Web searching gets personal for Israeli teen

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In an attempt to organize the Web experience on a whole new level, 19-year-old Daniel Gross and his $4.7 million budding company have created a personalized search toolbar to index and sort through all of the user’s online data.

“More and more people in the world are approaching this point where a lot of information you have is online on a bunch of different websites,” Gross said, reminiscent for the times when computer users could just press “Control+F” and find necessary information on their computer hard drives. “What hit me hard was events,” he added, frustrated that a whole host of places, like Evite, Facebook and Gmail, could all contain different appointments and social gatherings.

The result – a free tool called “Greplin,” which allows subscribers to add as many websites as desired to their accounts so that the program can search through all the data in one place. If a user knows he or she had scheduled a meeting at a local coffee shop, for example, but can neither remember the time of the meeting nor where that information was stored, Greplin’s goal is to provide a quick answer.

Greplin – whose name comes from a combination of the words “grep,” a programming term used in search utilities, and “zeppelin,” the online “cloud,” or network – currently has around $700,00 worth of angel investments and about $4 million in series A (first round) finances.

“More and more of the information we have and consume is not sitting on our hard-dive – it’s on some other service,” Gross said. “Why can’t I have this box and type text into it and get results about items that I own on the Internet?” “If you think of Google, it’s a great way to search the public Internet – we’re primarily building a ‘Google’ but for your things,” he added.

Gross, who for the last 15 months has been living in San Francisco, was born and raised in Jerusalem, after his parents made aliya from America. After finishing high school in Israel, he successfully applied for a grant from Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley seed funder for start-ups.

“Y Combinator is boot camp for start-ups,” Gross said, explaining that participants are generally awarded investments between $12,000 and $20,000. “The goal is for you to take that money and go through this three-month program where they give you basic building blocks on how to be a good company.”

The idea that Gross originally used in his grant application was not Greplin, however, but a website like eBay with a social networking structure so that buyers and sellers could see what their friends’ consumer patterns were. This concept then evolved into yet another idea, which in turn ended up not working at the last minute, toward the end of the grant period. So Gross said he needed to quickly think of something else to impress the judges – representatives from various investment groups that were coming to learn about that season’s Y Combinator projects.

“I essentially built a basic form of Greplin in the last 48 hours,” Gross said, and this basic model had surprising success with the investors who attended the March 2010 event.

Deciding he wanted to expand upon the idea, Gross said he joined up six months ago with company co-founder Robby Walker, an intellectual phenomenon who began college at nine years old and had a PhD by age 20, who at the time was working at Google and had done Y Combinator in the past.

“People like him have this desire to build things,” Gross said. “They love building products.”

Greplin launched an initial public version of the website in November, but because “a lot of people tried to use it,” the site “crashed” and had to be restructured, Gross said. Since then, he explained, the site has been “re-launched a million times before it worked,” but now is working properly.

The company’s most recent developments include a $4 million investment fromSequoia Capital that closed in December and went public in February, along with the hiring of three new employees.

“Greplin has the potential to be a killer app,” said Dr.

Andre Oboler, social media expert and director of the Community Internet Engagement Project at the Zionist Federation of Australia.

“What it adds is the convenience of everything in one place, while at the same time asserting its independence.

With the larger players already having so much information on each of us, the last thing we need is for them to be aggregating our data.

Greplin lets the user enjoy the benefits of aggregation without the need for crosssharing between platforms. I have no doubt that Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and other sites will soon start competing for this space, but personally, I’d much rather trust Greplin.

“Greplin is carving an important niche for itself in a market where there is decreasing trust in the major players.

As an independent aggregation of personal information, Greplin has the potential to put the customer first, and that may prove to be a major commercial advantage.”

Greplin never actually gets to see users’ passwords on their various online accounts being searched, because similar to what occurs in Facebook “app” usage, the subscriber grants Greplin access through each individual site – upon adding Facebook to the index, for example, a Facebook page will pop up asking the user if he or she wants to grant access to Greplin, according to Gross. The same occurs on websites like Gmail, Dropbox, Microsoft Exchange and Twitter, and the technical term for such a process is called “OAuth,” which standards for Open Authorization.

“We have never stored a single password,” Gross said.

While basic usage is free, Greplin is now beginning to charge ($5 and $15 monthly plans) for storing more data and adding certain “premium” sites to user indexes, those that required “quite a bit of computational force” on the part of the Greplin staff, Gross explained. One such site would be Salesforce, which offers businesses massive customer relationship management tools, according to Gross.

“Is it something that business users will have a tendency to use? Is it very expensive for us to index?” Gross said were some the questions that go into deciding if a site should be considered “premium.”

Asked whether the public should be expecting anything new from Greplin in the near future, he responded, “We don’t have any solid product launches coming up in the next few days but we will soon.”

Gross’s interest and skills in computer science stem back to his childhood.

“I was sort of always interested in this as a kid and my father is a computer science teacher in Israel,” Gross said.

“I was always curious and I had the tools to learn.”

Attending university to accrue even more such tools is “on the list of things I have to do,” Gross added, noting that “there seems something to be gained by having education in the arts that I don’t have” – so he plans to apply to college, though not tomorrow.

“My parents are Jewish, so I think I have to,” he said, laughing.

Gross wouldn’t comment on how he is dealing with his requirement to serve in the IDF. He has no immediate plans to return to Israel but he said that he had initially expected to come back right away and still remains surprised that he didn’t.

“I constantly thought to myself I’d be back a month later and then three months later,” Gross said. “But once we actually took funding, I realized I couldn’t just back out. I have other people’s money invested in the success of my company.”

When asked to give a statement about Gross’s case and his obligation to enlist, the IDF Spokesman’s Office said he “did not show up for induction and is currently out of the country. Upon his return to Israel, he’ll be handled by the relevant authorities.”

By Sharon Udasin

http://www.jpost.com/Sci-Tech/Article.aspx?id=214099

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Discover Magazine: Google Street View Runs Into Controversies

Source: Patrick Morgan, Google Street View Runs Into Controversies in Switzerland and Israel, Discover Magazine, February 24th, 2011

Last year, Google raised the ire of many when it confessed that its city-mapping Street View vehicles unintentionally gathered unencrypted Wi-Fi data as they rolled past people’s abodes. To fix its image and to fend off lawsuits, the company soon tightened its privacy policies and ensured that its Street View cars stopped collecting that information. But the controversies just won’t stop. Google is now trying to convince privacy-conscious Swiss officials to drop the country’s tight Street View restrictions, while security-conscious Israeli officials are concerned that the technology will help terrorists.

Twenty-seven countries have been partially mapped via Street View, a Google product that provides 360-degree panoramic views from ground level. The company creates these images by sending groups of camera-studded vehicles to various parts of the world to snap pictures as they drive.

Although Switzerland is home to one of Google’s largest offices outside the United States, the country has strict privacy laws that have prevented Google from loading new Street View images of Switzerland for the past year. On Thursday, Google petitioned a Swiss court to lift this ban. The search engine company told Switzerland’s Federal Administrative Court that its technology automatically conceals the identity of faces and license plates, and that it is no different from rival services.

But Hanspeter Thuer, Switzerland’s data protection commissioner, doesn’t believe Google: He showed several examples of images in which the people were readily identifiable.

“I don’t want a ban of Google Street View,” Thuer told the court. “But in the present form Google Street View breaches basic principles of privacy.” … Thuer wants Google to guarantee that all faces and car plates are blurred — if necessary by checking all pictures manually. He also demanded that private gardens and sensitive locations such as schools, hospitals and women’s shelters be obscured. Google lawyers countered that the company is continually improving its Street View technology and that the images are too banal, and of too poor quality, to be used to identify individuals whose privacy might be breached. [AP]

While the Swiss court is still thinking the matter over, Google is still taking pictures. The company wants to add the ski slopes around Switzerland’s Matterhorn mountain in its Street View maps, and recently sent out a camera-equipped snowmobile.

Street View’s constant expansion is also set to include Israel, where some government officials hope the online maps will promote tourism. However, other officials worry that the photographs of streets and buildings would aid Palestinian militants, who have already used Google Earth to identify rocket targets.

“We already have problems with Google Earth, which exposes all kinds of facilities,” retired Lt. Col. Mordechai Kedar told the Associated Press. The 25-year veteran of Israeli intelligence said that Street View could facilitate terrorist attacks. [Los Angeles Times]

On Monday the Israeli Cabinet discussed the issues surrounding Street View, and ultimately decided to start working with Google on how the service could be safely introduced to the country. Experts say it’s likely that Street View will be prohibited from posting photographs of particularly sensitive locations, like government offices and power stations. And some Israelis think the Israeli government shouldn’t make the decision for the entire country, and argue that communities should be given a choice on whether to use Street View.

Andre Oboler, director of the Community Internet Engagement Project at the Zionist Federation of Australia, wrote in a blog post on the Jerusalem Post website that Street View could boost tourism in public places of historical, cultural and religious interest…. “Gated communities, kibbutzim and villages for new immigrants in particular should have a right to keep out the Street View car, or to invite it in. The default should be exclusion until the local community give permission,” Oboler wrote. [Los Angeles Times]

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Egypt’s Internet Blackout

Source: Andre Oboler, Egypt’s Internet Blackout, The Cutting Edge, 30 January  2011

The Egyptian Government has become the first in the world to turn off its the internet. As of January 28, almost all internet servers in Egypt are offline. Homes, businesses, foreign embassies, and Egyptian government departments are without internet access. Text messaging services (SMS) have also been turned off.

The move aims to prevent the Egyptian people from protesting, and Egyptian officials have specifically called on people not to congregate in public places after prayers. Renesys notes that the shutdown is reminiscent of efforts in Iran and Tunisia to slow the internet or shut down some main internet connections. The real purpose however is more in line with a “government crackdown on peace, goodwill, and social media.” It aims to discredit, disrupt, and ultimately censor anti-government protest.

The Encyclopedia of Terrorism lists the move to cut communications infrastructure as part of asymmetric warfare. It states, “Guerrilla tactics include ambush, avoiding open battle, cutting communication lines, and generally harassing the enemy.” In this case, the tactic is being used by the state, not the protestors. In cutting communications a state has more options. Egypt’s move is deep; they have effectively put a stop to almost all forms of modern mass communication.

The move was clearly the final stage in a planned shutdown. It started on Tuesday with efforts to block Twitter and Facebook. Twitter responded (in two tweets due to length) saying: “We can confirm that Twitter was blocked in Egypt around 8am PT today. It is impacting both Twitter.com & applications. (1/2)” and “Re Egypt block: We believe that the open exchange of info & views benefits societies & helps govts better connect w/ their people. (2/2).” The story was picked up by the media, including The Los Angeles Times, who kept following the story, reporting two days later that the block had extended to Blackberry service.

The final stage was a complete Internet blackout. It was well planned, with multiple connection points going down simultaneously. Huffington Post reports that the trigger seems to have been a video from AP showing anti-government protestors being shot. It’s likely it was simply part of a graduated response that was escalating as it became clear protests would not be halted.

The final move stops not only coordination by anti-government forces, but also communication among Egyptian citizens, and communication between Egyptian citizens and the outside world. If we think of the internet as river, with little boats carrying boxes of “YouTube,” “Facebook,” “Twitter,” “e-mail,” and other types of messages, what Egypt has done upstream is build a giant dam.

The problem with dams, of course, is that the pressure will continue to build. Without an outlet, the communication cutoff will drive more people to protest and to engage in more grass roots and local activism. Equally significant, when the internet turns back on, the dam will break—and the flood of anti-government sentiment will likely drown everything in its path. Let’s not forget, the internet can’t stay off for long; commerce, government and modern society is just too dependent on it. While the shutdown may have been meticulously planned, likely with military precision, like most wars, the question of “afterwards” is unlikely to have been asked, let alone answered.

One thing however is clear: sovereign nations do ultimately control the internet within their borders. Egypt has shown they can ultimately turn it off. Technology companies, citizens, and the internet industry should take note. Once the road was free, without rules; then, government stepped in. The same will inevitably happen with the internet, and what the resulting balance it, and what rights the public have to unimpeded connectivity, is a matter not for companies but for the social contract between citizens and government. If something is to be salvaged from the current chaos, it may be the recognition of connectivity as a new human right in a globalised world. For now, let’s just hope the lights stay on and the Egyptians still remember their Morse code.

Andre Oboler is a social media expert and director of the Community Internet Engagement Project. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from Lancaster University (UK) and was a Post Doctoral Fellow in Political Science at Bar-Ilan University (Israel).

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Clicking to Fight Against Online Hate

The following article by Peter Kohn was published in the Australian Jewish News on 7 May 2010, page 3.

Empowering students to respond effectively when they encounter online anti-Semitism is the aim of a new program to be launched in Victorian Jewish schools next term.

The B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC) has devised Click Against Hate, a course designed to be integrated into the information technology and Jewish studies curricula.

ADC executive director Deborah Stone said the program will give young people pointers on how to respond to anti-Semetic jibes, vehement anti-Israel prejudice, and racist material they may encounter on Facebook and other social media.

Stone wrote a research paper on internet hate a few years ago. “It was clear to me that whatever success we may get in terms of regulation, there will always be a vast amount of material out there that individuals come across and need to respond to,” she said.

She added that due to the internet’s immediacy, the more conventional media response mechanisms, built around the longer cycles of established print media and TV, were ineffective.

“Because of the way online debate works and the speed at which it works, it’s really necessary for the ordinary punter out of there to click and respond.”

Click For Hate will be based on a curriculum, generally aimed at year 10 students, which has been prepared by Dr Andre Oboler, the Zionist Federation of Australia’s director of community internet engagement. The ADC has lined up a team of facilitators ready to lead the courses.

The program, comprising five sessions, will teach online safety, recognition of anti-Semitism, how to spot media misreporting and reliable and unreliable material, as well as an introduction to the issues of free speech and privacy.

Mount Scopus Memorial College, The King David School and Bialik College have already indicated they will run the course, and Sholem Aleichem College will present a modified version for primary-school students. The program may be extended nationally.

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Taking a Stand Against Web Hate

The following article by Peter Kohn was published in the Australian Jewish News on 30 April 2010, page 3.

Quelling racism and anti-Semitism in the trash-and-treasure environment of the world wide web is looming as a great social challenge. That was clear at a landmark Australian summit on cyber-racism this week.

A balanced strategy might be the antidote, Attorney-General Robery McClelland told the internet racism conference, co-sponsored by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the Internet Industry Association, in Sydney on Tuesday.

Addressing delegates from around Australia and New Zealand, McClelland quoted AHRC figures on cyber-race hatred, which show concerns about racist behaviour on the internet in 2008-09 made up 18 per cent of all reported complaints about race hatred – twice the ratio of 2007-08.

But he was careful to strike a balance between regulation and freedom of speech, perhaps with an eye on the fallout from Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s controversial proposal for an Australian internet filter against child pornography.

Conroy’s proposed cyber-shark net has drawn criticism from the United States government and civil liberty groups around the globe and in Australia.

Stating that he has asked the AHRC to undertake further work to tackle racism on the internet, McClelland told the summit that “the fundamental principle of freedom of expression is important in Australia. On the other hand, it is also important to ensure that all Australians are protected from vilification, bullying and harassment.”

Speaking to The AJN this week, Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ)’s Peter Wertheim said battling internet racism and anti-Semitism involves two broad challenges.

“You can control the behaviour of internet service providers [ISPs] in a particular country, but what if the ISP is located overseas? Rather like the environment, it is a problem that can’t just be dealt with by one nation state,” the ECAJ executive director said.

The other hurdle is “a culture that has developed in association with the internet that holds free speech as sacrosanct, regardless of the consequence”.

Commenting on Conry’s filter proposal, Wertheim said: “In some ways, the racism that appears on the internet is, in its own way, as bad as child pornography and the case against it is just as powerful.”

He said that legal action against vilifiers requires an individual or group to initiate proceedings and is limited by the resources available to the complaint.

The ECAJ met with McClelland in August last year and with Conroy in September, and again last month, to discuss the impact of cyber-racism on the Jewish community, proposing action by the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the courts.

The Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA)’s cyber-warrior, Dr Andre Oboler, said he is encouraged that the conference took place, but it faces “daunting challenges”.

Dr Oboler, the ZFA’s director of community internet engagement, said two schools of thought have emerged – the Australian, Canadian and European approach that seeks some regulation, and the laissez faire American stance that is backed by internet media companies.

“The recommendations from the Global Forum to Combat Anti-Seimitism that took place in Jerusalem last year would be a very good starting point as they highlight recommendations for different groups, including industry,” he said.

B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC) research director Deborah Stone said the puzzle is “how we go about controlling what is a new technology and is causing new social phenomena”.

Due to a lack of regulations, coupled with a creaking court system unable to keep up with the lightining pace of cyber-bigots, “there is material on the internet that would not have got into any other form of media since [Nazi German newspaper] Der Stuermer”, she said.

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