, and walked over to the Hack Fest area to meet my team (who had become PHP and telephony wizards by now) and load up on caffeine and sugar that the Yahoo! folks had set up for us.


They even had my favorite candy !

We split the work into two parts; Dan would build the phone interface while Pradeep and I would figure out the email and contacts API to write an email client backend. 7 hours later, we had the first version of our product up and running. We could call in and read emails. Happy with our progress, we decided that it would be wiser to go home and show up early next day. We ended up wasting a few hours the next morning worrying about the presentation: the lecture hall had spotty cellphone coverage, a deal-killer for a phone demo! Pradeep made a breakthrough here, discovering that an obscure panel on the wall was actually a secret speakerphone. Having resolved demo issues, we resumed coding and plugged in the remaining features: navigating through emails, email summarization, and email prioritization. The friendly timestamps feature (“4 minutes ago”) was stolen from my blog’s code (i.e. the Status header of this blog).

Around 3:30pm on Saturday, we updated our hackday entry:

y!Vmail

by Arnab Nandi, Daniel Peek, Pradeep Padala

“Not everyone has a computer, but everyone has a phone.”

This hack allows people to access their Yahoo! mail through a 1-800 number, using ANY touch-tone phone.
Press 0 to open, * and # to navigate, 7 to delete. We figure out which emails are important, and read them first. We summarize long emails so that you dont have to listen to all of it. If you want to talk to the person, just press 5 — we’ll connect you.

APIs used: BBAuth, OpenMail, Contacts API, Term Extraction API

Hack presentations started at 4:00pm on Saturday. I started with a 20-second powerpoint pitch, followed by a rather entertaining demo. Using the lecture hall’s speakerphone we had the lecture hall call our service. Entering the correct PIN logged me in, which resulted in an entire roomful of people were now hearing the words “Welcome to y!Vmail. You have 5 new emails…”


Me pushing numbers on the phone


Here’s a short video walk through of our app:

More details at http://yvmail.info

A few minutes after the presentation ended, the prizes were announced. We ranked second. The winning hack was Brandon Kwaselow’s “Points of WOE”; a native iPhone app that allowed browsing and creation of placemarks on Yahoo! Maps. Congratulations, Brandon!

Overall, this was a very exciting and enjoyable event; I had a rocking good time hanging out with the Yahoo! folks and getting a cool project out the door with around 15 hours of work. I end with some lessons, acquired over years of doing demo contests:

  • Be creative, but avoid feature creep.
  • Split up into sub-teams, but make sure you’re pair programming most of the time.
  • Get Version 0 done Super Super Early. Then polish, polish, polish.
  • Reuse (with attribution) as much code as you can.
  • Take lots of breaks, make friends, and have fun.

Image credits: Rasmus, Erik
Shout outs: Folks at Twilio for making the coolest telephony API in the universe!

These are a few of my favorite things

From a comment on reddit:

Comments on code and captions on kittens
Getting that bug and bad grammar writtens
Working in python and dealing with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

Making good memes and hard logic riddles
Mispells and root shells and cheap ramen noodles
Living near an exchange with really low pings
These are a few of my favorite things

Girls in geek shirts with xkcd dresses
Using grep dict/words to find one that matches
Fantasy actors that say “good tidings”
These are a few of my favorite things

When the net lags
When the kill stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad

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Math's Kool with Tyler Neylon

Googler Tyler Neylon just launched Mathskool.com , a website for teaching kids math. In his own words :

This is a website I’ve been working on for the past month, meant to help connect great math teachers with motivated middle and high school students. The idea is to provide a centralized library that many math teachers can contribute to, and which gives students free access to short, focused videos.

This is exactly what the internet needs. Great job, Tyler! My first interaction with Tyler was during my Google internship phone interviews, where we were trying to figure out if I could work with his team.

Here’s a tutorial on distributive properties and combining expressions. Things I love about this movie is that it starts with “Hey how’s it going.”, and then “I go to Target and buy six copies of Mario Kart…. I like Mario Kart.” Kids, this is a guy who has a PhD in math… you should watch his videos!

selected clips from david o'reilly

David O’Reilly recently shot to fame in the tech-geek land thanks to a seemingly authentic preview of his iPhone app, iHologram. A few hours and hundreds of thousands of page impressions later, it turns out the app is only a concept video and that David’s only a filmmaker, not the second coming of Obi-wan. He is, however, a rather talented film maker; lending his animation talents to productions such as Son of Rambow and The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His Selected Clips video is rather surreal, and worth the two minutes and twelve seconds of viewing time:

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reaching out

  • Russel Davies painted his laptop to work as a blackboard. I think the acrylic casing for the iBook makes an excellent whiteboard too.
  • Friend and mentor Cong Yu just got an honorable mention in the SIGMOD Dissertation Award:
    …Two other nominees receive Honorable Mention recognizing their outstanding work on theoretical foundations and development of algorithms with great impact on important practical problems: Cong Yu, for his dissertation on “Managing Complex Databases in a Schema Management Framework” at the University of Michigan, and, Nilesh Dalvi, for his dissertation on “Managing Uncertainty Using Probabilistic Databases” at the University of Washington.

    It’s interesting to see the hiring trends : the Award was won by now-MSR researcher Ariel Fuxman. Nilesh and Cong are both Yahoo! Researchers.

  • Natalie Du Toit’s “wonderful story of courage, determination, discipline, hopes and dreams”, becoming the first amputee to qualify for the Olympics.
  • It’s not every day that the White House asks you to become a Vampire Slayer.

life update

Was in Seattle last week. Highlights:


Microsoft Research Building (above); UofM CS Building (below)

Microsoft Research’s new building is fancier than our new department building, but our offices are much better.

Lunching at the Space Needle is worth the high price. You get to sit and eat your lunch while downtown Seattle, Mt. Rainier and the lake revolve around you. The food is good, the view is spectacular on a good day and the service is eager and efficient.


Jidori Chicken with Roasted Garlic-Mashed Potatoes, White Zinfandel

There is an On Stage interactive exhibit at The Experience Music Project that lets you pretend you are a rock star, complete with simulated audience, fully set up stage (with monitors) and instruments that play themselves. The 20$ video they took of me was a little pricey in my opinion, but if you’re going as a group, this is totally worth it.


Art installation at the EMP

photocredits: me, rob scoble, eduardod