Another Season, Another Public Figure Self-Immolates with Plagiarism

Another season, another new public plagiarism case.

It’s not a partisan thing. A different season, a different public plagiarism case:

David Greenberg: Why Biden’s plagiarism shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Students, listen up: Of course there are moral implications when you steal others’ words and pass them off as your own. Of course the choice to plagiarize keeps you shallow because you haven’t bothered to do the work of thinking for yourself. Even if you don’t care about that, plagiarism is a horrible strategic choice. Your reputation will be destroyed. You’ll find yourself making the defense that you’re not malicious, “just” incompetent and sloppy. Any actual original work you do will be discounted. Your career will be stunted.

The best protection against plagiarism is to use your own brain to think up, then write, something truly original and your own. If you can’t manage that, then why are you writing or speaking in the first place? For written forms that require thorough research of others’ contributions — to which you then should add your own original thoughts — be polite: quote and cite. Although academic integrity policies can take many words to express the standard, avoiding plagiarism really is that simple.

A tip of the hat to journalist Jarrett Hill for uncovering the latest in intellectual theft.

Track Social Networks… to Find the People Tracking You

As the course designer and instructor for an undergraduate social networks course at the University of Maine at Augusta, I am often asked why students should take the course. I think there are many answers to this question. One answer comes from a humanities standpoint: learning how to represent patterns in relationships with attention to meaningful visual cues can deepen understanding of design and lead to innovation in art. Culturally speaking, networks have geek appeal as sparkling and colorful objects lending panache to infographics. If critical thinking is important to you, you might be interested in network analysis for the challenge of mastering multidimensionality and matrix mathematics; as you work at network puzzles you’ll develop your logical and quantitative reasoning ability. But these appeal aren’t all: the study of social networks can be practically useful, too.

One practical use of social network analysis is highlighted by the Disconnect extension you can add to your Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Opera internet browser…

worried faceI should break in here. Whenever you read "extension you can add to your internet browser," you should begin to get nervous. Many add-ins, add-ons, and add-arounds to your internet browsing or Facebook or Twitter experience are so colorful and fun to play with. But they have a second purpose lurking behind the colorful and fun one: to track your movement across websites so someone can sell data about where you go and what you do. But when consulting Disconnect's privacy policy, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Disconnect extension collects information about you only minimally and doesn't sell information to advertisers: "Disconnect never sells your personal info.... Our browser extensions don't collect any of your personal info. Unlike most websites, our site doesn’t collect your IP address."

… so as I was saying, the Disconnect extension available for most internet browsers makes use of social network analysis to share useful information about websites that let your data leak out to third parties:

If you install the Disconnect extension in your browser, then visit a website, it will create a network graph (or “sociogram”) with that website at the center, visually linked to other websites that are given data whenever you visit that site. By bringing those network graphs together for different websites, you can figure out how your personal information might be combined and how that combination might be harmful to you.

That might sound a little abstract, so let me make it concrete. Consider the mini-industry on the internet of “Print-On-Demand” apparel. On websites like CafePress, Zazzle and Skreened, you can browse through thousands of t-shirt designs made up by people like you. If you find a design you like, you can put it on a t-shirt that fits your style, order that shirt, and have it printed up and sent specially to you. The printer gets a cut of the profits, the designer gets a cut of the profits, and you get just the shirt you want.

While these print-on-demand services are offering you a service that makes them a little money, are they harvesting your data on the sly? To find out, I activated the Disconnect extension in my browser and visited the CafePress, Zazzle and Skreened websites. Disconnect produced three sociograms, which I combine to form the network graph you see below:

How the Skreened, CafePress and Zazzle websites track your visits: February 2014

The above image is current as of February 2014, and represents an change in tracking since the last time I looked at these websites in December of 2012:

Skreened, CafePress and Zazzle website tracking technology habits: December 2012

There are a number of patterns to notice. Consistently and by a wide margin, CafePress has been sending information about you to the largest number of third-party websites. Over time, on the other hand, Skreened and Zazzle (to a lesser extent) have started to catch up, sending more information about you to other companies. Those companies include Lucky Orange (“We don’t just tell you who is on your site, we show you what they are doing”), Monetate (“helping you understand your customers’ situations, behaviors and preferences”), Retention Science (“analyze & predict customer behaviors”), and Tell Apart (“If you’ve ever clicked on an ad for a pair of shoes that seem like they were made for you, Tell Apart may very well have been responsible“).

When the practices of individual websites such as CafePress, Skreened and Zazzle are combined into a network, we can find points of overlap. CafePress and Skreened send their information to three websites in common: doubleclick.net, google-analytics.com, and googleadservices.com. Each of these services tracks users by IP address, so that your behavior at CafePress and your behavior at Skreened can be combined: these data mining companies can bring together your behavior at CafePress and your behavior at Skreened to figure out aspects of your identity and preferences that might not be apparent if they had access to only one of the websites. All three websites send data to googleadservices.com, leading to even more detailed insights about you. Would you be surprised to find out that doubleclick.net also receives information about visitors from nytimes.com, foxnews.com and amazon.com? Would it surprise you to know that doubleclick.net is owned by Google, bringing this overlap into even sharper focus?

Looking at simple lists of the third-party recipients of your information on a website can give you a rough sense of how leaky an individual website is. Looking at the network overlap in recipients tells you which of those recipients are likely to be learning the most about you, constructing an increasingly accurate virtual you for sale.