Sunday, February 19, 2012

Are You for Sale?

Picture yourself on the slave auction -- having your interests and secrets probed by potential buyers and shared by sellers.  Your actions online are being tracked by every website you visit and some you don't.  The days of ads broadcast in a wide net are over.  Today's advertisers can narrowly target ads just for you.  And it's not just online.  Brick and mortar stores have become much more sophisticated too.  A recent story in the New York Times explained how Target stores use your purchasing history to find out things your family may not even know, like the girl whose father found out she was pregnant when she received personalized ads for baby products in the mail. We should have known.  Why do you think they call it "target"?

Consider those Facebook ads on the right of your home page.  Noticed that they feature local businesses, products targeted to your age group or particular interests?  I took out Facebook ads for non-profits last year and was surprised with all the targeting options.  Where you live, your age and gender, your education level, your marital or dating status, music preferences -- all of this is on the auction block.  And it actually is an auction -- the advertiser bids on prices to target you.  If you're in a hot category, there's more competition and the ads are costlier. The buyer can't get your name or contact information but anything else you've shared on Facebook is fair game.

Facebook is at the apex of selling your information to advertisers but Google is right behind them.  Did you search for hair growth, guitar music, toenail fungus or airline tickets?  Google saves that information about you and markets it.  And Google, Facebook and others push the boundaries, saving info long after you've deleted it. 

Cell phone providers also track your every movement (if your phone is on, there's a record of where it went) with or without GPS enabled.  And if you TIVO your favorite shows, your cable or satellite TV company is tracking your tastes also.  Other than refusing to use cell phones, the internet, TIVO and credit and debit cards, what can you do?  Here are a few ways to fight back, a bit like David's slingshot fired at Goliath's left knee.

In Stores
  •  Shop locally in locally owned stores.  I doubt the shop downtown has the resources to collect and sell your information. Plus you're helping your community.
  • Avoid store cards.  Those discount or membership cards they scan for your purchases are terrific tracking devices.  Many stores will scan a master version for you to get the discounts.  Or seek out stores that don't use them.
  • Consider carrying cash for your purchases instead of using your ATM or credit cards.
  • Install an adblock program.  For Firefox, you can get it here.  You may still be targeted but you won't see any ads.
  • Set your internet program to delete cookies when you close.  Go to TOOLS, then OPTIONS, then PRIVACY and select "Keep until I close Firefox".  There should be a similar option in IE.  The cost of this?  You'll have to log into your favorite sites each time you reopen your browser.  
  • Avoid Google search.  Yahoo! Search is less aggressive about tracking and selling your information.  Here's an (unvetted) site with other non-tracking search engines.  You can set a different search engine as your default.
  • When you log into a new site, create a unique log-in.  Logging in with Facebook, Twitter, Google or OpenID links your activities across multiple sites.
  • Untag photographs on Facebook.  Their facial recognition software is downright frightening.  Clean up your Facebook account by removing old notes, photos and much of your personal information.
I try to do all of these things -- except carrying cash, can't manage to remember.  But I was reminded recently that "If you use a website for free, you're not the client.  You're the product."  And yes, I do enjoy using free sites like search engines, Twitter and Facebook.  They're only free if they can sell me to advertisers.  I get that.  But I still want to do the easy things to protect myself.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Mysterious Gang Problems

According to the US Department of Justice, there are over 750,000 members of gangs and the numbers are growing steadily, particularly since 2002.  Even in our rural community, gangs are said to rule the streets and we are warned by law enforcement that gangs from the Los Angeles area have invaded our neighborhoods, recruiting our youth.

I've wondered for a while just who these gang members were and what evidence of gang activity we have.  As a high school principal, I certainly have seen some tagging (graffiti), saggy pants and red or blue kerchiefs.  I've seen kids copying the hand signals of their favorite rap stars.  But gang activity at any of my high schools?  Am I blind and just missing it?

The U.S. Department of Justice reported steady declines in gang activity in the 1990s but sharp increases after 2001, with gang activity increasing 20% from 2002 to 2009.  What perplexes me though is that crime rates, particularly violent crime rates, during the 2000's were falling every year.  If gang activity was increasing, why did crime decline?

Maybe it was the effectiveness of federal grants to local law enforcement agencies for gang abatement.  A combination of grant programs:  COPS, Anti-Gang Initiative, Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) and others provide resources to law enforcement and schools that identify gang problems.  Or maybe the prospect of applying for some of the $35 billion in federal aid to local law enforcement causes us to see gang problems under every rock.

In my community, any group of young Hispanic males hanging out raises gang concerns.  If there were enough young black men in our community to actually hang out, that would likely raise the same concerns.  I've been told many times by local police that any group of 3 or more youth engaged in criminal activity constitutes a gang.  Given that definition, I've had some wayward (white) student athletes who should be labeled.  But aren't.  (See Lessons from Penn State)

Nationally, half of identified gang members are Hispanic and one third are Black.  So gang membership is strongly ethnic according to this data.  Following that thread, I looked at census data to identify how great a proportion of our minority youth are being labeled gang members.  Here is some context with general population data from the 2010 Census:

Ages 15-24
Males 15-24
Child Poverty Rate
Male Youths in Poverty
High School Grads
Employed Youth (16-24)


The gang statistics identify gang members as overwhelmingly male.  Additionally though (and lacking hard data on the details) I made a few assumptions:
  1. Gang members tend to come from poor families.
  2. Gang members tend to not graduate from high school.
  3. Gang members are less likely to be employed.
If we look then at the 240,000 African-American male youth identified as gang members, they represent one in every five young black men in poverty.  The 375,000 Hispanic male youth alleged gang members constitute almost a third of all young Hispanic men in poverty.  One third of Hispanic youth and one fifth of African-American youth are bonafide gang members?  Is this actual gang membership or inflated either by prejudice or to secure shares of federal gang-related funding?

Break those numbers down even more, by narrowing to high school dropouts and unemployed youth, and the statistics indicate that EVERY African American or Hispanic young man who meets those criteria has joined a gang.

I do not question the very serious, very dangerous gang situations in Oakland, Los Angeles or Chicago.  I do question however the rampant fear that gangs have infiltrated every suburban neighborhood and rural oasis.  I question whether identifying with gangsta rap or wearing your pants below your butt cheeks makes you a gang member.  I question whether an increasing gang threat can be believed while crime statistics are falling.  I question both the disproportionate incarceration rates and gang labeling of young Hispanic and African-American men.  And I question why in 2010, Gang Resistance Education and Training grants went to the following towns:

California Massachusetts Texas
City or Kerman Town of Danvers Socorro ISD
City of Indio City of Everett
Suisun City Police Department
City of Reedley Kansas Page County Sheriff's Office
City of Kingsburg Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation
City of Selma
City of Grass Valley New York City of Richmond

Lockport City School District

Sunday, February 5, 2012

On Being Politically Correct

It is now far more PC to announce you're politically incorrect.  Political correctness has become a pejorative, a way to dismiss the sensitivities of others.  The name is rather unfortunate:  politically correct seems to imply that there's only one way to think.  Of course, that's not what it means.  What it has meant since its proliferation by 1970s liberals is something not so unfamiliar.

It is politically correct to call minority groups what they prefer to be called.  It is not PC to use terms they find offensive.  Of course, the favored terms change with the times and those of us sensitive to the concerns of minorities try to keep up (though often don't quite).  Regardless of who you're discussing, each group deserves a generous helping of compassion and understanding.  I've worked with teens most of my life so let's look at some of the terms used to describe them:  teenagers, hoodlums, young adults, children, delinquents, druggies, irresponsible, selfish...the list is endless.  What's so cool or original about using words that offend them? 

In the days before political correctness, we had a concept called manners.  Our mothers told us "if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all."  It was bad manners to make fun of disabled people, old people, women (ladies then), ethnic minorities or anyone else.  Emily Post and Dear Abby were the authorities in my childhood.  But roll the clock back even further to George Washington, who wrote a piece entitled Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation.  His list began as follows:

1st Every action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
2d When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usually Discovered.
3d Shew Nothing to your Freind that may affright him.
4th In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.
Wait just a minute.  What's that first one again?  Isn't that in fact what political correctness means?  Let's dump the term PC since it's fallen into disfavor (like 'ladies', 'mentally retarded' and 'negro').  Let's call it manners again.  And when politicians, TV pundits or personalities like Rush Limbaugh are ill mannered, I say call them on it.  Rudeness is not a political position.

And if the words of George Washington don't impress the ill mannered, perhaps something older?

"Love your neighbor as yourself." (Judaism and Christianity)
“The most righteous person is the one who consents for other people what he consents for himself, and who dislikes for them what he dislikes for himself.” (Islam)
"Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Buddhism)
"Choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself." (Bahai)
"Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself." (Confucianism)
"One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self." (Hinduism)
It's not cool to be rude.  So stop bragging about being politically incorrect.  Mind your manners.  Mind our founding father.  Mind the Golden Rule.