Today I turned off Facebook.

Since 2007 I’ve been on Facebook. That’s around 8 years. I had around 300 “friends” and I enjoyed some of the long discussions I’d have with people on there. However, it’s just not worth the privacy cost any more. Facebook has been slowly eroding my privacy over these last 8 years, and I’ve finally realised that it’s too much for me. There wasn’t any particular thing that pushed me, but Sal’s post here reminded me what Facebook (and other companies’) goals are, and about the underhanded ways in which they repeatedly change their privacy policies to achieve those goals.

I’m resigned to my lack of privacy with my mobile phone/laptop/tablet company (Apple) but at least they just want to sell me cool tech. I’m resigned to my lack of privacy with Google, but that’s basically because it’s Google and there’s not much you can really do about it these days. (Not that I’m saying it’s good, but that “unplugging” from Google is a mammoth task that currently isn’t quite worth it for me given the usefulness of their stuff.)

Facebook, however, is something I can live without. If you’re here because you’re wondering where I’ve gone, I’m on twitter @liedra (yes, they’re not exactly angels either, but I know where I stand with Twitter – everything is not private!) and on Google Plus (as my full name). I realise this will likely make planning some things annoying for my friends who like to use Facebook events. I am sorry. I’d still like to come! Email me (liedra at this domain) instead – it comes straight to my phone. Or you can text me. Ask for my phone number. Thanks for understanding.

Hopefully I’ve made you think about your own privacy cost. Is what Facebook is doing worth it for you? I’d hope that the fact an ethicist is leaving Facebook means something to you. But don’t take my word for it, just think about it for yourself. You likely already know that it’s a problem, but have avoided thinking about it, much like I have over the past 8 years.

The picture above has been my profile background picture for almost a year. I still love it. You’ll probably find pictures like that here in future. Or on Google Plus. Or on Twitter. 🙂

On the shoulders of giants

This article originally appeared on

This is a reasonably quick tutorial on a new workflow that I have been wanting to perfect. The aims of my workflow are as follows:

  1. To be able to future-proof my writing.
  2. To be able to easily access all the things that I know other people know about stuff.
  3. To be able to easily reference the things I need.
  4. To be able to access all this information from anywhere on any platform.
  5. To be able to export my data in case Something Happens.
  6. To be able to do it all preferably for free.

The motivation from this came from observing my head of department and how he works. 20-something years ago he wrote himself a database front end into which he painstakingly copied and pasted quotes and categorised them. He is becoming increasingly frustrated by the program because it’s stuck in the 90s but he can’t escape it now because it’s so useful. I wanted to be able to recreate it with all the amazing tools that academics use these days but nothing quite seemed to be able to do it all at once. My mistake was that I wanted a feature of Qiqqa (which is free but Windows-only) whereby you could tag quotes within PDFs. The mistake was that I tried so hard for so long to look for PDF-annotation tools that fit in with reference managers… I didn’t want to have to import PDFs twice. Nothing (other than Qiqqa) really managed it. And Qiqqa’s tablet support is apparently a bit rubbish.

So one day I had an epiphany. And this is the result of it.

Tools you need

  1. Zotero, Mendeley, or another reference manager. The main features you want from this is to be able to do inline citation in Word, and to be able to export a single reference as some sort of unique identifier so you can find it again easily (I use a full citation in Harvard style).
  2. Evernote
  3. A multiple clipboard buffer app. I use Flycut on Mac OS X. You can find it in the app store. There are lots there for Windows but I haven’t quite found the best one yet. Will update when I do.
  4. Microsoft Word (this is the one exception to my “free” thing, as I have it already and you probably do too if you’re an academic).


  1. I make a notebook in Evernote for a particular area that I research. The one I’ll be using here is called “Video Games”.
  2. I find some journal papers or books or whatever I want to read for my research.
  3. I import them into Zotero in the usual way (I’m not going to give a tutorial on Zotero — there are plenty out there).
  4. Now I’m going to read them. As I read, I copy into my multiple buffers (using cmd/ctrl-C) the quotes I’m interested in.
  5. Once I’m done reading/copying, I go to Zotero and export as bibliography entry the paper I’ve just read. To do this you right click the paper from the main pane in Zotero, and “Create Bibliography from Item…” I choose Output Mode to be Bibliography and Output Method to be Copy to Clipboard. This basically puts the citation in my clipboard buffer.
  6. I open the notebook I created in Evernote and open a new note. I paste in the citation as the title, and then one of the quotes from my buffer.
  7. I tag the quote with whatever tags I feel appropriate. For example, I’ve been writing about “male gaze” today. Here is a quote:

Become the male hero. Help the female hero. That’s what the male gaze does to videogames.

This quote has the tags: male gaze, sexism, story development

8. Continue on with the rest of the quotes as with steps 6 & 7.

9. When I come to write the paper, I can now search for tags that include whatever I am writing about, e.g. “male gaze”. Voila! A whole load of quotes that I can then easily write about, copy & paste, etc. into Word and easily cite using my reference manager.

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 16.29.15

The best bit is that it stops me doing what I have done in the past — i.e. read old papers and just rewrite the bits for background where I’ve written about it before. It saves me printing out reams of paper only for the paper to be read once and forgotten about. It also allows me to keep up to date in the subject area because I’m constantly adding new papers with new tags. I’m hoping it’ll allow me to build up a corpus of knowledge about my field, so that when someone says “hey Catherine, tell me all about the male gaze in video games” I’ll have a boatload of stuff ready to show them. ☺

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 22.57.38

Hope that helps. Any questions or suggestions, hit me up!

Online anonymity isn’t as easy as the firms offering privacy apps want you to think

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

You can Whisper it, but don’t expect it or you to stay secret forever. Malcolm Campbell, CC BY-SA
You can Whisper it, but don’t expect it or you to stay secret forever. Malcolm Campbell, CC BY-SA

In a post-Snowden world, anonymity is what people want online. Smartphone apps offering anonymous messaging are popping up everywhere – Secret, Whisper and now Yik Yak. The latest additions to privacy-protecting technology, they claim to provide anonymous, location-based confession, expression, and discussion platforms.

But there are two major issues with these apps: the false sense of anonymity security they provide, and their potential as platforms for bullying.

Coming back to bite you

Anonymising social media apps such as these are run from a platform that is immediately identifying: your personal smartphone. Significant amounts of data about your identity and location are often used by these apps, not only to geo-locate you for things that are location-sensitive, such as locally restricted posts, but to track you as a unique user by associating your posts and data with unique identifiers such as your device’s internet IP address, phone IMEI number, and usage patterns. These can be used to block abusive users, send push notifications, track software errors, show personalised adverts, or enable other features.

Not only does this mean that users are not actually anonymous, but that the company can be asked to hand over this data by law enforcement or government officials. In fact, each of these three “anonymous” apps include statements in their privacy policies to this effect.

This is dangerous when, for example, Whisper claims to be able to protect whistleblowers through the anonymity it provides – this is simply not true. Fortunately the other apps don’t make such strong claims, but can still lure you into a false sense of security that what you say won’t come back to bite you later.

If you wish to be anonymous online, apps like this won’t give it to you. In fact, no apps on smartphones really can. True anonymity consists in technical and identity anonymity. This means finding a way to prevent tracking through geo-location, IP address, phone identification or usage patterns. This requires more robust but more difficult to use technologies such as Tor, and the skill to use them properly. Until then, all you have is “pseudonymity”, and app-makers’ promises that they will “make it hard” for others to access your data.

Of course, anonymous apps’ actual lack of anonymity can help with the second problem, that of their potential use for bullying. These apps are aimed at young people who are particularly vulnerable to online bullying. Yik Yak has attempted to address this, after much criticism for allowing bullying to take place by geofencing schools, prohibiting use of the app within a school area.

However, this doesn’t stop bullying away from schools. Yik Yak has tried to counter this by removing negatively rated posts, blocking users that frequently post negative content, introducing rules prohibiting bullying, and relying on peer review of posts to ensure problems are flagged up. But there’s still been significant problems with abuse.

Whisper also has moderators that respond to negative content, tracking problem users and banning them. Secret, which uses similar methods, including algorithmic detection of bullying, user flagging, and moderation, is reported to have problems countering bullies. So is it so bad that these apps aren’t truly anonymous? At least then bullies, which can cause so much grief, can be dissuaded from their activities or brought to justice. But there are situations where, as a society, anonymity is needed or desired for good reasons – in oppressive areas, to reach out to people for advice, to blow the whistle.

Society won’t allow anonymity

This illustrates the problems with anonymous smartphone apps to begin with – they can never be fully anonymous partly because society won’t let them. Society will want safeguards against bullies or threatening behaviour to be built into any easy-to-access social media technology that is used by children and young adults. Inevitably that requires removing much of any anonymising aspects. This sort of technology also never works well with the requirements of start-up companies, because at some point the start-up needs to make money, and that is often based on knowledge about their user base.

It is also a reminder that the technology we develop is never value-neutral. Society shapes technology, which in turn shapes society. Sometimes these values conflict, and it’s hard to know how to prioritise. Anonymity is a very difficult problem in itself: app developers shouldn’t muddy the waters offering anonymity when they can’t deliver, and they should also be very clear as to the reasons for not offering that anonymity.

Users who wish to remain anonymous should beware of “too easy to be true” offerings and stick to tried and tested methods, else what they say under the guise of “anonymity” might just come back to bite them.