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Data envy

new-22portobelloroad.jpgWhile we're all fretting about Facebook, Google, and the ecosystem of advertisers that track our every online move, many other methods for tracking each of us are on the rise, sprawling out across the cyber-physical continuum. You can see the world's retailers, transport authorities, and governments muttering, "Why should *they* have all the data?" CCTV was the first step, and it's a terrible role model. Consent is never requested; instead, where CCTV's presence is acknowledged it comes with "for your safety" propaganda.

People like the Center for Digital Democracy's Jeff Chester or security and privacy researcher Chris Soghoian have often exposed the many hidden companies studying us in detail online. At a workshop in 2011, they predicted much of 2016's political interference and manipulation. They didn't predict that Russians would seek to interfere with Western democracies; but they did correctly foresee the possibility of individual political manipulation via data brokers and profiling. Was this, that workshop asked, one of the last moments at which privacy incursions could be reined in?

A listener then would have been introduced to companies like Axciom and Xaxis, behind-the-scenes swappers of our data trails. Like Equifax, we do not have direct relationships with these companies, and as people said on Twitter during the Equifax breach, "We are their victims, not their customers".

At Freedom to Tinker, in September Steven Engelhardt exposed the extent to which email has become a tracking device. Because most people use just one email address, it provides an easy link. HTML email is filled with third-party trackers that send requests to myriad third-parties, which can then match the email address against other information they hold. Many mailing lists add to this by routing clicks on links through their servers to collect information about what you view, just like social media sites. There are ways around these things - ban your email client from loading remote content, view email as plain text, and copy the links rather than clicking on them. Google is about to make all this much worse by enabling programs to run within email messages. It is, as they say at TechCrunch, a terrible idea for everyone except Google: it means more ads, more trackers, and more security risks.

In December, also at Freedom to Tinker, Gunes Acar explained that a long-known vulnerability in browsers' built-in password managers helps third parties track us. The browser memorizes your login details the first time you land on a website and enter them. Then, as you browse on the site to a non-login page, the third party plants a script with an invisible login form that your browser helpfully autofills . The script reads and hashes the email address, and sends it off to the mother ship, where it can be swapped and matched to other profiles with the same email address hash. Again, since people use the same one for everything and rarely change it, email addresses are exceptionally good connectors between browsing profiles, mobile apps, and devices. Ad blockers help protect against this; browser vendors and publishers could also help.

But these are merely extensions of the tracking we already have. Amazon Go's new retail stores rely on tracking customers throughout, noting not only what they buy but how long they stand in front of a shelf and what they pick up and put back. This should be no surprise: Recode predicted as much in 2015. Other retailers will copy this: why should online retailers have all the data?

Meanwhile, police in Wales have boasted about using facial recognition to arrest people, matching images of people of interest against both its database of 500,000 custody images and live CCTV feeds while the New York Times warns that the technology's error rate spikes when the subjects being matched are not white and male. In the US, EFF reports that according to researchers at Georgetown Law School an estimated 117 million Americans are already in law enforcement facial recognition systems with little oversight.

We already knew that phones are tracked by their attempts to connect to passing wifi SSIDs; at last month's CPDP, the panel on physical tracking introduced targeted tracking using MAC addresses extracted via wifi connections. In many airports, said Future of Privacy Forum's Jules Polonetsky, courtesy of Blip Systems deploys sensors to help with logistical issues such as traffic flow and queue management. In Cincinnati, says the company's website, these sensors help the Transportation Security Agency better allocate resources and provide smoother "passenger processing" (should you care to emerge flat and orange like American cheese).

Visitors to office buildings used to sign in with name, company, and destination; now, tablets demand far more detailed information with no apparent justification. Every system, as Infomatica's Monica McDonnell explained at CPDP, is made up of dozens of subsystems, some of which may date to the 1960s, all running slightly different technologies that may or may not be able to link together the many pockets of information generated for each person.

These systems are growing much faster than most of us realize, and this is even before autonomous vehicles and the linkage of systems into smart cities. If the present state of physical tracking is approximately where the web was in 2000...the time to set the limits is now.

Illustrations: George Orwell's house at 22 Portobello Road, London.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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