SciTechBlog
May 19, 2010

Facebook says it will make privacy changes

Posted: 11:26 AM ET

After an online uproar about Facebook's privacy policy and some users threatening to leave the site en masse, the 400-million person online social network says it will simplify its privacy settings soon.

It's unclear how exactly the changes will be implemented. Or when. In a public radio interview posted Tuesday, Facebook's head of public policy, Tim Sparapani, said the settings will be updated in coming weeks.

"We've heard from our users that we're gotten a little bit complex. I think we're going to work on that. I think we're going to be providing options for people who want simplistic bands of privacy that they can choose from. And I think we'll see that in the next couple of weeks. Because we do listen to our users," he said in the interview (go to about 26:30 to hear the clip).

He added that Facebook has "built a privacy setting for every type of new communication and sharing that we have," and said that "Facebook should be getting credit here for giving tools in the first place."

Many sites don't have any privacy settings, he said.

Facebook's privacy settings have been widely criticized as complicated. According to a New York Times chart, the site's privacy policy is longer than the U.S. Constitution. Users must navigate through 170 specific options.

The bad press led Facebook's rival MySpace this week to announce simplified privacy controls with only three settings. It will be interesting to see if, in what would be an ironic turn, Facebook follows suit.

[via Wired / Mashable]

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Filed under: Facebook


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May 18, 2010

Crowdsourced effort seeks to save 4-year-old's life

Posted: 04:47 PM ET

Seeking help for a charity or cause via social networking isn't new.

But a current campaign to save the life of a 4-year-old boy has taken off in a big way, hoping to capitalize on crowdsourcing and social media to help him beat the odds.

And according to a note on the group's website, there's a chance that it's already worked.

Devan Tatlow, whose family lives in Washington, D.C., has a rare form of leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant. Complicating that is his mixed south Indian-northern European ancestry - which supporters say gives him a 1-in-200,000 chance of finding a match.

Doctors say they have less than 12 weeks.

Instead of trying to beat those odds the normal way, his family and their friends went online and turned their quest viral.

Rob Kenny, Devan's godfather, said hundreds of people have taken active roles drumming up support in what has become a global effort. While Devan lives in Washington, Kenny is in the United Kingdom, the Facebook campaign is being run out of Hong Kong and active recruitment drives are happening in Mexico, Singapore and other places.

Their message has been tweeted by the thousands on Twitter, and probably even more people have mentioned Devan's cause in their Facebook statuses.

Their efforts have been promoted throughout the online community through posts on the Huffington Post, tech blog Gizmodo and other sites.

The group is urging people to register at Be The Match, in hopes they'll be a match for Devan or someone else.

On Tuesday came some good news: there's a chance their efforts have paid off.

A message on the site's homepage said "a potential cord blood match" for Devan has been located. The group is awaiting confirmation that it truly is a match.

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Filed under: health • Internet • social-networking sites


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4 tools to help reclaim Facebook privacy

Posted: 03:22 PM ET

To some users and tech writers, it appears Facebook won’t let anything stand in the way of its quest for World Wide Web domination. Maybe not even its users’ privacy.

As most Facebook users already know, the social networking site has yet again updated its privacy settings. And the “guide to privacy on Facebook” can seem more like an encyclopedia than a guide. Some users have become so confused that they've chosen to leave the site entirely.

But, thanks to a few independent tools floating around in cyberspace, it's gotten a bit easier to navigate the maze of Facebook settings. Here are a few tools and websites that caught our attention:

ReclaimPrivacy, a donation-based project, recently launched a tool that scans your Facebook page’s privacy settings. It alerts users when their privacy settings have defaulted to public.

SaveFace, which is free to install, automatically sets users’ settings - contact information, search settings, friends, tags, connections, personal information and posts - to “friends only.”

TinEye is not specifically for privacy conscious Facebook users. However, the reverse image search engine can be useful when looking to see if an image posted on Facebook has made its way across the Web. Simply upload a photo and let TineEye search the Web to see if the image has been used elsewhere.

Finally, there's OpenBook (warning: potentially offensive language), a site that doesn't exactly help you manage your Facebook privacy settings, but it might scare you into wanting to keep your info private. The site lets you search through public status updates. Some really embarrassing stuff shows up.

Know of any tools we missed? Let us know in the comments.

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Filed under: Facebook


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Geek Out!: Getting 'Lost' in Hawaii

Posted: 02:47 PM ET
The cast of 'Lost'
The cast of 'Lost'

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From sci-fi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it, you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

Ah, Hawaii. Sun, sand, surf and... smoke monsters?

Okay, not exactly, but for six years, the TV series "Lost" made its home there, pumping approximately $400 million into the state's economy, according to Pacific Business News. Fans come from far and wide, not just to enjoy the usual Hawaiian R&R, but to spend as much as 10 hours in a day checking out locations where some of the show's most memorable scenes were filmed. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Geek Out!


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Facebook responds to privacy concerns

Posted: 11:27 AM ET

In an e-mail to CNN.com, Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes responded to the growing rancor over the site's privacy settings and policies, which underwent some changes in April.

"With more and more people sharing content online, it’s important that Facebook and other sites provide them with clear control over what information they want to share, when they want to share it and with whom," he wrote in the e-mail. "We’re listening to feedback and evaluating the best way to respond to concerns. We understand that maintaining people’s privacy is of paramount importance, not just to them but to the eco-system of the Internet as a whole and we welcome innovative ideas in this space."

Noyes made the comment in reference to rival MySpace's decision this week to make its site more private.

Some people have deleted their Facebook accounts because of concerns over their online privacy. The online social network, which has 400 million members, allows fine-grained controls over privacy settings, but some people complain that the settings are too numerous and complicated to be useful.

And a project called Diaspora has been getting press as the privacy-minded "anti-Facebook." The project, started by four NYU students, so far has raised $180,000 through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter.

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Filed under: Facebook • privacy


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MySpace tries to stage a 'private' coup

Posted: 10:13 AM ET

MySpace is not aging well.

The site was the world's largest online social network until 2009, when Facebook whizzed by. Now, MySpace says it has 113 million users to Facebook's 400 million.

But maybe there's a comeback for MySpace yet. This week, as Facebook continues to weather bad press about its non-private privacy settings, MySpace announced its comeback plan: Privacy settings that make sense.

"We respect our users’ desires to balance sharing and privacy, and never push our users to an uncomfortable privacy position," company co-president Mike Jones said in a blog post on Monday.

In coming weeks, MySpace users will be able to choose from three settings that regulate the privacy of their profiles. They are:

"Friends only," meaning only people who you've agreed to be friends with can see your profile.

"Public," meaning anyone can search Google and find everything about you.

"Public to anyone 18 or older," which is pretty self-explanatory.

The default on MySpace will be "friends only." That sets it in stark contrast with Facebook, which describes its default privacy settings this way, in its 5,825-word privacy policy:  "The default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to 'everyone.' You can review and change the default settings in your privacy settings. If you delete 'everyone' content that you posted on Facebook, we will remove it from your Facebook profile, but have no control over its use outside of Facebook."

Even before MySpace's announcement this week, some tech pundits were calling for Facebook to adopt simplified privacy settings. Farhad Manjoo, Slate's technology columnist, suggested 5-level privacy settings:

"You should be able to go to your privacy settings and see one big dial that lets you choose one of five levels between 'private' and 'public.' This setting would govern your entire profile; the more public you set the dial, the more you'll share with more people," he wrote on May 13. "By default, the dial would be somewhere in the middle, but you'd be able to shift it up or down at any time. You'd still be able to adjust more specific controls—you could set your profile to 'public' but allow only close friends to see pictures of your kid—but few of us would ever need to."

Facebook responded to some of these concerns in an e-mail to CNN.

It seems like three things could come of MySpace's new privacy controls. Facebook's faithful might give the site a second try. MySpace's privacy rethink could become contagious with other sites.

Or, maybe no one will notice.

Cast your vote for the most likely scenario in the comments. Also, does this make MySpace a more enticing social network?

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Filed under: Facebook • MySpace


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May 17, 2010

Geek Out!: Farewell (or good riddance) to 'Heroes'

Posted: 04:17 PM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From sci-fi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it, you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

Let's travel back to the year 2007. Back then, Marvel was working on a very risky movie version of "Iron Man" with Robert Downey, Jr., the idea of a musical TV series sounded preposterous, and viewers were excited about the season finale of a show called "Heroes," which had become a phenomenon.

The phrase "Save the cheerleader, save the world" had successfully entered the public lexicon, with no small help from the NBC promotions department, and Masi Oka was a breakout star for his portrayal of the lovable time-stopping, time-traveling Hiro. The next-to-last episode of the season had the villainous Sylar set on attacking New York City, with a bunch of ordinary people with extraordinary abilities preparing to come together to stop him.

Here was an exciting show with a continuing story arc that actually answered questions, unlike the then-floundering "Lost," and fans ate it up. Then a funny thing happened: the season finale was not that great. Nathan flew into outer space with his brother Peter, averting disaster before he exploded like a nuclear bomb. All in all, it was pretty anticlimactic.

Season two spent a lot of time in feudal Japan where Hiro ended up, and we were introduced to a few new characters who were about as interesting as watching paint dry (with the exception of Kristen Bell's electro-charged Elle). The second part of the season was scrapped due to the writers' strike, so the show made an attempt to get back in the good graces of fans by screening the season three premiere at the San Diego Comic-Con.

Season three was just a mess. It seemed as though the writers threw everything they could at the wall to see what stuck. New plot points were introduced and old ones forgotten on a regular basis.

If you want an example of how to handle time travel in an interesting way, check out the fifth season of "Lost." If you want to see an example of how to handle it badly, check out the third season of "Heroes." At one point, all of the characters lost their powers in a solar eclipse, a plotline which ultimately went nowhere. And then there was the time when Hiro literally regressed to being a child. The less said about that, the better.

It also looked like Sylar might redeem himself but that didn't take either. It seemed as though a solution had been found to get rid of Sylar, by making him believe he was Nathan, but eventually that was reversed in the increasingly confusing fourth season.

Sylar was a fascinating character, no doubt, and Zachary Quinto chewed the scenery whenever given a chance. But eventually the show seemed to be all about him, never mind the title.

So, at long last, "Heroes" is over, and that's probably for the best. There were some great moments no doubt (usually when Bryan Fuller was writing), but it was a slow death that was hard to watch.

It's a cautionary tale for other shows which capture the public's imagination early on. There are reports that the show might wrap up as a TV-movie in the coming season. Either way, I look forward to the new show "The Cape," which on the surface bears a lot of similarity to Batman, and hope that it can succeed where "Heroes" failed.

Filed under: Geek Out! • television


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YouTube exceeds 2 billion views a day

Posted: 01:31 PM ET

In honor of YouTube’s fifth birthday, the site announced it's now attracting more than two billion video views a day.

“That’s nearly double the prime-time audience of all three major U.S. television networks combined,” the YouTube team wrote in a blog post Sunday. “We certainly can’t imagine what the future will look like. But we do know there’s a lot more to be done ... We’re just getting started.”

To celebrate, the Google-owned site launched its YouTube Five Year Channel and a project called “My YouTube Story,” which features users talking about the ways in which the video site has affected their lives.

Among them are such high-profile users as CBS News' Katie Couric, Internet pioneer Vint Cerf and late-night jokester Conan O'Brien.

In Couric’s video, she says “YouTube is kind of like New York City. Millions and millions of people from all walks of life co-existing in one small space. When you turn the corner, you never know who or what you’ll see.”

Adds O'Brien, "If you're like me, America, you spend an inordinate amount of time watching YouTube - and it's probably why our country's economy is in the toilet."

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Filed under: YouTube


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5 ways to reduce cell-phone radiation

Posted: 01:03 PM ET

There's lots of news today about a long-awaited study on cell phones and brain tumors.

The study, to be published Tuesday in the International Journal of Epidemiology, turns out to be inconclusive: It found no evidence that making calls with a mobile phone against your ear increases your risk for brain cancer, but it also couldn't prove that no such link exists, according to CNN's report.

"The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation," the study says. Some people, including GQ writer Christopher Ketcham, who recently published an in-depth look at research in this area, are skeptical that such a probe will take place, in part because of the cell phone industry's lobbying influence. Several European countries have issued precautions about mobile phone radiation.

But we'll put the debate aside for now. If you are concerned about mobile phone radiation, here are a few ways to keep these potentially damaging waves away from your brain.

Not all are 100 percent effective, and several carry a significant geek factor. (If a Bluetooth earpiece can make Hollywood hunk Brad Pitt look creepy, what will it do to you?) But who knows. If hipsters latch on, maybe these add-ons will go the way of bike helmets and become socially acceptable.

Let us know what you think of these tips, and please offer up your own in the comments below.

1. Use the speaker phone: This keeps the phone away from your ear and, if your phone has a decent speaker function already, doesn't cost you anything. Downside: Everyone in the office hears your partner yell at you for forgetting to record last night's episode of "Dancing with the Stars."

2. Don't talk. Text: This will win you younger friends and social cachet, as long as your fingers aren't too fat to navigate a QWERTY. If you're new to texting (like omg!), wikiHow has a smart guide to get your started. You probably can't send all of your communiques in 140-character bites, though. Well, unless you're this girl.

3. Buy a lower-radiation phone: CNET and the Environmental Working Group have published guides to radiation by phone model. You can use this information to guide your next cell phone purchase. The downside: This doesn't eliminate exposure. But, as they say, knowledge is power.

4. Use a headset: Some earbuds are wired to the phone; other options, like Bluetooth ear pieces, are wireless. Both put less radiation on the side of your head than a phone, according to EWG. Downside: Since there's no phone in sight, it will look like you're talking to yourself while you're walking down the street. Unexpected bonus: People in music videos do that all the time. And rock stars aren't bothered by onlookers, are they?

5. Talk less: Take this as literally as you will. You could simply limit your phone conversations, choosing to - gasp! - meet up with people in real life instead. Or, according to EWG, simply speaking less during a mobile-phone conversation can reduce your radiation exposure, too. From that group's guide: "Your phone emits radiation when you talk or text, but not when you're receiving messages. Listening more and talking less reduces your exposures." So, moral of story: less Jay, and more Silent Bob.

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Filed under: cell phones • health


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Group sets May 31 as 'Quit Facebook Day'

Posted: 11:27 AM ET

Frustrated by Facebook's recent privacy changes, a group is urging users to delete their Facebook accounts en masse on May 31.

The campaign comes amid complaints that the social-networking juggernaut is diminishing users' privacy with its "open graph" model that adds Facebook connections on other sites across the internet. A handful of glitches during the rollout of the changes have, in fact, put some personal info at risk, if only briefly.

It's clear that some folks are leaving the popular site.

But the organized effort to get people to abandon their Facebook accounts doesn't appear to have gained much traction so far among the site's 400 million-plus users.

More than 2,700 people had pledged to quit Facebook on the group's website Monday morning. The Quit Facebook Day site asks, "Sick of Facebook's lack of respect for your data?" and calls on users to quit the site all at once on May 31.

And about 1,090 people had "liked" the site's Quit Facebook Day page - which, ironically, is on Facebook - as of Monday morning.

By contrast, more than seven times that many people are fans of former "Top Chef" contestant Kevin Gillespie's beard. A fairly random user-created page called "I Love Facebook" had roughly the same number of members as the "Quit Facebook" page.

On Friday, the San Francisco Chronicle's Business Insider blog poked fun at the effort, albeit when the fledgling site had only a couple hundred people signed up. The post's title? "Uh-Oh, 0.00000068% Of Facebook Users Promise To Quit On May 31."

Facebook doesn't provide the number of people who delete their accounts. But the overall numbers are clearly going the other way. A spokeswoman told CNN.com last week that Facebook had added 10 million active users since late April.

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Filed under: Facebook • privacy • social-networking sites


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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