Posts Tagged ‘privacy’

A short history of “Breaking the Internet”

Monday, April 9th, 2012

“I am the head of IT and I have it on good authority that if you type ‘Google’ into Google, you can break the Internet. So please, no one try it, even for a joke. It’s not a laughing matter. You can break the Internet”
- Jen, The IT Crowd

For 15 years internet companies have been waging a war against any kind of laws that establish properties and permissions for digital things. Every attempt to do so has been bitterly fought. It’s the one constant in Silicon Valley’s battles against the copyright industries. The fight has crippled the traditional, historical partnership between technology and creators that benefited everyone. But it has also had an awful unintended consequence: it has weakened our ability to establish the clear property rights we need to protect our privacy.

When, in February, the EU tentatively suggested rules based on the principle that people own their own data, and this property right includes exclusivity (“the right to be forgotten”) – guess who was firing all guns against it? Facebook and Google… At Davos, Google chairman Eric Schmidt said the EU proposal would “break the internet”.

Just this week the UK government caused a huge privacy storm when it floated the idea of making internet companies keep a record of all personal communications on the the internet. While it argued that it wanted to store “traffic” data, not the contents of communications, little would be exempt: emails, blog comments, Tweets and Facebook Likes.

And more alarmingly, this trove of information would be casually available to busybodies. In 2010 alone, public authorities submitted 552,000 requests for communications data under RIPA. We’ve already seen how local councils, for example, initiate surveillance operations using the Act.

RIPA is intended to prevent “serious crimes”, requiring necessity and proportionality. But councils have used it to tackle “serious crimes” such as smoking, and putting recycling in the wrong bag. Some even boast about it. The new store of electronic communications would add to the data available to them. It’s a huge intrusion by the state into business that isn’t its own.

At the same time, Facebook and Google operate their own global data collection systems, hoarding huge amounts of personal data. And this is merely the start. The regression models that Facebook and Google use to predict consumer behaviour for advertisers are exactly what law enforcement agencies dream can be put to use to predict crime or ‘deviant’ behaviour. In a 2012 rewrite of Philip K Dick’s Minority Report, the “Pre Crime Division” will not require mutants floating in tanks – just software.

Privacy is not a luxury, or an optional extra – a world without privacy raises all kinds of ethical issues, and everyday judgements made about us.

So how can we halt this slide to Panopticon, where everything we do online is dipped into?

Well, no matter what law you pass, it won’t work unless there’s ownership attached to data, and you, as the individual, are the ultimate owner. From the basis of ownership, we can then agree what kind of rights are associated with the data – eg, the right to exclude people from it, the right to sell it or exchange it – and then build a permission-based world on top of that. None of this is possible without the fundamental recognition that it’s the individual – you or me – who ultimately owns it, and ultimately decides what’s then done with it, and by whom. Without properties and permissions on digital “things”, there will be no digital privacy.

I’ll illustrate this with a short story that you probably haven’t heard before – about this great phrase.

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Google hands millions to ‘independent’ watchdogs

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

What do you do when a global corporation pays out millions to the watchdogs that we expect to protect us against it? It’s a fair question to ask in light of the Chocolate Factory’s legal settlement this week, over Google Buzz. The privacy class action suit has landed a windfall of millions of dollars to “privacy” groups – but not a cent to ordinary citizens, users of Google Gmail’s service whose privacy was compromised.
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On Google and erasing your identity

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

I appeared on BBC World Service’s Newshour to discuss Eric Schmidt’s advice to erase your digital identity every few years. Click here to listen.

Original story

Google Street View logs WiFi networks, MAC addresses

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

streetview_pliers_sidey Google’s roving Street View spycam may blur your face, but it’s got your number. The Street View service is under fire in Germany for scanning private WLAN networks, and recording users’ unique Mac (Media Access Control) addresses, as the car trundles along.

Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Data Protection Peter Schaar says he’s "horrified" by the discovery.

"I am appalled… I call upon Google to delete previously unlawfully collected personal data on the wireless network immediately and stop the rides for Street View," according to German broadcaster ARD.

Spooks have long desired the ability to cross reference the Mac address of a user’s connection with their real identity and virtual identity, such as their Gmail or Facebook account.

Read more at The Register

The Digital Economy Bill: the story so far

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Pelted from all sides by amendments, the Digital Economy Bill continues to plough its way through Parliament. This week, the Lords lined up to have their say, but since there are so many (300) Amendments, they’ll be at it again on Monday.

Of course, out of the ten subject areas, the one labelled ‘online copyright infringement’ has attracted the most attention from their Lordships. Lord Mandelson made a number of modifications acknowledging these concerns this week – including some substantial changes to the processes. It’s the procedure rather than the principle that is vexing the Lords.

Nobody – not even those who support the Bill – is entirely happy with the procedures. Yet there is no great grassroots outpouring of opposition. While 500,000 people may have paid 79p in one week to register a protest vote for the Christmas Number One single, fewer than 500 have signed up to the Open Rights Group’s “Message to Mandelson” campaign – and some of those are supportive. We spotted one ‘Go Mandy’ from a major record label staffer and another urging his Lordship to bash the ‘freetards’.

 

Read more at The Register

Ancient satire foretold AOL's privacy disaster

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

“The Internet is becoming more and more widespread and will increasingly represent a scientific random sample of the population”
– Joi Ito

“Igor, to the machines – we have a sample”

One thing seems to have been forgotten following AOL’s careless, but quite magnificent data dump of the internet’s “hive mind” at play this week.

AOL’s assiduous documentation of the private thoughts of over 600,000 web searchers has certainly added some much needed sparkle to a public internet that of late, has been in dire need of a tonic. Now, internet users’ most private thoughts are revealed, in all their banality and creepiness, and we must count ourselves fortunate.

“AOL’s data sketch sometimes scary picture of personalities searching Net,” was the headline USA Today newspaper chose, but this barely conveyed the voyeuristic frisson, or glee we felt as the AOL database made its way across the net.

Nothing in recent months has made the net come alive quite like these queries, and it’s not hard to see why. Recently, the net has been drowning in banality. Billions of identical blogs – some human generated, some machine generated – spring up every day, with identical opinions to match the identical templates each blog hoster seems to provide. This outpouring of new recorded writing has been trumpeted as a new era in human expression. But the truth is, in practice, the consequence of all this is that it’s getting increasingly difficult to tell which is which. Human, or machine?

But let’s focus on an aspect lost in the “scandal”. The thing that everyone has overlooked is that this wasn’t an accidental or negligent data loss by AOL. The search query data was sincerely released in the name of science.

Boffins at AOL Labs published the data for boffins at similar “labs” to peruse.

That’s strange enough in itself, and it should make you yearn for white-coated frontiersmen of yore. Things have changed a bit since then and now.

Behold: the Mighty Atom
Fifty years ago, scientists did things like, oh… split the atom, and deduce the shape of the DNA double helix. Today, working off the hottest and freshest evidence available, scientists proclaim breakthroughs such as “People get more drunk at weekends”.

Once upon a time scientists set out to describe the unknown, and make it understood in
mechanical terms. But now, like a group of well meaning, but slightly simple lifelong in-patients making their first tentative steps into the real world, they venture out to find what’s on their doorsteps.

Now, if science is to have any useful purpose in society, it’s in describing the unknown, not the bleeding obvious. No wonder it has gotten such a bad name recently.
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I'm in privacy trouble … bitch

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Three weeks ago, Facebook unveiled a three prong strategy to monetize its active base of 50m users. (See http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/11/09/facebook_analysis/.) It hasn’t taken long for one those prongs to go prang.

Facebook’s privacy-busting referral scheme called Beacon is to be modified. If you buy something elsewhere on the web, this information is piped back into your Facebook profile, so your social network can see what you’ve just bought.

Facebook already offered something similar, but with an opt-in model. This opted everyone in by default. People don’t mind telling friends they’ve gone to see Led Zepp – they don’t necessarily want them to see they’ve just bought a blow-up doll.

Who would have guessed?

It’s damaged Facebook and participating advertisers far more than anyone has realized. Facebook’s notoriously weaselly approach to privacy was well in evident, even as it begun to roll out the “fix”.

“Facebook already has made changes to ensure that no information is shared unless a user receives notifications … ” the company explained. Note, not “permissions”, but “notifications”.

In the reader comments, Darren Coleman asks,

“I can’t really see how Facebook can make any money outside of the traditional model of invasive banner ads and Adwords. As sites go it’s a victim of its own success – you can’t monetise the userbase because they’d sooner just jump ship to the next Web 2.0 darling, and if you’re seen to be doing anything that could be construed as towing the corporate line (e.g. ads, tracking, etc) then suddenly you’re no longer the plucky young upstart website – you’re the corporate mouthpiece bought and paid for by the kind of people that talk earnestly about monetisation, incentivising, growing brands, etc. Urgh.”

“It’s the ultimate self-defeating paradigm.”

Good point – is that it, then? Well, not quite, because there are three ways of making money here, and Facebook is trying them all.

Mark “I’m the CEO … bitch” Zuckenberg called the referral program the “holy grail” of advertising when he announced it, and it remains a pipe dream.

The other two programs are safer bets: giving advertisers even more slightly accurate demographic information is sure to be welcomed: advertisers currently get nothing at all.

And getting a cut of transactions through Facebook remains an obvious strategy. As I pointed out at the time, however, this may be smaller than many people suppose. A store that shares the transaction revenue with Facebook is only going to be prepared to do so as long as it considers Facebook a part of that transaction. Is Amazon going to be prepared to pay every referrer for a transaction? You can bet not.

Facebook’s Beacon experience simply demonstrates that it’s been too clever by half: thinking it can do “permission marketing” without your permission.

And the company’s impatience and greed also explain why it faces a long drawn out battle with regulators in Europe. Like a Roach Motel, you can join Facebook – but you’ll never leave.

When Google sneezes, does the internet get flu?

Friday, December 29th, 2006

Much of the web-based new economy hinges on the behaviour of how one company deals with two mammoth challenges next year. Both are potentially lethal, and a poor response to either will have dire consequences for many operations doing business on the internet.

Fortunately, that company is supremely well-equipped to deal with problems of a technical nature, employing some of the best scientific brains in the world. Unfortunately, neither of these two potential company-crushers has a technical solution: and the answers the brains come up with are only likely to make the problem worse.

The company in question is Google, of course, and here are the two problems.

The first is that most of Google’s wealth – and with it the earnings of businesses both large and small who depend on the advertising broker for the majority of their income – is generated from a system Google controls.

The self-service contextual classified advertising operation is a black box. It looks like a “market” – with buyers and sellers negotiating a price – but it’s a market that Google dominates. Google ultimately sets the price, and when it comes to disputes it’s hanging judge and jury too.

This doesn’t particularly appeal to Wall Street. Not because capital has suddenly been overcome with a dose of ethics – there’s nothing it loves more than a sure monopoly – but markets needs arbitrage. When they’re presented with an opaque model, there’s no way to measure the risk, let alone hedge it.
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Google vows to keep hoarding your porn queries

Saturday, August 12th, 2006

“With so many people searching for keywords like murder, kill, suicide, etc., are we a mentally/emotionally sick nation?” writes a concerned AOLer at AOLSearchLogs.com, a forum that accompanies a searchable database of AOL user’s queries.

Another AOLer moves swiftly to quell his concerns.

“As a whole, no,” responds ‘Matthew’, with the confidence of a veterinary surgeon approaching a rabbit with a chloroform-soaked rag in his hand.

“It can only help make more complete human beings when our minds have been soothed with the information or images they want.”
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AOL's search logs: the ultimate “Database Of Intentions”

Monday, August 7th, 2006

Google's IMsearch [click to enlarge]

AOL Labs prompted a weekend of hyperventilation in the ‘blogosphere’ by publishing the search queries from 650,000 users. This mini-scandal may yet prove valuable, however, as it reveals an intriguing psychological study of the boundaries of what is considered acceptable privacy.

In his turgid book on Google – one so obsequious and unchallenging that Google bought thousands of copies to give away to its staff – former dot.bust publisher John Battelle enthused about something he called the “database of intentions”. The information collected by search engines, he trumpeted, would be a marketer’s dream, and tell us more about ourselves than we ever realized we could know. AOL’s publication is the first general release of such a database to the public.

But hold on a minute. Is it, really?
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