Are You a Digital Nomad?

Are You a Digital Nomad?

Once upon a time, traveling from state to state and country to country in an RV was the dream of retirees. Then came the Internet, and as early as the mid-1990s, people found themselves able to work remotely. The phrase “digital nomad” was born around that time to encompass those high-tech workers who could work independently, setting up tech networks and working where they wanted to work.

The world’s experiences with the COVID pandemic resulted in an explosion of remote work. Thanks to a lot of creative thinking, all sorts of jobs and activities went online. No longer the purview of purely high-tech workers, remote work expanded to include clothing salespeople, librarians, winery hosts, personal brand coaches, and more. Give people a laptop and a reliable Internet connection, and they’re as ready to work in a hostel in Barcelona as they are in an apartment in Singapore. 

Does that make all remote workers digital nomads? There’s debate on that. 

Some consider only those people who have independent, entrepreneurial-style gigs that let them travel and work from anywhere to be the “true” digital nomad. Others think that the type of employment and employer don’t matter—if you’re taking advantage of 100% remote work and avoiding long-term fixed residences, then you, too, should consider yourself a digital nomad. 

All that to say, since the legal requirements and technical resources for both views are basically the same, the debate seems like a distinction without a difference

Keeping it Legal

Of course, whether you admit to being a digital nomad is another story, particularly when traveling to different countries. From a legal perspective, traveling for vacation is one thing; that assumes a basic travel visa. Those visas usually include in the fine print that you’re there for a holiday, not to work. If you want to actually work in a country, where ‘work’ means “I’m here and will be making money,” then you are often legally required to apply for a work visa. 

Different countries have different requirements, and sometimes those requirements are fairly vague. The most critical thing to remember is to do your research in advance to make sure you are following the proper legal procedures is important when crossing international borders. It’s like insurance. Sure, you can drive without it, and if no one catches you, fine. But if anything goes wrong, you might be in a world of trouble. 

Remember Your Digital Safety

The digital nomad lifestyle depends on technology, and that means you have to be on your A-game when it comes to making sure that your online accounts are protected. Having a password manager and using multi-factor authentication is no longer a “nice to have” but an absolute necessity. 

In fact, you’ll want to step it up and make sure you have a personal VPN, that your bank is top of the line when it comes to security, and a plan for what to do if your devices are lost or stolen (that means backing up your files regularly and testing that you can restore from those backups).

What Resources Exist for Digital Nomads?

Fortunately, there are a lot of resources out there to help you navigate the digital nomad lifestyle!

What You Can Do in 5 Minutes 

  • Wikipedia has a great page on being a digital nomad, including links to countries that embrace the concept and have clear(ish) guidelines on how to work in their countries. 
  • Subscribe to the Digital Nomad subreddit to get a sense of what others are experiencing as digital nomads. 

What You Can Do in 15 Minutes

  • This comprehensive article by Legal Nomads offers a LOT of tips and tricks to make working remotely easier. If you’re committed to becoming a digital nomad, definitely check this out.
  • If you have a day job that allows for 100% remote work, check in with your HR person and manager just to make sure there are no restrictions on where you might end up in the world. They might not care, but in some fields, information (like encryption technology) can’t leave a country. 

What You Can Do in 30 Minutes (or more)

  • Want to learn more about the cultural aspects of doing business in other countries? One great site to visit is eDiplomat, which focuses on the cultural do’s and don’ts for many countries around the world. Want to know about cultural etiquette in Vietnam? How about reports on living conditions in Croatia from a diplomat’s perspective? There’s a lot on this site to explore. 
  • Want to get the most out of the experience and actually make enough money to support the lifestyle? You need to sit down and start some serious research and budget planning to figure out where your goals and what you can actually afford to align.

Wrap Up

There are a lot of considerations for entering into the world of the digital nomad. Visas, cybersecurity, banking, and money management… This is the tip of the iceberg! Still, travel is amazing, and you may find that the risks involved are absolutely worth the reward of the experience. Just be careful, make sure you have a community to talk to, and don’t forget to be smart with your passwords. 

Photo by David Espina on Unsplash

Posted by heather, 0 comments
I Saw It On the Internet So It Must Be True

I Saw It On the Internet So It Must Be True

Understanding Confirmation Bias

When you see a story on the Internet that matches what you already believe, it feels true. Right. Everything you’d expect to see in the world. And when you see a story that doesn’t match your beliefs, you’re more likely to be skeptical and doubt the veracity of the information. That’s what confirmation bias is all about. It’s about confirming what you believe, whether or not it’s actually true.

According to Psychology Today, confirmation bias “occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs.” It makes sense, really. Who goes around thinking, “I’m wrong! I’m wrong!”? If you think you’re right, you’ll naturally tend towards information confirming your beliefs. Technology LOVES to enable that for you!

How Technology Makes Confirmation Bias Worse

Confirmation bias isn’t new, but technology today makes it easier to experience. Content providers like YouTube and Instagram want you to spend time on their sites. The more time you spend with them, the more money they make. And they encourage you to spend that time by feeding you stories or posts related to what you’ve viewed and spent time on in the past. (We talked about this in our post on Information Silos.) The more times you see posts that align with your beliefs, the more confirmation you’ll receive that your beliefs are true.

Technology does more than just guide us towards material it thinks we’ll want to see. The sheer amount of information out there means people have to make pretty hard choices about what they pay attention to. The World Economic Forum recently reported that people spend an average of 2.5 hours a day on social media. Expand that to just surfing the web, and that goes up to an average of 7 hours a day! With that much information flowing through our devices into our heads, is it any wonder people will key into what makes them feel better about what they think they know?

So what, though? Why is it a problem that the Internet confirms my belief that cats are gods and rule the world? As long as that’s as far as it goes, it isn’t. Unfortunately, there is a lot of evidence that confirmation bias feeds more than viral memes. It also feeds extremist viewpoints and scary organizations. 

What Can You Do About Confirmation Bias in 5 Minutes

  • Rather than searching for information that matches what you know, try looking for information to refute the idea. For example, don’t just search for the “best.” Also, try the corresponding search for the “worst.”
  • Before you share a post or an idea online, stop for a second and ask yourself whether you’d still believe and share this information if the opposite was published by the same experts and sources?

What Can You Do About Confirmation Bias in 15 Minutes

  • Rather than trying to prove something to be true, spend a few minutes trying to prove it false, either by searching for different terms or becoming your own “devil’s advocate.’
  • Spend time looking through the sites listed on Media Bias/Fact Check and pick at least one news source outside your usual preference. 

What Can You Do About Confirmation Bias in 30 Minutes (or more)

  • You can do this one by yourself or with a team. Try running your belief through an exercise called the Six Thinking Hats. This technique takes a while to work through, but the idea is that you approach solving a problem or thinking through an idea in six different ways: structured, creative, positive, emotional, critical, and factual. The point is to do all six because they’ll each allow for exploration of a different facet of the topic. By the time you’ve gone through all six, you’ll be closer to a more well-rounded truth than you were before.

Wrap Up

Confirmation bias isn’t a technology problem, though technology definitely offers the perfect environment to feed this way of thinking. As long as you’re aware of it and willing to step back when needed, you can go on being quite certain that cats are gods. After all, you saw that truth on the Internet – it must be true!

Posted by heather in Communication, Line Dancing, 0 comments
Your Digital Body: Bias and Biometrics in Tech

Your Digital Body: Bias and Biometrics in Tech

What can possibly be more uniquely you than your physical body? Fingerprints, iris patterns, voice… These (and more) are what biometrics is all about. Biometrics are generally used in two ways: to determine if a person is who they claim to be or to find out who a person is by searching a database.

Believe it or not, the use of biometrics as a means of identification has been documented back nearly 4,000 years ago, when Babylonians used fingerprints to sign contracts. Since then, fingerprints and other forms of unique physiological data have been used to identify individuals for a variety of reasons, such as to identify criminals or to authorize access to a resource like a document or a physical location. With modern computers (including smartphones and tablets), it is easier than ever to automatically take a complex image and compare it in detail to an image on record. Sounds pretty much perfect… or does it?

Bias in Biometrics

True story: a friend of mine tried to use one of the automated passport scanners to get through customs. It kept telling him that it didn’t see his face for a photo, even though he could clearly see himself on the screen. The officer minding the queue walked over and put a piece of paper over my friend’s head to add just a bit of shade, and suddenly everything worked. My friend is white and bald, and the glare from the overhead lighting on his head tricked the software into thinking his face wasn’t there. 

There are lots of stories out there about biometric-based services unable to handle dark skin tones, light skin tones, congenital disabilities, transgender faces, and so on. Much of the earlier modern bias resulted from the use of very limited datasets that contained more of one type of image than any other. For example, a database might have thousands of fingerprints to use for testing purposes, but they would include just one skin tone for the hands. Or a database might have a million faces, but mostly from middle-aged white males. Anyone that fell outside the parameters of what the developer tested for might be identified as “not white,” but uniquely identifying them would fail. 

The good news is that, at least when it comes to biased datasets causing havoc, there are efforts to improve the space. This has been a particularly important area of research for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) and organizations like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (more commonly known as the OECD; think high-powered, treaty-based, international organization) have guidance for how these types of systems should be designed. Microsoft, a company that does quite a bit with AI, has some pretty extensive guidelines and governance as well. So there is hope and some established guidelines out there. These guidelines, if followed by everyone, would greatly improve the computer bias in this space.

Other weaknesses of biometrics

If everything works as intended, biometrics are a great way to uniquely identify yourself to a computer. As long as no one does something gruesome to steal a body part, it’s all you, right? Well, sort of. The problem is that yes, your fingerprint (or face print, or iris pattern, or whatever) is on your physical body, but as soon as you scan it to be used for identification and access, it becomes an electronic asset. And as we all know, electronic assets can be hacked and stolen. Some call this the ‘fatal flaw’ of biometrics.

Back in 2019, a data breach of a company called Suprema exposed records affecting 1 million people, including fingerprint data, facial recognition data, face photos of users, unencrypted usernames and passwords, and more. And when those kinds of records are stolen, it’s not like you can actually change the information. You can change a password or PIN code, but you can’t (practically speaking) change your fingerprints. In those cases, all you can do is participate in identity theft prevention programs that will at least prevent new accounts that involve things like credit checks from happening without lots of hoops to jump through. All credit agencies have these kinds of programs (here’s one from Experian, and they’ll communicate things like fraud alerts to the other big credit agencies like TransUnion), as do some government agencies.

What you can do in 5 minutes

  • Make sure that the devices that are using biometrics have an alternative way to access the device, like setting a passcode for when facial recognition doesn’t work.
  • Use that passcode every once in a while so you don’t forget it!

What you can do in 15 minutes

  • Sign up for a credit monitoring service that will keep an eye out for when and where your information might be exposed in a data breach so that you’ll know when to take further action to prevent accounts from being opened with your information.

What you can do in 30 minutes

  • Interested in really learning more about the challenges of biometrics? Read this fascinating pre-print study submitted to the IEEE Transactions on Technology and Society to learn more!

Wrap Up

Biometrics are pretty cool, and if your accounts are using them as part of your login process, that means you’re using multi-factor authentication (MFA). You get a gold star! But, alas, biometrics are not perfect and while your physical attributes are yours, once they have been turned into bits and bytes on a computer, they can be stolen and used. 

If you have a choice between biometric MFA or no MFA, go ahead with the biometrics. If you have a choice between some other factor–like an authenticator app–and biometrics, go with the authenticator app. No technology is perfect, so the goal is to make it harder for hackers to get to your accounts rather than impossible.

Good luck! It’s a crazy world out there.

Posted by heather in Data Security, Topic, Subject Level, Line Dancing, 0 comments
What You Don’t Think About When Instant Messaging…

What You Don’t Think About When Instant Messaging…

Long gone are the days when you’d have to dial your friend from a landline to coordinate plans. Nowadays reaching your friends and family can happen anytime, anywhere quite literally in an instant…

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Instant Messaging (IM) was invented in 1971 as a computer-based messaging system. That’s barely younger than the Internet itself! It took a while for this to become popular, but AOL made that happen in the late 1980s. Social media companies and gaming platforms expanded on the idea, and telecommunications companies developed their own.

Sure, IM is a powerful communication tool, but not all messaging services are created equal. 


IM and SMS—Don’t Get it Twisted

First of all, SMS uses an entirely different infrastructure than IM, and yet the end result is the same: text-based communication between multiple people in real-time. Still, IM was more successful at the start because there was a proper keyboard involved. Despite also being developed in the late 1980s, SMS didn’t take off until telecommunications companies allowed for cross-company communication AND people had something like a real keyboard to type on.

SMS has some surprising limitations. There is a character limit of 70-160 characters for a true SMS message, and precisely the limit depends on how the telecommunications company you’re using implemented it. Still, thanks to a hard limit in the standard that defines SMS, it cannot go over 160 characters. Instead, the SMS app will break a message into parts to ensure it all goes across the airwaves as needed.

Another limitation is that true SMS _requires_ cell service. 

If all you have is wi-fi, then your mobile device’s native app has to do some behind-the-scenes shenanigans to convert it to a different type of message for it to send. That’s where services like Signal, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger come in handy.

One side note about SMS and security: For those who have turned on multi-factor authentication (MFA) on your accounts, GO YOU! However, it turns out that receiving your second factor via an SMS message is both common and not actually ideal. Where possible, using a third-party app like Authy is a better choice.

We know, annoying, right??? What gives?!

IM and Encryption

Back to actual IM services, the most important differentiator between IM apps is not whether it has the best emojis (though emojis are pretty cool). It’s whether the messages are encrypted the entire way from one phone to the next. Apps like Signal and WhatsApp support end-to-end encryption by default, but Telegram only supports end-to-end encryption between two parties. Even with that, you have to turn it on; as soon as you invite others to the chat, the message is not encrypted the whole way through.

That’s because as with everything on the Internet, the devil is in the details…

Some apps that claim encryption don’t encrypt what’s stored in backups, don’t encrypt by default, or don’t securely delete old messages wherever they are. Some apps like iMessage are a great option, but there’s a notable difference if everyone is using an iPhone (all the encryption! woohoo!) versus messaging across different operating systems (which will put you right back in SMS land).

Looking at all the trade-offs, IFM’s go-to is Signal. Signal offers top-notch encryption, is not owned by any big companies that thrive on collecting data about you, and is easy to use.

IM and the World

Most messaging apps work best when messaging other people who use the same service. That means that depending on where you are in the world, you’ll find different apps to be most useful for communicating with the natives. 

The all-around most globally popular is WhatsApp. Facebook Messenger is a pretty strong runner-up, though by how much depends on the country. But if you’re in China, you’re more likely to use WeChat.

Some messaging apps, like Telegram and Messenger, are very much part of a social network that feeds how and where they are used. Telegram, in particular, was in the news for its use in Ukraine as part of communicating about the war. 

With so many messaging options, it’s worse than trying to choose an email client! But that’s a different post.

In Closing…

Whether you call it texting, IMing, DMing, or just messaging, the desire to have a quick and easy way to send a message to a friend or colleague is necessary for how we function in the modern world. It only takes a little more thought to make sure that your communications are secure from snooping, and then you won’t have to think about whether any particular message needs to be secured before you send or receive it.

Posted by heather, 0 comments
Identifying Deceptive Communication: Deepfakes

Identifying Deceptive Communication: Deepfakes

From the cute visuals of the first full-length CGI animated movie (Toy Story in 1995) to special effects so realistic (I’m looking at you, Ex Machina, an Academy Award winner for Best Visual Effects Movies), it can sometimes be nearly impossible to knowwhat’s real and what isn’t. But that’s the unfortunate reality of modern technology: we create powerful tools that can be used for both good and bad. Welcome to the shady world of deepfakes.

What is a Deepfake?

Currently on Merriam-Webster’s Words We’re Watching list, deepfakes are described as: “a video that has been edited using an algorithm to replace the person in the original video with someone else (especially a public figure) in a way that makes the video look authentic.”

Gee, what possibly could go wrong?!

Sometimes, deepfakes are created purely out of fun, like the whole TikTok channel dedicated to Tom Cruise deepfakes. But sometimes, there is an agenda behind deepfakes to sow confusion, distrust, and doubt. For example, there are deepfake videos on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict that fall in that category. Because of real-life threats like this, schools like the University of Washington have developed entire courses dedicated to identifying all sorts of misinformation in online sources. It’s definitely not as easy as it used to be. 

Is It a Deepfake?

Norton, maker of a very popular antivirus software, has a fifteen point list around how to identify deepfakes. Unnatural body motion and weird postures are on the list, but so are things like:

  • Teeth that don’t look real. (Are individual teeth visible?)
  • Unnatural eye movement. (Did they blink?)
  • Misalignment of audio and video. (Does it look like a poorly dubbed old spaghetti western movie?)

Interestingly enough, the technology behind NFTs is something that could help clear up whether an image or video is a deep fake by keeping an immutable record of the origin of the files in question. When the image and all its metadata are stored in a blockchain, any further changes will be explicitly stored such that anyone can see the history of who, what, where, and when the image file was created and added to the blockchain.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is another area that’s being explored to help control the deepfake problem. Several of the big tech giants are working on having AI identify deepfakes. Ironically, it’s AI and its sibling, Machine Learning, are what often generate the deepfakes in the first place. This adds a whole new dimension to cyberwarfare and computers fighting computers.

Pop Quiz!

So, think you can figure out which images are deepfakes and which aren’t? Microsoft has a fun online quiz you can take to see how well you do in identifying these types of images. Or, for even more fun, you and your friends can work through an escape room game called the Euphorigen Investigation, a project co-developed by the CIP, the Technology & Social Change Group at the UW Information School, and other partners.

Why We Care

The existence and growing prevalence of deepfakes is a huge problem. When it becomes too hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not, the safest choice is to assume it’s all not real and nothing can be trusted. People cannot make informed decisions when there are no trusted sources of information. Even where deepfakes are relatively obvious, their existence sows general distrust in the information available. 

There are a variety of fact-checking sites out there (here’s a good list) that can help, and it’s worth taking a moment both to find a reputable fact-checking service AND to make sure it has solid ratings with regards to political neutrality.

Good luck out there, and don’t forget to check your sources!

Posted by heather in Communication, Line Dancing, 0 comments
Information Silos – the First Click Down a Rabbit Hole

Information Silos – the First Click Down a Rabbit Hole

Human behavior, at a grand level, is often fairly predictable. While you’ll find exceptions for every single rule out there, for the most part, people want to be comfortable. They want a decent place to sleep (for their definition of decent). They want enough to eat (for their definition of enough). They want to feel safe (for their definition of safe). There’s an interesting theory called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that touches on all of this, but what we’re going to focus on here is how people prefer to engage with other people like them. 

There are so many examples to point to of this kind of behavior. Ethnic neighborhoods in cities. University fraternities and sororities. Hobby groups like book clubs or knitting circles. People find comfort in being with people they feel like they understand. They like hearing messages that affirm what they believe. And that’s not always wrong. It’s not always right, either, but right and wrong aren’t the point. The point is, people LOVE this kind of thing. Not just in physical reality, but also in virtual reality. Media companies, advertising services, political parties, lobbyist organizations, they love it, too. They find this basic human tendency to want to be with like-minded people and have like-minded ideas validated absolutely the Best Thing Ever.

In previous posts, we’ve talked at a high level about how tracking happens on the web. And tracking is a part of building information silos. Tracking, however, doesn’t necessarily mean following you as you surf the web. It can also be a single company, following what you choose to see on their own site. The purpose of these platforms is to get you to spend lots of time there. The more time you spend, the more money they make. And they get you to spend time there by showing you what you, comfort-loving human that you are, what you want to see.

It’s not always about money, though. China is probably the most common example of when and how governments can get involved in building information silos. In those cases where censorship is a real and pervasive problem, the information silos are about explicitly controlling behavior by controlling information. 

But let’s get back to the drive of capitalism; government control and censorship is a topic for another time. When we’re talking about Western Culture and capitalism, it all boils down to making money. And keeping you on a single platform means that platform shows you all the advertisements, gets all the subscriptions, and generally makes out like a bandit.

YouTube has been studied quite a bit when it comes to how they tweak their services to show you what you (probably) want to see. Of course, a human isn’t on the other side of your screen, quickly flipping through content and deciding that you, Alice, would really like this cat video. They have a computer figure all that out, and computers make decisions using algorithms. Think of it like a whole lot of “if this, then that” decisions. A digital image is a bunch of dots. Where the dots are located, what colors they represent, all of that can be turned into numbers. Those numbers are then matched to say “this is like that” – that’s how pattern matching works. A computer can get pretty darn good (though not perfect) at matching cats to more cats. A digital image is also more than a bunch of dots. It also has information that says who uploaded the image, how they described the image, when the image was taken, and quite possibly. All that information is fed to the algorithms so it knows what it has to work with.

So, you have a big database of information about content. What other kinds of information can be added to this data soup? Ah, yes! Who has actually looked at the content in the past! Just like an image is more than dots – it’s the wide variety of information about what, when, where, and who uploaded the image – a visitor to the site is more than a single statistic. A visitor quickly builds a profile about themselves, starting with the information of what brought them there. 

I’m pretty sure my first visit to YouTube was to find bird videos for my cats, and to this day, the first thing YouTube shows me when I follow a link back to their platform is another video of birds for cats. In an effort to keep me on the site, there will always be bird videos for cats. And, hey, since I like cats, I will probably like videos about cats, too. I’ll probably also like videos about people who train cats to do tricks. Hours later, I am thoroughly enjoying all things cat, I have a cat on my lap watching the screen with me, and I have suffered through countless pet food commercials.

Which, for me, is pretty harmless. But it isn’t always. There has been some interesting research about how this kind of algorithmic content matching takes people down really ugly rabbit holes. These rabbit holes are extremely disturbing to me, but can be so validating to someone else. I have my silo of liberal, cat-loving people. They have their silo of conservative, end-of-world preppers. And without research, I’ll never have any idea of what kind of information they are hearing over and over and over again, because that’s not going to show up in any of my online content feeds. 

Information silos are good for business. Think about it: why on earth would a content platform want to make you uncomfortable? You won’t ever visit them again! You’re here for entertainment and comfort, not to be constantly challenged by stuff you think is absolutely insane (and not in a good way). 

Information silos are not, however, good for societal empathy. It’s a lot harder to understand the other side of the story if you never see it. And if you’re in a silo, anyone from outside who challenges the information that you’ve already decided makes you happy and comfortable has an uphill battle to get you to change your mind.

It almost sounds like an unwinnable scenario, but at least in this case there are a few easy, actionable things you can do.

  • Easy step: Follow a service like Ground.News that explicitly shows a variety of news stories and what political leanings those stories come from. More than once I’ve said “huh. If that’s what the people in that other information silo are reading, no wonder they’re making those bizarre decisions!”
  • Less easy step: Regularly watch the news of your least favorite popular news source. I’ll admit, I struggle with this one because it makes me crazy. But it’s very effective in helping understand other viewpoints (even when I vehemently disagree with them).
  • Hard step: Go international. If you see a news article on war in some foreign country, go look for how the news is being reported elsewhere. Are you getting the same information in the U.S. that is being shown in France? What’s being reported in the English language version of the newspapers in Malaysia? It’s fascinating what’s considered important outside your silo.

Information silos are absolutely a thing. They are a comfortable thing. They make day-to-day living a lot simpler. They give you what you want. And there’s nothing wrong with that… as long as you realize that a) you are in a silo and b) you really need to leave that silo every once in a while.

Good luck! It’s a big world out there.

Photo by Jim Witkowski on Unsplash

Posted by heather in Communication, Line Dancing, 0 comments
All About Memes: Origin, NFTs, Identity Theft, and More

All About Memes: Origin, NFTs, Identity Theft, and More

Ahhh, memes. Those funny images that go viral on social media. Would you be surprised to learn that the concept of a meme predates the Internet? It’s true. So then, just what is a meme?

The word “meme,” according to Dictionary.com, was coined in 1976 by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to describe the cultural transmission of ideas. The latest definition is as follows:

  1. an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.
  • a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by internet users.

You could argue that memes are actually a concept far older than the word itself. Case in point: folklore. The main purpose of folklore is to share ideas across generational and social boundaries, very much like memes, and that activity can be documented as far back as 6,000 years ago. WAY older than the Internet!

The First Modern-Day Meme

Enter the first modern Internet meme:  Baby Cha-Cha-Cha

Now whether it’s actually the first is open to debate, but the Dancing Baby is most commonly known to be the first viral video on the Internet. Since memes are an expression of culture, exactly what you might think of as a meme will vary as culture evolves. Baby Cha-Cha-Cha is a great example. In its day, it was absolutely a meme, a resounding new idea that spread everywhere and expressed the crazy design possibilities of the Internet. Today? Eh. Where are the catchy words to go along with it? The phrase that will make it the perfect amount of snark?

Memes, Copyright, and NFTs

If you create a meme, and it goes viral, you become rich, right? Nope. You probably won’t get bragging rights either since people will have no idea where the meme came from once it spreads fast enough through the interwebs. 

Memes generally fall under the heading of “fair use” when it comes to things like copyright protection. Public Knowledge has a great article that describes the whys and wherefores of that, but at the end of the day, creative expression that takes an image and turns it into something new (new meaning, new interpretation, new insight) will almost always fall under fair use.

This is a good moment to point out how owning a meme and NFTs can overlap: 

Artists create things, but once their thing is sold (and sometimes even before that), they lose all control over that asset. If the asset is resold, the original artist usually doesn’t see any commission. An NFT can serve as a receipt that makes sure that every future transaction gives the artist some additional compensation for their creation. This is a potential game-changer for artists, but it’s not perfect. (Learn more about NFTs in this post.)

Artists (and let’s assume that people who create memes count as artists) have already started exploring selling their memes as NFTs. The idea of owning the original digital file of a meme is compelling to some. One of the challenges here, though, is that owning the original digital file does not necessarily give you copyright ownership of it, and it doesn’t mean you own any of the copies. The idea of NFTs as a way to give artists more control over their work has merit, but the idea hasn’t quite worked the bugs out. 

Memes and…Identity Theft?

And what about memes and identity theft? As cute as they are to see in your media stream, those little image files can contain malware—code that can help a hacker compromise your computer or mobile device. They can also encourage you to respond with personal information. How many times have you seen a meme like “Porn star name generator!” with a list of crazy names next to various dates? It is hilarious and absurd. It is also data harvesting with an eye toward identity theft.

Some memes build on a picture of a person who will forever be associated with that one image. Decades later, when a potential hiring manager does a search on their name, it’s still that one image that somehow defines them for the rest of their lives. The image of Disaster Girl is a perfect example of that. Zoë Roth was a child when that photo was taken over twenty years ago, and yet, that’s her legacy as far as the Internet is concerned. 

So, Why Should You Care?

Memes aren’t going to go away, nor should they! They are hilarious and they express information in ways words can’t. They’re fun to see, fun to use in presentations, and fun to have as shorthand to express agreement, disgust, sarcasm, and support; they are just that powerful a form of expression.

But this wouldn’t be the Identity Flash Mob blog if we didn’t have a few suggestions for you to keep yourself safe online, even where memes are concerned.

  • If someone sends you a file that you don’t expect, don’t open it. If it’s someone you know, ask them to send you the link where they got it, or at least where they created it (if they’re the originator).
  • If you are posting photos of yourself online, either lock down the permissions as to who can see them or accept that someone might pick up that image and run with it in ways you never imagined. 
  • If you are posting photos of your children online, really, really lock down those permissions. Please. Your child will thank you when they’re older. If you can’t resist sharing the cute, listen to or read the transcript of this excellent Vox podcast.

With that, it’s time to go see what new creative memes have been created. Catch you on the flip side! 

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Posted by heather, 0 comments
Officially Submit Your Emoji Idea…And More On the Beloved Digital Icons

Officially Submit Your Emoji Idea…And More On the Beloved Digital Icons

Did you know there are around 3,460 official emojis? 😮 That’s the count for ones officially blessed by the Unicode Consortium, arbiter for the representation of text in all modern software products and standards. They provide the code a computer will use to refer to the right emoji. They provide the description. They provide the keywords. They even provide a visual sample. And then every software vendor out there that supports emojis can do their own artistic take on what the emojis should look like on their platform. (Some software vendors may also offer emojis unique to their platforms; the dancing parrot on Slack comes to mind.)

Before There’s an Emoji

OK, so lots of official emojis, more being added all the time…but there has to be more to it than that, right? Oh yes, yes indeed. It’s like a breakdancing contest 🕺where people are introducing new moves all the time, hoping it becomes a Thing.

Analogy aside, though, there is an official process for how an emoji becomes an emoji. The short, short version is that it starts with an Emoji Proposal to the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee. Anyone can submit a proposal, but there are rules. Lots of rules. For example:

  • You can only submit something between 📅 April 4 through July 31 📅 of any given year.
  • You need to verify 🔎that someone else didn’t propose the same thing.
  • You need to understand 🤓 the gory details regarding the limitations of what can be an emoji. 
  • You need to follow a specific format 📜 for submission.
  • You need to include a sample image in a specific file format, of a specific size, with specific variations.

And so on and so on and so on. 

Emojis and Diversity

Emojis reflect how we communicate via writing. The very first emoji came about in 1997 and was a graphical representation of emoticons (think: creative use of punctuation to create smiles, frowns, shrugs… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯), which were themselves first used (or so the story goes) in 1982. Hundreds and thousands of emojis later, skin tones that reflect the diversity of the world were added as an official modifier in 2015. There are still debates as to whether that’s enough, and it’s really bizarre where the skin tones came from in the first place. They came from work done in the 1970’s by a gent named Thomas Fitzpatrick, who was studying how skin burns in the sun and came up with a list. Now, why there are five skin types defined by the Unicode Consortium and six skin types defined by this Fitzpatrick fellow, I have no idea.  

Getting Geeky with Emojis

I’ll be honest: I generally can crank out a blog post in an hour or so. But not this series! It was way too much fun to dive into the rabbit hole to see all the different emojis, read the descriptions written by very geeky people, and learn about how a seemingly-innocuous emoji that I use every day does not always mean what I think it means! (‘OK’ 👌 symbol, I’m looking at you!). I’m sure you want see what is in this 🐇 hole with me, so here are a few links for you to follow:

Wrap Up

While there are over 3000 official emojis available (not including all the skin tone variations), not all platforms support all emojis. “Pregnant Person” , for example, is really hard to find. “Pregnant Woman” and “Pregnant Man” , no problem. The decision on which emojis to include is entirely up to the software vendor, and it is a combination of user demand, software brand, and cultural expectations that drive the decisions. There are probably still MORE than enough emojis out there for you to tell your story, but stay tuned…more will almost certainly become available over time.

Photo by Domingo Alvarez E on Unsplash

Posted by heather, 0 comments
Security in the Metaverse: What You Need to Know Now

Security in the Metaverse: What You Need to Know Now

Ahh, the metaverse. Depending on who you ask, it is either an impressive evolution of the online experience or a poorly defined marketing ploy. And, at least for now, there isn’t just one metaverse, which has lots of implications for how to protect yourself from one to another  Regardless of how many there are or what side you take on whether any of them will succeed, you can sum up the idea like this:

The metaverse is almost like a parallel dimension—it blurs the lines between the physical world that you and I know and the virtual world…like artificial reality and cryptocurrency. –  from IFM’s metaverse blog post

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could plan for digital identity and security in the metaverse even while the metaverse is still being figured out? When the Internet was first designed, it missed the boat when it came to building in digital identity and security. Everything we know about how to verify someone’s identity online was added long after the bones of the Internet were set. 

Owning your security in the metaverse

The old saying is, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” In the metaverse, no one will know if the “person” they are interacting with is really a person or a computer simulation. Creating digital accounts is really pretty easy. Making them realistic is just as easy, as humans don’t do a good job of protecting their personal information. Birthdates, location data in photographs, responses to Internet memes—it’s all out there waiting to be used to either hack existing accounts or create new ones that look like a real person for the purposes of fraud or harassment

Several of the companies working on their version of the metaverse hope to include identity and security by using Web3 technologies like blockchains that guarantee the uniqueness and ownership of a piece of information online. Which is good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough (yet). NFTs, built on supposedly secure Web3 and blockchain technologies, have already seen their fair share of fraud despite the technology. Still, we’re in the early days of figuring out how to make NFTs and Web3 long-term useful ideas, so there may be something there. Or not. We’ll see.

Regardless of whether fancy new technology will try to come in and save the day, you as the human actually have a lot you can do to help make your experience more secure. The good news is that what you can do to secure yourself in the metaverse are the same things you should do to protect yourself online today:

  • Control the information you share online (and don’t respond to silly memes, no matter how much you want to know what your name should be on the next royal wedding invitation).
  • Use good passwords. (We have a post about that.)
  • Never assume that the new person you’re talking to is who (or what) they say they are. 

Authenticating when you’re already there

Let’s look at where the metaverse is closer to reality: virtual reality! Those companies already branching out into metaverse products, like VR meetings or immersive games, now have to figure out how to authenticate users in VR (remember, use good passwords!). They could try and go old-school and have someone type on a virtual keyboard…except most users will only be using the VR headset. So, what are they supposed to do? A laser pointer at a virtual keyboard, hunting and pecking for each key? Uh, no. There are always biometrics, of course. Retinal scans, voice scans, fingerprints…But each of those needs a fallback for when the physical reality means biometrics aren’t feasible

No problem! Let’s make the VR device itself be your password! That actually has some promise and is an area already being explored, but there are still issues with how to handle shared devices (as anyone with more than one kid can tell you when it comes time to share the game controllers) as well as the reality that gamers rarely sign in as themselves. Also, the idea of moving away from traditional passwords is not without its challenges. Hacks are still possible (drat those hackers!), and there are questions as to whether it’s even a good idea to tell users to just “trust the magic” of what they don’t see.

At the end of the day, there’s just a lot that needs to be explored to make the metaverse a more safe and secure experience for everyone. 


The metaverse is expected to be THE online experience of the future. Right now, it seems like it is not only inheriting the security flaws of the Internet, but it’s coming up with new ones all on its own. CNBC has a great article on what kind of dangers are being introduced, which is scary, but it’s also an opportunity. We know the dangers (at least, we know some of them) which means we can plan for them. 

Posted by heather in Web3, Data Security, Line Dancing, 0 comments