Private Cameras vs State Cameras

A recent opinion piece in Technology and Society by Jay Stanley (ACLU) questions the impact of Omnipresent Cameras — every cell phone is a video device, potentially streaming to the net live. Drones, private and government have their eyes open. Streets are monitored at traffic lights (and elsewhere) by government cameras as are many buildings via private cameras. The next article by Steve Mann talks about the “black bubbles” that are used to obscure cameras — and includes delightful images of Steve and friends with similar bubbles on their heads.  Steve points to lighting devices that incorporate cameras that can recognize faces and read license plates Jay points out that today we expect significant events in the public space to be recorded. The aftermath of the Ferguson shooting was captured by a cell phone camera, but the police car recordings (if any) have not been released.

All of this leads to  cultural questions  on the appropriate expectations of privacy, possible restrictions on public recording of government activities (such as police at a traffic stop, or the evolution of a demonstration in the streets of (pick your favorite city). It does not take much to demonstrate that eye witnesses are poor recorders of events (see Dan Simmons research on selective attention) — this makes the availability of “recorded” evidence quite useful. With more cameras on cars (backup cameras), on person (Glass), on buildings, on planes/drones, light-bulbs, and yes-the increasing image quality of the cameras that turn on/off devices in the bathroom (Steve points out these are up to  1024 pixels) the expectations of privacy “in public” are diminishing, and the potential for photographic evidence are increasing. Jay suggests that both police and the folks they interact with act differently when officers are equipped with body cameras.

So is this good?  What ethical issues, or even rules of evidence apply? How does it vary from culture to culture?

Kicking the Online Habit

The spring issue of Technology and Society (T&S) starts with an editorial addressing Internet Addiction.  Perhaps the most disturbing example is the Sundance premier of Love Child.  This documentary covers the death of a child in South Korea attributed to her parent’s addiction to online gaming. They pled guilty claiming addiction as part of their defense, which is an interesting situation if not a precedent.  In South Korea, drunkenness is a form of addiction that mitigates legal liability, which provides a basis for the couple’s plea approach.  Apparently they also had little or no education on taking care of their premature baby. (One might wonder if a more realistic video game environment, they were raising a virtual child, might have lead to a different outcome.)

This captures the issue in a nutshell.  Video gaming can be an educational tool. But may result in problematic, or apparently, fatal responsibility failures.  The T&S editorial continues to outline other countries and situations that reflect the “Internet Addiction Disorder.”  When you combine gaming, with texting, email, web searches, smart-phone connectedness, and the increasing need to be on-line and/or have  remote access for your job, our screen times are rapidly expanding.  Since 2009 the average screen time for U.S. adults has  doubled.  Of course some of this is folks using their cell phones while watching TV and using their PC, but it is still a significant change in the way we use our time.

How much time is being used by these “brain suckers”? — (Curious that zombies have become a major horror show topic … perhaps there is more to this than we realize.)  To what extent are we losing essential aspects of society such as relationships, mindfulness, personal growth, productivity, etc?

And significantly, what can we do about it?  Your thoughts?  (as you read this online….)

Public Domain Treaty Compliance Verification in the Digital Age

Public Domain Treaty Compliance Verification in the Digital Age
T&S Paper by Christopher W. Stubbs and Sidney D. Drell; Winter 2013

Abstract: We explore in this article some of the emerging opportunities, and associated challenges, that the digital age offers for public-domain verification of compliance with international treaties. The increase in data volume, in ever-improving connectivity, and the relentless evolution towards ubiquitous sensors all provide a rapidly changing landscape for technical compliance verification of international treaties. From satellites to cell phones, advances in technology afford new opportunities for verifying compliance with international agreements, on topics ranging from arms control to environmental and public health issues. We will identify some of the engineering challenges that must be overcome in order to realize these new verification opportunities.

Asynchronous Adaptations to Complex Social Interactions

Asynchronous Adaptations to Complex Social Interactions*
T&S Paper by Sally Applin and Michael Fischer Winter 2013
Centre for Social Anthropology & Comput., Univ. of Kent, Canterbury, UK

Abstract: The permeation of the mobile platform is creating a shift in community behavior. What began with a few individuals, has now quickly replicated as many people communicate not only through mobile phones, but through smartphones that are multi-functioning communications computers. Mobile devices have broadened people’s capability and reach, and within that context, people have adapted their behavior to adjust to communications “on the go.” In this article we explore how multiplexed networked individuated communications are creating new contexts for human behavior within communities, particularly noting the shift from synchronous to asynchronous communication as an adaptation.


Is Erasing Your Cell Phone “ok”?

Will your employer erase all of the data on your cell phone if you leave your job? This practice is discussed in a 22 January Wall St. Journal article. The corollary is whether you need a separate phone for personal use and work.  A prior WSJ online entry points out the pros and cons of using personal cell phones for work.

Both articles identify employers who will erase your cell phone if you lose it, leave your job, or are terminated. This raises legal issues about the destruction of personal data (pictures, phone records, apps, music, videos, etc.)  And of course the time invested in curating these, or just getting to the 24th level of angry birds. (Of course you were not doing that on company time.)

As we invest more of our life, trust and ‘memory’ to our portable devices, the ability of an employer or other entity to “erase” the contents of that is a rather questionable practice.  Minimally an employer should offer a different mobile device to employees who are expected to use these with clear communications about personal use, rights in data, and so forth before allowing a user to use their own device for business.

If you reverse the tables, it is clearly unethical and probably illegal for the employee to delete content from the corporate computers.  Backing up your device (including corporate content) at home, or in the cloud (beyond corporate reach) are things to consider.

There is a market for “virtual” systems on mobile devices so you can have a clear delineation between the corporate and personal content. Meanwhile, you may want to have two cell phones.

Cell Phone WiFi Used to Track Your Location

The 14 Jan Wall St. Journal has an article noting that your cell phone is being used to track where you are, and not by the cell phone provider (well, ok, they do as well, but using the cell-tower location process).  This tracking occurs when you have  your WiFi enabled and pass a detection device.  Turnstyle Solutions and Apple iBeacon (BlueTooth) provide devices placed by shop-owners and others to detect, record and report your location.  Turnstyle works with your devices WiFi MAC address, and iBeacon with iOS on your phone. iBeacon provides location data for Aps, but also for the host location.

The good: Knowing you are there may allow you to pay for goods at checkout without having to get out your credit card.  It may provide you with immediate “discount coupons” or other offers.   The Apple concept with BlueTooth is promoted as a way to provide ‘fine tuned’ personal (identifiable) services such as payment, or any other service that your phone apps using location services may be able to provide.

The bad: Turnstyle is not tied to apps, your cell provider, or your phone OS. It simply uses your MAC address (which is part of the handshake that is periodically being transmitted by any WiFi device to identify possible connections.)  An intended service Turnstyle provides their customers is a composite of “what other locations your customers visit”.  A restaurant has offered branded workout shirts as a result of feedback that 250 of their customers went to the gym that month (or at least to a gym that was in the Turnstyle network.) One Turnstyle customer is quoted as saying “It would probably be better not to use this tracking system at all if we had to let people know about it.”   I find that insightful.

Turnstyle also offers free WiFi in various retail locations.  The information about your sites visited, searches, etc. can be used to further classify you as a consumer — without collecting “personally identity” information (maybe.)  Any number of combination of data-mining techniques can be used to get fairly personal here — via Apps, site usernames, email addresses disclosed, etc.

The ugly: In the context of the article, the example of a problematic location tracking might be your visits to a doctor, say the oncology clinic in a monitored area. Combine that with searches on selected drugs and diseases and what you thought was private medical information is now available, and perhaps bypassing heath privacy regulations.

Consider the “constellation” of radio beacons you either transmit or reflect.  My car keys have an RFID chip, some credit cards have these (and passports), you have unique cell phone ID, WiFi MAC address, BlueTooth id, Apps that may be sending data without your awareness, etc. While any one service may be protecting your anonymity the set of signals you transmit becomes fairly unique to you.  Connecting these with your identity is probably more a question of the abusers desire to know than it is a question of your rights or security measures.

These mechanisms can be used by paparazzi, stalkers, assassins, groupies, and other ne’er-do-wells for their nefarious purposes.

In the Harry Potter series the Marauder’s Map was used to track anyone, at least within Hogwarts. To activate this “Technology” you tapped it with a wand and declared “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.

Where have your footprints been taking you lately? And who has been watching them?

A Potential Legacy of Disaster

To imagine how things could go bad, we have to imagine these charming techies [today’s beneficent tech company leaders] turning into bitter elders or yielding their empires to future generations of entitled clueless heirs.” (How Should We Think about Privacy, Scientific American, Nov. 2013) [And yes, this is the same one quoted in the last entry, good article — read it!]

I’ve wondered what the half-life of a Fortune 500 company is.  I’ve worked for a few, some like Intel when they were not yet in the 500, some like IBM were and are, and some like Digital were and are no more.  It is clear as we watch the life-arc of companies like Digital, Sun Microsystems, Xilog, etc. that most do not have particularly long lives — maybe a decade or three. And I sense that this window may be shortening. Venture capitalists always look for exit strategies – often selling a creative startup that is not getting traction to some lumbering legacy giant who thinks they can fix it. (This seems occasionally like getting your pet “fixed” more than getting your car “fixed”.) But some beat the odds and make the big time.  Investors happy, founders happy, occasionally employees (shout out to the Woz who made pre-IPO stock available to Apple employees) — but when things get big a different mentality takes charge — milking the cash cow.  One reason the big-guys buy up the little guys is to keep them from disrupting their legacy business models. Even when they have good intentions they often are clueless when it comes to keeping the momentum going with the innovators and/or customer base, and eventually drive their acquisition into the ground.

The point of the Scientific American article is that the transition of surviving corporations to new owners, or even loss of shareholder control, can turn a company dedicated to “Doing No Evil” in a different direction. The article suggests that the current “convenience” facilities in your smartphone that suggest an <advertisers> spot to get lunch based on your location and local time could go further, controlling your action at pre-cognitive levels with pavlovian manipulation of your actions. — It may  not be what the founders of Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc. feel is right … but then, the decision may be mandated by new ownership, stockholder interests, etc.

It has been suggested a military device has never been invented that was not eventually used in warfare.  I won’t swear that is true, but the corollary is that no path to increased profits has been identified that has not eventually been used by corporations. At the same time, we have few ways to protect ourselves from future abuse — policy entities are hesitant to take preventative actions — and corporate interests are strongly involved once they smell blood … excuse me, cash.

Technology and Floods

I have about as painless of opportunity to experience the pros and cons of technology in an emergency situation.  We have a cabin in one of the Colorado canyons where the flooding hit this last weekend.  Fortunately our cabin does not appear to be affected, nor the cabins or lives of our family members who also live in the area.  (We live in New Hampshire, so not even near the action.)

But … how is technology playing its role?

The Good News:

The reverse 911 systems and opt-in notifications were very good at letting folks know that flooding was likely, then expected, then coming at a higher rate and you need to move to high ground.  In the area where our cabin is located, many lives were lost in the 1976 flood due to a lack of communications, and realistically, lack of understanding of the power of water.  While we can expect further loss of life (probably discovered as search and rescue folks move in) the significant drop here was due in part to the communications channels.

The failures in the area started with power, first to go in any major storm.  Then phones when they opened the flood gates on the Estes Park dam (as the lake filled and started to flood many other areas.)  This also took out much of the road network, a situation echoed across the northeastern area of Colorado (I25 is still not fully open as I write this, and that is the major north-south freeway; the secondary highways and tendrils of roads back into the hills has even greater damage.

Ingenuity being what it is, a few folks near our cabin cobbled together a few car batteries, laptop and a satellite dish (from what I hear) and have been able to get emails in and out.  A level of communications that has been most valued by those of us on the outside.
(yes we are ok, this property is damaged, this one is not, a list of folks here, folks not here, folks that have hiked out, etc.)

A second communications channel has been a web site I created on the fly to track who was in the area, who was not in the area.  I’ve added information about property damage, pictures and pointers to news stories, excerpts from the emails, and so forth.  Friends, families, spouses, kids, etc. are finding it useful to both confirm the well being of the persons involved, and the local status.

Pictures can come from many places.  Early emails included pictures of water over the bridge (never a good thing), later pictures are from folks who hiked out.  The Denver Post flew a helicopter over the area and just happened to publish pictures of four cabins that were in the area, so we have some expectation of the recovery efforts (mostly redoing the river bed and rebuilding the road.)  These pictures confirm that the phone line into the area are intact, and the power poles are gone. I expect more pictures as a formal smart-phone, whatever-pad and real ‘camera’ tour is made of the 70 or so properties in the area.

Estes Park swapped their emergency communications from their own servers to Facebook and Twitter.  I suspect one reason is that the servers for those operations are remote (not affected) and importantly,  the thousands of hits increase in queries are a drop in the bucket for those sites.  The Colorado Dept. of Transportation did not do this and their website shut down with overloads … a classic case of not accommodating “black swan” events.

We did not have a good index of the houses, occupants, contact information, etc for the folks in this small community.  I was able to build one from property tax records, online white pages and some data mining for email addresses.  It is not complete, but it has allowed me to move from a first name to complete name with address information.  There are privacy issues here, but in this case there is justifying value — and I don’t plan on abusing the information.  I expect it will have even greater value as repairs start getting put into action (for example, the National Guard needs a way to check folks entering an area to see if they are legitimate, we can give them a list of residents, etc.)

The Bad News:

We are so dependent on technology, remaining in the area is not feasible for most or all folks.  The real limiting factor is access to food (and clean water). Without the road network, folks cannot get to food supplies.  Fifty years ago, the closest (small) market was two miles down the road, now it is 15 miles up the road.  Mind you, the road is gone, so supplying the small market would not be possible at this time.  But, “back then” it would have been back in operation, and we could walk down and back.  My grandmother got to the cabin by horseback (after taking a stage coach to Estes.)  Folks had supplies in camp like flour; caught fish in the river, and shot deer, etc. Ok, so fish don’t do well in floods, but the level of dependency on high speed travel (like over horse speed) was not there either.  Her parents would have expected to live for weeks on what they had on hand, without refrigeration, etc. — Mind you, I really do like flush toilets and running water, even better, hot water and electric lights. These are all things that were added to the cabin during my grandmothers life span.  (She died before we got DSL in the area, cell phones are still no go)

One of the bad things is the lack of knowledge (and perhaps planning/etc.) folks have about their devices.  Phones with GPS can track your walking.  When folks found their way out of the area this would allow easy communications about the path for others to follow — in or out.  (We forget that when the roads go, our ability to find our way changes, in some cases quite radically.)

The experience so far leans towards the benefits of technology.  I do  not doubt that this has saved lives in Colorado, just with changes in the last five years.

You have to work pretty hard to make something private these days

Oh Google, I love a lot of your products and services, but this was pretty stupid. If you hadn’t heard of this before, basically Google Street View cars were scanning open wireless networks and scraping them for any information they could get. Google apologized and paid a big fine, but correctly note that what they did wasn’t actually illegal in any way.
I’ve thought for a long time that obscurity was actually a pretty good privacy protection – for years my home wifi didn’t have a password because I was set quite far back from the main road and it made it so much easier when guests came over. I finally added a password a few years ago, but in general I’m not one of the privacy paranoid. Efforts like this however, and the fact that they are not, nor is it likely that they ever will be, are changing that. My personal information is valuable. And these days there are more an more companies like Google that have the resources to gather that information en mass.
We are less and less obscure every year.
Some of this is totally out of our hands. The ever-falling cost of processing power and better and better data crunching algorithms mean that it’s feasible to find and store a lot of information about, literally, everyone. But, a lot of this we give away ourselves – without even realizing it. Anyone who sends un-encrypted data over open wi-fi in the eyes of the law has zero expectation of privacy – but I bet that’s not what those users thought. In the U.S., the courts have held that law enforcement can trace you via your smartphone without a warrant. Since your phone is constantly broadcasting a GPS signal, the logic goes, it’s akin to using a dog to trace your scent. But I seriously doubt many people know this.
Some of this, of course, will be fixed by time. Technology is a disrupter, and we are all, collectively, constantly learning how to use it. Criminals are figuring out they have to switch off their cell phones. People like me have added passwords to their home wifi networks. At some point maybe Harvard deans will realize their work email isn’t private and figure out how to use Tor – then we’ll know the future has arrived!

Everybody knows where you are?

A recent paper in IEEE Computer Magazine asked the question “Can a Phone’s GPS ‘Lie’ Intelligently ”   As you may have been aware, many mobile aps use the location information of the phone to …well … stalk you.  For an ap that is going to suggest nearby places to eat, that is not all that surprising, but what is surprising is how many actually include this in their “rights” for installation.  (It took me some time to find a FreeCell ap that didn’t want to know my location, who I was talking to on the phone, who my contacts were, etc. etc.)

The  article suggests that for many such applications, there is a “close enough” — which is likely to have a margin of error circa one mile.  This is not enough for your friends (or enemies) to locate you in a shopping mall, but is enough to let you know a friend is near, or a store with a product you might value.  Ergo the title of the article.

Mobile device tracking of location is fairly impressive.  A few years ago I got an Apple iTouch — WiFi (aka IEEE Std. 802.11)  but no cell and no GPS.  I turned it on, and it was able to pinpoint my location on the map!  Google, as you probably know,  has been tracking WiFi MAC addresses as they shoot their street view pictures.  Between this information, cell tower triangulation (needed for 911 calls), and integrated GPS devices my more recent (Android) cell phone has my location nailed very quickly — much faster than my Garmin devices.

The camera in the device can incorporate Longitude/Latitude information into the JPG metafile.  Something that upset some celebrities when they realized that photos being posted to the web not only showed who was at their party, but the date, time and specific location of said party.  I’m not sure if most cell phones or similarly enabled cameras come with the “include location in information” on or off. But I suspect many users haven’t got a clue how to control this — or even that it exists.

In any case … a little paranoia may be justified. … that and much more information for the public so folks suspect that the Angry Birds might actually know where they are!