To GO or Not to GO?

Pokemon Go has become a delightful and disturbing experiment in the social impact of technology. This new “Free” software for smart phones implements an augmented reality, overlaying the popular game on the real world. Fans wander the streets, byways, public, and in some cases private spaces following the illusive characters on their smart phone to capture them, or “in world”, or to collect virtual items.  The uptake has been amazing, approaching Twitter in terms of user-hours in just days after introduction. It has also added $12 billion to Nintendo’s stock value (almost double).

Let’s start with “Free”, and $12 billion dollars. The trick is having a no-holds barred privacy policy. Not surprising, the game knows who you are and where you are. It also can access/use your camera, storage, email/phone contacts, and potentially your full Google account (email contents, Drive contents, etc.)  Them money comes because all of this is for sale, in real time. (“While you track Pokemon, Pokemon Go tracks you”, USA Today, 12 July 16) Minimally you can expect to see “Luremodules” (a game component) used to bring well vetted (via browser history, email, call history, disk content, etc.) customers into stores that then combine ad-promotions with in-store characters. Perhaps offering your favorite flavor ice cream, or draw you into a lawyer’s office that specializes in the issues you have been discussing on email, or a medical office that …well you get the picture, and those are just the legitimate businesses.  Your emails from your bank may encourage less honest folks to lure you into a back alley near an ATM machine .. a genre of crime that has only been rumored so far.

The July 13th issue of USA Today outlines an additional set of considerations. Users are being warned by police, property owners, and various web sites for various reasons. The potential for wandering into traffic is non-trivial while pursuing an illusive virtual target, or a sidewalk obstruction, or over the edge of the cliff (is there a murder plot hiding in here?) Needless to say playing while driving creates a desperate need for self-driving cars. Since the targets change with time of day, folks are out at all hours, in all places, doing suspicious things. This triggers calls to police. Some memorial sites, such as Auschwitz and the Washington DC Holocaust Memorial Museum have asked to be exluded from the play-map. There are clearly educational opportunities that could be built into the game — tracing Boston’s “freedom trail”, and requiring player engagement with related topics is a possible example. However, lacking the explicit consideration of the educational context, there are areas where gaming is inappropriate. Also, some public areas are closed after dark, and the game may result in players trespassing in ways not envisioned by the creators, which may create unhealthy interactions with the owners, residents, etc. of the area.

One USA Today article surfaces a concern that very likely was missed by Nintendo, and is exacerbated by the recent deaths of black men in US cities, and the shooting of police in Dallas. “For the most part, Pokemon is all fun and games. Yet for many African Americans, expecially men, their enjoyment is undercut by fears they may raise suspicion with potentially lethal consequences.”  Change the countries and communities involved and similar concerns may emerge in other countries as well. This particular piece ends with an instance of a black youth approaching a policeman who was also playing the game, with a positive moment of interaction as they helped each other pursue in-game objectives.

It is said every technology cuts both ways.  We can hope that experience, and consideration will lead both players and Nintendo to evolve the positive potential for augmented reality, and perhaps with a bit greater respect for user privacy.

If the Computer Said it, it must be True!

Well, maybe not.  “What Happens When GPS Can’t Find You?” is a commercial concern raised by a Wall St. Journal article.  Needless to say a business in today’s world is at risk if the GPS location associated with it is wrong, or just the path that is required to get there is not correct.  Consumers at best are frustrated, and may simply write off that operation.  In this case it is often not the business’s fault, but one in the GPS location service, or route mapping.

Behind this is a more pervasive and serious problem.  Often there is no way to “fix” these problems from the perspective of the consumer or the an affected business.  You may know the data is wrong, the route doesn’t work, and correcting the error(s) is not a straight forward path, and certainly not easy enough that the “crowd-source” solution would work. That is, many people might find the error, and if there were a simple way to “report” the problem, after the “nth” report, an automated fix (or review) could be triggered.

This is not just  GPS problem. I’ve found many web sites are validating addresses against equally flawed sources (perhaps even the USPS).  I can send mail to my daughter (and she gets it), I’ve even seen the mailbox on the side of her street. By one of the web sites I used to deliver items to her location is rejecting the address as “not known”… and of course there is no way to report the error. A related problem is entering an address in “just the right way” — am I in “Unit A101” or “Apt. A 101″ or maybe Apt A101”, note that the delivery folks can handle all of these, but the online ordering system can’t.  Technology design consideration: track such ‘failures’, and after some number, check the validation process, or better have a button such as “I know this is right, so please update the database”.

Online operations are losing business, as well as brick-and-mortar activities due to online “presumptions” of correctness .. and no corrective processes available.  It’s one thing when the word processor marks your spelling as “wrong”, but lets you keep it anyway.  It is another when medications or essential services can’t reach your location because the GPS or delivery address is not in the database, or is listed incorrectly.

Employee Cell Phone Tracking

An employee in California was allegedly fired for removing a tracking APP from her cell phone that was used to track her on-the-job and after-hours travel and locations.  The APP used was XORA (now part of Clicksoft).
Here are some relevant, interesting points.

  • Presumably the cell phone was provided by her employer.  It may be that she was not required to have it turned on when she was off hours.
    (but it is easy to envision jobs where 24 hour on-call is expected)
  • There are clear business uses for the tracking app, which determined time of arrival/departure from customer sites, route taken, etc.
  • There are more intrusive aspects, which stem into the objectionable when off-hours uses are considered: tracking locations, time spent there, routes, breaks, etc. — presumably such logs could be of value in divorce suits, legal actions, etc.

Consider some variations of the scenario —

  1. Employee fired for inappropriate after hours activities
  2. Detection of employees interviewing for other jobs,
    (or a whistle blower, reporting their employer to authorities)
  3. Possible “blackmail” using information about an employees off hour activities.
  4. What responsibility does employer have for turning over records in various legal situations?
  5. What are the record retention policies required?  Do various privacy notifications, policies, laws apply?
  6. What if the employer required the APP to be on a personal phone, not one that was supplied?

When is this type of tracking appropriate, when is it not appropriate?

I’ve marked this with “Internet of Things” as a tag as well — while the example is a cell phone, similar activities occur with in-car (and in-truck) monitoring devices, medical monitoring devices, employer provided tablet/laptop, and no doubt new devices not yet on the market.

Who is Driving My Car (revisited)

Apparently my auto insurance company was not reading my recent blog entry.  They introduced a device, “In-Drive” that will monitor my driving habits and provide a discount (or increase) in my insurance rates.

There are a few small problems. The device connects into the diagnostic port of the car, allowing it to take control of the car (brakes, acceleration, etc.) or a hacker to do this (see prior Blog entry). It is connected to the mothership (ET phones home), and that channel can be used both ways, so the hacker that takes over my car can be anywhere in the world.  I can think of three scenarios where this is actually feasible.

  1. Someone wants to kill the driver (very focused, difficult to detect).
  2. Blackmail – where bad guys decide to crash a couple of cars, or threaten to, and demand payment to avoid mayhem (what would the insurance company CEO say to such a demand?)  (Don’t they have insurance for this?)
  3. Terrorism – while many cyber attacks do not yield the requisite “blood on the front page” impact that terrorists seek, this path can do that — imagine ten thousand cars all accelerating and losing brakes at the same time … it will probably get the desired coverage.

As previously mentioned, proper software engineering (now a licensable profession in the U.S.) could minimize this security risk.

Then there is privacy.  The  insurance company’s privacy policy does not allow them to collect the data that their web page claims this device will collect — so clearly privacy is an after thought in this case.  The data collected is unclear – they have a statement about the type of data collected, and a few FAQ’s later, have a contradictory indication that the location data is only accurate within a forty square mile area, except maybe when it is more accurate.  What is stored, for what period of time, accessible to what interested parties (say a divorce lawyer) or with what protections is unclear.  A different insurance company, Anthem, encountered a major attack that compromises identity information (at least) for a large number of persons.  I’m just a bit skeptical that my auto insurance company has done their analysis of that situation and upgraded their systems to avoid similar breaches and loss of data. For those wondering what types of privacy policies might make sense, I encourage you to view the OECD policy principles and examples.  Organizations that actually are concerned with privacy  would be covering all of these bases at least in their privacy statements. (Of course they can do this and still have highly objectionable policies, or change their policies without notice.)

The Citizen Surveillance State

Like everyone, I listened to the news about the Boston Marathon bombings on Monday afternoon with horror. I’m not from the area myself, but I have a lot of friends who live there, and a lot of friends who run marathons. Luckily for my personal peace of mind that afternoon, those two groups don’t intersect for me, and I was so grateful as one by one, so many people posted to Facebook and twitter that they were OK. I know many other people weren’t so lucky.
It’s also been fascinating to watch over the last several days as the FBI has asked anyone with photos or video of (or before) the bombings to send them in. There must be tens of thousands of submissions for them to sift through, and yesterday the FBI posted several pictures taken from various sources of two men they are seeking information about in connection with the blasts. It’s remarkable how quickly law enforcement has been able to pinpoint suspects given the huge volume of evidence they must have had to sift through, but it was virtually inevitable that they would have photos and video of whomever did this.
I’ve heard it said that this is probably the most photographed and recorded terrorist event in history, and I’m sure that’s true. Sure, this is partially because the Boston Marathon is a huge public event, but it’s also because we are living in an era of citizen surveillance. Very simply, if you go out in public and are around other people, there’s a pretty decent chance you are being recorded. Some of this is because of the ever increasing use of security cameras and cctv, but it’s also because nearly everyone is carrying a recording device around with them in the form of a phone.
As a society, we are still figuring out how to deal with this. I’m sure they meant well, but redditors publicly misidentified two subjects, likely putting them in danger. Reddit eventually stepped in to stop things, but if you had been one of the two guys who’s personal information had been posted identifying you as a suspect, that probably too way to long to happen.
So we live in an era of mass citizen surveillance – that is to say, (mostly unintentional) surveillance by other citizens. Of course, most of us think of this data as not being organized in any cohesive way, but actually, a lot of it is. Most people don’t realize it, but almost all smart phones by default geo-tag all photos they take. When you post them, you’re not just posting the image, you’re posting where and when it was taken. Users can turn this feature off, but since most of them don’t realize it exists, they don’t. Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr all have APIs that allow searches by geographic area. Right now this isn’t something most people can actually do, but for law enforcement or anyone with programming skills, it isn’t difficult at all.
What does all this mean? I’m not really sure, actually. But it did all remind me to switch off geo-tagging on my phone.

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!