Tag Archives: privacy

The Internet of Things’ nosy, new tech

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It is an indisputable fact of modern life that even the fiercest defender of personal privacy will trade the juiciest morsel of intel on himself for the latest item of cool consumer tech – as long as said tech is connected to the vast, remorseless Internet.

This is, in a nutshell, the essential dialectic of our human nature in the 21st century: our contradictory urges and impulses that find nearly perfect expression in the exquisitely instrumented age of greed.

In this context, I sometimes wonder who Ann Cavoukian thinks she’s reaching when she complains about the shadowy doings at Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), where spies toll the electronic highways and byways for tidbits about their fellow citizens.

“Technology allows our every move to be tracked, collected and catalogued by our governments,” Mr. Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner writes in a commentary published yesterday in the Globe and Mail. “Yet, while our U.S. neighbours are debating the future of phone and Internet surveillance programs, our government is maintaining a wall of silence around the activities of (CSEC). This silence is putting our freedoms at risk.”

She is, of course, utterly correct, and I applaud her determination to tear back the veil that hides the snoops, creeps, plotters, conspirators, crooks, crackpots and incipient blackmailers from plain view.

Then again, what else would I say? I’m a hopeless paranoid who believes that former National Security Agency analyst, and latent whistleblower, Edward Snowdon is actually a red herring and that the truth – whilst still out there – is worse than you can possibly imagine.

Most people are more sanguine than I about the nakedness with which they comport themselves while the world tunes in and out, variously following the motions and transactions that comprise their quotidian existence. Indeed, members of my own family couldn’t care lees who’s been peeking at them through the drapes.

Says one: “My life is an open book – and a pretty boring one, at that.”

Says another: “Dude, sacrifices must be made. Ever think what you’d do without the Internet?”

To which I respond, “Don’t call me dude.”

In fact, I have often pondered what I’d do without the web. And, if I’m honest with myself, the story never ends well. Still, I wonder just how much Kool-Aid the so-called “Internet of Things” requires its true believers to quaff?

“With never-before seen tech breakthroughs and thousands of new products launched, innovation took center stage at the 2014 International CES (Consumer Electronics Association conference) in Las Vegas, Nevada.”

That was from the press release following the event – during which “3,200 exhibitors showcased their latest technologies and major tech breakthroughs, launching some 20,000 new products to capture the world’s attention” – earlier this month. Here’s what Karen Chupka, senior vice president of International CES and corporate business strategy, had to say:

“Technology of the future was widespread  at the 2014 CES where executives from every major industry came to see, touch, interact and do business at the world’s intersection for innovation. Amazing new products emerged in the areas of wireless, apps, automotive, digital health and fitness, 3D printing, startup tech and so much more. It was an incredible event that brought the global tech community together and successfully celebrated and showcased the amazing innovation that is a hallmark of our industry.”

Welcome, indeed, brave new world.

Common – nay, fundamentally crucial – to all such gadgets is their Internet connectivity. Everyday household appliances – once inert and dumb; now active and smart – will keep tabs on your habits, schedules and coming an goings in both real and digital worlds.

Leading the charge, naturally, is Google. The giant announced earlier this month that it would buy Nest Labs Inc. for a cool $3.2 billion in cash. Nest manufactures  thermostats and smoke alarms. But not just any thermostats and smoke alarms. In their effort to make you a more intelligent energy consumer, these ones talk to you through your Internet-enabled computer, and this, of course, raises the specter of spying.

For its part, the new venture has insisted that it would never tabuse its position by mishandling personal information that might come its way via its new “nests”.

But, really, if the choice is between privacy and cool, new tech for the vast, greedy marketplace, are Google’s assurances even necessary these days?

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Tinker, tailor, techie, spy

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Amidst the swirl of revelations this summer about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) prying eyes and ears, a quote stands out to neatly summarize the hoi polloi’s rising sense of panic and paranoia.

The NSA’s intelligence “capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”

In the wrong hands, this might even “enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.”

This sounds like the sort of thing a civil liberties advocate, an apologist for the Julian Assanges and Edward Snowdons of the world, or even a Tea-Party Republican might utter in these nervous tween years of the 21st century. But the words aren’t theirs. They belong to a Democratic senator from Idaho by the name of Frank Church, who issued them in 1975 after he had concluded an investigation of the agency.

I came across them in a 2005 New York Times story whose author made his own observations about the NSA. “At the time (of Sen. Church’s scrutiny), the agency had the ability to listen to only what people said over the telephone or wrote in an occasional telegram; they had no access to private letters,” wrote James Bamford. “But today, with people expressing their innermost thoughts in e-mail messages, exposing their medical and financial records to the Internet, and chatting constantly on cellphones, the agency virtually has the ability to get inside a person’s mind. . .Originally created to spy on foreign adversaries. . .The NSA s original target had been the Communist bloc. . .(it) was never supposed to be turned inward.”

All of which proves, if nothing else, that people’s memories truly are short. Experts and activists have been broadcasting warnings about the NSA and other supposedly super-secret spy masters for decades. Apart from a few Internet-enabled advances in the field of information gathering, the abuses – or potential for abuses – they worried about then are the ones they worry about today. That’s because while technology may change, human nature does not.

Still, technology can stack the deck and up the ante. Somebody writing on wiki.answers.com once ruminated that the Internet might contain one yottabyte of data. That’s roughly 1,208,925,819,614,629,174,706,176 bytes of increasingly worthless chum and chatter. But unlike an old-school telegram or piece of reel-to-reel audio tape, it never decays, never goes away. It just sits there in mines located around the world waiting for some government-empowered slob to make some other slob’s life sheer hell.

Technology is also an irresistible force for mischief. The NSA, for example, is prohibited by law from spying on the UN. And yet, according to Reuters this week, “The (agency) has bugged the United Nations’ New York headquarters, Germany’s Der Spiegel weekly said on Sunday in a report on American spying that could further strain relations between Washington and its allies. . .Der Spiegel said the files showed how the United States systematically spied on other states and institutions. . .Der Spiegel said the European Union and the UN’s Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, were among those targeted by U.S. intelligence agents.”

History demonstrates time and again that the tools we craft to make our lives easier or more interesting inevitably lead many of us into some kind of moral turpitude. Privacy may be a basic right. But if it’s easy to curtail and no one gets hurt (that we know of), then what’s the harm?

About the only recourse we who do not belong to the ironically termed “intelligence community” have is to bang our drums loudly. Consider U.S. Congressman Alan Grayson who intends to introduce his “Mind Your Own Business Act” in short order. The legislation, part tongue-in-cheek and part serious, demands that “none of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Defense for fiscal year 2014 or any succeeding fiscal year may be used to collect any information generated by a citizen of the United States while located in the United States.”

He and his Bill may be doomed. But, at least, he’s not going quietly.

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I spy with my digital eye

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It is, perhaps, amusing to discover that a city with more than three million closed circuit television cameras pointing in every direction where people gather and gambol can still get riled up over antiquated notions of privacy.

Of course, that’s London, England, for you – always wanting to have its tea and drink it, too. Frankly, advertising executive Kaveh Memari doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. So what if his company has installed digital technology in trash cans that “reads” people’s smartphone signals? As he exuberantly told The Associate Press the other day, “We will cookie the street.”

No you won’t declares the City of London Corp., which has ordered Mr. Memari to cut it out. A press release from the municipal authority is unequivocal: “The collection of data from phones and devices carried by people passing sophisticated waste bins in Square Mile streets should stop immediately. . .A spokesman said, ‘We have already asked the firm concerned to stop this data collection immediately and we have also taken the issue to the Information Commissioner’s Office. Irrespective of what’s technically possible, anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public.’”

The statement continued: “The bombproof waste and recycling bins, which also carry TV screens with public information, were installed as a way of re-introducing waste bins to City streets. ‘This latest development was precipitate and clearly needs much more thought – in the meantime data collection, even if it is anonymised, needs to stop,’ added the spokesman.”

What a party-pooper. And he’s not the only one. The New York Times reported last month that shoppers were none to happy to find that fashion retailer Nordstrom was spying on them with “new technology that allowed it to track customers’ movements by following the Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones. ‘We did hear some complaints,’ said Tara Darrow, a spokeswoman for the store. Nordstrom ended the experiment in May, she said, in part because of the comments.”

In fact, reported The Times, “Nordstrom’s experiment is part of a movement by retailers to gather data about in-store shoppers’ behaviour and moods, using video surveillance and signals from their cellphones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it.

“All sorts of retailers – including national chains, like Family Dollar, Cabela’s and Mothercare, a British company, and specialty stores like Benetton and Warby Parker – are testing these technologies and using them to decide on matters like changing store layouts and offering customized coupons.”

Now, back to London where the civil liberties group, Big Brother Watch, is so incensed its spokesman Nick Pickles told The Associated Press that “questions need to be asked about how such a blatant attack on people’s privacy was able to occur.”

On the other hand, just try and bar Internet access to an iconic work of English literature, and the subject of privacy assumes an altogether different complexion.

“In the latest development of over-zealous internet filtering, the British Library has blocked access to Shakespeare’s Hamlet because of its ‘violent content’,” declares a recent Big Brother Watch blog post. “We have repeatedly warned that there is a fundamental issue with filtering legal content based on a subjective moral view, often made by a third party and not the person operating the network. Does the British Library really think that the content of Hamlet is so violent to justify access being blocked to one of the most famous plays of all time?”

This is the paradox of our digital times. People want and expect all the world’s information to flow seamlessly into their desktop computers and mobile devices, just as long as none of that information pertains to them.

We may nurture the illusion of privacy by turning off our cell phones. Until, of course, we see the closed circuit television camera point straight at our furrowed brow.

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Nudge, nudge: George Orwell is watching

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My telecom provider and I were texting each other one gorgeous, summer day a few weeks ago. It had sent me a reminder to pay my bill, which wasn’t actually overdue. I told it to quit bugging me. I did this even though I knew I wouldn’t get a reply from a faceless robot; somehow, the exercise appealed to my sense of mischief.

But a part of me wonders whether my communique found its way to a secret data bank, buried beneath a glacier in Finland, there to be used against me at some future date. I mean, isn’t it true that not one scrap of information nowadays is ever really lost? Isn’t that what we are told, over and over again?

Now we learn, courtesy of the Globe and Mail’s Bill Curry, that some government’s know all about using our personal information to mould us into good, little, bills-paying, law-abiding citizens.

“Canada is looking into (the) growing field of behavioural economics,” he writes. “Finance Canada documents obtained by The Globe and Mail through Access to Information show Michael Horgan, the deputy minister of Finance Canada, was recently briefed on the activities of (a) three-year-old British team, which has attracted interest from governments around the world. . .It’s known as the ‘nudge unit,’ because its mission is to ‘nudge’ citizens into acting the way the government wishes they would.”

Mr. Curry reports that the special bureau was “pioneered in Britain, (and) officially tagged with the 1984ish name Behavioural Insights Team – about a dozen policy wonks, mostly economists, who employ psychological research to subtly persuade people to pay their taxes on time, get off unemployment or insulate their attic. The goal: To make consumers act in their own best interests – and save the government loads of money.”

I’m all for governments saving money. But I’m also just a tad perturbed by the moral implications of this practice. For their part, officials at Canada’s Department of Finance concede that there is something big-brotherly about the whole thing, though they are sure that “transparency” will obviate any risk of ethical transgressions.

Uh-huh. . .How, exactly, would that work? By informing citizens that, henceforth, the long arm of the law will by “urging” them to fulfill their various obligations to the state through incessant, subtle, electronically communicated “pokes”? Hey, we may not like it. We may think it’s creepy. But, at least, they’re being “transparent” about it.

The fact is society can’t function without its various nudges. Arguably, society is nothing except one giant system of disparate persuading and coercing and kvetching and schmoozing.

Apple reminds me that it’s August. Shouldn’t I be thinking about a new iPad for autumn? Rogers wonders whether I’ve properly assessed my data and cable needs. Shouldn’t I reconsider my monthly package? Scholar’s Choice knows I’m a grandparent. Do I know about their fantastic discounts for folks in my purchasing demographic?

We nudge (sometimes, shoving) our kids to be kinder or more disciplined. We urge our educators to be more efficient and empathetic. Our courts call corporations “people”, hoping, perhaps, that they will not behave like the soulless, vacant entities that, in fact, they are. We nudge them to embrace the better angels of their various ventures in capitalism.

Does any of this work? Sometimes. Nothing’s perfect. And that’s the point: nothing should ever be perfect.

On the other hand, Government, by its very nature, is all about perfectibility. And when it says it wants people to “behave” accordingly, it’s not selling a product or a service or even an idea. It’s pushing an ideal of human conformation that simply makes its institutional life easier. That’s just one or two steps away from totalitarianism.

If George Orwell were still alive, he might say: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

That is from his masterwork 1984, which is, in increasingly sinister ways, beginning to resonate in 2013.

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