The Price for Free Play

toothpasteSome bad actors are playing fast and loose with our personal information. If you hadn’t heard, Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based political consulting firm, harvested 50 million people’s Facebook data without their knowledge in 2014. Cambridge Analytica purports to “measurably improve your brand’s marketing effectiveness by changing consumer behaviour.” This explanation might be helpful if you agreed to answer some questions, but what about all those other hijacked friends in your contact list that had their personal information harvested without their knowledge?

Big data is big business, and you can bet that Facebook is in business to make money. Part of that money-making machine comes in the form of gaming or psychological testing apps. Much like Apple’s App Store, Facebook generates about a 30 percent commission on each app that rolls across your Facebook feed. This revenue stream is one of the most significant sources of revenue it has.

Facebook does have a privacy policy, which they are in the process of changing, but no matter how many regulations are in place, there are always some shady characters around who are intent on getting your information without your knowledge. In fact, Facebook claims there was no breach at all. In other words, they knew data was going to Cambridge Analytica, but contends Cambridge Analytica violated the company’s terms of service — that makes me feel a whole lot better.

Facebook had been in hot water over privacy concerns before. According to a report in The Guardian, Facebook allowed the conduct of secret psychological tests on nearly 700,000 users in 2012. They hid “a small percentage” of emotional words from peoples’ news feeds, without their knowledge, to test what effect that had on the statuses or “likes” that they then posted or reacted to. At the time, COO, Sheryl Sandberg said, “We take privacy and security at Facebook really seriously because that is something that allows people to share” opinions and emotions.”

Okay, Ms Sandberg, given recent events, I think Facebook’s idea of taking privacy and security concerns seriously is vastly different than many others. If these social media companies and apps have the privilege of accessing our private information, they should make damn sure they or no one else can sell it to the highest bidder. The alternative is a breach of trust that goes beyond the pale and reaches further than just the social boundaries of one application.

Facebook, for example, uses many third-party companies like nametests.com or quizly.co, for example, to “enhance” their user experience. The irony is both these companies do not post their addresses or names of people who run their operations on their website, but yet they insist on getting access to our address books, contacts and other personal information. Most of these apps’ primary function is to drive advertising. Nametests say they use third-party analytics and re-marketing tools. A third party to the third party? I think it is getting crowded in here.

One of these third parties is an image processing app called FaceApp. The app analyses photographs and edits them according to the functions selected by the users like a prediction of how the person depicted will look older. The Nametests privacy policy states:

“The processing of the user’s personal data resulting from the photograph is carried out by FaceApp for the sole purpose of the selected function. The photograph is only temporarily stored temporarily for this purpose and is then deleted within five days. Data other than the photograph will not be transmitted to FaceApp. The data is transmitted via an interface to FaceApp so that FaceApp itself cannot collect any further user data (e. g. no IP address, cookies, etc.).”

I am not convinced. I must ask if “Data other than the photograph will not be transmitted to FaceApp,” why do they need any personal data at all?

What FaceApp really is, is a facial-recognition app, developed by team in St. Petersburg, Russia. They may not advertise that it is a facial-recognition app, but by using their app, you have given them the ability to match your name and other information to your face — that could be worth a lot of money to those in the business of identity theft. According to the Australian Privacy Foundation, apps like this “can remove the data from any effective legal protection regime, share it with almost anyone, and retain it indefinitely.” FaceApp asks for access to so many more options and rights than they need. Plus, FaceApp’s privacy policy states that if they sell their business, your data will be going with it. If it sounds scary, it should be. One thing is clear — it is not clear what happens to all the data you give it.

There are so many third-party apps from all over the world it is almost impossible to keep track. I’d make an educated guess that not everyone reads the Terms and Conditions, the Privacy Policies, or the fine print of all these apps. Even if we do read them, how do we truly know if our private information is safe with them? The answer: We don’t. Facebook cannot guarantee this; no one can.

Using any application online must be approached with a buyer beware mentality, especially when no money changes hands. When you partake in free social media platforms, quizzes, tests and other social media game apps, you put your personal information at risk. Anything online that seems free is often not. When doing anything online for free, there is often a trade-off of personal information for targeted advertising, or other nefarious options that I don’t even want to think of. If an app asks for access to things that have nothing to do with the functionality of it, or you cannot find contact information for an app company, I’d suggest running away as fast as you can. If companies like Facebook cannot ensure your data is secure, either governments need to step in with laws that carry stiff penalties, or we need to be more careful of what we put out there and with whom we interact.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are a few things you can do right now:

1. Use ad blockers. Most browsers have them in the browser preferences under privacy and security.

2. Use tracking protection. Tracking protection, also normally found under privacy and security, protects you from online trackers that collect your browsing data across multiple websites.

3. Do not give out personal information online or by email. Once you share your personal information, there is no assurance as to what may happen to it in the future. Unencrypted email is like sending a postcard — anyone can read it. If someone needs your personal information, it is best to use snail mail or the phone.

4. Do not fill out your social media profiles. The people that need to know your email addresses birthdays and phone numbers probably already know them, so there is no point in offering up this information to Twitter, Facebook and other social media apps just to be sold down the line at a later date.

5. Use your privacy settings in your social media applications. However, just because you’ve set your privacy settings to “Private” means nothing to those harvesting your personal information. Using this alone is not the end-all, be-all of protection, but any little bit helps.

6. Use strong passwords or logins to prevent your account from being hacked. A couple of good programs are LastPass and 1Password; they are both great at password management and both have free versions available.

7. Be wary of free online games and questionnaires. Nothing is free. You can easily assume you are trading your personal information for the use of the app. What happens afterwards is anyone’s guess.

8. If you need to fill out security questions, you must lie, lie, lie. It is much easier to find out your mother’s maiden name or the actual city you were born than when you use bogus or obscure answers that no one could ever guess, like for example:

What is the name of your favourite teacher?
Answer: Printer Ink
What is the model of your first car?
Answer: Garden Nome

Of course, to remember all these bogus answers you would be wise to, again, use a password management site like those mentioned in point 6. (I am not getting paid for any of this, by the way.)

9. The ultimate solution is not to use social media at all. This one may not be an option for many, but it can be for some.

We take the time to lock our doors and windows, but yet we freely give strangers from the other side of the world access to our personal information by way of our computers, as well as through the apps we use online. Perhaps what we need is our own terms and conditions protecting our privacy, our photos, our stories, our tweets, or whatever it is we post online. After all, these social media companies are nothing without people like us who keep them afloat.

The Cambridge Analytica / Facebook scandal has now included other entities and has become a “he said, she said, he said” litany of disparaging remarks, accusations and excuses. No matter who is at fault, our personal information is at stake. The bottom line is no one cares more about your privacy than you do; therefore, you should take an active role in protecting your privacy. You can’t easily put toothpaste back in the toothpaste tube, but that is no reason to stop protecting yourself as much as you can from future thefts and underhanded actions. That is why it is so important to be wary of what you share in your profiles, when answering psychological tests and when playing games online. My advice is less is more. The less personal information you share, the better off you will be.

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You Can Never Really Go Home

Home

I was about 12-years old when I first heard that phrase, “You can never really go home.” I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, thinking, “Whaddya’ mean never go home? I went to a camp last year and came home!”

When I finally left home at the ripe old age of 17 and subsequently returned a couple of years later, I understood. A lot had changed at home. Not realising at the time that I too had changed. Friends were no longer around to hang out. Some family had left for new adventures. My old bedroom was no longer mine; it had become a guest bedroom, and I had found myself in it.

It is unquestionably a rite of passage to leave home to make your own home elsewhere, and I would argue that it is another rite of passage to return home after that first absence. It is something that almost everybody experiences. And, it is something many people go through more than once. In my case, each time I returned something had changed.

We never return specifically to our home; we return to our parents’ house. As adults, most people, myself included, will always refer to the place we grew up as home.

“What are you doing for the holidays?”

“Oh, I’m going home.”

“Where did you grow up?”

“My home is in Saskatchewan.”

“Wow, you are far from home.”

All of these were parts of actual conversations I had as an adult. My home has not been in Saskatchewan since I was 17, and that is over 30 years ago.

We tend to get homesick for something that is no longer there. What we are nostalgic about is the memory of home. The big family get-togethers, the camping and fishing trips that start at 4:00 a.m., the friends you played hockey with on the street until you were called in for supper. Street hockey aside, these things are no longer available to me. (I don’t play street hockey anymore, but the option, given the right conditions, is still possible.) My mom has Alzheimer’s and has had to move into an assisted living place for seniors. So, as it turns out, I can never go home again, because the house, with the yard I once played in, has become someone else’s.

Despite all that, little has changed with my lexicon.

“Are you going home for Christmas?” asked by my colleagues.

“No, I’ll be going home next year.”

True, the yard is no longer available for backyard barbecues; our clothing no longer hangs on the laundry tree; and the garden, where, inexplicably, strawberries never made it to the kitchen, would no longer be a summertime ritual, but the memories are still alive and well.

Calling someplace home is perhaps best described in Robert Frost’s poem, “The Death of the Hired Man.” He wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.”

— at least, that is the hope.

My Red “Whine”

red-wineI get headaches from drinking red wine. Apparently, I am not alone in this conundrum. It seems every time I talk about this, people can relate, or at least know of someone with the affliction. It is a sad thing to deny oneself a drink that may boost heart health, improve cholesterol, fight weight gain and improve memory. They should add this to Canada’s Food Guide; it’s a bona fide superfood… in moderation of course.

Even though “leftover wine” seems to be an oxymoron in our house, it is not from over indulgence, well, not usually. A headache can occur after drinking only one glass. I have to say, however, that it is not all red wines that give me this unpleasant experience, so I keep trying.

Often things usually start quite innocently with an offer of red wine to which I respond, “Sorry, I can’t drink red wine. I get headaches.”

Hosts usually look at me with a mix of puzzled amazement or sadness as if I had just drowned their puppy.

“Oh come on, have just one,” the host pleads, “It can’t be that bad,” thrusting a glass of the red elixir my way.

Or, it might go something like, “Oh, I don’t have anything else to give you. Are you sure?”

Not wanting to offend anyone, I usually cave with a “Well okay, but just one.” Then, I must live with the consequences.

There are a few theories milling about on what causes red wine headaches. The most popular of which is said to be Sulphites (SO2). SO2 is a key ingredient that occurs naturally in all wines giving them antioxidant and antibacterial powers used to preserve its freshness. While it is true that people can be allergic sulphites, I would say that it is probably not the cause of your headache. If it were the culprit, people would react much more violently to a number of foods, including baked goods, deli meats and bacon, because these types of foods contain sulphites at a much higher rate then that of wine. In fact, many wines end up having 0 ppm because sulphates deteriorate over time. Suffice it to say that I am incredibly grateful I don’t get bacon headaches.

Many also blame the release histamines that create allergy-type symptoms. Problem is most allergy-type symptoms like itching, sneezing, hives, runny nose and watery eyes are never present. If your nose runs after drinking red wine, I would suggest you have a different issue.

There is another theory that many people cannot metabolise prostaglandin, which may cause headaches. The definition of prostaglandin is way too long to discuss in this article. Suffice it to say that the solution may be as easy as taking prostaglandin inhibitors like Asprin or Ibuprophin less than an hour before drinking red wine. (This is probably not the wisest advice as extended use can lead to unwanted adverse reactions. I am not a doctor, so please consult yours first.)

Researchers say that the problem could originate with the yeast or other bacteria found in red wine. Researchers also admit that they don’t really know the cause. But, one thing’s for sure: odds are if you indulge in a night of excess and wake up with a headache you have a hangover—Another self-induced alcohol-driven malady that people have been trying to cure for centuries.

Red wine headaches are not a very popular research cause. Understandably, the wine industry is not interested in throwing money at something that could throw shade on their livelihood. There is no Run for the Cure race or ice-bucket challenge to raise awareness and funding. True, it is not as popular as… let’s say… the research for Viagra, but rest assured, even though they are a small group and they may not yet have the answers, there are people out there dedicated to finding a solution.

Although the verdict seems to be still out on what officially is the root cause of red wine headaches, I am sure that denying myself the drink of the Gods is not the only answer. Hopefully, someday I won’t have to say those dreaded words, “Sorry, I don’t drink red wine.” Until that day, I will stick to mostly white wines and keep on trying the occasional red–you never know, maybe one day, I’ll grow out of it–just a theory I have.

To your health!

Rewarding Incompetence – What the Sears IS going on?

SEARS-EXTERIOR-CO-drn-634x360
Sears Canada recent promotional banner
(Photo credit:  durhamradionews.com)

In the face of insolvency, Sears Canada has had to ask for court protection from its creditors. The problem, besides the obvious, is that the people that hold the keys to the executive washrooms have given themselves bonuses in the midst of laying off thousands of workers without a severance package.

Companies usually pay bonuses as an incentive to do good work, or they are paid as a consideration for a job well done. Leading a company to bankruptcy is not the definition of good work or a job well done. If the average worker does not perform well, he or she could see a decrease in the amount they receive as a bonus or no bonus at all. If an executive does not perform well, why is it that he or she be allowed to get a bonus? If everyone rewarded incompetence, our nation would go broke. It does not make sense.

We have seen this scenario before, most infamously with the collapse of the housing market started by our neighbours to the south, which had a devastating ripple effect throughout the world. In that case, bank executives, charged with fraud over the subprime mortgage fiasco, were still given millions in bonuses. Many of these companies (and don’t doubt for one second that banks are not companies in business to make a profit) say they need to pay out bonuses to executives to get or retain the best executive staff. How can these people be the best at anything when they are in effect the worst the world has to offer? What Sears Canada is doing to its employees and former employees is morally reprehensible. They happily walk away with their bonuses acutely aware that people at their feet are drowning.

These bonuses are not a paltry amount either. In the case of Sears Canada, 43 executives and senior managers and 116 general managers will receive $9.2 million dollars for leading the company to bankruptcy. Good Job! That is an average of just over $57,800 for each person if Sears distributes that amount equally. The truth of the matter is no matter how the company distributes the money it is people within the upper echelons of the corporation who will receive the benefit; no clerk, cashier, or sales associate will see a penny.

If Sears Canada had chosen to distribute these funds to all concerned, including the 2,900 employees currently on the chopping block, they would each get about $3007 each; that is certainly enough to tide most people over until they work out their next move. I am also positive that if Sears Canada had taken this route, they would have more than enough employees to work throughout the “transition” – a euphemism for the state of bankruptcy the company has found itself.

Managers and executives complain when Millennials quickly move on to their next job, screaming, “There is no loyalty anymore!” Perhaps Millennials have it right. Look what dedication has brought the employees of Sears and other companies who see fit to put their loyal and dedicated employees through the ringer without a second glance.

It doesn’t take rocket science to see that this is not the way to ensure employee loyalty and retention. The 65-year-old company has a reputation of standing behind every product they sell. The company executives and management should also support and stand behind their employees by paying their severance packages; it would be the right thing to do.

Flight Attendants Wanted

Canada-Oxygen

There is something to be said for taking care of yourself before others. At least airlines have this right. “If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” On a personal level, many of us struggle to put us first. On a governmental level, however, this should be the norm.

I understand the difficulties of running a country must be seemingly insurmountable. People who have been wronged need to be helped. People facing crisis need to be helped. Decisions must be made on how best to hand out funding. The number of people and groups asking for financial aid is not small, and there needs to be some kind of prioritising and safeguards put in place to ensure our tax dollars do not fall into the wrong hands.

The question of whose hands are the right hands is seemingly difficult. All Canadian governments of all stripes have missed the mark, but it does not have to be that way. That question should not be difficult at all. At the risk of sounding a bit like a certain American president, who shall remain unnamed, I would put forth that any, if not most of the funding should go to helping Canadians first.

We have a long history helping other countries when called upon. We do this because we are a nation of givers, helpers and humanitarians. Helping others is entrenched in our Canadian DNA. One does not have to go outside of our borders to see what Canadians are capable of. From the train derailment in Lac Magantic, Quebec to the Fort MacMurray, Alberta forest fires, we have seen Canadians come together to aid their fellow neighbour. Even complete strangers who needed food and shelter during a massive American airplane diversion to Gander, Newfoundland in the days of 9/11 were greeted with open arms. It did not matter if you were rich, poor, or what nationality you were, you were helped, no questions asked.

As a fellow Canadian, I have no issue with helping other people of other nations. I do question helping other nations when there is so much wrong here. I am not saying to close the doors to refugees or to aid other countries. I am saying other nations can only be best served when a country’s own financial responsibilities to its constituents are met first. This does not mean Canada becomes a socialist state – far from it – this means that a nation with a healthy, prosperous population is always better equipped to help others in need.

It is true that Canada’s track record on foreign-aid spending in comparison to other countries like Sweden, Australia, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Norway is not that great. In fact, according to an annual report from Global Canada, Canada is in last place, but there is no requirement that Canada must keep up with the Joneses in foreign-aid spending. When you are talking about billions of dollars spent in someone else’s back yard when so many of your own citizens are struggling for all kinds of reasons to make ends meet, there is something wrong. I believe the majority, if not all, of those billions of dollars, could be better spent at home before helping people from other countries.

I do not come to this lightly or easily. I have always thought that helping others no matter where they are from was the right thing to do. I still believe this. However, because there seems to be a disconnect between our government and all people that desperately, and clearly need help right here in Canada, I question our government’s priorities when spending on humanitarian projects. There are certainly many other human issues our country could deal with before they look to help other countries in need.

Just a few questions to ponder: Why must our military veterans beg and plead to get the help they need? If someone has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and asks for help, why is it so difficult to get it to him or her? Why is it that entire villages in Canada in 2017 don’t have clean drinking water? Why is it that when a railway line is cut off due to flooding, an entire northern city and points beyond cannot get assistance to repair said line so that the flow of food and necessities are not hampered by delays that could cause death? Why is it that so many senior citizens, who have worked and paid into government coffers, are struggling and living below the poverty line? Why do disabled people have to wade through a myriad of red tape to get any assistance benefits?

Does not our government realise that these types of worries can cause undue stress and perpetuate other disastrous and chronic health problems which create a domino effect where our already taxed health care system takes more hits? Sick and poor people cannot help a country’s economy. If the disabled and seniors are left to live with benefits that securely places them below the poverty line, how can this help anyone?

Part of the problem, I believe, is bureaucratic red tape. Must we pay millions of dollars every year to have tribunals, public inquiries, Senate hearings, studies to make recommendations that are obvious to everyone? I do not think it would be too difficult to ensure that benefits for the most vulnerable of our population; our seniors, our sick and poor should be enough do not leave them in an impoverished state. I understand the need to ensure value, but when the need is blatant, any study is a waste of money.

Decisions need to be made quicker. We must stop ignoring the problems we face in our own society, and help our own people before we can step forward to help other nations. Perhaps Canada should hire their own flight attendants? I’m sure they’d be saying something to the effect of ‘Put on your oxygen mask, Canada. Save yourself first.’