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MeWe: Privacy based Facebook alternative – A Review

MeWe: A Facebook alternative based on protecting your right to privacy.

It's been great watching DuckDuckGo rise as a major Google competitor. I've been thrilled to see Firefox taking a more aggressive approach to protecting people as a way to combat the invasiveness of Chrome. Now we might finally have a solution to the Facebook problem. "Which problem", you might ask?

If you didn't already know, Facebook has a long and sordid history of taking and misusing your data, profiling you, selling those profiles, losing and mishandling the data as well. They're essentially a data-broker masquerading as social service. This means harvesting every piece of information they can find about you so they can package and sell it to others. It's nasty business, but everyone's doing it… everyone except a few who are building a new paradigm that proves you can make a business work without abusing customers.

Data-brokering is nasty business. They learn about your habits, your private business, your medical information - all of it packaged and sold with nary a thought to whether that will be used for ID Theft, skeezy marketing, law enforcement and so on.

That's what I hope to see in MeWe. I did some research since I'd never heard of the before today and they've actually been around a while. They used some business-focused "gofundme" services (Angel.co and wefunder) to get capital and have built up MeWe.com from that. There are various reviews of the site around including Forbes.com who claims they already have 8 million members (though that's rapidly growing).

If that's the case, they hardly need my review on top, but I still reached out to the CEO (his email is listed online… something he'll want to change if the site is growing this rapidly) to point out some room for improvement. For example:

  • Good – A privacy bill of rights. Better – Futureproofing.
  • It's not actually clear in the policy what happens if they change their mind later. I read on another post (their about page or one of the reviews perhaps) that they would notify you of changes and you could opt out… not very reassuring. Better would be to make it clear that minor changes to the policy that are still in-line with the philosophy would result in notices, but major changes would not affect you until you logged into your account again and manually accepted the change. This is a bold site with a bold plan; let's see bold assurances as well!

  • Good – Privacy Policy. Better – Cleaner, clearer, better presented.
  • They're actually doing pretty well already in having a conversational tone, keeping it short, and avoiding legalese, but I think it can be even better. For example, the font is pretty small and they're not making great use of whitespace. Some pics might be good to break up the wall of text. Some of the detail is a little over-kill (maybe summarize and then link/expand for people who care).

    Did you know? Internet law requires at least one cat pic per post.
  • Good – Endorsements by a few big name reviews online. Better – Endorsement by Firefox and DuckDuckGo.
  • There are precious few companies trying to take on the giants and it would make sense for them to join forces; even if only in cross endorsement. Obviously they should first review their business model, security plan, and a deeper look at their tech strategy, but then, if they're convinced, the endorsement of someone I already researched and trust would go a lot further than online posts.

    So far going through the privacy policy and terms of service, I'm generally impressed. There are some neat features like "secret messaging" that even MeWe can't see (end-to-end encrypted between you and the recipient), full right to download all your MeWe content to your local computer, and messages that will auto-delete once they're received. Of course there's the question of "how they get paid" which they answer on their FAQ page.

    It's a bit lengthy so let me summarize: they make money by charging businesses for a PRO version, by selling extra emotes (if you care), and other add-ons that are optional.

    Last Thoughts

    Signing up was easy and, though I will never let a website scan my contacts from other services, at least there's SOME assurance this site wouldn't abuse that function. The home page is clean, easy to understand and features some posts from the CEO about important privacy issues (like the growing concerns over how Amazon uses Alexa). Nice…

    Not bad. If you combine the promised privacy with a good tool, this might be the tool that saves us from Facebook.
    The jury's still out for me, but at least I can feel comfortable using MeWe in my regular browser instead of having to isolate Facebook in a private window to keep it from stalking me on the web. That alone puts MeWe on top for me.
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    What Does Lexis Nexis Know About Me?

    Lexis Nexis - The bottomless pit of user data
    (Image used under: Creative Commons 3.0 [SRC][Mod])

    LexisNexis (which acquired ChoicePoint) is the largest data-broker in the world. They create vast profiles on people and use that information to create various reports that they sell to companies of all kinds. These reports are used to make decisions about renting, insurance and more. In the past these reports have been purchased by law enforcement and criminal organizations; all to find out more information about you.

    It might be a good idea to find out what's in your report, but it turns out neither simple web searching or LexisNexis themselves do much for listing out all the types of data they know about you. Well here's the list of information they had (or could have had) from my personal LexisNexis dossier:

    Auto/Property Insurance Records:

    LexisNexis is tied into the "Current Carrier" insurance information system used by insurance companies and agencies when deciding to issue you a policy. Think of it like a "credit report for insurance".

    This includes 7 years worth of:

    • Name of insurance company
    • Your policy number
    • Type of policy (auto, boat, fire, quake, tenant, home, etc).
    • Risk type (standard, preferred, facility, etc).
    • Policy start date
    • Policy termination date and reason for termination
    • Names of each subject found on the policy

    For auto, this also includes:

    • Insured vehicle (including VIN, year, and make)
    • Type of vehicle
    • Coverage amounts

    For property, this also includes:

    • Address of property
    • Eviction records

    Personal information that may be included

    • Date of Birth (partially omitted; ex. like 06/##/1970)
    • Sex
    • Social Security Number (Minus the last four digits)
    • Driver's license number (partially omitted)

    "C.L.U.E"® insurance loss information reports (apparently reports on whether you're a high risk person or not)

    "Esteem" report

    This report lists circumstances relating to theft while working at a retail company (admitted or convicted).

    In my case, this was of course blank so I don't know specifically what data items would have been included. Most entertaining, there's a line in the report that reads "If you believe we should have information about you in our Esteem Database, let us know"…. Wow.

    Background Investigation

    If any company ever pays LexisNexis to perform a background check on you, LexisNexis will keep the information for future sales purposes. This may include your full date driving record and your personal credit file.

    Screennow ® report

    This report shows results of a national criminal records search.

    Public Records

    • Professional licences held (Doctor, lawyer, pharmacist, barber, insurance agent, pilot, etc)
    • Address history
    • Deed transfer data
    • Aircraft registration
    • Loan information (where the loan was secured with collateral: i.e. a car)
    • Bankruptcies, liens, and judgements
    • Controlled substance license (in case you want to know who can legally get illegal drugs)
    • Business affiliations – When you're an officer or principal of an incorporated company
    • Significant shareholder records

    Employment history

    They claim they'll only have history of employers who previously asked LexisNexis to do a background check on you.

    Does that make you uncomfortable?

    Data brokers are just a business like any other, but as the credit report companies proved, buying and reselling data carelessly leads to disaster. Considering that these reports are FAR more detailed with a much wider variety of information, I can only imagine the consequences of allowing them to proceed as they have been.

    Fortunately, you may not have to.

    I was able to order my report using this webpage. I believe that doing so would be a good idea, but after that, make sure to also use their opt out procedures if you can.

    It turns out that they'll only let your data go if you can prove that you're an identity theft victim or in imminent danger of bodily harm (police officer, public officials, etc). But it's easy to understand why they make it hard. After all, why would you set free one of your prize milk cows for no good reason?

    In the end, I hope that strong regulation is introduced before we reach a problem like we did with identity theft.

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    Facebook Tracks You Even When Logged Out

    (Image used under: Creative Commons 2.0 [SRC])

    So yesterday, we learned that OnStar tracks you even if you're not a customer and today, we learn that Facebook will track and monitor your web usage without your knowledge or permission… even if you're not logged in.

    The social network is quietly retracting a cookie that continued to report your Facebook user ID even after you "logged out" of the site. But it's not sorry about five other cookies that persist after you sign off. What, you didn't think Facebook would ever let you actually for real seriously 100 percent sign out, did you?

    Remember, you're not Facebook's customer, you're cattle. These kinds of issues will never stop so if you aren't using special software to counter Facebook's nastier sides, you're at a disadvantage.

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    OnStar To Spy On People

    (Image used under: Creative Commons 2.0 [SRC][Mod][Comp])

    OnStar was recently admonished by several senators for its plan to spy on people (even non-customers).

    OnStar is apparently hoping to create a new revenue stream by collecting data about the movements of OnStar-equipped cars. Obviously, this data set will be more comprehensive—and, therefore, more lucrative—if it includes data from former OnStar subscribers as well as current ones. In an announcement e-mailed to subscribers earlier this month, the company said that, starting December 1, it would continue collecting data from subscribers even after they cancel their service. OnStar also said it reserved the right to sell aggregated and anonymized data to third parties.
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    4th Amendment Summary by the EFF

    Can you refuse search or not? It would be good to know your rights.
    (Image is in the Public Domain)

    You can't use rights you don't know about or don't understand. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has posted a summary of your 4th amendment rights to deny the government permission to search you or your belongings (digital or otherwise).

    It's good to know what you can and can't do since you should know that even when you've done nothing wrong, you may still get yourself into a lot of trouble if you are careless with your privacy.

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    TSA Nude Scanners Coming To American Malls

    You're kidding, right?



    What now?

    A Yahoo article says that because women's cloths sizing is hard, they're going to nude scan them to figure out what they can wear. Seriously!?

    Ms. Shaw, the entrepreneur, is chief executive of a company called MyBestFit that addresses the problem. It is setting up kiosks in malls to offer a free 20-second full-body scan — a lot like the airport, minus the pat-down alternative that T.S.A. agents offer.

    Lauren VanBrackle, 20, a student in Philadelphia, tried MyBestFit when she was shopping last weekend.

    “I can be anywhere from a 0 at Ann Taylor to a 6 at American Eagle,” she said. “It obviously makes it difficult to shop.” This time, the scanner suggested that at American Eagle, she should try a 4 in one style and a 6 in another. Ms. VanBrackle said she tried the jeans on and was impressed: “That machine, in a 30-second scan, it tells you what to do.”

    That's cute. A strip search in the name of getting something to wear? So instead of wasting millions on this disrobing plan, why not standardize women's clothing and use inch measurements like men's clothes? How's that for an idea?

    How long until someone hacks these poorly protected machines to record copies of all women scanned and the photos show up on the Internet? Will you put your teenage daughters in them?

    This is so, so stupid, I can't believe it's actually true. I really hope this doesn't catch on because if it does, my faith in humanity will suffer yet again.

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    RFID Chips in Hotel Towels

    As anyone who reads much of my site knows, I'm not a fan of how RFID is being implemented. However, I'm not against the technology itself as it has many practical uses. For example, some hotels have begun putting washable RFID in the towels and bathrobes to keep people from stealing them.

    Since the RFID towels have no privacy invading purpose at all and serve deter self-entitled punks who think it's ok to take hotel items, I will offer my tentative support for this. The main concern is feature creep meaning that depending how they implement this, they may also know which towels you used and when. I can't really see the hotels bothering to do so, but if they did, that would be crossing the line big time.

    Source: http://intransit.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/11/gee-how-did-that-towel-end-up-in-my-suitcase/ (H/T to The Consumerist for the link)

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    Israel Airport Security is Good Because of Profiling

    You know a good way to spot a terrorist? Look for someone who looks and acts like one (like they do in Israel)!

    I know this ridiculous concept of banning profiling came out of the dark days of racism where people were profiles on things that didn't matter like the color of your skin. But that doesn't mean that profiling is wrong.

    People profile all the time and they should. If you walk out to your car late at night and there's younger male with ratty clothes staring you down while sharpening a machete, should you keep walking since you "don't want to offend him by running the hell away"?

    Give it a rest folks. If the TSA didn't have to give kids and the elderly the same attention as someone who's actually likely to be a terrorist, imagine how much smoother and simpler flying would be.

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    FTC Suggests “Privacy by Design”

    (Image is in the Public Domain)

    The Federal Trade Commission proposed a new standard of privacy in American Industry recently:

    “Despite some good actors, self-regulation of privacy has not worked adequately and is not working adequately for American consumers,” Jon Leibowitz, the chairman of the trade commission, said. “We’d like to see companies work a lot faster to make consumer choice easier.”

    No kidding? Companies won't regulate themselves? Unbelievable!

    Anyway, the article goes on to say:

    The online advertising industry, Mr. Zaneis said, would suffer “significant economic harm” if the government controlled the do-not-track mechanism and there was “a high participation rate similar to that of do not call.” Mr. Zaneis said the industry would continue to build upon a self-regulatory framework and had recently put in place the use of icons on select online advertisements that allow users to opt out of customized advertising.

    Oh boo hoo! Companies that have been tracking and tagging you like cattle would be upset if they had to stop. Waa.

    Whether or not the FTC will get traction with this is uncertain, but it won't matter much if it's built into the browser AS IT SHOULD BE. Fortunately, Firefox at least is looking into this in an upcoming version.

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    4th Amendment Underwear and Shirts

    This isn't what it would look like though...

    It'd be nice if they could post an actual picture of a backscatter scan instead of a full x-ray, but this is still pretty cool. I personally wouldn't buy one since I'd rather not be scanned at all than try to make a statement after the fact.

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