Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: January 2011 (page 2 of 6)

Facebook Enables HTTPS

I’ve done a lot of thinking, writing, and well, complaining about Facebook during the past year, mostly on behalf of the many activists I’ve met who’ve had troubles with the site. I’ve also seen, for the past year, small steps in the right direction from the social media giant.  And yesterday, Facebook made an announcement that I’m very pleased with: They’re rolling out HTTPS to users across the site. (ed note: apparently they’ll be doing this slowly over the next few weeks; don’t get discouraged if you don’t see the option yet).

As Danny O’Brien of CPJ explains:

Flipping the switch won’t change much about how you use Facebook, but you’ll see Facebook web addresses will always start with “https”: and no-one between Facebook’s servers and your own computer will be able to see what you say and do on the service.

In light of recent developments, from the Tunisian government phishing of accounts to the availability of Firesheep, this is a major step in the right direction for protecting Facebook users.

The second announcement in Facebook’s post is the introduction of “social authentication”; I actually had a chance to experience this feature last autumn when I arrived in Budapest and attempted to log in to my account – after submitting my password and selecting the “social authentication” option (you have another choice, though I don’t recall what it is), I was shown a series of photos (3 at a time) of my friends, with multiple names below each photo, and asked to identify each friend.

Though I imagine this feature will work well for the vast majority of users, I foresee a few potential problems.

"Hackers halfway across the world might know your password, but they don't know who your friends are."

The first is a concern that developed after I tested the feature; I was shown a photo of a female Muslim friend of mine who wears hijab.  Below her photo were four names: her real name, plus three very, well, “Anglo” names.  Anyone attempting to access my account would have a pretty good chance of guessing who’s in the photo. Ironically, in Facebook’s own example (see photo above), the photo is of an Indian-looking man; of the six names below, only 2 are potentially Indian in origin.  Pretty good odds, I’d say.

Another foreseeable problem is that of Facebook users who don’t use their real image.  A great number of my friends have image libraries full of cats, flags, and cute images, but no photos of themselves.  Sure, the probability of five such friends showing up is low, but if it were to happen, I’d theoretically be locked out of my account.

The third problem, oddly enough, didn’t even occur to me, but was noted in the comments section of Facebook’s announcement: “what happens to the people that have 500+ gaming neighbors that they don’t know at all? People that “collect friends” by the thousands.”  I imagine Facebook’s response to that might be “that’s not how our site was intended,” but it’s nevertheless how it’s sometimes used.

Facebook did note that there’s a path of recourse for users who complete the social authentication process erroneously, but I nevertheless remain wary of the feature.

Regardless, I think Facebook should be applauded for listening to its users and enabling HTTPS.  It’s not foolproof, and users still must turn on the feature to get the benefit (go to “account settings” then “account security” and enable “secure browsing”), but it’s still a big step.  Facebook notes that it will eventually be rolling out HTTPS by default as well, something that Google did with Gmail a couple of years back.

Hopefully, other social sites–Danny O’Brien points out Yahoo!’s mail features, for one–will take a cue from Facebook and enable HTTPS to ensure user security.

In Defense of Al Jazeera: A Response to Marc Ginsberg

Former Ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg (during the Years of Lead, it should be noted) has penned a piece for the Huffington Post asking if Qatar-based Al Jazeera has fueled “Tunisteria” (that is, stoked the already-burning fires spreading across the Middle East toward the direction of intifada).

It’s a valid question–that is, if we lived in a vacuum where all media were viewed equally and all peoples and countries viewed along the same plane.  But we don’t and they’re not.  The Arab world is viewed with suspicion and distrust by most Americans, including diplomats sent to work in the region (as we’ve seen from WikiLeaks cables), and its dictators long supported–whether quietly or outright–out of fear of Islamist uprising.  Democracy in the Middle East is paid lip service, but never truly supported.

In a sense, then–and putting aside the fact that their reporting of events on the ground in Tunisia has been truly excellent–Al Jazeera can be seen as taking care of their own, in the same way the US media does.  Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage acknowledged that on the Charlie Rose Show last fall, in the midst of praise for the channel:

“I watch Al Jazeera every day…because it’s news.  I’m not interested in what Lindsay Lohan is doing…I’m interested in news…they’re still reporting news.  Do they have a slant?  Yeah, I think I’m round enough where I can realize what the slant is, but as I said, I’m not interested in the rehabilitation of Lindsay Lohan.”

Ginsberg on the other hand, who is no slouch when it comes to Arab media (he speaks the language fluently and is president of the–pretty cool–Layalina Productions), writes:

Americans should not underestimate the role that the ever popular Arab news channel Al Jazeera plays in challenging the Arab world’s status quo, using events in Tunisia to fuel its favorite political pastime of disgorging its anti-authoritarian editorial bias across all of its media platforms — much to the anger and hostility of most Arab rulers, particularly those Al Jazeera views as too pro-western (Al Jazeera gives quite a pass to the despotic Syrian regime as well as to its Qatari benefactors).

Key phrase: “Anti-authoritarian editorial bias.”  In another universe, or a country far far away, one might call that a “pro-democracy editorial bias,” or in other words, something possessed by every single mainstream American channel.  To put it bluntly, can you imagine MSNBC or CNN (the two “reasonable” and “mainstream” US news stations) ever taking a non-democratic stance?  No, you probably can’t.  On the other hand, why isn’t Ginsberg criticizing his own country’s Fox News, which surely throws gasoline on the fire of right-wing (American and otherwise) politics on a daily basis?  And have any major US stations ever reported fairly on the Middle East?  Do they criticize Hosni Mubarak or Ben Ali?  Or, for that matter, Israel?  The answer is an emphatic “no.”

It’s also worth noting here that Ginsberg is stretching the facts when he claims that Al Jazeera gives Syria a pass: Syrian opposition leaders are regularly hosted, with at least one individual, Habib Issa, arrested after appearing on the channel.  More recently, tensions between Al Jazeera and Syria grew after the station gave an appearance to Mohammed Riyadh Shaqafi, of Syria’s banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Ginsberg also notes that “Al Jazeera’s editorial and opinion commentators are having a field day mesmerizing how a similar spectacle could unfold across other Arab states.”  While I can’t help but note the truth in this, it’s not without good reason: Following the Tunisian uprising, no fewer than six youth self-immolated in countries across the Maghreb, from Mauritania to Egypt.  Social media–which may not have overthrown the Tunisian regime, but which certainly assisted the media’s coverage, perhaps more than ever before–is abuzz with talk of who’s next.  The “Arab street” is indeed talking about change, but should Al Jazeera really get the credit for that?  It’s not as if anti-authoritarianism is something that emerged in the past month.

Despite Ginsberg’s pedigree, it should be noted that he’s also a major AIPAC player, something most reasonable people would see as a conflict of interest to democratic ideals in the Arab world.  After all, staunch Israel supporters have little interest in disrupting the status quo, particularly in neighboring (and friendly) Egypt and Jordan.

All things considered, it would be irresponsible not to consider Ginsberg’s closing argument:

Let’s hope that Al Jazeera’s penchant for regional anarchy is tempered by cooler heads within Arab democratic dissident ranks who have far more to lose than audience share if they prematurely swallow Al Jazeera’s bait.

Though I think “penchant for regional anarchy” is a wee bit of a stretch (okay, an enormous stretch), but Ginsberg is not wrong to wish for “cooler heads” over the next few months, given the real risk in such protests (ask Tunisians if they really thought this would be the time it worked).  Nevertheless, take or leave Al Jazeera, it won’t be what gets Jordanians, Egyptians, or Libyans out in the street, the conditions of their countries–and the degree to which their regimes have become despotic–will be.

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