Living in the Online Cloud: The Dark Side

I rely heavily on technology for nearly all aspects of my life. Last year the power went out, and I was excited because I could still watch a movie since my netbook has great battery life (around 8 hours). I made my hot tea on the grill and was ready to curl up in front of the fire with a Netflix movie–only to realize that my wifi and router both need power. DOH!

While my last post focused on my favorite apps that have made my life easier, this post will share some of the potential pitfalls to living in the cloud.

Last week I spammed the world. Seriously. You may be one of the thousands of people who received an invite to Plaxo from me. If so I apologize. Allowing 3rd parties to harvest your personal information if one of the dangers of living in the cloud. Here’s the back story.

After years of dealing with inadequate synching between Outlook and my Blackberry, I was excited to get a Droid X which syncs wirelessly with Gmail. The problem was that I needed to merge my Outlook and Gmail contacts but didn’t want duplicates. Plaxo offered a way to synch contacts between multiple email and social networking accounts, so I signed up.

In the process of signing up however, I missed unchecking the box that said, “Invite your contacts to connect on Plaxo.” Thus Plaxo sent invites to everyone in my list of Google contacts which includes: President Obama, all of my county commissioners, the entire staff of my library, list servs, professors, friends, relatives, and even the nanny that I fired two years ago.

You might ask why all of these people are in my contacts list. I’d like to ask Google the same thing. Apparently a long time ago, Google thought it would be a good idea to add anyone you email to your contacts list. I’m fine with that but they also added anyone who emailed you or was on a CC line with you in any email. So all you people who send out funny jokes or virus warnings to friends and family members–all of your friends and family became part of my contact list.

In 2008 Google changed the way contacts are added and those random contacts became suggested contacts rather than automatically added contacts–but not before adding thousands to my contact list.

So while this was totally a case of user error, it’s something that can (and does) happen to anyone.

Gmail

Have you ever noticed when using Gmail that the ads within Gmail often relate to your email conversation? That’s no accident! Google is performing a keyword search through your emails in order to display relevant ads. While they claim not to store any of this personal information, we all know that storage happens. Earlier this year Google suspended the practice of collecting Wi-Fi information after it admitted to inadvertently collecting user data over unsecured Wi-Fi networks while photographing for Street View.

While I’m not ready to give up my Gmail account yet, I do have concerns about my privacy. I haven’t switched to another email provider because I’m not convinced that the same, or worse, privacy violations might happen. It’s not that I have any top secret email information but it’s more of the principle. I rely on Google Apps to host the email for my website and use Google Docs to hold everything from term papers to financial records. It’s a bit scary having all that info out there and scoured for information by a corporation. Yet for me, for now, the benefit to having that data available from anywhere outweighs the risks of having the data potentially harvested.

Apps

Apps, short for applications, allow you to do cool things on your phone like throw birds at pigs as well as navigate using maps and GPS. However there is some risk in downloading and installing apps.

When you install most apps you will be asked to allow that app to have access to certain information such as your address book, location via wi-fi, and state of the phone (whether you are on a call or not)

This is a screen you definitely do not want to breeze by. Look carefully at what information the app wants access to and try to determine why it might need that info. Many apps ask your your location to place targeted ads in the app. So I might see ads for a local store rather than a store in another part of the country.

One of the apps I really wanted was a wallpaper app that allows you to download cool pictures to use as a wallpaper, but that app wanted access to my SD card, contacts, and location. There is no reason for this much information to be accessed by a 3rd party for pretty pictures! See the Android PSA on Droid Ninja. Note that the same warnings apply to other smart phones as well.

Facebook

I don’t even know where to start with warnings about Facebook–maybe the obvious place–have you read the terms of using Facebook? Do you know what happens to the rights of content that you upload to Facebook? I’m not posting anything that I would want copyrighted so not a big deal to me, but if you are using a tool to import entire blog posts to Facebook as a note, I would check in to this. Then there are the privacy issues of what data friends can see and friends of friends can see. My rule of thumb–don’t post, text, email or otherwise digitally create anything you wouldn’t want published on the front page of the New York Times or your hometown newspaper. Even if you have privacy settings set to most secure there is always the chance that someone will do a screen capture and print or create an image of what you posted. Trust me! It’s happened to me.

Facebook Apps or other Browser Add Ons

Every week or so a new warning comes out about potential security holes in Facebook apps or add ons to browsers. The lastest is I hijacked a Facebook account with Firesheep. For more on Facebook and privacy, take a look at some of the posts by Bobbi Newman where she gives step-by-step instructions for updating your settings.

These are just a few of the situations I can think of where I have learned a lesson or two about protecting my privacy as well as others’ privacy. Did I miss anything you’d like to share?

Living in the Cloud: My Top Five Apps

In the early days of using a computer, I carried around a 5 1/4 floppy disk. And when I say floppy, I mean literally floppy. I protected it with my life as it stored my journals, term papers, and other irreplaceable files.

It wasn’t long before I moved to 3 1/2 inch disks which I used for years. I have stacks and stacks of those disks that I use now in hardware training–having staff rip them apart to view the guts of a disk.

About 5-years ago I upgraded to a 1 GB flash drive. I thought I would never fill up that flash drive. But then came along Camtasia and super-sized video files and a large library of music I’ved ripped from CD to itunes.

When 1GB was no enough I upgraded to a 500 GB portable hard drive. The problem is–if I lose that hard drive I am in trouble. I don’t have enough hard drive space on my work computers to back up all my data and so the hard drive is literally my life.

Recently, I’ve relied more and more on “the cloud” – that esoteric place where multiple copies of data and applications live somewhere out there in cyberspace. With that in mind, I’d like to share my five favorite applications for living in the cloud.

  1. Dropbox – Dropbox lets you synch files and folders between the Dropbox site and multiple computers and/or devices.

    Dropbox Overview from Dropbox.com

    After creating an account for Dropbox with a username and password, you will be prompted to install the Dropbox application on your computer. It’s a fairly light application that runs in the system tray. After installing DropBox, you will have a MyDropbox folder in your MyDocuments folder. Any files or folders that you put into MyDropbox will be synchronized from your computer to the Dropbox website.  You can install Dropbox on as many computers and mobile devices as you use, so your files are literally accessible from any of your computers or from any computer with Internet access. I have Dropbox on my work computer, work laptop, netbook, and Android phone. This means that from work, home, or on the road, I can access all of my files. Since the MyDropbox file is on your computer, the files are accessible even when you are offline. If I update a file, the file gets updated, automatically, on all the other computers when they connect to the Internet. If I’m on a public computer – at the library or school – I can use the web-based version of Dropbox to access and upload files. Another benefit of Dropbox is the ability to share a particular file or folder with other users. This is especially handy for group collaboration.

  2. ewallet – ewallet is not really a cloud application, but I can’t live without it and it definitely helps me to be more efficient operating in the cloud.  A password and account management tool, ewallet uses 256-bit AES encryption to protect your personal information from falling into the wrong hands. ewallet syncs to multiple computers and devices and lets you store any information that you might need such as bank account names, account numbers, passwords, PINS, website logins, password, etc. For your website data – URL, username, and password – simply click on the URL within ewallet and ewallet will pass all this information through to the website so that with one click you are automatically logged in. This is much safer than storing your passwords within Internet Explorer or Firefox.

    ewallet sample website login data

    ewallet allows you create a customer form to contain the data you need. For instance, I created a form to track my employment history. Within ewallet I have a list of every job I’ve ever had, along with contact information, salary, and dates of employment. This is really handy when completing job applications.

    ewallet also allows you to create your own custom, secure passwords with memory aids.

    ewallet password generator

    I rarely buy software or apps, but ewallet is one of the few that I’ve purchased (and purchased multiple times for upgrades). ewallet has a fully functional 30-day trial. After 30-days, you’ll pay$19.95 and I can assure you it is worth every penny!

    Tip: I store my ewallet file in the MyDropbox folder so that my ewallet gets synced to all my computers.

  3. Flickr/Bulkr – You are probably already familiar with Flickr-the photo sharing and storage application. A picture is worth 1,000 words, and I love being able to see what my friends and colleagues are up to by viewing their photos. My family, including my 6-year-old, uploads pretty much everything to Flickr. Flickr gives us additional peace of mind that our photos are stored in at least one additional location other than on our family computer. In my former career as a firefighter, I can’t tell you the lengths people would go to, to rescue precious family photos–often willing to risk life and limb.Bulkr comes in handy after you’ve uploaded 100’s or 1,000’s of photos to Flickr and allows you to download all your photos so that you can backup your Flickr account. This is a great way to get all your photos ready to burn to a CD or DVD. I like to store copy of these backups at work and at a relative’s home so that in the event of an emergency, hopefully, someone has a good backup. You can also download in batches so if you want to share photos of one event or tag with someone it’s as simple as a few clicks.
  4. Aviary – Aviary will revolutionize tasks such as photo, music, and video editing. Aviary is an online application that lets the artist within you create. Your creations can be stored on Aviary as well as downloaded and they can also be shared with other users. I discovered Aviary just last week as a way to add music tracks to my Camtasia screen recordings. I can’t wait to explore the other tools.

    Aviary Tools

  5. Google Docs – Last but not least is Google Docs (documents). Create, store, and share documents, spreadsheets, presentations, forms, and drawings. I’ve used Google Docs for collaboration on articles as well as school projects with multiple authors. The strength of Google Docs is that you don’t need a word processor or any other software installed on your computer. The programs run entirely in your browser which is great for netbooks or other devices that you don’t want bogged down with lots of programs. You can upload existing files to Google Docs as well as download Google Docs to formats such as Word or PDF.You’ll need a Google account to use Google Docs and the storage space is close to unlimited.

These are a few of my favorite apps for living in the cloud, please add yours to the comments! Stay tuned for Part Two where I share the dark side of the cloud.

Human Proofreading Will Never Die

My library upgraded to Office 2007 a while back and since then I’ve also tested Office 2010. Like a lot of trainers I have multiple versions of Office on my computer so that I can troubleshoot or train staff using any version.

I gave a presentation this morning to a small group of managers and luckily a friend pulled me aside and said, “You might want to run your handouts through spell check.”

Say what?

Word has spell check built in right?

It does BUT if you install multiple versions of Office on the same computer the settings for the previous version can remain and override the settings for the newer version. After some searching through developer forums on MSDN I found a solution.

If you have multiple versions of Office installed and spell check is not working for you, close your Microsoft programs, open RegEdit, then rename or delete the following registry key:

HKEY_CURRENT_USERSoftwareMicrosoftShared ToolsProofing Tools1.0

Open your Office product again, a new registry key is automatically created, and spell check should work. If opening an existing document, you may need to rerun spell check on the document by clicking the Office button, selecting Word Options, Proofing, then Recheck Document.

With all that said, it still never hurts to have human eyes spell check your document. Computers are great for a lot of things but they still have a long weigh to go when it comes to context!