Can Facebook Be Trusted?

Question: Can Facebook be Trusted?

Jonathan Zittrain:  Well, when I think about privacy on social media sites, there’s kind of the usual suspect problems, which doesn’t make them any less important or severe, it’s just we kind of know their shape and we kind of know how we’re going to solve them.  Those are problems that hinge around whether the site itself, Facebook say, can be entrusted with the information we give it, under what circumstances will it release it to third parties, things like that.  And there, I think, standard privacy laws and forces are already at work trying to keep sites like Facebook from going too far and that’s standard stuff about opt-in versus opt-out.  There’s a beacon program that Facebook introduced now called, I think, social ads.  And it’s working its way along.  In fact, I think it’s under special scrutiny, every day, it seems there’s a new Facebook group called, you know, “One Million Strong Against Facebook Invading My Privacy,” so I’m not as worried about that.

But that’s actually a couple of other issues of interest.  One is in the name of privacy, and I think in a way that is actually privacy protective, when we see third party developers writing applications that run on Facebook and that interact with your data, Facebook has a way of being in the middle in an ongoing sense.  So when that application wants to pull data from your profile, it’s going through Facebook and Facebook can turn it off later and say, “No, no, you can’t get this data any more because we’ve deemed that you’ve broken the rules in some way or we just no longer want to do business with you.”  It’s very different than the free-for-all, say, for an application developer on a personal computer who doesn’t have to deal with, say, Microsoft, even if you’re using Windows in order to get to the data on the computer.  That’s between you and the software writer.

So in the name of privacy protection, what we see is, is Facebook able to create barriers and restrictions to the flow of information to third party developers that wouldn’t exist in counterpart systems like PC’s?  And then you start to see possibly a trade off between privacy and innovation because the more control a vendor has in the middle, between that relationship, between a software author and somebody who wants to run the software, the less freedom a software author has to do whatever he or she wants.

I also see within a cauldron like Facebook, opportunity for really interesting experimentation about new ways of protecting privacy.  I don’t know how much thought is behind it, but it seems to me, highly effective the way that Facebook will let somebody tag a photo with a friend’s name, then others who are friend of that friend can perhaps immediately see the photo, and the friend, in the meantime, has a chance to wander back and un-tag it.  At which point the person who owns the photo could re-tag it, and then you un-tag it again.  But what you end up with is sort of a good enough for government work system where embarrassing photos might go up and somebody pictured in the photo can’t delete it, but can try to see to it that they’re not identified with it in a way that direct search under their name could find them in the photo.  Instead, somebody has to be paging through the entire album and say, “Oh, I recognize that guy,” or see a dead tag link.

Innovations like that, I’d like to see experimented with on the internet at large and just as there is a creative commons to let people express, in the terms of intellectual property, how they’d like their work to be used or re-used, if at all, I think there needs to be a kind of privacy creative commons that lets you express your preferences about how a photo of you should be used or a video or something like that, and then give others an opportunity to see whether they want to respect those preferences.  At the moment, there really isn’t a system for that, and that’s how sometimes I think videos can go viral, where people featured in them might well wish it not to be so, but those who are contributing to the viral nature don’t even have a chance to realize it and abide by a request for forbearance.

Recorded on August 18, 2009

Jonathan Zittrain examines the privacy issues surrounding the world’s largest social media site, highlighting how we can protect personal data and even control the fate of worrisome photos.

Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

Videos
  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

Study: Unattractive people far overestimate their looks

The finding is remarkably similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency.

Sex & Relationships
  • Recent studies asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers.
  • The studies kept yielding the same finding: unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness, while attractive people underrate their looks.
  • Why this happens is unclear, but it doesn't seem to be due to a general inability to judge attractiveness.
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Meet the worm with a jaw of metal

Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.

Credit: Mike Workman/Adobe Stock
Personal Growth
  • Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
  • Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
  • It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
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