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December 2, 2022

Hearing loss

amazon-echo-dot-charcoal-front-on-370.jpgSome technologies fail because they aren't worth the trouble (3D movies). Some fail because the necessary infrastructure and underlying technologies aren't good enough yet (AI in the 1980s, pen computing in the 1990s). Some fail because the world goes another, simpler, more readily available way (Open Systems Interconnection). Some fail because they are beset with fraud (the fate that appears to be unfolding with respect to cryptocurrencies), And some fail even though they work as advertised and people want them and use them because they make no money to sustain their development for their inventors and manufacturers.

The latter appears to be the situation with smart speakers, which in 2015 were going to take over the world, and today, in 2022, are installed in 75% of US homes. Despite this apparent success, they are losing money even for market leaders Amazon (third) and Google (second), as Business Insider reported this week. Amazon's Worldwide Digital division, which includes Prime Video as well as Echo smart speakers and Alexa voice technology, lost $3 billion in the first quarter of this year alone, primarily due to Alexa and other devices. The division will now be the biggest target for the layoffs the company announced last week.

The gist: they thought smart speakers would be like razors or inkjet printers, where you sell the hardware at or below cost and reap a steady income stream from selling razor blades or ink cartridges. Amazon thought people would buy their smart speakers, see something they liked, and order the speaker to put through the purchase. Instead, judging from the small sample I have observed personally, people use their smart speakers as timers, radios, and enhanced remote controls, and occasionally to get a quick answer from Wikipedia. And that's it. The friends I watched order their smart speaker to turn on the basement lights and manage their shopping list have, as far as I could tell on a recent visit, developed no new uses for their voice assistant in three years of being locked up at home with it.

The system has developed a new feature, though. It now routinely puts the shopping list items on the wrong shopping list. They don't know why.

In raising this topic at The Overspill, Charles Arthur referred back to a 2016 Wired aritcle summarizing venture capitalist Mary Meeker's assessment in her annual Internet Trends report that voice was going to take over the world and the iPhone had peaked. In slides 115-133, Meeker outlined her argument: improving accuracy would be a game-changer.

Even without looking at recent figures, it's clear voice hasn't taken over. People do use speech when their hands are occupied, especially when driving or when the alternative is to type painfully into their smartphone - but keyboards still populate everyone's desks, and the only people I know who use speech for data entry are people for whom typing is exceptionally difficult.

One unforeseen deterrent may be that privacy emerged as a larger issue than early prognosticators may have expected. Repeated stories have raised awareness that the price of being able to use a voice assistant at will is that microphones in your home listen to everything you say waiting for their cue to send your speech to a distant server to parse. Rising consciousness of the power of the big technology companies has made more of us aware that smart speakers are designed more to fulfill their manufacturers' desires to intermediate and monetize our lives than to help us.

The notion that consumers would want to use Amazon's Echo for shopping appears seriously deluded with hindsight. Even the most dedicated voice users I know want to see what they're buying. Years ago, I thought that as TV and the Internet converged we'd see a form of interactive product placement in which it would be possible to click to buy a copy of the shirt a football player was wearing during a game or the bed you liked in a sitcom. Obviously, this hasn't happened; instead a lot of TV has moved to streaming services without ads, and interactive broadcast TV is not a thing. But in *that* integrated world voice-activated shopping would work quite well, as in "Buy me that bed at the lowest price you can find", or "Send my brother the closest copy you can find of Novak Djokovic's dark red sweatshirt, size large, as soon as possible, all cotton if possible."

But that is not our world, and in our world we have to make those links and look up the details for ourselves. So voice does not work for shopping beyond adding items to lists. And if that doesn't work, what other options are there? As Ron Amadeo writes at Ars Technica, the queries where Alexa is frequently used can't be monetized, and customers showed little interest in using Alexa to interact with other companies such as Uber or Domino's Pizza. And, even Google, which is also cutting investment in its voice assistant, can't risk alienating consumers by using its smart speaker to play ads. Only Apple appears unaffected.

"If you build it, they will come," has been the driving motto of a lot of technological development over the last 30 years. In this case, they built it, they came, and almost everyone lost money. At what point do they turn the servers off?


Illustrations: Amazon Echo Dot.

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 and/or Mastodon.

October 28, 2022

MAGICAL, Part 1

hasrbrouck-cpdp2017.jpg"What's that for?" I asked. The question referred to a large screen in front of me, with my newly-captured photograph in the bottom corner. Where was the camera? In the picture, I was trying to spot it.

The British Airways gate attendant at Chicago's O'Hare airport tapped the screen and a big green checkmark appeared.

"Customs." That was all the explanation she offered. It had all happened so fast there was no opportunity to object.

Behind me was an unforgiving line of people waiting to board. Was this a good time to stop to ask:

- What is the specific purpose of collecting my image?

- What legal basis do you have for collecting it?

- Who will be storing the data?

- How long will they keep it?

- Who will they share it with?

- Who is the vendor that makes this system and what are its capabilities?

It was not.

I boarded, tamely, rather than argue with a gate attendant who certainly didn't make the decision to install the system and was unlikely to know much about its details. Plus, we were in the US, where the principles of the data protection law don't really apply - and even if they did, they wouldn't apply at the border - even, it appears, in Illinois, the only US state to have a biometric privacy law.

I *did* know that US Customs and Border Patrol had begun trialing facial recognition in selected airports, beginning in 2017. Long-time readers may remember a net.wars report from the 2013 Biometrics Conference about the MAGICAL [sic] airport, circa 2020, through which passengers flow unimpeded because their face unlocks all. Unless, of course, they're "bad people" who need to be kept out.

I think I even knew - because of Edward Hasbrouck's indefatagable reporting on travel privacy - that at various airports airlines are experimenting with biometric boarding. This process does away entirely with boarding cards; the airline captures biometrics at check-in and uses them to entirely automate the "boarding process" (a favorite bit of airline-speak of the late comedian George Carlin). The linked explanation claims this will be faster because you can have four! automated lanes instead of one human-operated lane. (Presumably then the four lanes merge into a giant pile-up in the single-lane jetway.)

It was nonetheless startling to be confronted with it in person - and with no warning. CBP proposed taking non-US citizens' images in 2020, when none of us were flying, and Hasbrouck wrote earlier this year about the system's use in Seattle. There was, he complained, no signage to explain the system despite the legal requirement to do so, and the airport's website incorrectly claimed that Congress mandated capturing biometrics to identify all arriving and departing international travelers.

According to Biometric Update, as of last February, 32 airports were using facial recognition on departure, and 199 airports were using facial recognition on arrival. In total, 48 million people had their biometrics taken and processed in this way in fiscal 2021. Since the program began in 2018, the number of alleged impostors caught: 46.

"Protecting our nation, one face at a time," CBP calls it.

On its website, British Airways says passengers always have the ability to opt out except where biometrics are required by law. As noted, it all happened too fast. I saw no indication on the ground that opting out was possible, even though notice is required under the Paperwork Reduction Act (1980).

As Hasbrouck says, though, travelers, especially international travelers and even more so international travelers outside their home countries, go through so many procedures at airports that they have little way to know which are required by law and which are optional, and arguing may get you grounded.

He also warns that the system I encountered is only the beginning. "There is an explicit intention worldwide that's already decided that this is the new normal, All new airports will be designed and built with facial recognition built into them for all airlines. It means that those who opt out will find it more and more difficult and more and more delaying."

Hasbrouck, who is probably the world's leading expert on travel privacy, sees this development as dangerous. Largely, he says, it's happening unopposed because the government's desire for increased surveillance serves the airlines' own desire to cut costs through automating their business processes - which include herding travelers onto planes.

"The integration of government and business is the under-noticed aspect of this. US airports are public entities but operate with the thinking of for-profit entities - state power merged with the profit motive. State *monopoly* power merged with the profit motive. Automation is the really problematic piece of this. Once the infrastructure is built it's hard for airline to decide to do the right thing." That would be the "right thing" in the sense of resisting the trend toward "pre-crime" prediction.

"The airline has an interest in implying to you that it's required by government because it pressures people into a business process automation that the airline wants to save them money and implicitly put the blame on the government for that," he says. "They don't want to say 'we're forcing you into this privacy-invasive surveillance technology'."


Illustrations: Edward Hasbrouck in 2017.

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.

October 14, 2022

Signaled

wendyg_railway_signal_tracks_crossing-370.jpgA while back, I was trying to get a friend to install the encrypted messaging app Signal.

"Oh, I don't want another messaging app."

Well, I said, it's not *another* messaging app. Use it to replace the app you currently use for texting (SMS) and it will just sit there showing you your text messages. But whenever you encounter another Signal user those messages will be encrypted. People sometimes accepted this; more often, they wanted to know why I couldn't just use WhatsApp, like their school group, tennis club, other friends... (Well, see, it may be encrypted, but it's still owned by the Facebook currently known as Meta.)

This week I learned that soon I won't be able to make this argument any more, because...Signal will be dropping SMS support for Android users sometime in the next few months. I don't love either the plan or the vagueness of its timing. (For reasons I don't entirely understand, this doesn't apply to the nether world of iPhone users.)

The company's blog posting lists several reasons. Apparently the app's SMS integration is confusing to many users, who are unclear about when their messages are encrypted and when they're not. Whether this is true is being disputed in the related forum thread discussing this decision. On the bah! side is "even my grandmother can use it" (snarl) and on the other the valid evidence of the many questions users have posted about this over the years in the support forums. Maybe solvable with some user interface tweaks?

Second, the pricing differential between texting and Signal messages, which transit the Internet as data, has reversed since Signal began. Where data plans used to be rare and expensive, and SMS texts cheap or bundled with phone service, today data plans are common, and SMS has become expensive in some parts of the world. There, the confusion between SMS and Signal messaging really matters. I can't argue with that except to note that equally it's a problem that does *not* apply in many countries. Again, perhaps solvable with user settings...but it's fair enough to say that supporting this may not be the best use of Signal's limited resources. I don't have insight into the distribution of Signal's global user base, and users in other countries are likely to be facing bigger risks than I am.

Third is sort of a purity argument: it's inherently contradictory to include an insecure protocol in an app intended to protect security and privacy. "Inconsistent with our values." The forum discussion is split on this. While many agree with this position, many of the rest of us live in a world that includes lots of people who do not use, and do not want to use (see above), Signal, and it is vastly more convenient to have a single messaging app that handles both.

Signal may not like to stress this aspect, but one problem with trusting an encrypted messaging app in the first place is that the privacy and security are only as good as your correspondents' intentions. Maybe all your contacts set their messages to disappear after a week, password-protect and encrypt their message database, and assign every contact an alias. Or, maybe they don't password-protect anything, never delete anything, and mirror the device to three other computers, all of which they leave lying around in public. You cannot know for sure. So a certain level of insecurity is baked into the most secure installations no matter what you do. I don't see SMS as the biggest problem here.

I think this decision is going to pose real, practical problems for Signal in terms of retaining and growing its user base; it surely does not want the app's presence on a phone become governments' watch-this-person flag. At least in Western countries, SMS is inescapable. It would be better if two-factor authentication used a less hackable alternative, but at the moment SMS is the widespread vector of corporate choice. We consumers don't actually get to choose to dump it until they do. A switch is apparently happening very slowly behind the scenes in the form of RCS, which I don't even know if my aged phone supports. In the meantime, Signal becomes the "another messaging app" we began with - and historically, diminished convenience has been one of the biggest blocks to widespread adoption of privacy-enhancing technologies.

Signal's decision raises the possibility that we are heading into a time where texting people becomes far more difficult. It may become like the early days, when you could only text people using the same phone company as you - for example, Apple has yet to adopt RCS. Every new contact will have to start with a negotiation by email or phone: how do I text you? In *addition* to everything else.

The Internet isn't splintering (yet); email may be despised, but every service remains interoperable. But the mobile world looks like breaking into silos. I have family members who don't understand why they can't send me iMessages or FaceTime me (no iPhone?), and friends I can't message unless I want to adopt WhatsApp or Telegram (groan - another messaging app?).

Signal may well be right that this move is a win for security, privacy, and user clarity. But for communication? In *this* house, it's a frustrating regression.

Illustrations: Midjourney's rendering of "railway signal tracks crossing",

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.

July 15, 2022

Online harms

boris-johnson-on-his-bike-European-Cycling-Federation-370.jpgAn unexpected bonus of the gradual-then-sudden disappearance of Boris Johnson's government, followed by his own resignation, is that the Online Safety bill is being delayed until after Parliament's September return with a new prime minister and, presumably, cabinet.

This is a bill almost no one likes - child safety campaigners think it doesn't go far enough; digital and human rights campaigners - Big Brother Watch, Article 19, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Open Rights Group, Liberty, a coalition of 16 organizations (PDF) - because it threatens freedom of expression and privacy while failing to tackle genuine harms such as the platforms' business model; and technical and legal folks because it's largely unworkable.

The DCMS Parliamentary committee sees it as wrongly conceived. The he UK Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Jonathan Hall QC, says it's muzzled and confused. Index on Censorship calls it fundamentally broken, and The Economist says it should be scrapped. The minister whose job it has been to defend it, Nadine Dorries (C-Mid Bedfordshire), remains in place at the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, but her insistence that resigning-in-disgrace Johnson was brought down by a coup probably won't do her any favors in the incoming everything-that-goes-wrong-was-Johnson's-fault era.

In Wednesday's Parliamentary debate on the bill, the most interesting speaker was Kirsty Blackman (SNP-Aberdeen North), whose Internet usage began 30 years ago, when she was younger than her children are now. Among passionate pleas that her children should be protected from some of the high-risk encounters she experienced, was: "Every person, nearly, that I have encountered talking about this bill who's had any say over it, who continues to have any say, doesn't understand how children actually use the Internet." She called this the bill's biggest failing. "They don't understand the massive benefits of the Internet to children."

This point has long been stressed by academic researchers Sonia Livingstone and Andy Phippen, both of whom actually do talk to children. "If the only horse in town is the Online Safety bill, nothing's going to change," Phippen said at last week's Gikii, noting that Dorries' recent cringeworthy TikTok "rap" promoting the bill focused on platform liability. "The liability can't be only on one stakeholder." His suggestion: a multi-pronged harm reduction approach to online safety.

UK politicians have publicly wished to make "Britain the safest place in the world to be online" all the way back to Tony Blair's 1997-2007 government. It's a meaningless phrase. Online safety - however you define "safety" - is like public health; you need it everywhere to have it anywhere.

Along those lines, "Where were the regulators?" Paul Krugman asked in the New York Times this week, as the cryptocurrency crash continues to flow. The cryptocurrency market, which is now down to $1 trillion from its peak of $3 trillion, is recapitulating all the reasons why we regulate the financial sector. Given the ongoing collapses, it may yet fully vaporize. Krugman's take: "It evolved into a sort of postmodern pyramid scheme". The crash, he suggests, may provide the last, best opportunity to regulate it.

The wild rise of "crypto" - and the now-defunct Theranos - was partly fueled by high-trust individuals who boosted the apparent trustworthiness of dubious claims. The same, we learned this week was true of Uber 2014-2017, Based on the Uber files,124,000 documents provided by whistleblower Mark MacGann, a lobbyist for Uber 2014-2016, the Guardian exposes the falsity of Uber's claims that its gig economy jobs were good for drivers.

The most startling story - which transport industry expert Hubert Horan had already published in 2019 - is the news that the company paid academic economists six-figure sums to produce reports it could use to lobby governments to change the laws it disliked. Other things we knew about - for example, Greyball, the company's technology denying regulators and police rides so they couldn't document Uber's regulatory violations and Uber staff's abuse of customer data - are now shown to have been more widely used than we knew. Further appalling behavior, such as that of former CEO Travis Kalanick, who was ousted in 2017, has been thoroughly documented in the 2019 book, Super Pumped, by Mike Isaac, and the 2022 TV series based on it, Super Pumped.

But those scandals - and Thursday/s revelation that 559 passengers are suing the company for failing to protect them from rape and assault by drivers - aren't why Horan described Uber as a regulatory failure in 2019. For years, he has been indefatigably charting Uber's eternal unprofitability. In his latest, he notes that Uber has lost over $20 billion since 2015 while cutting driver compensation by 40%. The company's share price today is less than half its 2019 IPO price of $45 - and a third of its 2021 peak of $60. The "misleading investors" kind of regulatory failure.

So, returning to the Online Safety bill, if you undermine existing rights and increase the large platforms' power by devising requirements that small sites can't meet *and* do nothing to rein in the platforms' underlying business model...the regulatory failure is built in. This pause is a chance to rethink.

Illustrations: Boris Johnson on his bike (European Cyclists Federation via Wikimedia).

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.

June 24, 2022

Creepiness at scale

Thumbnail image for 2001-hal.pngThis week, Amazon announced a prospective new feature for its Alexa "smart" speakers: the ability to mimic anyone;s voice from less than on minute of recording. Amazon is, incredibly, billing this as the chance to memorialize a dead loved one as a digital assistant.

As someone commented on Twitter, technology companies are not *supposed* to make ideas from science fiction dystopias into reality. As so often, Philip K. Dick got here first; in his 1969 novel Ubik, a combination of psychic powers and cryonics lets (rich) people visit and consult their dead, whose half-life fades with each contact.

Amazon can call this preserving "memories", but at The Overspill Charles Arthur is likely closer to reality, calling it "deepfake for voice". Except that were deepfakes emerged from a Reddit group and requires some technical effort, Amazon's functionality will be right there in millions of people's homes, planted by one of the world's largest technology companies. Questions abound: who gets access to the data and models, and will Amazon link it to its Ring doorbell network and thousands of partnerships with law enforcement?

The answers, like the service, are probably years off. The lawsuits may not be.

This piece began as some notes on the company that so far has been the technology industry's creepiest: the facial image database company Clearview AI. Clearview, which has built its multibillion-item database by scraping images off social media and other publicly accessible sites, has fallen foul of regulators in the UK, Australia, France, Italy, Canada, and Illinois. In a world full of intrusive companies collecting mass amounts of personal data about all of us, Clearview AI still stands out.

It has few, if any, defenders outside its own offices. For one thing, unlike Facebook or Google, it offers us - citizens, consumers - nothing in return for our data, which it appropriates wholesale. It is the ultimate two-sided market in which we are nothing but salable data points. It came to public notice in January 2020, when Kashmir Hill exposed its existence and asked if this was the company that was going to end privacy.

Clearview, which bills itself as "building a secure world one face at a time", defends itself against both data protection and copyright laws by arguing that scraping and storing billions of images from what law enforcement likes to call "open source intelligence" is legitimate because the images are posted in public. Even if that were how data protection laws work, it's not how copyright works! Both Twitter and Facebook told Clearview to stop scraping their sites shortly after Hill's article appeared in 2020, as did Google, LInkedIn, and YouTube. It's not clear if the company stopped or deleted any of the data.

Among regulators, Canada was first, starting federal and provincial investigations in June 2020, when Clearview claimed its database held 3 billion images. In February 2021, the Canadian Privacy Commissioner, David Therrien, issued a public warning that the company could not use facial images of Canadians without their explicit consent. Clearview, which had been selling its service to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police among dozens of others, opted to leave the country and mount a court challenge - but not to delete images of Canadians, as Therrien had requested.

In December 2021, the French data protection authority, CNIL, ordered Clearview to delete all the data it holds relating to French citizens within two months, and threatened further sanctions and administrative fines if the company failed to comply within that time.

In March 2022, with Clearview openly targeting 100 billion images and commercial users, Italian DPA Garante per la protezione dei dati personali fined Clearview €20 million, ordered it to delete any data it holds on Italians, and banned it from further processing of Italian citizens' biometrics.

In May 2022, the UK's Information Commissioner's Office fined the company £7.5 million and ordered it to delete the UK data it holds.

All these cases are based on GDPR and find the same complaints: Clearview has no legal basis for holding the data, and it is in breach of data retention rules and subjects' rights. Clearview appears not to care, taking the view that it is not subject to GDPR because it's not a European company.

It couldn't make that argument to the state of Illinois. In early May 2022, Clearview and the American Civil Liberties Union settled a court action filed in May 2020 under Illinois' Biometric Information Privacy Act. Result: Clearview has accepted a ban on selling its services or offering them for free to most private companies *nationwide* and a ban on selling access to its database to any private or state or local government entity, including law enforcement, in Illinois for five years. Clearview has also developed an opt-out form for Illinois residents to use to withdraw their photos from searches, and continue to try to filter out photographs taken in or uploaded from Illinois. On its website, Clearview paints all this as a win.

Eleven years ago, Google's then-CEO, Eric Schmidt, thought automating facial recognition was too creepy to pursue and synthesizing a voice from recordings took months. The problem isn't any more that potentially dangerous technology has developed faster than laws can be formulated to control it. It's that we now have well-funded companies that don't care about either.


Illustrations: HAL, from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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.

May 27, 2022

Well may the bogeyman come

NCC-EPIC-award-CPDP-2022.jpgIt's only an accident of covid that this year's Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference - delayed from late January - coincided with the fourth anniversary of the EU's General Data Protection Regulation. Yet its failures and frustrations were on everyone's mind as they considered new legislation forthcoming from the EU: the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act, and, especially, the AI Act,

Two main frustrations: despite GDPR, privacy invasions continue to expand, and, related, enforcement has been extremely limited. The first is obvious to everyone here. For the second...as Max Schrems explained in a panel on GDPR enforcement, none of the cross-border cases his NGO, noyb, filed on May 19, 2018, the day after GDPR came into force, have been decided, and even decisions on simpler cases have failed to deal with broader questions.

In one of his examples, Spain rejected a complaint because it wasn't doing historic cases and Austria claimed the case was solved because the organization involved had changed its procedures. "But my rights were violated then." There was no redress.

Schrems is the data protection bogeyman; because legal actions he has brought have twice struck down US-EU agreements to enable data flows, the possibility of "Schrems III" if the next version gets it wrong is frequently mentioned. This particular panel highlighted numerous barriers that block effective action.

Other speakers highlighted numerous gaps between countries that impede cross-border complaints: some authorities have tight deadlines that expire while other authorities are working to more leisurely schedules; there are many conflicts between national procedural laws; each data protection authority has its own approach and requirements; and every cross-border complaint must be time-consumingly translated into English, even when both relevant authorities speak, say, German. "Getting an answer to a two-minute question takes four months," Nina Herbort said, highlighting the common underlying problem: underresourcing.

"Weren't they designed to fail?" Finn Myrstad asked.

Even successful enforcement has largely been limited to levying fines - and despite some of the eye-watering numbers they're still just cost of doing business to major technology platforms.

"We have the tools for structural sanctions," Johnny Ryan said in a discussion on judicial actions. Some of that is beginning to happen. A day earlier, the UK'a Information Commissioner's Office fined Clearview AI £7.5 million and ordered it to delete the images it holds of UK residents. In February, Canada issued a similar order; a few weeks ago, Illinois permanently banned the company from selling its database to most private actors and businesses nationwide, and barred it from selling its service to any entity within Illinois for five years. Sanctions like these hurt more than fines as does requiring companies to delete the algorithms they've based on illegally acquired data.

Other suggestions included building sovereignty by ensuring that public procurement does not default to off-the-shelf products from a few foreign companies but is built on local expertise, advocated by. Jan-Philipp Albrecht, the former MEP who panel on the impact of Schrems II that he is now building up cloud providers using locally-built hardware and open source software for the province of Schleswig-Holstein. Quang-Minh Lepescheux suggested requiring transparency in how people are trained to use automated decision making systems and forcing technology providers to accept third-party testing. Cristina Caffara, probably the only antitrust lawyer in sight, wants privacy advocates and antitrust lawyers to work together; the economists inside competition authorities insist that more data means better products so it's good for consumers. Rebecca Slaughter wants to give companies the clarity they say they want (until they get it): clear, regularly updated rules banning a list of practices with a catchall. Ryan also noted that some sanctions can vastly improve enforcement efficiency: there's nothing to investigate after banning a company from making acquisitions. Enforcing purpose limitation and banning the single "OK to everything" is more complicated but, "Purpose limitation is Kryptonite to Big Tech when it's misusing data."

Any and all of these are valuable. But new kinds of thinking are also needed. The more complex issue and another major theme was the limitations of focusing on personal data and individual rights. This was long predicted as a particular problem for genetic data - the former science journalist Tom Wilkie was first to point out the implications, sounding a warning in his book Perilous Knowledge, published in 1994, at the beginning of the Human Genome Project. Singling out individuals who have been harmed can easily obfuscate collective damage. The obvious example is Cambridge Analytica and Facebook; the damage to national elections can't be captured one Friends list at a time, controls on the increasing use of aggregated data require protection at scale, and, perversely, monitoring for bias and discrimination requires data collection.

In response to a panel on harmful patterns in recent privacy proposals, an audience member suggested that the African philosophy of ubuntu as a useful source of ideas for thinking about collective and, even more important, *interdependent* data. This is where we need to go. Many forms of data - including both genetic data and financial data - cannot be thought of any other way.


Illustrations: The Norwegian Consumer Council receives EPIC's International Privacy Champion award at CPDP 2022.

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.

May 20, 2022

Mona Lisa smile

Mona Lisa - cropped for net.wars.jpgA few weeks ago, Zoom announced that it intends to add emotion detection technology to its platform. According to Mark DeGeurin at Gizmodo, in response, 27 human rights groups from across the world, led by Fight for the Future, have sent an open letter demanding that the company abandon this little plan, calling the software "invasive" and "inherently biased". On Twitter, I've seen it called "modern phrenology"; a deep insult for those who remember the pseudoscience of studying the bumps on people's heads to predict their personalities.

It's an insult, but it's not really wrong. In 2019, Angela Chen at MIT Technology Review highlighted a study showing that facial expressions on their own are a poor guide to what someone is feeling. Cultures, context, personal style all affect how we present ourselves, and the posed faces AI developers use as part of their training of machine learning systems are even worse indicators, since few of us really how our faces look under the influence of different emotions. In 2021, Kate Crawford, author of Atlas of AI, used the same study to argue in The Atlantic that the evidence that these systems work at all is "shaky".

Nonetheless, Crawford goes on to report, this technology is being deployed in hiring systems and added into facial recognition. A few weeks ago, Kate Kaye reported at Protocol that Intel and virtual school software provider Classroom Technologies are teaming up to offer a version that runs on top of Zoom.

Cue for a bit of nostalgia: I remember the first time I heard of someone proposing computer emotion detection over the Internet. It was the late 1990s, and the source - or the perpetrator, depending on your point of view, was Rosalind Picard at the MIT Media Lab. Her book on the subject, Affective Computing, came out in 1997.

Picard's main idea was that to be truly intelligent - or at least, seem that way to us - computers would have to learn to recognize emotions and produce appropriate responses. One of the potential applications I remember hearing about was online classrooms, where the software could monitor students' expressions for signs of boredom, confusion, or distress and alert the teacher - exactly what Intel and Classroom Technologies want to do now. I remember being dubious: shouldn't teachers be dialed in on that sort of thing? Shouldn't they know their students well enough to notice? OK, remote, over a screen, maybe dozens or hundreds of students at a time...not so easy.... (Of course, the expensive schools offer mass online education schemes to exploit their "brands", but they still keep the small, in-person classes that creates those "brands" by churning out prime ministers and Silicon Valley dropouts.)

That wasn't Picard's main point, of course. In a recent podcast interview, she explains her original groundbreaking insight: that computers need to have emotional intelligence in order to make them less frustrating for us to deal with. If computers can capture the facial expressions we choose to show, the changes in our vocal tones, our gestures and muscle tension, perhaps they can respond more appropriately - or help humans to do so. Twenty-five years later, the ideas in Picard's work are now in use in media companies, ad agencies, and call centers - places where computer-human communication happens.

It seems a doubtful proposition. Humans learn from birth to read faces, and even we have argued for centuries over the meaning of the expression on the face of the Mona Lisa.

In 1997, Picard did not foresee the creepiness and giant technology exploiters. It's hard to know whether to be more alarmed about the technology's inaccuracy or its potential improvement. While it's inaccurate and biased, the dangers are the consequences of mistakes in interpretation; a student marked "inattentive", for example, may be penalized in their grade. But improving and debiasing the technology opens the way for fine-tuned manipulation and far more pervasive and intimate surveillance as it becomes embedded in every company, every conference, every government agency, every doctor's office, all of law enforcement. Meanwhile, the technological imperative of improving the system will require the collection of more and more data: body movements, heart rates, muscle tension, posture, gestures, surroundings.

I'd like to think that by this time we are smarter about how technology can be abused. I'm sure many of Zoom's corporate clients want emotion recognition technology; as in so many other cases, we are pawns because we're largely not the ones paying the bills or making the choice of platform. There's an analogy here to Elon Musk's negotiations with Twitter shareholders; the millions who use the service every day and find it valuable have no say in what will happen to it. If Zoom adopts emotion recognition, how long before law enforcement starts asking for user data in order to feed it into predictive policing systems? One of this week's more startling revelations was Aaron Gordon's report at Vice that San Francisco police are using driverless cars as mobile surveillance cameras, taking advantage of the fact that they are continuously recording their surroundings.

Sometimes the only way to block abuse of technology is to retire the idea entirely. If you really want to know what I'm thinking and feeling, just ask. I promise I'll tell you.


Illustrations: The emotional enigma that is the Mona Lisa.

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.

May 6, 2022

Heartbeat

Trigger_law_states.svg.pngThree months ago, for a book Cybersalon is producing, called Twenty-Two Ideas About the Future, I wrote a provocation about a woman living in Heartbeat Act Texas who discovers she's pregnant. When she forgets to disable its chip, the "smart" home pregnancy test uploads the news to the state's health agency, which promptly shares it far and wide. Under the 2021 law's sanctions on intermediaries, payment services, travel companies, supermarkets all fear being sued as intermediaries, and so they block her from doing anything that might lead to liability, like buying alcohol, cigarettes, or a bus ticket to the state line, or paying a website for abortion pills.

It wasn't supposed to come true, and certainly not so soon.

As anyone who's seen any form of news this week will know, in a leaked draft of the US Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, author Justice Samuel Alito argues that its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade was "wrongly decided". This is not the place to defend the right to choose or deplore the dangers of of valuing the potential life of a fetus over the actual life of the person carrying it (Louisiana legislators have advanced a bill classifying abortion as homicide). But it is the place to consider the privacy loss if the decision proceeds as indicated, and not just in the approximately half of US states predicted to jump at the opportunity to adopt forced-childbirth policies.

On my shelf is Alan E. Nourse's 1965 book Intern, by Doctor X, an extraordinarily frank diary Nourse kept throughout his 1956 internship. Here he is during his OB/GYN rotation: "I don't know who the OB men have to answer to around here when they get back suspicious pathology reports...somebody must be watching them." In an update, he says the hospital's Tissue Committee reviewed pathology reports on all dilation and curettage procedures; first "suspicious" report attracted a private warning, second a censure, and third permanent expulsion from the hospital staff.

I first read that when I was 12, and I did not understand that he was talking about abortion - although D&Cs were and are routine, necessary procedures, in that time and place each one was also suspected, like travelers today boarding a plane. Every miscarriage had to be cleared of suspicion, a process unlikely to help any of the estimated 1 million per year who grieve pregnancy loss. Elsewhere, he notes the number of patients labeled "NO INFORMATION"; they were giving their babies up for adoption. Then, it was sufficient to criminalize the doctors.

Part of Alito's argument is that abortion is not mentioned in either the Constitution or the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, or Fourteenth Amendments Roe cited. Neither, he says, is privacy; that casual little aside is the Easter egg pointing to future human rights rollbacks.

The US has insufficient privacy law, even in the health sector. Worse, the data collected by period trackers, fitness gizmos, sleep monitoring apps, and the rest is not classed as health data to be protected under HIPAA. In 2015, employers' access to such data through "wellness" programs began raising privacy concerns; all types of employee monitoring have expanded since the pandemic began. Finally, as Johana Bhuiyan reported at the Guardian last month, US law enforcement has easy access to the consumer data we trustingly provide to companies like Apple and Meta. And even when don't provide it, others do: in 2016, anti-choice activists were caught snapping pictures of women entering clinics, noting license plate numbers, and surveiling their smarphones via geofencing to target those deemed to be "abortion-minded".

"Leaving it to the states" - Alito writes of states' rights, not of women's rights - means any woman of child-bearing age at risk of living under a prohibitive regime dare not confide in any of these technologies. Also dangerous: insurance companies, support groups for pregnancy loss or for cancer patients whose treatment is incompatible with continuing a pregnancy, centers for health information, GPS-enabled smartphones, even search engines. Heterosexual men can look forward to diminished sex lives dominated by fear of pregnancy (although note that no one's threatening to criminalize ejaculating inside a vagina) and women may struggle to find doctors willing to treat them at all.

My character struggled to travel out of state. This was based on 1980s Ireland, where ending a pregnancy required a trip to England; in 1992 courts famously barred a raped 14-year-old from traveling. At New York Magazine, Irin Carman finds that some Republican politicians are indeed thinking about this.

Encryption, VPNs, Tor - women will need the same tools that aid dissidents in authoritarian countries. The company SafeGraph, Joseph Cox reports at Vice, sells location data showing who has visited abortion clinics. In response, SafeGraph promised to stop. By then Cox had found another one.

At Gizmodo, Shoshona Wodinsky has the advice on privacy protection my fictional character needed. She dares not confide in anyone she knows lest she put them at risk of becoming an attackable intermediary, yet everyone she *doesn't* know has already been informed.

This is the exact near-future Parmy Olson outlines at Bloomberg, quoting US senator Ron Wyden (D-OR): "...every digital record - from web searches, to phone records and app data - will be weaponized in Republican states as a way to control women's bodies."


Illustrations: Map of the US states with "trigger laws" waiting to come into force if Roe v. Wade is overturned (via M. Bitton at Wikimedia.

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.

April 15, 2022

The data of sport

vlcsnap-2022-04-15-13h01m46s668.pngIn 1989, at 5-6 in the third and final set of the French Open women's singles final, 20-year-old Steffi Graf abruptly ran off-court. Soon afterwards, her opponent, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, completed one of the biggest upsets in the history of women's tennis.

Why did Graf do it? the press demanded to know in the post-march interview. When Graf finally (and slightly crankily) explained that she had her period. some journalists - Michael Mewshaw cites Italian Hall of Fame journalist Gianni Clerici for one - followed up by printing her (presumably imagined) menstrual cycle in the newspapers.

Mewshaw recounted this incident in June 2021 to illustrate the unpleasantness that can attend sports press conferences, in sympathy with Naomi Osaka. However, he could as easily have been writing about the commodification of athletes and their personal information. Graf got no benefit from journalists' prurient curiosity. But bettors, obsessive fans, and commentators could imagine they were being sold insight into her on-court performance. Ick.

This week, the Australian Science Academy launched a discussion paper on the use of athlete data in professional sport, chaired by Julia Powles and Toby Walsh. Powles and Walsh have also provided a summary at The Conversation.

The gist: the amount and variety of data collected about athletes has exploded using the justification of improving athletic performance and reducing injury risk. It's being collected and saved with little oversight and no clarity about how it's being used or who gets access to it; the overriding approach is to collect everything possible and save it in case a use is found. "It's rare for sports scientists and support staff to be able to account for it, and rarer still for sports governing bodies and athletes themselves," they write.

In the ASA's launch panel, Powles commented that athletes are "at the forefront of data gathering and monitoring", adding that such monitoring will eventually be extended to the rest of us as it filters from professional sports to junior sports, and onward from there.

Like Britain's intensively monitored children, athletes have little power to object: they have already poured years of their own and their family's resources into their obsession. Who would risk the chance of big wins to argue when their coach or team manager fits them with sensors tracking their sleep, heart rate, blood oxygenation, temperature, and muscle twitches and says it will help them? The field, Kathryn Henne observed is just an athlete's workplace.

In at least one case - the concussion in American football - data analysis has proved the risk to athletes. But, Powles noted, the report finds that it's really the aggregate counts that matter: how many meters you ran, not what your muscles were doing while you ran them. Much of the data being collected lies fallow, and no theory exists for testing its value.

Powles' particular concern is twofold. First, the report finds that the data is not flowing to sports scientists and others who really understand athletes (and therefore does not actually further the goal of helping them) but toward data scientists and other dedicated data-crunchers who have no expertise in sports science. Second, she deplores the resulting opportunity costs.

"What else aren't we spending money on?" she asked. Healthier environments and providing support are things we know work; why not pursue them instead of "technology dreams"? Her biggest surprise, she said, was discovering how cash-strapped most sports are. Even tennis: the stars make millions, but the lower ranks starve.

Professional athletes have always had to surrender aspects of their privacy in order to play their sport, beginning with the long, unpleasant history of gender testing, which began with men-only games in which competitors appeared nude, and continued in 1968 with requiring athletes wishing to compete in women's sports to prove they qualify. Then came anti-doping, which presumes everyone is guilty except when testing finds them innocent: urine tests under observation and blood tests for more sophisticated doping agents like EPO. In 2004, the anti-doping authorities initiated the "Whereabouts rule", which requires athletes to provide their location every day to facilitate no-notice out-of-competition testing. More recently, sporting authorities have begun collecting and storing blood and other parameters to populate the "athlete biological passport" with the idea that longitudinal profiling will highlight changes indicative of doping. An athlete who objects to any of this is likely to be publicly accused of cheating; sympathy is in short supply.

The report adds to those obvious invasions the ongoing blurring of the line between health data - which apparently is determined by the involvement of a doctor - and what the authors call "performance data". This was raised as an issue at the Privacy Health Summit back in 2014, where panelists noted that the range of sensitive data being collected by then-new Fitbits, sleep apps, and period trackers wasn't covered by the US health information law, HIPAA.

Athletes are the commodities in all this. It's not a big stretch to imagine the use of this data turning hostile, particularly as it extends to junior sports, where it can be notoriously difficult to pic future winners. Sports hold our interest because they provide the unexpected. Data-crunching by its nature tries to eliminate it. As Powles put it, "The story of sport is not just the runs and the goals." But that's what data can count.


Illustrations: Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario holding the 1989 French Open women's singles trophy.

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.

March 25, 2022

Dangerous corner

War_damages_in_Mariupol,_12_March_2022_(01).jpgIf there is one thing the Western world has near-universally agreed in the last month, it's that in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainians are the injured party. The good guys.

If there's one thing that privacy advocates and much of the public agree on, it's that Clearview AI, which has amassed a database of (it claims) 10 billion facial images by scraping publicly accessible social media without the subjects' consent and sells access to it to myriad law enforcement organizations, is one of the world's creepiest companies. This assessment is exacerbated by the fact that the company and its CEO refuse to see anything wrong about their unconsented repurposing of other people's photos; it's out there for the scraping, innit?

Last week, Reuters reported that Clearview AI was offering Ukraine free access to its technology. Clearview's suggested uses: vetting people at checkpoints; debunking misinformation on social media; reuniting separated family members; and identifying the dead. Clearview's CEO, Hoan Ton-That, told Reuters that the company has 2 billion images of Russians scraped from Russian Facebook clone Vkonakte.

This week, it's widely reported that Ukraine is accepting the offer. At Forbes, Tom Brewster reports that Ukraine is using the technology to identify the dead.

Clearview AI has been controversial ever since January 2020, when Kashmir Hill reported its existence in the New York Times, calling it "the secretive company that might end privacy as we know it". Social media sites LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube all promptly sent cease-and-desist notices. A month later, Kim Lyons reported at The Verge that its 2,200 customers included the FBI, Interpol, the US Department of Justice, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a UAE sovereign wealth fund, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and college campus police departments.

In May 2021, Privacy International filed complaints in five countries. In response, Canada, Australia, the UK, France, and Italy have all found Clearview to be in breach of data protection laws and ordered it to delete all the photos of people that it has collected in their territories. Sweden, Belgium, and Canada have declared law enforcement use of Clearview's technology to be illegal.

Ukraine is its first known use in a war zone. In a scathing blog posting, Privacy International says, "...the use of Clearview's database by authorities is a considerable expansion of the realm of surveillance, with very real potential for abuse."

Brewster cites critics, who lay out familiar privacy issues. Misidentification in a war zone could lead to death if a live soldier's nationality is wrongly assessed (especially common when the person is non-white) and unnecessary heartbreak for dead soldiers' families. Facial recognition can't distinguish civilians and combatants. In addition, the use of facial recognition by the "good guys" in a war zone might legitimize the technology. This last seems to me unlikely; we all distinguish the difference between what's acceptable in peace time versus an extreme context. This issue here is *company*, not the technology, as PI accurately pinpoints: "...it seems no human tragedy is off-limits to surveillance companies looking to sanitize their image."

Jack McDonald, a senior lecturer in war studies at Kings College London who researches the relationship between ethics, law, technology, and war, sees the situation differently.

Some of the fears Brewster cites, for example, are far-fetched. "They're probably not going to be executing people at checkpoints." If facial recognition finds a match in those situations, they'll more likely make an arrest and do a search. "If that helps them to do this, there's a very good case for it, because Russia does appear to be flooding the country with saboteurs." Cases of misidentification will be important, he agrees, but consider the scale of harm in the conflict itself.

McDonald notes, however, that the use of biometrics to identify refugees is an entirely different matter and poses huge problems. "They're two different contexts, even though they're happening in the same space."

That leaves the use Ukraine appears to be most interested in: identifying dead bodies. This, McDonald explains, represents a profound change from the established norms, which include social and institutional structures and has typically been closely guarded. Even though the standard of certainty is much lower, facial recognition offers the possibility of being able to do identification at scale. In both cases, the people making the identification typically have to rely on photographs taken elsewhere in other contexts, along with dental records and, if all else fails, public postings.

The reality of social media is already changing the norms. In this first month of the war, Twitter users posting pictures of captured Russian soldiers are typically reminded that it is technically against the Geneva Convention to do so. The extensive documentation - video clips, images, first-person reports - that is being posted from the conflict zones on services like TikTok and Twitter is a second front in its own right. In the information war, using facial recognition to identify the dead is strategic.

This is particularly true because of censorship in Russia, where independent media have almost entirely shut down and citizens have only very limited access to foreign news. Dead bodies are among the only incontrovertible sources of information that can break through the official denials. The risk that inaccurate identification could fuel Russian propaganda remains, however.

Clearview remains an awful idea. But if I thought it would help save my country from being destroyed, would I care?


Illustrations: War damage in Mariupol, Ukraine (Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, via Wikimedia.

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.

February 11, 2022

Freedom fries

"Someone ratted me out," a friend complained recently. They meant: after a group dinner, one of the participants had notified everyone to say they'd tested positive for covid a day later, and a third person had informed the test and trace authorities and now my friend was getting repeated texts along the lines of "isolate and get tested". Which they found invasive and offensive, and...well, just plain *unreasonable*.

Last night, Boris Johnson casually said in Parliament that he thought we could end all covid-related restrictions in a couple of weeks. Today there's a rumor that the infection survey that has produced the most reliable data on the prevalence and location of covid infections may be discontinued soon. There have been rumors, too, of charging for covid tests.

Fifteen hundred people died of covid in this country in the past week. Officially, there were more than 66,000 new infections yesterday - and that doesn't include all the people who felt like crap and didn't do a test, or did do a test and didn't bother to report the results (because the government's reporting web form demands a lot of information each time that it only needs if you tested positive), or didn't know they were infected. If he follows through. Johnson's announcement would mean that if said dinner happened a month from now, my friend wouldn't be told to isolate. They can get exposed and perhaps infected and mingle as normal in complete ignorance. The tradeoff is the risk for everyone else: how do we decide when it's safe enough to meet? Is the plan to normalize high levels of fatalities?

Brief digression: no one thinks Johnson's announcement is a thought-out policy. Instead, given the daily emergence of new stories about rule-breaking parties at 10 Downing Street during lockdown, his comment is widely seen as an attempt to distract us and quiet fellow Conservatives who might vote to force him out of office. Ironically, a key element in making the party stories so compelling is the hundreds of pictures from CCTV, camera phones, social media, Johnson's official photographer... Teenagers have known for a decade to agree to down cameras at parties, but British government officials are apparently less afraid anything bad will happen to them if they're caught.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we wrote about the inevitable clash between privacy and the needs of public health and epidemiology. Privacy was indeed much discussed then, at the design stage for contact tracing apps, test and trace, and other measures. Democratic countries had to find a balance between the needs of public health and human rights. In the end, Google and Apple wound up largely dictating the terms on which contact tracing apps could operate on their platforms.

To the chagrin of privacy activists, "privacy" has rarely been a good motivator for activism. The arguments are too complicated, though you can get some people excited over "state surveillance". In this pandemic, the big rallying cry has been "freedom", from the media-friendly Freedom Day, July 19, 2021, when Johnson removed that round of covid restrictions, to anti-mask and anti-vaccination protesters, such as the "Freedom Convoy" currently blocking up normally bland, government-filled downtown Ottawa, Ontario, and an increasing number of other locations around he world. Understanding what's going on there is beyond the scope of net.wars.

More pertinent is the diverging meaning of "freedom". As the number of covid prevention measures shrinks, the freedom available to vulnerable people shrinks in tandem. I'm not talking about restrictions like how many people may meet in a bar, but simple measures like masking on public transport, or getting restaurants and bars to information about their ventilation that would make assessing risk easier.

Elsewise, we have many people who seem to define "freedom" to mean "It's my right to pretend the pandemic doesn't exist". Masks, even on other people, then become intolerable reminders that there is a virus out there making trouble. In that scenario, however, self-protection, even for reasonably healthy people who just don't want to get sick, becomes near-impossible. The "personal responsibility" approach doesn't work in a situation where what's most needed is social collaboration.

The people landed with the most risk can do the least about it. As the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy highlighted, the advent of the Internet has opened up a huge divide between the people who have to go to work and the people who can work anywhere. I can Zoom into my friend's group dinner rather than attend in person, but the caterers and waitstaff can't. If "your freedom ends where my nose begins" (Zechariah Chafee Jr, it says hereapplies to physical violence, shouldn't it include infection by virus?

Many human rights activists warned against creating second-class citizens via vaccination passports. The idea was right, but privacy was the wrong lens, because we still view it predominantly as a right for the individual. You want freedom? Instead of placing the burden on each of us, as health psychologist Susan Michie has been advocating for months, make the *places* safer - set ventilation standards, have venues publish their protocols, display CO2 readings, install HEPA air purifiers. Less risk, greater freedom, and you'd get some privacy, too - and maybe fewer of us would be set against each other in standoffs no one knows how to fix.


Illustrations: Trucks protesting in Ottawa, February 2022 (via ΙΣΧΣΝΙΚΑ-888 at Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA-4.0).


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.

December 3, 2021

Trust and antitrust

coyote-roadrunner-cliff.pngFour years ago, 2021's new Federal Trade Commission chair, Lina Khan, made her name by writing an antitrust analysis of Amazon that made three main points: 1) Amazon is far more dangerously dominant than people realize; 2) antitrust law, which for the last 30 years has used consumer prices as its main criterion, needs reform; and 3) two inventors in a garage can no longer upend dominant companies because they'll either be bought or crushed. She also accused Amazon of leveraging the Marketplace sellers data it collects to develop and promote competing products.

For context, that was the year Amazon bought Whole Foods.

What made Khan's work so startling is that throughout its existence Amazon has been easy to love: unlike Microsoft (system crashes and privacy), Google (search spam and privacy), or Facebook (so many issues), Amazon sends us things we want when we want them. Amazon is the second-most trusted institution in America after the military, according to a 2018 study by Georgetown University and NYU Rounding out the top five: Google, local police, and colleges and universities. The survey may need some updating.

And yet: recent stories suggest our trust is out of date.

This week, a study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance claims that Amazon's 20-year-old Marketplace takes even higher commissions - 34% - than the 30% Apple and Google are being investigated for taking (30%) from their app stores. The study estimates that Amazon will earn $121 billion from these fees in 2021, double its 2019 takings and that Amazon's 2020 operating profits from Marketplace will reach $24 billion. The company responded to TechCrunch that some of those fees are optional add-ons, while report author Stacy Mitchell counters that "add-ons" such as better keyword search placement and using Amazon's shipping and warehousing have become essential because of the way the company disadvantages sellers who don't "opt" for them. In August, Amazon passed Walmart as the world's largest retailer outside of China). It is the only source of income for 22% of its sellers and the single biggest sales channel for many more; 56% of items sold on Amazon are from third-party sellers.

I started buying from Amazon so long ago that I have an insulated mug they sent every customer as a Christmas gift. Sometime in the last year, I started noticing the frequency of unfamiliar brand names in search results for things like cables, USB sticks, or socks. Smartwool I recognize, but Yuedge, KOOOGEAR, and coskefy? I suddenly note a small, new? tickbox on the left: "our brands". And now I see : "our brands" this time are ouhos, srclo, SuMade, and Sunew. Is it me, or are these names just plain weird?

Of course I knew Amazon owned Zappos, IMDB, Goodreads, and Abe Books, but this is different. Amazon now has hundreds of house brands, according to a study The Markup published in October. The main finding: Amazon promotes its own brands at others' expense, and being an Amazon brand or Amazon-exclusive is more important to your product's prominence than its star ratings or reviews. Amazon denies doing this. It's a classic antitrust conflict of interest: shoppers rarely look beyond the first five listed products, and the platform owner has full control over the order. The Markup used public records to identify more than 150 Amazon brands and developed a browser add-on that highlights them for you. Personally, I'm more inclined to just shop elsewhere.

Also often overlooked is Amazon's growing advertising business. Insider Intelligence estimates its digital ad revenues in 2021 at $24.47 billion - 55.5% higher than 2020, and representing 11.6% (and rising) of the (US) digital advertising market. In July, noting its riseCNBC surmised that Amazon's first-party relationship with its customers relieves it of common technology-company privacy issues. This claim - perhaps again based on the unreasonable trust so many of us place in the company - has to be wrong. Amazon collects vast arrays of personal data from search and purchase records, Alexa recordings, home camera videos, and health data from fitness trackers. We provide it voluntarily, but we don't sign blank checks for its use. Based on confidential documents, Reuters reports that Amazon's extensive lobbying operation has "killed or undermined" more than three dozen privacy bills in 25 US states. (The company denies the story and says it has merely opposed poorly crafted privacy bills.)

Privacy may be the thing that really comes to bite the company. A couple of weeks ago, Will Evans reported at Reveal News, based on a lengthy study of leaked internal documents, that Amazon's retail operation has so much personal data that it has no idea what it has, where it's stored, or how many copies are scattered across its IT estate: "sprawling, fragmented, and promiscuously shared". The very long story is that prioritizing speed of customer service has its downside, in that the company became extraordinarily vulnerable to insider threats such as abuse of access.

Organizations inevitably change over time, particularly when they're as ambitious as this one. The systems and culture that are temporary in startup mode become entrenched and patched, but never fixed. If trust is the land mass we're running on, what happens is we run off the edge of a cliff like Wile E. Coyote without noticing that the ground we trust isn't there any more. Don't look down.


Illustrations: Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff, while the roadrunner watches.

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.

September 10, 2021

Globalizing Britain

Chatsworth_Cascade_and_House_-_geograph.org.uk_-_2191570.jpgBrexit really starts now. It was easy to forget, during the dramas that accompanied the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement and the disruption of the pandemic, that the really serious question had still not been answered: given full control, what would Britain do with it? What is a reshaped "independent global Britain" going to be when it grows up? Now is when we find out, as this government, which has a large enough majority to do almost anything it wants, pursues the policies it announced in the Queen's Speech last May.

Some of the agenda is depressingly cribbed from the current US Republican playbook. First and most obvious in this group is the Elections bill. The most contentious change is requiring voter ID at polling stations (even though there was a total of one conviction for voter fraud in 2019, the year of the last general election). What those in other countries may not realize is how many eligible voters in Britain lack any form of photo ID. The Guardian that 11 million people - a fifth of eligible voters - have neither driver's license nor passport. Naturally they are disproportionately from black and Asian backgrounds, older and disabled, and/or poor. The expected general effect, especially coupled with the additional proposal to remove the 15-year cap on voting while expatriate, is to put the thumb on the electoral scale to favor the Conservatives.

More nettishly, the government is gearing up for another attack on encryption, pulling out all the same old arguments. As Gareth Corfield explains at The Register, the current target is Facebook, which intends to roll out end-to-end encryption for messaging and other services, mixed with some copied FBI going dark rhetoric.

This is also the moment when the Online Safety bill (previously online harms). The push against encryption, which includes funding technical development is part of that because the bill makes service providers responsible for illegal content users post - and also, as Heather Burns points out at the Open Rights Group, legal but harmful content. Burns also details the extensive scope of the bill's age verification plans.

These moves are not new or unexpected. Slightly more so was the announcement that the UK will review data protection law with an eye to diverging from the EU; it opened the consultation today. This is, as many have pointed out before dangerous for UK businesses that rely on data transfers to the EU for survival. The EU's decision a few months ago to grant the UK an adequacy decision - that is, the EU's acceptance of the UK's data protection laws as providing equivalent protection - will last for four years. It seems unlikely the EU will revisit it before then, but even before divergence Ian Brown and Douwe Korff have argued that the UK's data protection framework should be ruled inadequate. It *sounds* great when they say it will mean getting rid of the incessant cookie pop-ups, but at risk is privacy protections that have taken years to build. The consultation document wants to promise everything: "even better data protection regime" and "unlocking the power of data" appear in the same paragraph, and the new regime will also both be "pro-growth and innovation-friendly" and "maintain high data protection standards".

Recent moves have not made it easier to trust this government with respect to personal data- first the postponed-for-now medical data fiasco and second this week's revelation that the government is increasingly using our data and hiring third-party marketing firms to target ads and develop personalized campaigns to manipulate the country's behavior. This "influence government" is the work of the ten-year-old Behavioural Insights Team - the "nudge unit", whose thinking is summed up in its behavioral economy report.

Then there's the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts bill currently making its way through Parliament. This one has been the subject of street protests across the UK because of provisions that permit police and Home Secretary Priti Patel to impose various limits on protests.

Patel's Home Office also features in another area of contention, the Nationality and Borders bill. This bill would make criminal offenses out of arriving in the UK without permission a criminal offense and helping an asylum seeker enter the UK. The latter raises many questions, and the Law Society lists many legal issues that need clarification. Accompanying this is this week's proposal to turn back migrant boats, which breaks maritime law.

A few more entertainments lurk, for one, the plan to review of network neutrality announced by Ofcom, the communications regulator. At this stage, it's unclear what dangers lurk, but it's another thing to watch, along with the ongoing consultation on digital identity.

More expected, no less alarming, this government also has an ongoing independent review of the 1998 Human Rights Act, which Conservatives such as former prime minister Theresa May have long wanted to scrap.

Human rights activists in this country aren't going to get much rest between now and (probably) 2024, when the next general election is due. Or maybe ever, looking at this list. This is the latest step in a long march, and it reminds that underneath Britain's democracy lies its ancient feudalism.


Illustrations: Derbyshire stately home Chatsworth (via Trevor Rickards at Wikimedia.

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.

August 27, 2021

The threat we left behind

afghan-455th_ESFG_scanning_iris.JPGBe careful what systems you build with good intentions. The next owner may not be so kind.

It has long been a basic principle among privacy activists that a significant danger in embedding surveillance technologies is regime change: today's government is benign, but tomorrow's may not be, so let's not build the technologies that could support a police state for that hostile government to wield. Equally - although it's often politic not to say this explicitly - the owner may remain the same but their own intentions may change as the affordances of the system give them new ideas about what it's possible for them to know.

I would be hard-pressed to produce evidence of a direct connection, but one of the ideas floating around Virtual Diplomacy, a 1997 conference that brought together the Internet and diplomacy communities, was that the systems that are privacy-invasive in Western contexts could save lives and avert disasters on the ground in crisis situations. Not long afterwards, the use of biometric identification and other technologies were being built into refugee systems in the US and EU.

In a 2018 article for The New Humanitarian, Paul Currian observes that the systems' development were "driven by the interests of national governments, technology companies, and aid agencies - in that order". Refugees quoted in the article express trust in the UN, but not much understanding of the risks of compliance.

Currian dates the earliest use of "humanitarian biometrics" to 2003 - and identifies the location of that groundbreaking use as...Afghanistan, which iris testing to verify the identities of Afghans returning from Pakistan to prevent fraud. In 2006, then-current, now just-departed, president Ashraf Ghani wrote a book pinpointing biometric identification as the foundation of Afghanistan's social policy. Afghanistan, the article concludes, is "the most biometrically identifiable country in the world" - and, it adds, "although UNHCR and the Afghan government have both invested heavily in biometric databases, the US military has been the real driving force." It bases this latter claim on a 2014 article in Public Intelligence that studies US military documents on the use of biometrics in Afghanistan.

These are the systems that now belong to the Taliban.

Privacy International began warning of the issues surrounding privacy and refugees in the mid-2000s. In 2011, by which time it had been working with UNHCR to improve its practices for four years, PI noted how little understanding there was among funders and the public of why privacy mattered to refugees.

Perhaps it's the word: "privacy" sounds like a luxury, a nice-to-have rather than a necessity, and anyway, how can people held in camps waiting to be moved on to their next location care about privacy when what they need is safety, food, shelter, and a reunion with the rest of their families? PI's answer: "Putting it bluntly, getting privacy wrong will get people arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and may sometimes lead to death." Refugees are at risk from both the countries they're fleeing *from* and the countries they're fleeing *to*, which may welcome and support them - or reject, return, deport, or imprison them, or hold them in bureaucratic purgatory. (As I type this, HIAS president and CEO Mark Hetfield is telling MSNBC that the US's 14-step checking process is stopping Afghan-Americans from getting their families out.)

As PI goes on to explain, there is no such thing as "meaningful consent" in these circumstances. At The New Humanitarian, in a June 2021 article, Zara Rahman agrees. She was responding to a Human Rights Watch report that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had handed a detailed biometric database covering hundreds of thousands of Rohynga refugees to the Myanmar government from which they fled. HRW accused the agency of breaking its own rules for collecting and protecting data, and failing to obtain informed consent; UNHCR denies this charge. But you're desperate and in danger, and UNHCR wants your fingerprint. Can you really say no?

In many countries UNHCR is the organization that determines refugee status. Personal information is critical to this process. The amount of information has increased in some areas to include biometrics; as early as 2008 the US was considering using genetic information to confirm family relationships. More important, UNHCR is not always in control of the information it collects. In 2013, PI published a detailed analysis of refugee data collection in Syria. Last week, it published an even more detailed explanation of the systems built in Afghanistan over the last 20 years and that now have been left behind.

Shortly after the current crisis began, April Glaser and Sephora Smith reported at NBC News that Afghans were hastily deleting photographs and documents on their phones that might link them to Westerners, international human rights groups, the Afghan military, or the recently-departed Afghan government. It's an imperfect strategy: instructions on how to do this in local Afghan languages are not always available, and much of the data and the graph of their social connections are stored on social media that don't necessarily facilitate mass deletions. Facebook has released tools to help, including a one-click locking button and pop-up instructions on Instagram. Access Now also offers help and is telling international actors to close down access to these databases before leaving.

This aspect of the Afghan crisis was entirely avoidable.


Illustrations: Afghan woman being iris-scanned for entry into the Korean hospital at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, 2012 (via Wikimedia).

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.

August 13, 2021

Legacy

QRCode-2-Structure.pngThe first months of the pandemic saw a burst of energetic discussion about how to make it an opportunity to invest in redressing inequalities and rebuilding decaying systems - public health, education, workers' rights. This always reminded me of the great French film director François Truffaut, who, in his role as the director of the movie-within-the-movie in Day for Night, said, "Before starting to shoot, I hope to make a fine film. After the problems begin, I lower my ambition and just hope to finish it." It seemed more likely that if the pandemic went on long enough - back then the journalist Laurie Garrett was predicting a best case of three years - early enthusiasm for profound change would drain away to leave most people just wishing for something they could recognize as "normal". Drinks at the pub!

We forget what "normal" was like. London today seems busy. But with still no tourists, it's probably a tenth as crowded as in August 2019.

Eighteen months (so far) has been long enough to make new habits driven by pandemic-related fears, if not necessity, begin to stick. As it turns out the pandemic's new normal is really not the abrupt but temporary severance of lockdown, which brought with it fears of top-down government-driven damage to social equity and privacy: covid legislation, imminuty passports, and access to vaccines. Instead, the dangerous "new normal" is the new habits building up from the bottom. If Garrett was right, and we are at best halfway through this, these are likely to become entrenched. Some are healthy: a friend has abruptly realized that his grandmother's fanaticism about opening windows stemmed from living through the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Others...not so much.

One of the first non-human casualties of the pandemic has been cash, though the loss is unevenly spread. This week, a friend needed more than five minutes to painfully single-finger-type masses of detail into a pub's app, the only available option for ordering and paying for a drink. I see the convenience for the pub's owner, who can eliminate the costs of cash (while assuming the costs of credit cards and technological intermediation) and maybe thin the staff, but it's no benefit to a customer who'd rather enjoy the unaccustomed sunshine and chat with a friend. "They're all like this now," my friend said gloomily. Not where I live, fortunately.

Anti-cash campaigners have long insisted that cash is dirty and spreads disease; but, as we've known for a year, covid rarely spreads through surfaces, and (as Dave Birch has been generous enough to note) a recent paper finds that cash is sometimes cleaner. But still: try to dislodge the apps.

A couple of weeks ago, the Erin Woo at the New York Times highlighted cash-free moves. In New York City, QR codes have taken over in restaurants and stores as contact-free menus and ordering systems. In the UK, QR codes mostly appear as part of the Test and Trace contact tracing app; the idea is you check in when you enter any space, be it restaurant, cinema, or (ludicrously) botanic garden, and you'll be notified if it turns out it was filled with covid-infected people when you were there.

Whatever the purpose, the result is tight links between offline and online behavior. Pre-pandemic, these were growing slowly and insidiously; now they're growing like an invasive weed at a time when few of us can object. The UK ones may fall into disuse alongside the app itself. But Woo cites Bloomberg: half of all US full-service restaurant operators have adopted QR-code menus since the pandemic began.

The pandemic has also helped entrench workplace monitoring. By September 2020, Alex Hern was reporting at the Guardian that companies were ramping up their surveillance of workers in their homes, using daily mandatory videoconferences, digital timecards in the form of cloud logins, and forced participation on Slack and other channels.

Meanwhile at NBC News, Olivia Solon reports that Teleperformance, one of the world's largest call center companies, to which companies like Uber, Apple, and Amazon outsource customer service, has inserted clauses in its employment contracts requiring workers to accept in-home cameras that surveil them, their surroundings, and family members under 18. Solon reports that the anger over this is enough to get these workers thinking about unionizing. Teleperformance is global; it's trying this same gambit in other countries.

Nearer to home, all along, there's been a lot of speculation about whether anyone would ever again accept commuting daily. This week, the Guardian reports that only 18% of workers have gone back to their offices since UK prime minister Boris Johnson ended all official restrictions on July 19. Granted, it won't be clear for some time whether this is new habit or simply caution in the face of the fact that Britain's daily covid case numbers are still 25 times what they were a year ago. In the US, Google is suggesting it will cut pay for staff who resist returning to the office, on the basis that their cost of living is less. Without knowing the full financial position, doesn't it sound like Google is saving money twice?

All these examples suggest that what were temporary accommodations are hardening into "the way things are". Undoing them is a whole new set of items for last year's post-pandemic to-do list.


Illustrations: Graphic showing the structure of QR codes (via Wikimedia).

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.

August 6, 2021

Privacy-preserving mass surveillance

new-22portobelloroad.jpgEvery time it seems like digital rights activists need to stop quoting George Orwell so much, stuff like this happens.

In an abrupt turnaround, on Thursday Apple announced the next stage in the decades-long battle over strong cryptography: after years of resisting law enforcement demands, the company is U-turning to backdoor its cryptography to scan personal devices and cloud stores for child abuse images. EFF sums up the problem nicely: "even a thoroughly documented, carefully thought-out, and narrowly-scoped backdoor is still a backdoor". Or, more simply, a hole is a hole. Most Orweliian moment: Nicholas Weaver framing it on Lawfare as "privacy-sensitive mass surveillance".

Smartphones, particularly Apple phones, have never really been *our* devices in the way that early personal computers were, because the supplying company has always been able to change the phone's software from afar without permission. Apple's move makes this reality explicit.

The bigger question is: why? Apple hasn't said. But the pressure has been mounting on all the technology companies in the last few years, as an increasing number of governments have been demanding the right of access to encrypted material. As Amie Stepanovich notes on Twitter, another factor may be the "online harms" agenda that began in the UK but has since spread to New Zealand, Canada, and others. The UK's Online Safety bill is already (controversially) in progress., as Ross Anderson predicted in 2018. Child exploitation is a terrible thing; this is still a dangerous policy.

Meanwhile, 2021 is seeing some of the AI hype of the last ten years crash into reality. Two examples: health and autonomous vehicles. At MIT Technology Review, Will Douglas Heaven notes the general failure of AI tools in the pandemic. Several research studies - the British Medical Journal, Nature, and the Turing Institute (PDF) - find that none of the hundreds of algorithms were any clinical use and some were actively harmful. The biggest problem appears to have been poor-quality training datasets, leading the AI to either identify the wrong thing, miss important features, or appear deceptively accurate. Finally, even IBM is admitting that Watson, its Jeopardy! champion has not become a successful AI medical diagnostician. Medicine is art as well as science; who knew? (Doctors and nurses, obviously.)

As for autonomous vehicles, at Wired Andrew Kersley reports that Amazon is abandoning its drone delivery business. The last year has seen considerable consolidation among entrants in the market for self-driving cars, as the time and resources it will take to achieve them continue to expand. Google's Waymo is nonetheless arguing that the UK should not cap the number of self-driving cars on public roads and the UK-grown Oxbotica is proposing a code of practice for deployment. However, as Christian Wolmar predicted in 2018, the cars are not here. Even some Tesla insiders admit that.

The AI that has "succeeded" - in the narrow sense of being deployed, not in any broader sense - has been the (Orwellian) surveillance and control side of AI - the robots that screen job applications, the automated facial recognition, the AI-driven border controls. The EU, which invests in this stuff, is now proposing AI regulations; if drafted to respect human rights, they could be globally significant.

However, we will also have to ensure the rules aren't abused against us. Also this week, Facebook blocked the tool a group of New York University social scientists were using to study the company's ad targeting, along with the researchers' personal accounts. The "user privacy" excuse: Cambridge Analytica. The 2015 scandal around CA's scraping a bunch of personal data via an app users voluntarily downloaded eventually cost Facebook $5 billion in its 2019 settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission that also required it to ensure this sort of thing didn't happen again. The NYU researchers' Ad Observatory was collecting advertising data via a browser extension users opted to install. They were, Facebook says, scraping data. Potato, potahto!

People who aren't Facebook's lawyers see the two situations as entirely different. CA was building voter profiles to study how to manipulate them. The Ad Observatory was deliberately avoiding collecting personal data; instead, they were collecting displayed ads in order to study their political impact and identify who pays for them. Potato, *tomahto*.

One reason for the universal skepticism is that this move has companions - Facebook has also limited journalist access to CrowdTangle, a data tool that helped establish that far-right news content generate higher numbers of interactions than other types and suffer no penalty for being full of misinformation. In addition, at the Guardian, Chris McGreal finds that InfluenceMap reports that fossil fuel companies are using Facebook ads to promote oil and gas use as part of remediating climate change (have some clean coal).

Facebook's response has been to claim it's committed to transparency and blame the FTC. The FTC was not amused: "Had you honored your commitment to contact us in advance, we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest." The FTC knows Orwellian fiction when it sees it.


Illustrations: Orwell's house on Portobello Road, complete with CCTV camera.

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.

July 23, 2021

Immune response

Thumbnail image for china-alihealth.jpegThe slight reopening of international travel - at least inbound to the UK - is reupping discussions of vaccination passports, which we last discussed here three months ago. In many ways, the discussion recapitulates not only the ID card battles of 2006-2010 but also last year's concerns about contact tracing apps.

We revisit so soon for two reasons. First, the UK government has been sending out conflicting messages for the last month or more. Vaccination passports may - or may not - be required for university attendance and residence; they may be required for domestic venues - and football games! - in September. One minister - foreign secretary Dominic Raab - says the purpose would be to entice young people to get vaccinated, an approach that apparently worked in France, where proposing to require vaccination passports in order to visit cafes caused a Eiffel Tower-shaped spike in people presenting for shots. Others seem to think that certificates of either vaccination or negative tests will entice people to go out more and spend money. Or maybe the UK won't do them at all; if enough people are vaccinated why would we need proof of any one individual's status? Little has been said about whatever the government may have learned from the test events that were supposed to show if it was safe to resume mass entertainment gatherings.

Second, a panel discussion last month hosted by Allyson Pollack raised some new points. Many of us have thought of covids passport for international travel as roughly equivalent to proof of vaccination for yellow fever. However, Linet Taylor argues that the only time someone in a high-income country needs one is if they're visiting a country where the disease is endemic. By contrast, every country has covid, and large numbers - children, especially - either can't access or do not qualify for covid vaccinations. The problems that disparity caused for families led Israel to rethink its Green Pass, which expired in June and was not renewed. Therefore, Taylor said, it's more relevant to think about lowering the prevalence of the disease than to try to distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated. The chief result of requiring vaccination passports for international travel, she said, will be to add extra barriers for those traveling from low-income countries to high-income countries and cement into place global health inequality and unequal access to vaccines. She concluded that giving the responsibility to technology companies merely shows we have "no plan to solve them any other way".

It also brings other risks. Michael Veale, and Seda F. Gürses explain why the computational infrastructure required to support online vaccination verification undercuts public health objectives. Ellen Ullman wrote about this in 1997: computer logic eliminates fuzzy human accommodations, and its affordances foster administrative change from help to surveillance and inclusion to exclusion. No one using the system - that is people going to pubs and concerts - will have any control over what it's doing.

Last year, Westerners were appalled at the passport-like controls China put in place. This year, New York state is offering the Excelsior Pass. Once you load the necessary details into the pass, a mobile phone app, scanning it gains you admission to a variety of venues. IBM, which built the system, is supposedly already investigating how it can be expanded.

As Veale pointed out, a real-time system to check vaccination certificates will also know everywhere each individual certificate hass been checked, adding inevitable intrusion far beyond the vaccinated-yes/no binary. Two stories this week bear Veale out. The first is the New York Times story that highlighted the privacy risks of QR codes that are proliferating in the name of covid safety. Again, the average individual has no way to tell what data is incorporated into the QR code or what's being saved.

The second story is the outing of Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill by The Pillar, a Medium newsletter that covers the Catholic Church. The Pillar says its writers legally obtained 24 months' worth of supposedly anonymized, aggregated app signal data. Out of that aggregated mass they used known locations Burrill frequents to pick out a phone ID with matching history, and used that to track the phone's use of the LGBTQ dating app Grindr and visits to gay nightclubs. Burrill resigned shortly after being informed of the story.

More important is the conclusion Bruce Schneier draws: location data cannot be successfully anonymized. So checking vaccination passports in fact means building the framework of a comprehensive tracking system, whether or not that's the intention..

Like contact tracing apps before them, vaccination passports are a mirage that seem to offer the prospect of living - in this case, to people who've been vaccinated against covid - as if the pandemic does not exist. Whether it "works" depends on what your goal is. If it's to create an airport-style fast track through everyday life, well, maybe. If it's to promote public health, then safety measures such as improved ventilation, moving events outdoors, masks, and so on are likely a better bet. If we've learned anything from the last year and a half, it should be that no one can successfully create an individual bubble in which they can pretend the pandemic is over even while it rages in the rest of the world,


Illustrations: China's Alipay Health Code in March, 2020 (press photo).

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.

July 9, 2021

The border-industrial complex*

Rohingya_Refugee_Camp_26_(sep_2020).jpgMost people do not realize how few rights they have at the border of any country.

I thought I did know: not much. EFF has campaigned for years against unwarranted US border searches of mobile phones, where "border" legally extends 100 miles into the country. If you think, well, it's a big country, it turns out that two-thirds of the US population lives within that 100 miles.

No one ever knows what the border of their own country is like for non-citizens. This is one reason it's easy for countries to make their borders hostile: non-citizens have no vote and the people who do have a vote assume hostile immigration guards only exist in the countries they visit. British people have no idea what it's like to grapple with the Home Office, just as most Americans have no experience of ICE. Datafication, however, seems likely to eventually make the surveillance aspect of modern border passage universal. At Papers, Please, Edward Hasbrouck charts the transformation of travel from right to privilege.

In the UK, the Open Rights Group and the3million have jointly taken the government to court over provisions in the post-Brexit GDPR-enacting Data Protection Act (2018) that exempted the Home Office from subject access rights. The Home Office invoked the exemption in more than 70% of the 19,305 data access requests made to its office in 2020, while losing 75% of the appeals against its rulings. In May, ORG and the3million won on appeal.

This week's announced Nationality and Borders Bill proposes to make it harder for refugees to enter the country and, according to analyses by the Refugee Council and Statewatch, make many of them - and anyone who assists them - into criminals.

Refugees have long had to verify their identity in the UK by providing biometrics. On top of that, the cash support they're given comes in the form of prepaid "Aspen" cards, which means the Home Office can closely monitor both their spending and their location, and cut off assistance at will, as Privacy International finds. Scotland-based Positive Action calls the results "bureaucratic slow violence".

That's the stuff I knew. I learned a lot more at this week's workshop run by Security Flows, which studies how datafication is transforming borders. The short version: refugees are extensively dataveilled by both the national authorities making life-changing decisions about them and the aid agencies supposed to be helping them, like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Recently, Human Rights Watch reported that UNHCR had broken its own policy guidelines by passing data to Myanmar that had been submitted by more than 830,000 ethnic Rohingya refugees who registered in Bangladeshi camps for the "smart" ID cards necessary to access aid and essential services.

In a 2020 study of the flow of iris scans submitted by Syrian refugees in Jordan, Aalborg associate professor Martin Lemberg-Pedersen found that private companies are increasingly involved in providing humanitarian agencies with expertise, funding, and new ideas - but that those partnerships risk turning their work into an experimental lab. He also finds that UN agencies' legal immunity coupled with the absence of common standards for data protection among NGOs and states in the global South leave gaps he dubs "loopholes of externalization" that allow the technology companies to evade accountability.

At the 2020 Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference a small group huddled to brainstorm about researching the "creepy" AI-related technologies the EU was funding. Border security represents a rare opportunity, invisible to most people and justified by "national security". Home Secretary Priti Patel's proposal to penalize the use of illegal routes to the UK is an example, making desperate people into criminals. People like many of the parents I knew growing up in 1960s New York.

The EU's immigration agencies are particularly obscure. I had encoutnered Warsaw-based Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency which manages operational control of the Schengen Area, but not of EU-LISA, which since 2012 has managed the relevant large-scale IT systems SIS II, VIS, EURODAC, and ETIAS (like the US's ESTA). Unappetizing alphabet soup whose errors few know how to challenge.

The behind-the-scenes the workshop described sees the largest suppliers of ICT, biometrics, aerospace, and defense provide consultants who help define work plans and formulate calls to which their companies respond. The list of vendors appearing in Javier Sánchez-Monedero's 2018 paper for the Data Justice Lab, begins to trace those vendors, a mix of well-known and unknown. A forthcoming follow-up focuses on the economics and lobbying behind all these databases.

In the recent paper on financing border wars, Mark Akkerman analyzes the economic interests behind border security expansion, and observes "Migration will be one of the defining human rights issues of the 21st century." We know it will increase, increasingly driven by climate change; the fires that engulfed the Canadian village of Lytton, BC on July 1 made 1,000 people homeless, and that's just the beginning.

It's easy to ignore the surveillance and control directed at refugees in the belief that they are not us. But take the UK's push to create a hostile environment by pushing border checks into schools, workplaces, and health services as your guide, and it's obvious: their surveillance will be your surveillance.

*Credit the phrase "border-industrial complex" to Luisa Izuzquiza.

Illustrations: Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, 2020 (by Rocky Masum, via Wikimedia).

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.

July 2, 2021

This land

Nomadland-van.pngAn aging van drives off down a highway into a fantastical landscape of southwestern mountains and mesquite. In 1977, that could have been me, or any of my folksinging friends as we toured the US, working our way into debt (TM Andy Cohen). In 2020, however, the van is occupied by Fern (Frances McDormand), one of the few fictional characters in the film Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao, and based on the book by Jessica Bruder, which itself grew out of her 2014 article for Harper's magazine.

Nomadland captures two competing aspects of American life. First, the middle-class dream of the nice house with the car in the driveway, a chicken in a pot inside, and secure finances. Anyone who rejects this dream must be dangerous. But deep within also lurks the other American dream, of freedom and independence, which in the course of the 20th century moved from hopping freight trains to motor vehicles and hitting the open road.

For many of Nomadland's characters, living on the road begins as a necessary accommodation to calamity but becomes a choice. They are "retirees" who can't afford to retire, who balk at depending on the kindness of relatives, and have carved out a circuit of seasonal jobs. Echoing many of the vandwellers Bruder profiles, Fern tells a teen she used to tutor, "I'm not homeless - just houseless."

Linda May, for example, began working at the age of 12, but discovered at 62 that her social security benefits amounted to $550 a month (the fate that perhaps awaits the people Barbara Ehrenreich profiles in Nickel and Dimed). Others lost their homes in the 2008 crisis. Fern, whose story frames the movie, lost job and home in Empire, Nevada when the gypsum factory abruptly shut down, another casualty of the 2008 financial crisis. Six months later, the zipcode was scrubbed. This history appears as a title at the beginning of the movie. We watch Fern select items and lock a storage unit. It's go time.

Fern's first stop is the giant Amazon warehouse in Fernley, Nevada, where the money is good and a full-service parking space is included. Like thousands of other workampers, she picks stock and packs boxes for the Christmas rush until, come January, it's time to gracefully accept banishment. People advise her: go south, it's warmer. Shivering and scraping snow off the van, Fern soon accepts the inevitable. I don't know how cold she is, but it brought flashbacks to a few of those 1977 nights in my pickup-truck-with-camper-top when I slept in a full set of clothes and a hat while the shampoo solidified. I was 40 years younger than Fern, and it was never going to be my permanent life. On the other hand: no smartphone.

At the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous nearQuartzsite, Arizona, Fern finds her tribe: Swankie, Bob Wells, and the other significant fictional character, Dave (David Strathairn). She traces the annual job circuit: Amazon, camp hosting, beet harvesting in Nebraska, Wall Drug in South Dakota. Old hands teach her skills she needs: changing tires, inventing and building things out of scrap, remodeling her van, keeping on top of rust. She learns what size bucket to buy and that you must be ready to solve your own emergencies. Finally, she learns to say "See you down the road" instead of "Goodbye".

Earlier this year, at Silicon Flatiron's Privacy at the Margins, Tristia Bauman, executive director of the National Homelessness Law Center, explained that many cities have broadly-written camping bans that make even the most minimal outdoor home impossible. Worse, those policies often allow law enforcement to seize property. It may be stored, but often people still don't get it back; the fees to retrieving a towed-away home (that is, van) can easily be out of reach. This was in my mind when Bob talks about fearing the knock on the van that indicates someone in authority wants you gone.

"I've heard it's depressing," a friend said, when I recommended the movie. Viewed one way, absolutely. These aging Baby Boomers never imagined doing the hardest work of their lives in their "golden years", with no health insurance, no fixed abodes, and no prospects. It's not that they failed to achieve the American Dream. It's that they believed in the American Dream and then it broke up with them.

And yet "depressing" is not how I or my companion saw it, because of that *other* American Dream. There's a sense of ownership of both the land and your own life that comes with living on the road in such a spacious and varied country, as Woody Guthrie knew. Both Guthrie in the 1940s and Zhao now unsparingly document the poverty and struggles of the people they found in those wide-open spaces - but they also understand that here a person can breathe and find the time to appreciate the land's strange, secret wonders. Secret, because most of us never have the time to find them. This group does, because when you live nowhere you live everywhere. We get to follow them to some of these places, share their sense of belonging, and admire their astoundingly adaptable spirit. Despite the hardships they unquestionably face, they also find their way to extraordinary moments of joy.

See you down the road.

Illustrations: Fern's van, heading down the road.

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.

June 4, 2021

Data serfs

Asklepios_-_Epidauros.jpgIt is shameful that the UK government has apparently refused to learn anything over decades of these discussions, and is now ordering GPs in England to send their patient data to NHSx beginning on July 1 and continuing daily thereafter. GPs are unhappy about this. Patients - that is, the English population - have until June 23 to opt out. Government information has been so absent that if it were not for medConfidential we might not even know it was happening. The opt-out process is a dark pattern; here's how.

The pandemic has taught us a lot about both upsides and downsides of sharing information. The downside is the spread of covid conspiracy theories, refusal to accept public health measures, and death threats to public health experts.

But there's so much more upside. The unprecedented speed with which we got safe and effective vaccinations was enormously boosted by the Internet. The original ("ancestral") virus was genome-sequenced and shared across the world within days, enabling everyone to get cracking. While the heavy reliance on preprint servers meant some errors have propagated, rapid publication and direct access to experts has done far more good than harm overall.

Crowdsourcing is also proving its worth: by collecting voluntary symptom and test/vaccination status reports from 4.6 million people around the UK, the Covid Symptom Study, to which I've contributed daily for more than a year, has identified additional symptoms, offered early warning of developing outbreaks, and assessed the likelihood of post-vaccination breakthrough covid infections. The project is based on an app built by the startup Joinzoe in collaboration with 15 charities and academic research organizations. From the beginning it has seemed an obviously valuable effort worth the daily five seconds it takes to report - and worth giving up a modest amount of data privacy for - because the society-wide benefit is so obvious. The key points: the data they collect is specific, they show their work and how my contribution fits in, I can review what I've sent them, and I can stop at any time. In the blog, the project publishes ongoing findings, many of which have generated journal papers for peer review.

The government plans meet none of these criteria. The data grab is comprehensive, no feedback loop is proposed, and the subject access rights enshrined in data protection law are not available. How could it be more wrong?

Established in 2019, NHSx is the "digital arm" of the National Health Service. It's the branch that commissioned last year's failed data-collecting contact tracing app ("failed", as in many people correctly warned that their centralized design was risky and wouldn't work,). NHSx is all data and contracts. It has no direct relationship with patients, and many people don't know it exists. This is the organization that is demanding the patient records of 56 million people, a policy Ross Anderson dates to 1992.

If Britain has a national religion it's the NHS. Yes, it's not perfect, and yes, there are complaints - but it's a lot like democracy: the alternatives are worse. The US, the only developed country that has refused a national health system, is near-universally pitied by those outside it. For those reasons, no politician is ever going to admit to privatizing the NHS, and most citizens are suspicious, particularly of conservatives, that this is what they secretly want to do.

Brexit has heightened these fears, especially among those of us who remember 2014, when NHS England announced care.data, a plan to collect and potentially sell NHS patient data to private companies. Reconstructing the UK's economy post-EU membership has always been seen as involving a trade deal with the US, which is likely to demand free data flows and, most people believe, access to the NHS for its private medical companies. Already, more than 50 GPs' practices (1%) are managed by Operose, a subsidiary of US health insurer Centene. The care.data plan was rapidly canceled with a promise to retreat and rethink.

Seven years later, the new plan is the old plan, dusted off, renamed, and expanded. The story here is the same: it's not that people aren't willing to share data; it's that we're not willing to hand over full control. The Joinzoe app has worked because every day each contributor remakes the decision to participate and because the researchers provide a direct feedback loop that shows how the data is being used and the results. NHSx isn't offering any of that. It is assuming the right to put our most sensitive personal data into a black box it owns and controls and keep doing so without granting us any feedback or recourse. This is worse than advertisers pretending that we make free choices to accept tracking. No one in this country has asked for their relationship with their doctor to be intermediated by a bunch of unknown data managers, however well-meaning. If their case for the medical and economic benefits is so strong (and really, it is, *when done right*), why not be transparent and open about it?

The pandemic has made the case for the value of pooling medical data. But it has also been a perfect demonstration of what happens when trust seeps out of a health system - as it does when governments feudally treat citizens as data serfs. *Both* lessons should be learned.


Illustrations: Asklepios, Greek god of medicine.

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.

May 28, 2021

Judgments day

1024px-Submarine_cable_map_umap.pngThis has been quite a week for British digital rights campaigners, who have won two significant cases against the UK government.

First is a case regarding migrants in the UK, brought by the Open Rights Group and the3mllion. The case challenged a provision in the Data Protection Act (2018) that exempted the Home Office from subject access requests, meaning that migrants refused settled status or immigration visas had no access to the data used to decide their cases, placing them at an obvious disadvantage. ORG and the3million argued successfully in the Court of Appeal that this was unfair, especially given that nearly half the appeals against Home Office decisions before the law came into effect were successful.

This is an important win, but small compared to the second case.

Eight years after Edward Snowden revealed the extent of government interception of communications, the reverberations continue. This week, the the Grand Chamber of the Europgean Court of Human Rights found Britain's data interception regime breached the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Essentially, as Haroon Siddique sums it up at the Guardian, the court found deficiencies in three areas. First, bulk interception was authorized by the secretary of state but not by an independent body such as a court. Second, the application for a warrant did not specify the kinds of communication to be examined. Third, search terms linked to an individual were not subject to prior authorization. The entire process, the court ruled, must be subject to "end-to-end safeguards".

This is all mostly good news. Several of the 18 applicants (16 organizations and two individuals), argue the ruling didn't go far enough because it didn't declare bulk interference illegal in and of itself. Instead, it merely condemned the UK's implementation. Privacy International expects that all 47 members of the Council of Europe, all signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, will now review their surveillance laws and practices and bring them into line with the ruling, giving the win much broader impact./

Particularly at stake for the UK is the adequacy decision it needs to permit seamless sharing data with EU member states under the General Data Protection Regulation. In February the EU issued a draft decision that would grant adequacy for four years. This judgment highlights the ways the UK's regime is non-compliant.

This case began as three separate cases filed between 2013 and 2015; they were joined together by the court. PI, along with ACLU, Amnesty International, Liberty, and six other national human rights organizations, was among the first group of applicants. The second included Big Brother Watch, Open Rights Group, and English PEN; the third added the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Long-time readers will know that this is not the first time the UK's surveillance practices have been ruled illegal. In 2008, the CJEU ruled against the UK's DNA database. More germane, in 2014, the CJEU invalidated the Data Retention Directive as a disproportionate intrusion on fundamental human rights, taking down with it the UK's supporting legislation. At the end of 2014, to solve the "emergency" created by that ruling, the UK hurriedly passed the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA). The UK lost the resulting legal case in 2016, when the CJEU largely struck it down again.

Currently, the legislation that enables the UK's communications surveillance regime is the Investigatory Powers Act (2016), which built on DRIPA and its antecedents, plus the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act (2011), whose antecedents go back to the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act (2001), passed two months after 9/11. In 2014, I wrote a piece explaining how the laws fit together.

Snowden's revelations were important in driving the post-2013 items on that list; the IPA was basically designed to put the practices he disclosed on a statutory footing. I bring up this history because I was struck by a comment in Albuquerque's dissent: "The RIPA distinction was unfit for purpose in the developing Internet age and only served the political aim of legitimising the system in the eyes of the British public with the illusion that persons within the United Kingdom's territorial jurisdiction would be spared the governmental 'Big Brother'".

What Albuquerque is criticizing here, I think, is the distinction made in RIPA between metadata, which the act allowed the government to collect, and content, which is protected. Campaigners like the late Caspar Bowden frequently warned that metadata is often more revealing than content. In 2015, Steve Bellovin, Matt Blaze, Susan Landau, and Stephanie Pell showed that the distinction is no longer meaningful (PDF in any case.

I understand that in military-adjacent circles Snowden is still regarded as a traitor. I can't judge the legitimacy of all his revelations, but in at least one category it was clear from the beginning that he was doing the world a favor. That is alerting the world to the intelligence services' compromising crucial parts of the world's security systems that protect all of us. In ruling that the UK practices he disclosed are illegal, the ECtHR has gone a long way toward vindicating him as a whistleblower in a second category.


Illustrations: Map of cable data by Greg Mahlknecht, map by Openstreetmap contributors (CC-by-SA 2.0), from the Privacy International report on the ruling.


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.

May 20, 2021

Ontology recapiltulates phylogeny

Thumbnail image for sidewalklabs-streetcrossing.pngI may be reaching the "get off my lawn!" stage of life, except the things I'm yelling at are not harmless children but new technologies, many of which, as Charlie Stross writes, leak human stupidity into our environment.

Case in point: a conference this week chose for its platform an extraordinarily frustrating graphic "virtual congress center" that was barely more functional than Second Life (b. 2003). The big board displaying the agenda was not interactive; road signs and menu items pointed to venues by name, but didn't show what was going on in them. Yes, there was a reception desk staffed with helpful avatars. I do not want to ask for help, I want simplicity. The conference website advised: "This platform requires the installation of a dedicated software in your computer and a basic training." Training? To watch people speak on my computer screen? Why can't I just "click here to attend this session" and see the real, engaged faces of speakers, instead of motionless cartoon avatars?

This is not a new-technology issue but a usability issue that hasn't changed since Donald Norman's 1988 The Design of Everyday Things sought to do away with user manuals.

I tell myself that this isn't just another clash between generational habits.

Even so, if current technology trends continue I will be increasingly left behind, not just because I don't *want* to join in but because, through incalculable privilege, much of the time I don't *need* to. My house has no smart speakers, I see no reason to turn on open banking, and much of the time I can leave my mobile phone in a coat pocket, ignored.

But Out There in the rest of the world, where I have less choice, I read that Amazon is turning on Sidewalk, a proprietary mesh network that uses Bluetooth and 900MHz radio connections to join together Echo speakers, Ring cameras, and any other compatible device the company decides to produce. The company is turning this thing on by default (free software update!), though if you're lucky enough to read the right press articles you can turn it off. When individuals roam the streets piggybacking on open wifi connections, they're dubbed "hackers". But a company - just ask forgiveness, not permission, yes?

The idea appears to be that the mesh network will improve the overall reliability of each device when its wifi connection is iffy. How it changes the range and detail of the data each device collects is unclear. Connecting these devices into a network is a step change in physical tracking; CNet suggests that a Tile tag attached to a dog, while offering the benefit of an alert if the dog gets loose, could also provide Amazon with detailed tracking of all your dog walks. Amazon says the data is protected with three layers of encryption, but protection from outsiders is not the same as protection from Amazon itself. Even the minimal data Amazon says in its white paper (PDF) it receives - the device serial number and application server ID - reveal the type of device and its location.

We have always talked about smart cities as if they were centrally planned, intended to offer greater efficiency, smoother daily life, and a better environment, and built with some degree of citizen acceptance. But the patient public deliberation that image requires does not fit the "move fast and break things" ethos that continues to poison organizational attitudes. Google failed to gain acceptance for its Toronto plan; Amazon is just doing it. In London in 2019, neither private operators nor police bothered to inform or consult anyone when they decided to trial automated facial recognition.

In the white paper, Amazon suggests benefits such as finding lost pets, diagnostics for power tools, and supporting lighting where wifi is weak. Nice use cases, but note that the benefits accrue to the devices' owner while the costs belong to neighbors who may not have actively consented, but simply not known they had to change the default settings in order to opt out. By design, neither device owners nor server owners can see what they're connected to. I await the news of the first researcher to successfully connect an unauthorized device.

Those external costs are minimal now, but what happens when Amazon is inevitably joined by dozens more similar networks, like the collisions that famously plague the more than 50 companies that dig up London streets? It's disturbingly possible to look ahead and see our public spaces overridden by competing organizations operating primarily in their own interests. In my mind, Amazon's move opens up the image of private companies and government agencies all actively tracking us through the physical world the way they do on the web and fighting over the resulting "insights". Physical tracking is a sizable gap in GDPR.

Again, these are not new-technology issues, but age-old ones of democracy, personal autonomy, and the control of public and private spaces. As Nicholas Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias wrote in their 2020 book The Costs of Connection, this is colonialism in operation. "What if new ways of appropriating human life, and the freedoms on which it depends, are emerging?" they asked. Even if Amazon's design is perfect, Sidewalk is not a comforting sign.


Illustrations: A mock-up from Google's Sidewalk Labs plan for Toronto.

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.

May 14, 2021

Pre-crime

Unicorn_sculpture,_York_Crown_Court-Tim-Green.jpgMuch is being written about this week's Queen's speech, which laid out plans to restrict protests (the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts bill), relax planning measures to help developers override communities, and require photo ID in order to vote even though millions of voters have neither passport nor driver's license and there was just one conviction for voting fraud in the 2019 general election. We, however, will focus here on the Online Safety bill, which includes age verification and new rules for social media content moderation.

At Politico, technology correspondent Mark Scott picks three provisions: the exemption granting politicians free rein on social media; the move to require moderation of content that is not illegal or criminal (however unpleasant it may be); and the carve-outs for "recognised news publishers". I take that to mean they wanted to avoid triggering the opposition of media moguls like Rupert Murdoch. Scott read it as "journalists".

The carve-out for politicians directly contradicts a crucial finding in last week's Facebook oversight board ruling on the suspension of former US president Donald Trump's account: "The same rules should apply to all users of the platform; but context matters when assessing issues of causality and the probability and imminence of harm. What is important is the degree of influence that a user has over other users." Politicians, in other words, may not be more special than other influencers. Given the history of this particular government, it's easy to be cynical about this exemption.

In 2019, Heather Burns, now policy manager for the Open Rights Group, predicted this outcome while watching a Parliamentary debate on the white paper: "Boris Johnson's government, in whatever communication strategy it is following, is not going to self-regulate its own speech. It is going to double down on hard-regulating ours." At ORG's blog, Burns has critically analyzed the final bill.

Few have noticed the not-so-hidden developing economic agenda accompanying the government's intended "world-leading package of online safety measures". Jen Persson, director of the children's rights advocacy group DefendDigitalMe, is the exception, pointing out that in May 2020 the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport released a report that envisions the UK as a world leader in "Safety Tech". In other words, the government views online safety (PDF; see Annex C) as not just an aspirational goal for the country's schools and citizens but also as a growing export market the UK can lead.

For years, Persson has been tirelessly highlighting the extent to which children's online use is monitored. Effectively, monitoring software watches every use of any school-owned device and whenever the child is logged into their school Gsuite account; some types can even record photos of the child at home, a practice that became notorious when it was tried in Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, outside of DefendDigitalMe's work - for example its case study of eSafe and discussion of NetSupport DNA and this discussion of school safeguarding - we know disturbingly little about the different vendors, how they fit together in the education ecosystem, how their software works, how capabilities vary from vendor to vendor, how well they handle multiple languages, what they block, what data it collects, how they determine risk, what inferences are drawn and retained and by whom, and the rate of errors and their consequences. We don't even really know if any of it works - or what "works" means. "Safer online" does not provide any standard against which the cost to children's human rights can be measured. Decades of government policy have all trended toward increased surveillance and filtering, yet wherever "there" is we never seem to arrive. DefendDigitalMe has called for far greater transparency.

Persson notes both mission creep and scope creep: "The scope has shifted from what was monitored to who is being monitored, then what they're being monitored for." The move from harmful and unlawful content to lawful but "harmful" content is what's being proposed now, and along with that, Persson says, "children being assessed for potential risk". The controversial Prevent program program is about this: monitoring children for signs of radicalization. For their safety, of course.

Previous UK children's rights campaigners used to say that successive UK governments have consistently used children as test subjects for the controversial policies they wish to impose on adults, normalizing them early. Persson suggests the next market for safetytech could be employers monitoring employees for mental health issues. I imagine elderly people.

DCMS's comments support market expansion: "Throughout the consultations undertaken when compiling this report there was a sector consensus that the UK is likely to see its first Safety Tech unicorn (i.e. a company worth over $1bn) emerge in the coming years, with three other companies also demonstrating the potential to hit unicorn status within the early 2020s. Unicorns reflect their namesake - they are incredibly rare, and the UK has to date created 77 unicorn businesses across all sectors (as of Q4 2019)." (Are they counting the much-litigated Autonomy?)

There's something peculiarly ghastly about this government's staking the UK's post-Brexit economic success on exporting censorship and surveillance to the rest of the world, especially alongside its stated desire to opt out of parts of human rights law. This is what "global Britain" wants to be known for?

Illustrations: Unicorn sculpture at York Crown Court (by Tim Green via Wikimedia).

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.

April 23, 2021

Fast, free, and frictionless

Sinan-Aral-20210422_224835.jpg"I want solutions," Sinan Aral challenged at yesterday's Social Media Summit, "not a restatement of the problems". Don't we all? How many person-millennia have we spent laying out the issues of misinformation, disinformation, harassment, polarization, platform power, monopoly, algorithms, accountability, and transparency? Most of these have been debated for decades. The big additions of the last decade are the privatization of public speech via monopolistic social media platforms, the vastly increased scale, and the transmigration from purely virtual into physical-world crises like the January 6 Capitol Hill invasion and people refusing vaccinations in the middle of a pandemic.

Aral, who leads the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and is author of the new book The Hype Machine, chose his panelists well enough that some actually did offer some actionable ideas.

The issues, as Aral said, are all interlinked. (see also 20 years of net.wars). Maria Ressla connected the spread of misinformation to system design that enables distribution and amplification at scale. These systems are entirely opaque to us even while we are open books to them, as Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr noted, adding that while US press outrage is the only pressure that moves Facebook to respond, it no longer even acknowledges questions from anyone at her newspaper. Cadwalladr also highlighted the Securities and Exchange Commission's complaint that says clearly: Facebook misled journalists and investors. This dismissive attitude also shows in the leaked email, in which Facebook plans to "normalize" the leak of 533 million users' data.

This level of arrogance is the result of concentrated power, and countering it will require antitrust action. That in turn leads back to questions of design and free speech: what can we constrain while respecting the First Amendment? Where is the demarcation line between free speech and speech that, like crying "Fire!" in a crowded theater, can reasonably be regulated? "In technology, design precedes everything," Roger McNamee said; real change for platforms at global or national scale means putting policy first. His Exhibit A of the level of cultural change that's needed was February's fad, Clubhouse: "It's a brand-new product that replicates the worst of everything."

In his book, Aral opposes breaking up social media companies as was done incases such as Standard Oil, the AT&T. Zephyr Teachout agreed in seeing breakup, whether horizontal (Facebook divests WhatsApp and Instagram, for example) or vertical (Google forced to sell Maps) as just one tool.

The question, as Joshua Gans said, is, what is the desired outcome? As Federal Trade Commission nominee Lina Khan wrote in 2017, assessing competition by the effect on consumer pricing is not applicable to today's "pay-with-data-but-not-cash" services. Gans favors interoperability, saying it's crucial to restoring consumers' lost choice. Lock-in is your inability to get others to follow when you want to leave a service, a problem interoperability solves. Yes, platforms say interoperability is too difficult and expensive - but so did the railways and telephone companies, once. Break-ups were a better option, Albert Wenger added, when infrastructures varied; today's universal computers and data mean copying is always an option.

Unwinding Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram sounds simple, but do we want three data hogs instead of one, like cutting off one of Lernean Hydra's heads? One idea that emerged repeatedly is slowing "fast, free, and frictionless"; Yael Eisenstat wondered why we allow experimental technology at global scale but policy only after painful perfection.

MEP Marietje Schaake (Democrats 66-NL) explained the EU's proposed Digital Markets Act, which aims to improve fairness by preempting the too-long process of punishing bad behavior by setting rules and responsibilities. Current proposals would bar platforms from combining user data from multiple sources without permission; self-preferencing; and spying (say, Amazon exploiting marketplace sellers' data), and requires data portability and interoperability for ancillary services such as third-party payments.

The difficulty with data portability, as Ian Brown said recently, is that even services that let you download your data offer no way to use data you upload. I can't add the downloaded data from my current electric utility account to the one I switch to, or send my Twitter feed to my Facebook account. Teachout finds that interoperability isn't enough because "You still have acquire, copy, kill" and lock-in via existing contracts. Wenger argued that the real goal is not interoperability but programmability, citing open banking as a working example. That is also the open web, where a third party can write an ad blocker for my browser, but Facebook, Google, and Apple built walled gardens. As Jared Sine told this week's antitrust hearing, "They have taken the Internet and moved it into the app stores."

Real change will require all four of the levers Aral discusses in his book, money, code, norms, and laws - which Lawrence Lessig's 1996 book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace called market, software architecture, norms, and laws - pulling together. The national commission on democracy and technology Aral is calling for will have to be very broadly constituted in terms of disciplines and national representation. As Safiya Noble said, diversifying the engineers in development teams is important, but not enough: we need "people who know society and the implications of technologies" at the design stage.


Illustrations: Sinan Aral, hosting the summit.l

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.

April 16, 2021

Frenemies

London-in-lockdown`20201124_144850.jpgThis week, an update to the UK's contact tracing app (which, confusingly, is labeled "NHS" but is actually instead part of the private contractor-run test and trace system) was blocked by Google and Apple because it broke their terms and conditions. What the UK wanted: people who tested positive to upload their collected list of venue check-ins, now that the latest national lockdown is easing. Under Google's and Apple's conditions, to which the government had agreed: banned. Oops.

The previouslies: this time last year, it was being widely suggested that contact tracing apps could save us. In May 2020, the BMJ blog called downloading the app a "moral obligation".

That reaction was part of a battle over privacy. Step One: Western horror at the Chinese Alipay Health Code app that assigned everyone a traffic light code based on their recent movements and contacts and determined which buildings and public places they could enter - the permission-based society at a level that would surely be unacceptable in a Western democracy. Step Two: the UK, like France, designed its own app to collect users' data for centralized analysis, tracking, and tracing. Privacy advocates argued that this design violated data protection law and that public health goals could be met by less invasive means. Technical advisers warned it wouldn't work. Step Three: Google and Apple built a joint "exposure notification" platform to underpin these contact tracing apps and set the terms: no centralized data collection. Data must remain local unless the user opts to upload it. The UK, and France grumpily switched when they discovered everyone else was right: their design didn't work. Later, the two companies embedded exposure notification into their operating systems so public health departments didn't have to build their own app.

Make no mistake: *contact tracing* works. It's a well-established practice in public health emergencies. But we don't know if contact tracing *apps* work where "work" means "reduce infections" as opposed to work technically, are well-designed, or even reject these silly privacy considerations. Most claimed success for these apps seems to have come shortly after release and measure success in download numbers, on the basis that the apps will only work if enough people use them. The sole exception appears to be Singapore, where claimed download rates near 60% and authorities report the app has halved the time to complete contact tracing from four days to two.

In June, Italian biologist Emanuele Rizzo warned in the British Medical Journal that the apps are poorly suited for the particular characteristics of how the coronavirus spreads and the heightened risk for older people, who are least likely to have smartphones. In October, AI researcher Allison Gardner wrote at The Conversation that the worldwide average for downloading these apps was an inadequate 20%.

The UK was slow to get its contact tracing app working, and by the time it did we were locking down for the winter. Even so, last summer most UK venues posted QR codes for visitors to scan to log their visit. If someone tests positive in that venue it's reported to a database, from where your phone retrieves it and alerts you if you were there at the same time so you can get tested and, if necessary, self-isolate.

Of course, for the last five months nothing's been open. Check-ins and contact tracing apps aren't much use when no one is going anywhere. But during the period when people tried this out, there were many reported problems, such as that the app may decide exposure has taken place when you and the infected person only overlapped briefly. It remains simpler, probably overall cheaper, and more future-proof to improve ventilation and make venues safer.

Google's and Apple's action means, I suppose, that I am supposed to be grateful, however grumpily, to Big Tech for protecting me against government intrusion. What I want, though, to be able to trust the health authorities so this sort of issue only arises when absolutely necessary. Depending on the vagaries of private companies' business models to protect us is not a solution.

This is a time when many are not happy with either company. Google's latest wheeze is to replace third-party cookies with Federated Learning of Cohorts, which assign Chrome users to categories it then uses to target ads. EFF has a new tool that shows if you've been "FLoCed" (Firefox users need not apply). Google calls this setup a privacy sandbox, and claims it will more privacy-protective than the present all-tracking, by-everyone, all-the-time situation. EFF calls this "old tracking" versus "new tracking", and argues for a third option: *not* tracking, and letting users decide what information to share and with whom.

Apple, meanwhile, began blocking tracking via third-party cookies last year, with dramatic results, and rejects apps that aren't compliant, though some companies are finding workarounds. This year, new Apple rules requiring privacy labels that identify the categories of data apps collect have exposed the extent of data collection via Google's Chrome browser and search app.

The lesson to be drawn here is not that these companies are reinventing themselves as privacy protectors. The lesson to be drawn is that each wants to be the *only* one to invade our privacy. It's only a coincidence that the result was that they refused to accommodate government demands.


Illustrations: Empty central London in lockdown in November 2020.

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.

April 2, 2021

Medical apartheid

swiss-cheese-virus-defence.jpgEver since 1952, when Clarence Willcock took the British government to court to force the end of wartime identity cards, UK governments have repeatedly tried to bring them back, always claiming they would solve the most recent public crisis. The last effort ended in 2010 after a five-year battle. This backdrop is a key factor in the distrust that's greeting government proposals for "vaccination passports" (previously immunity passports). Yesterday, the Guardian reported that British prime minister Boris Johnson backs certificates that show whether you've been vaccinated, have had covid and recovered, or had a test. An interim report will be published on Monday; trials later this month will see attendees to football matches required to produce proof of negative lateral flow tests 24 hours before the game and on entry.

Simultaneously, England chief medical officer Chris Whitty told the Royal Society of Medicine that most experts think covid will become like the flu, a seasonal disease that must be perennially managed.

Whitty's statement is crucial because it means we cannot assume that the forthcoming proposal will be temporary. A deeply flawed measure in a crisis is dangerous; one that persists indefinitely is even more so. Particularly when, as this morning, culture secretary Oliver Dowden tries to apply spin: "This is not about a vaccine passport, this is about looking at ways of proving that you are covid secure." Rebranding as "covid certificates" changes nothing.

Privacy advocates and human rights NGOs saw this coming. In December, Privacy International warned that a data grab in the guise of immunity passports will undermine trust and confidence while they're most needed. "Until everyone has access to an effective vaccine, any system requiring a passport for entry or service will be unfair." We are a long, long way from that universal access and likely to remain so; today's vaccines will have to be updated, perhaps as soon as September. There is substantial, but not enough, parliamentary opposition.

A grassroots Labour discussion Wednesday night showed this will become yet another highly polarized debate. Opponents and proponents combine issues of freedom, safety, medical efficacy, and public health in unpredictable ways. Many wanted safety - "You have no civil liberties if you are dead," one person said; others foresaw segregation, discrimination, and exclusion; still others cited British norms in opposing making compulsory either vaccinations or carrying any sort of "papers" (including phone apps).

Aside from some specific use cases - international travel, a narrow range of jobs - vaccination passports in daily life are a bad idea medically, logistically, economically, ethically, and functionally. Proponents' concerns can be met in better - and fairer - ways.

The Independent SAGE advisory group, especially Susan Michie, has warned repeatedly that vaccination passports are not a good solution for solution life. The added pressure to accept vaccination will increase distrust, she has repeatedly said, particularly among victims of structural racism.

Instead of trying to identify which people are safe, she argues that the government should be guiding employers, businesses, schools, shops, and entertainment venues to make their premises safer - see for example the CDC's advice on ventilation and list of tools. Doing so would not only help prevent the spread of covid and keep *everyone* safe but also help prevent the spread of flu and other pathogens. Vaccination passports won't do any of that. "It again puts the burden on individuals instead of spaces," she said last night in the Labour discussion. More important, high-risk individuals and those who can't be vaccinated will be better protected by safer spaces than by documentation.

In the same discussion, Big Brother Watch's Silkie Carlo predicted that it won't make sense to have vaccination passports and then use them in only a few places. "It will be a huge infrastructure with checkpoints everywhere," she predicted, calling it "one of the civil liberties threats of all time" and "medical apartheid" and imagining two segregated lines of entry to every venue. While her vision is dramatic, parts of it don't go far enough: imagine when this all merges with systems already in place to bar access to "bad people". Carlo may sound unduly paranoid, but it's also true that for decades successive British governments at every decision point have chosen the surveillance path.

We have good reason to be suspicious of this government's motives. Throughout the last year, Johnson has been looking for a magic bullet that will fix everything. First it was contact tracing apps (failed through irrelevance), then test and trace (failing in the absence of "and isolate and support"), now vaccinations. Other than vaccinations, which have gone well because the rollout was given to the NHS, these failed high-tech approaches have handed vast sums of public money to private contractors. If by "vaccination certificates" the government means the cards the NHS gives fully-vaccinated individuals listing the shots they've had, the dates, and the manufacturer and lot number, well fine. Those are useful for those rare situations where proof is really needed and for our own information in case of future issues, it's simple, and not particularly expensive. If the government means a biometric database system that, as Michie says, individualizes the risk while relieving venues of responsibility, just no.

Illustrations: The Swiss Cheese Respiratory Virus Defence, created by virologist Ian McKay.

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.

March 19, 2021

Dystopian non-fiction

Screenshot from 2021-03-18 12-51-27.pngHow dumb do you have to be to spend decades watching movies and reading books about science fiction dystopias with perfect surveillance and then go on and build one anyway?

*This* dumb, apparently, because that what Shalini Kantayya discovers in her documentary Coded Bias, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. I had missed it until European Digital Rights (EDRi) arranged a streaming this week.

The movie deserves the attention paid to The Social Dilemma. Consider the cast Kantayya has assembled: "math babe" Cathy O'Neil, data journalism professor Meredith Broussard, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, Big Brother Watch executive director Silkie Carlo, human rights lawyer Ravi Naik, Virginia Eubanks, futurist Amy Webb, and "code poet" Joy Buolamwini, who is the film's main protagonist and provides its storyline, such as it is. This film wastes no time on technology industry mea non-culpas, opting instead to hear from people who together have written a year's worth of reading on how modern AI disassembles people into piles of data.

The movie is framed by Buoalmwini's journey, which begins in her office at MIT. At nine, she saw a presentation on TV from MIT's Media Lab, and, entranced by Cynthia Breazeal's Kismet robot, she instantly decided: she was going to be a robotics engineer and she was going to MIT.

At her eventual arrival, she says, she imagined that coding was detached from the world - until she started building the Aspire Mirror and had to get a facial detection system working. At that point, she discovered that none of the computer vision tracking worked very well...until she put on a white mask. She started examining the datasets used to train the facial algorithms and found that every system she tried showed the same results: top marks for light-skinned men, inferior results for everyone else, especially the "highly melanated".

Teaming up with Deborah Raji, in 2018 Buolamwini published a study (PDF) of racial and gender bias in Amazon's Rekognition system, then being trialed with law enforcement. The company's response leads to a cameo, in which Buolamwini chats with Timnit Gebru about the methods technology companies use to discredit critics. Poignantly, today's viewers know that Gebru, then still at Google was only months away from becoming the target of exactly that behavior, fired over her own critical research on the state of AI.

Buolamwini's work leads Kantayya into an exploration of both algorithmic bias generally, and the uncontrolled spread of facial recognition in particular. For the first, Kantayya surveys scoring in recruitment, mortgage lending, and health care, and visits the history of discrimination in South Africa. Useful background is provided by O'Neil, whose Weapons of Math Destruction is a must-read on opaque scoring, and Broussard, whose Artificial Unintelligence deplores the math-based narrow conception of "intelligence" that began at Dartmouth in 1956, an arrogance she discusses with Kantayya on YouTube.

For the second, a US unit visits Brooklyn's Atlantic Plaza Towers complex, where the facial recognition access control system issues warnings for tiny infractions. A London unit films the Oxford Circus pilot of live facial recognition that led Carlo, with Naik's assistance, to issue a legal challenge in 2018. Here again the known future intervenes: after the pandemic stopped such deployments, BBW ended the challenge and shifted to campaigning for a legislative ban.

Inevitably, HAL appears to remind us of what evil computers look like, along with a red "I'm an algorithm" blob with a British female voice that tries to sound chilling.

But HAL's goals were straightforward: it wanted its humans dead. The motives behind today's algorithms are opaque. Amy Webb, whose book The Big Nine profiles the nine companies - six American, three Chinese - who are driving today's AI, highlights the comparison with China, where the government transparently tells citizens that social credit is always watching and bad behavior will attract penalties for your friends and family as well as for you personally. In the US, by contrast, everyone is being scored all the time by both government and corporations, but no one is remotely transparent about it.

For Buolamwini, the movie ends in triumph. She founds the Algorithmic Justice League and testifies in Congress, where she is quizzed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez(D-NY) and Jamie Raskin (D-MD), who looks shocked to learn that Facebook has patented a system for recognizing and scoring individuals in retail stores. Then she watches as facial recognition is banned in San Francisco, Somerville, Massachusetts, and Oakland, and the electronic system is removed from the Brooklyn apartment block - for now.

Earlier, however, Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality, issued a warning that seems prescient now, when the coronavirus has exposed all our inequities and social fractures. When people cite William Gibson's "The future is already here - it's just not evenly distributed", she says, they typically mean that new tools spread from rich to poor. "But what I've found is the absolute reverse, which is that the most punitive, most invasive, most surveillance-focused tools that we have, they go into poor and working communities first." Then they get ported out, if they work, to those of us with higher expectations that we have rights. By then, it may be too late to fight back.

See this movie!


Illustrations: Joy Buolamwini, in Coded Bias.

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.

March 5, 2021

Covid's children

LSE-Livingstone-panel-2021-03.pngI wonder a lot about how the baby downstairs will develop differently because of his September 2020 birth date. In his first five months, the only humans who have been in close contact are his two parents, a smattering of doctors and nurses, and a stray neighbor who occasionally takes him for walks. Walks, I might add, in which he never gets out of his stroller but in which he exhibits real talent for staring contests (though less for intelligent conversation). His grandparents he only knows through video calls. His parents think he's grasped that they're real, though not present, people. But it's hard to be sure.

The effects of the pandemic are likely to be clear a lot sooner for the older children and young people whose lives and education have been disrupted over the past year. This week, as part of the LSE Post-Covid World Festival, Sonia Livingstone (for whose project I wrote some book reviews a few years ago) led a panel to discuss those effects.

Few researchers in the UK - Livingstone, along with Andy Phippen, is one of the exceptions, as is, less formally, filmmaker and House of Lords member Beeban Kidron, whose 2013 film InRealLife explores teens' use of the Internet - ever bother to consult children to find out what their online experiences and concerns really are. Instead, the agenda shaped by politicians and policy makers centers on adults' fears, particularly those that can be parlayed into electoral success. The same people who fret that social media is posing entirely new problems today's adults never encountered as children refuse to find out what those problems look like to the people actually experiencing them. Worse, the focus is narrow: protecting children from pornography, grooming, and radicalization is everywhere, but protecting them from data exploitation is barely discussed. In the UK, as Jen Persson, founder of DefendDigitlMe, keeps reminding us, collecting children's data is endemic in education.

This was why the panel was interesting: all four speakers are involved in projects aimed to understand and amplify children's and young people's own concerns. From that experience, all four - Konstantinos Papachristou, the youth lead for the #CovidUnder19 project, Maya Götz, who researches children, youth, and television, Patricio Cuevas-Parra, who is part of a survey of 10,000 children and young people, and Laurie Day - highlighted similar issues of lack of access and inequality - not just to the Internet but also to vaccines and good information.

In all countries, the shift to remote leaning has been abrupt, exposing infrastructure issues that were always urgent, but never quite urgent enough to fix. Götz noted that in some Asian countries and Chile she's seeing older technologies being pressed into service to remedy some of this - technologies like broadcast TV and radio; even in the UK, after the first lockdown showed how many low-income families could not afford sufficient data plans, the the BBC began broadcasting curriculum-based programming.

"Going back to normal," Day said, "needs a rethink of what support is needed." Yet for some students the move to online learning has been liberating, lightening social and academic pressures and giving space to think about their values and the opportunity to be creative. We don't hear so much about that; British media focus on depression and loss.

By the time the baby downstairs reaches school age, the pandemic will be over, but its footprint will be all over how his education proceeds.

Persson, who focuses on the state's use of data in education, says that one consequence of the pandemic is that Microsoft and Google have entrenched themselves much more deeply into the UK's education infrastructure.

"With or without covid, schools are dependent on them for their core infrastructure now, and that's through platforms joining up their core personal data about students and staff - email addresses, phone numbers, names, organizational data - and joining all that up," she says. Parents are encouraged to link to their children's accounts, and there is, for the children concerned, effectively, "no privacy". The software, she adds, was really designed for business and incompletely adapted for education. For example, while there are controls schools can use for privacy protection, the defaults, as always, are towards open sharing. In her own children's school, which has 2,000 students, the software was set up so every user could see everyone else's email address.

"It's a huge contrast to [the concern about] online harms, child safety, and the protection mantra that we have to watch everything because the world is so unsafe," she says. Partly, this is also a matter of perception: policy makers tend to focus on "stranger danger" and limiting online content rather than ID theft, privacy, and how all this collected data may be used in the future. The European Digital Rights Initiative (EDRi) highlights the similar thinking behind European Commission proposals to require the platforms to scan private communications as part of combating child sexual abuse online.

All this awaits the baby downstairs. The other day, an 18-month-old girl ran up to him, entranced. Her mother pulled her back before she could touch him or the toys tied to his stroller. For now, he, like other pandemic babies, is surrounded by an invisible barrier. We won't know for several decades what the long-term effect will be.


Illustrations: Illustrations: Sonia Livingstone's LSE panel.

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.

February 19, 2021

Vaccine conoisseurs

800px-International_Certificates_of_Vaccination.jpgThis is one of those weeks when numerous stories update. Australia's dispute over sharing news has spawned deals that are bad for everyone except Facebook, Google, and Rupert Murdoch; the EU is beginning the final stages of formulating the ePrivacy Regulation; the UK awaits its adequacy decision on data protection; 3D printed guns are back; and the arrival of covid vaccines has revived the push for some form of vaccination certificate, which may (or may not) revive governments' desires for digital identities tied to each of us via biometrics and personal data.

To start with Australia: since the lower house of the Australian parliament has passed the law requiring Google and Facebook to negotiate licensing fees with publishers, Facebook began blocking Australian users from sharing "news content" - and the rest of the world from sharing links to Australian publishers - without waiting for final passage. The block is as overbroad as you might expect.

Google has instead announced a three-year deal under which it will pay Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation for the right to showcase it's output - which is almost universally paywalled.

Neither announcement is good news. Google's creates a damaging precedent of paying for links, and small public interest publishers don't benefit - and any publisher that does becomes even more dangerously dependent on the platforms to keep them solvent. On Twitter, Kate Crawford calls Facebook's move deplatforming at scale.

Next, as Glyn Moody helpfully explains, where GDPR protects personal data at rest, the ePrivacy Regulation covers personal data in transit. It has been pending since 2017, when the European Commission published a draft, which the European Parliament then amended. Massive amounts of lobbying and now-resolved internal squabbling over the text within the Council of the EU have finally been resolved so the three legs of this legislative stool can begin negotiations. Moody highlights two areas to watch: provisions exempting metadata from the prohibition on changing use without consent, and the rules regarding cookie walls. As negotiations proceed, however, there may be more.

As a no-longer EU member, the UK will have to actively adopt this new legislation. The UK's motivation to do so is simple: it wants - or should want - an adequacy decision. That is, for data to flow between the UK and the EU, the EU has to agree that the UK's privacy framework matches the EU's. On Tuesday, The Register reported that such a decision is imminent, a small piece of good news for British businesses in the sea of Brexit issues arising since January 1.

The original panic over 3D-printed guns was in 2013, when the US Department of Justice ordered the takedown of Defcad. In 2018, Defcad's owner, Cody Wilson, won his case against the DoJ in a settlement. At the time, 3D-printed plastic guns were too limited to worry about, and even by 2018 3D printing had failed to take off on the consumer level. This week Gizmodo reported that home-printing alarmingly functional automated weapons may now be genuinely possible for someone with the necessary obsession, home equipment, and technical skill.

Finally, ever since the beginning of this pandemic there has been concern that public health would become the vector for vastly expanded permanent surveillance that would be difficult to dislodge later.

The arrival of vaccinations has brought the weird new phenomenon of the vaccine connoisseur. They never heard of mRNA until a couple of months ago, but if you say you've been vaccinated they'll ask which one. And then say something like, "Oh, that's not the best one, is it?" Don't be fussy! If you're offered a vaccination, just take it. Every vaccine should help keep you alive and out of the hospital; like Willie Nelson's plane landings you can walk away from, they're *all* perfect. All will also need updates.

Israel is first up with vaccination certificates, saying that these will be issued to everyone after their second shot. The certificate will exempt them from some of the requirements for testing and isolation associated with visiting public places.

None of the problems surrounding immunity passports (as they were called last spring) has changed. We are still not sure whether the vaccines halt transmission or how long they last, and access is still enormously limited. Certificates will almost certainly be inescapable for international travel, as for other diseases like yellow fever and smallpox. For ordinary society, however, they would be profoundly discriminatory. In agreement on this: Ada Lovelace Institute, Privacy International, Liberty, Germany's ethics council. At The Lancet some researchers suggest they may be useful when we have more data, as does the the Royal Society; others reject them outright.

There is an ancillary concern. Ever since identity papers were withdrawn after the end of World War II, UK governments have repeatedly tried to reintroduce ID cards. The last attempt, which ended in 2010, came close. There is therefore legitimate concern about immunity passports as ID cards, a concern not allayed by the government's policy paper on digital identities, published last week.

What we need is clarity about what problem certificates are intended to solve. Are they intended to allow people who've been vaccinated greater freedom consistent with the lower risks they face and pose? Or is the point "health theater" for businesses? We need answers.


Illustrations: International vaccination certificates (from SimonWaldherr at Wikimedia).

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.

January 22, 2021

Surveillance without borders

637px-Sophie_in't_Veld,_print2.jpegThis time last year, the Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference was talking about inevitable technology. Two thousand people from all over the world enclosed in two large but unventilated spaces arguing closely over buffets and snacks for four days! I remember occasional nods toward a shadow out there on the Asian horizon, but it was another few weeks before the cloud of dust indicating the coronavirus's gallop westward toward London became visible to the naked eye. This week marks a year since I've traveled more than ten miles from home.

The virus laughs at what we used to call "inevitable". It also laughs at what we think of as "borders".

The concept of "privacy" was always going to have to expand. Europe's General Data Protection Regulation came into force in May 2018; by CPDP 2019 the conference had already moved on to consider its limitations in a world where privacy invasion was going physical. Since then, Austrian lawyer Max Schrems has poked holes in international data transfers, police and others began rolling out automated facial recognition without the least care for public consent...and emergency measures to contain the public health crisis have overwhelmed hard-won rights.

This year two themes are emerging. First is that, as predicted, traditional ideas about consent simply do not work in a world where technology monitors and mediates our physical movements, especially because most citizens don't know to ask what the "legal basis for processing" is when their local bar demands their name and address for contact tracing and claims the would-be drinker has no discretion to refuse. Second is the need for enforcement. This is the main point Schrems has been making through his legal challenges to the Safe Harbor agreement ("Schrems I") and then to its replacement, the EU-US Privacy Shield agreement ("Schrems II"). Schrems is forcing data protection regulators to act even when they don't want to.

In his panel on data portability, Ian Brown pointed out a third problem: access to tools. Even where companies have provided the facility for downloading your data, none provide upload tools, not even archives for academic papers. You can have your data, but you can't use it anywhere. By contrast, he said, open banking is actually working well in the UK. EFF's Christoph Schmon added a fourth: the reality that it's "much easier to monetize hate speech than civil discourse online".

Artist Jonas Staal and lawyer Jan Fermon have an intriguing proposal for containing Facebook: collectivize it. In an unfortunately evidence-free mock trial, witnesses argued that it should be neither nationalized nor privately owned nor broken up, but transformed into a space owned and governed by its 2.5 billion users. Fermon found a legal basis in the right to self-determination, "the basis of all other fundamental rights". In reality, given Facebook's wide-ranging social effects, non-users, too, would have to become part-owners. Lawyers love governing things. Most people won't even read the notes from a school board meeting.

Schmon favored finding ways to make it harder to monetize polarization, chiefly through moderation. Jennifer Cobbe, in a panel on algorithm-assisted decision making suggested stifling some types of innovation. "Government should be concerned with general welfare, public good, human rights, equality, and fairness" and adopt technology only where it supports those values. Transparency is only one part of the answer - and it must apply to all parts of systems such as those controlling whether someone stays in jail or is released on parole, not just the final decision making bit.

But the world in which these debates are taking place is also changing, and not just because of the coronavirus. In a panel on intelligence agencies and fundamental rights, for example, MEP Sophie in't Veld (NL) pointed out the difficulties of exercising meaningful oversight when talk begins about increasing cross-border cooperation. In her view, the EU pretends "national security" is outside its interests, but 20 years of legislation offers national security as a justification for bloc-wide action. The result is to leave national authorities to make their own decisions. and "There is little incentive for national authorities to apply safeguards to citizens from other countries." Plus, lacking an EU-wide definition of "national security", member states can claim "national security" for almost any exemption. "The walls between law enforcement and the intelligence agencies are crumbling."

A day later, Petra Molnar put this a different way: "Immigration management technologies are used as an excuse to infringe on people's rights". Molnar works to highlight the use of refugees and asylum-seekers as experimental subjects for news technologies - drones, AI lie detectors, automated facial recognition; meanwhile the technologies are blurring geographical demarcations, pushing the "border" away from its physical manifestation. Conversely, current UK policy moves the "border" into schools, rental offices, and hospitals by requiring for teachers, landlords, and medical personnel to check immigration status.

Edin Omanovic pointed out a contributing factor: "People are concerned about the things they use every day" - like WhatsApp - "but not bulk data interception". Politicians have more to gain by signing off on more powers than from imposing limits - but the narrowness of their definition of "security" means that despite powers, access to technology, and top-class universities, "We've had 100,000 deaths because we were unprepared for the pandemic we knew was coming and possible."


Illustrations: Sophie in't Veld (via Arnfinn Petersen at Wikimedia).

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.

December 11, 2020

Facebook in review

parliament-whereszuck.jpgLed by New York attorney general Letitia James, this week 46 US states, plus Guam, and Washington, DC, and, separately, the Federal Trade Commission filed suits against Facebook alleging that it has maintained an illegal monopoly while simultaneously reducing privacy protections and services to boost its bottom line. The four missing states: Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and South Dakota.

As they say, we've had this date from the beginning.

It's seemed likely for months that legal action against Facebook was on the way. There were the we-mean-business Congressional hearings and the subsequent committee report, followed by the suit against Google the Department of Justice filed in October.

Facebook seems peculiarly deserving. It began in 2004 as a Harvard-only network, using its snob appeal to expand to the other Ivy League schools, then thousands of universities and high schools, and finally the general public. Mass market adoption grew in tandem with the post-2009 explosion of smart phones. By then, Facebook had frequently tweaked its privacy settings and repeatedly annoyed users with new privacy-invasive features in the (sadly correct) and arrogant belief they'd never leave. By 2010, Zuckerberg was claiming that "privacy is no longer a social norm", adding that were he starting then he would make everything public by default, like Twitter.

It's hard to pick Facebook's creepiest moments out of so many, but here are a few: in 2011 it began auto-recognizing user photographs, in 2012 it dallied with in-network "democracy" - a forerunner of today's unsatisfactory oversight board, and in 2014 it tested emotionally manipulating its users.

In 2011, based on the rise and fall of earlier services like CompuServe, AOL, Geocities, LiveJournal, and MySpace you can practically carbon-date people by their choice of social media - some of us wrongly surmised that perhaps Facebook had peaked. "The [online] party keeps moving" is certainly true; what was different was that Zuckerberg knew it and launched his program of aggressive and defensive acquisitions.

The 2012 $1 billion acquisition of Instagram and 2014 $19 billion purchase of WhatsApp are the heart of the suits. The lawsuits suggest that without Facebook's intervention we'd have social media successfully competing on privacy. In his summary, Matt Stoller credits this idea to Dina Srinivasan, who argued in 2019 that Facebook saw off then-dominant MySpace by presenting itself as "privacy-centered" at a time when the press was claiming that MySpace's openness made it unsafe for children. Once in pole position, Facebook began gradually pushing greater openness on its users - bait and switch, I called it in 2010.

I'm less convinced that MySpace's continued existence could have curbed Facebook's privacy invasion. In 2004, the year of Facebook's birth, Australian privacy activist Roger Clarke surveyed the earliest social networks - chiefly Plaxo - and predicted that all social networks would inevitably exploit their users. "The only logical business model is the value of consumers' data," he told me for the Independent (TXT). I think, therefore, that the privacy-destructive race to the bottom-of-the-business-model was inevitable given the US's regulatory desert. Google began heading that way soon after its 2004 IPO; by 2006 privacy advocates were already warning of its danger.

Srinivasan details Facebook's progressive privacy invasion: the cooption of millions of third parties via logins and the Like button propagandize its service to collect and leverage vast amounts of personal data while it became a vector for the unscrupulous to hack elections. This is all without considering non-US issues such as Free Basics, which has made Facebook effectively the only Internet service in parts of the world. Facebook also had Silicon Valley's venture capital ethos at its back and Facebook's share structure, which awards Zuckerberg full and permanent control.

In a useful paper on nascent competitors, Tim Wu and C. Scott Hemphill discuss how to spot anticompetitive acquisitions. As I recall, though, many - notably the ever-prescient Jeff Chester - protested the WhatsApp and Instagram acquisitions at the time; the EU only agreed because Facebook promised not to merge the user databases, and issued a €110 million fine when it realized the company lied. Last year Facebook announced it would merge the databases, which critics saw as a preemptive move to block a potential breakup. Allowing the mergers to go ahead seems less dumb, however, if you remember that it took until 2017 and Lina Khan to realize that the era of two guys in a garage up-ending entrenched monopolists was over.

The suits ask the court to find Facebook guilty under Section 2 of the Sherman Act (which is a felony) and Section 7 of the Clayton Act, block it from making further acquisitions valued at $10 million or above, and require it to divest or restructure illegally acquired companies or current Facebook assets or business lines. Restoring some competition to the Internet ecosystem in general and social media in particular seems within reach of this action - though there are many other cases that also need attention. It won't be enough to fixing the damage to democracy and privacy, but perhaps the change in attitude it represents will ensure the next Facebook doesn't become a monster.


Illustrations: Mark Zuckerberg's empty chair at last year's Grand Committee hearing.

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.

December 4, 2020

Scraped

Somehow I had missed the hiQ Labs v. LinkedIn case until this week, when I struggled to explain on Twitter why condemning web scraping is a mistake. Over the years, many have made similar arguments to ban ordinary security tools and techniques because they may also be abused. The usual real world analogy is: we don't ban cars just because criminals can use them to escape.

The basics: hiQ, which styles itself as a "talent management company", used automated bots to scrape public LinkedIn profiles, and analyze them into a service advising companies what training they should invest in or which employee might be on the verge of leaving. All together now: *so* creepy! LinkedIn objected that the practice violates its terms of service and harms its business. In return, hiQ accused LinkedIn of purely anti-competitive motives, and claimed it only objected now because it was planning its own version.

LinkedIn wanted the court to rule that hiQ's scraping its profiles constitutes felony hacking under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986). Meanwhile, hiQ argued that because the profiles it scraped are public, no "hacking" was involved. EFF, along with DuckDuckGo and the Internet Archive, which both use web scraping as a basic tool, filed an amicus brief arguing correctly that web scraping is a technique in widespread use to support research, journalism, and legitimate business activities. Sure, hiQ's version is automated, but that doesn't make it different in kind.

There are two separate issues here. The first is web scraping itself, which, as EFF says, has many valid uses that don't involve social media or personal data. The TrainTimes site, for example, is vastly more accessible than the National Rail site it scrapes and re-presents. Over the last two decades, the same author, Matthew Somerville, has built numerous other such sites that avoid the heavy graphics and scripts that make so many information sites painful to use. He has indeed gotten in trouble for it sometimes; in this example, the Odeon movie theaters objected to his making movie schedules more accessible. (Query: what is anyone going to do with the Odeon movie schedule beyond choosing which ticket to buy?)

As EFF writes in its summary of the case, web scraping has also been used by journalists to investigate racial discrimination on Airbnb and find discriminatory pricing on Amazon; in the early days of the web, civic-minded British geeks used web scraping to make information about Parliament and its debates more accessible. Web scraping should not be illegal!

However, that doesn't mean that all information that can be scraped should be scraped or that all information that can be scraped should be *legal* to scrape. Like so many other basic techniques, web scraping has both good and bad uses. This is where the tricky bit lies.

Intelligence agency personnel these days talk about OSINT - "open source intelligence". "Open source" in this context (not software!) means anything they can find and save, which includes anything posted publicly on social media. Journalists also tend to view anything posted publicly as fair game for quotation and reproduction - just look at the Guardian's live blog any day of the week. Academic ethics require greater care.

There is plenty of abuse-by-scraping. As Olivia Solon reported last year, IBM scraped Flickr users' innocently posted photographs repurposed them into a database to train facial recognition algorithms, later used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to identify people to deport. (In June, when the protests after George Floyd's murder led IBM to pull back on selling facial recognition "for mass surveillance or racial profiling".) Clearview AI scraped billions of photographs off social media and collating them into a database service to sell to law enforcement. It's safe to say that no one posted their profile on LinkedIn with the intention of helping a third-party company get paid by their employer to spy on them.

Nonetheless, those abuse cases do not make web scraping "hacking" or a crime. They are difficult to rectify in the US because, as noted in last week's review of 30 years of data protection, the US lacks relevant privacy laws. Here in the UK, since the data Somerville was scraping was not personal, his complainants typically argued that he was violating their copyright. The hiQ case, if brought outside the US, would likely be based in data protection law.

In 2019, the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of hiQ, saying it did not violate CFAA because LinkedIn's servers were publicly accessible. In March, LinkedIn asked the Supreme Court to review the case. SCOTUS could now decide whether scraping publicly accessible data is (or is not) a CFAA violation.

What's wrong in this picture is the complete disregard for the users in the case. As the National Review says, a ruling for hiQ could deprive users of all control over their publicly posted information. So, call a spade a spade: at its heart this case is about whether LinkedIn has an exclusive right to abuse its users' data or whether it has to share that right with any passing company with a scraping bot. The profile data hiQ scraped is public, to be sure, but to claim that opens it up for any and all uses is no more valid than claiming that because this piece is posted publicly it is not copyrighted.


Illustrations: I simply couldn't think of one.

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.

November 27, 2020

Data protection in review

Thumbnail image for 2015_Max_Schrems_(17227117226).jpgA tax on small businesses," a disgusted techie called data protection, circa 1993. The Data Protection Directive became EU law in 1995, and came into force in the UK in 1998.

The narrow data protection story of the last 25 years, like that of copyright, falls into three parts: legislation, government bypasses to facilitate trade, and enforcement. The broader story, however, includes a power struggle between citizens and both public and private sector organizations; a brewing trade war; and the difficulty of balancing conflicting human rights.

Like free software licenses, data protection laws seed themselves across the world by requiring forward compliance. Adopting this approach therefore set the EU on a collision course with the US, where the data-driven economy was already taking shape.

Ironically, privacy law began in the US, with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (1970), which gives Americans the right to view and correct the credit files that determine their life prospects. It was joined by the Privacy Act (1974), which covers personally identifiable information held by federal agencies, and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (1986), which restricts government wiretaps on transmitted and stored electronic data. Finally, the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protect health data (with now-exploding exceptions. In other words, the US's consumer protection-based approach leaves huge unregulated swatches of the economy. The EU's approach, by contrast, grew out of the clear historical harms of the Nazis' use of IBM's tabulation software and the Stasi's endemic spying on the population, and regulates data use regardless of sector or actor, minus a few exceptions for member state national security and airline passenger data. Little surprise that the results are not compatible.

In 1999, Simon Davies saw this as impossible to solve for Scientific American (TXT): "They still think that because they're American they can cut a deal, even though they've been told by every privacy commissioner in Europe that Safe Harbor is inadequate...They fail to understand that what has happened in Europe is a legal, constitutional thing, and they can no more cut a deal with the Europeans than the Europeans can cut a deal with your First Amendment." In 2000, he looked wrong: the compromise Safe Harbor agreement enabled EU-US data flows.

In 2008, the EU began discussing an update to encompass the vastly changed data ecosystem brought by Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, the smartphone explosion, new types of personally identifiable information, and the rise and fall of what Andres Guadamuz last year called "peak cyber-utopianism". By early 2013, it appeared that reforms might weaken the law, not strengthen it. Then came Snowden, whose revelations reanimated privacy protection. In 2016, the upgraded General Data Protection Regulation was passed despite a massive opposing lobbying operation. It the month before GDPR came into force">came into force in 2018, but even now many US sites still block European visitors rather than adapt because "you are very important to us".

Everyone might have been able to go on pretending the fundamental incompatibility didn't exist but for two things. The first is the 2014 European Court of Justice decision requiring Google to honor "right to be forgotten" requests (aka Costeja). Americans still see Costeja as a terrible abrogation of free speech; Europeans more often see it as a balance between conflicting rights and a curb on the power of large multinational companies to determine your life.

The second is Austrian lawyer Max Schrems. While still a student, Schrems saw that Snowden's revelations utterly up-ended the Safe Harbor agreement. He filed a legal case - and won it, in 2016, just as GDPR was being passed.The EU and US promptly negotiated a replacement, Privacy Shield. Schrems challenged again. And won again, this year. "There must be no Schrems III!", EU politicians said in September. In other words: some framework must be found to facilitate transfers that passes muster within the law. The US's approach appears to be trying to get data protection and localization laws barred via trade agreements despite domestic opposition. One of the Trump administration's first acts was to require federal agencies to exempt foreigners from Privacy Act protections.

No country is more affected by this than the UK, which as a new non-member can't trade without an adequacy decision and no longer gets the member-state exception for its surveillance regime. This dangerous high-wire moment for the UK traps it in that EU-US gap.

Last year, I started hearing complaints that "GDPR has failed". The problem, in fact, is enforcement. Schrems took action because the Irish Data Protection Regulator, in pole position because companies like Facebook have sited their European headquarters there, was failing to act. The UK's Information Commissioner's Office was under-resourced from the beginning. This month, the Open Rights Group sued the ICO to force it to act on the systemic breaches of the GDPR it acknowledged in a June 2019 report (PDF) on adtech.

Equally a problem are the emerging limitations of GDPR and consent, which areentirely unsuited for protecting privacy in the onrushing "smart" world in which you are at the mercy of others' Internet of Things. The new masses of data that our cities and infrastructure will generate will need a new approach.


Illustrations: Max Schrems in 2015.

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.

November 6, 2020

Crypto in review

Caspar_Bowden-IMG_8994-2013-rama.jpgBy my count, this is net.wars number 990; the first one appeared on November 2, 2001. If you added in its predecessors - net.wars-the-book, and its sequel From Anarchy to Power, as well as the more direct precursors, the news analysis pieces I wrote for the Daily Telegraph between 1997 and early 2001, you'd get a different number I don't know how to calculate. Therefore: this is net.wars #990, and the run-up to 1,000 seems a good moment to review some durable themes of the last 20 years via what we wrote at the time.

net.wars #1 has, sadly, barely aged; it could almost be published today unchanged. It was a ticked-off response to former Home Secretary Jack Straw, who weeks after the 9/11 attacks told Britain's radio audience that the people who had opposed key escrow were now realizing they'd been naive. We were not! The issue Straw was talking about was the use of strong cryptography, and "key escrow" was the rejected plan to require each individual to deposit a copy of their cryptographic key with a trusted third party. "Trusted", on its surface meant someone *we* trusted to guard our privacy; in subtext it meant someone the government trusted to disclose the key when ordered to do so - the digital equivalent of being required to leave a copy of the key to your house with the local police in case they wanted to investigate you. The last half of the 1990s saw an extended public debate that concluded with key escrow being dropped for the final version of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) in favor of requiring individuals to produce cleartext when law enforcement require it. A 2014 piece for IEEE Security & Privacy explains RIPA and its successors and the communications surveillance framework they've created.

With RIPA's passage, a lot of us thought the matter was settled. We were so, so wrong. It did go quiet for a decade. Surveillance-related public controversy appeared to shift, first to data retention and then to ID cards, which were proposed soon after the 2005 attacks on London's tube and finally canned in 2010 when the incoming coalition government found a note from the previous chancellor, "There's no money".

As the world discovered in 2013, when Edward Snowden dropped his revelations of government spying, the security services had taken the crypto debate into their own hands, undermining standards and making backroom access deals. The Internet community reacted quickly with first advice and then with technical remediation.

In a sense, though, the joke was on us. For many netheads, crypto was a cause in the 1990s; the standard advice was that we should all encrypt all our email so the important stuff wouldn't stand out. To make that a reality, however, crypto software had to be frictionless to use - and the developers of the day were never interested enough in usability to make it so. In 2011, after I was asked to write an instruction manual for installing PGP (or GPG), the lack of usability was maddening enough for me to write: "There are so many details you can get wrong to mess the whole thing up that if this stuff were a form of contraception desperate parents would be giving babies away on street corners."

The only really successful crypto at that point were backend protocols like SSL (used to secure ecommerce transactions over the web), TLS (secures communications), and HTTPS (secures web connections) and the encryption built into mobile phone standards. Much has changed since, most notably Facebook's and Apple's decision to protect user messages and data, at a stroke turning crypto on for billions of users. The result, as Ross Anderson predicted in 2018, was to change the focus of governments' demand for access to hacking devices rather than cracking individual messages.

The arguments have not changed in all those years; they were helpfully collated by a group of senior security experts in 2015 in the report Keys Under Doormats (PDF). Encryption is mathematics; you cannot create a hole that only "good guys" can use. Everyone wants uncrackable encryption for themselves - but to be able to penetrate everyone else's. That scenario is no more possible than the suggestion some of Donald Trump's team are making that the same votes that are electing Republican senators and Congresspeople are not legally valid when applied to the presidency.

Nonetheless, we've heard repeated calls from law enforcement for breakable encryption: in 2015, 2017, and, most recently, six weeks ago. In between, while complaining that communications were going dark, in 2016 the FBI tried to force Apple to crack its own phones to enable an investigation. When the FBI found someone to crack it to order, Apple turned on end-to-end encryption.

I no longer believe that this dispute can be settled. Because it is built on logic proofs, mathematics will always be hard, non-negotiable, and unyielding, and because of their culture and responsibilities security services and law enforcement will always want more access. For individuals, before you adopt security precautions, think through your threat model and remember that most attacks will target the endpoints, where cleartext is inevitable. For nations, remember whatever holes you poke in others' security will be driven through in your own.


Illustrations: The late Caspar Bowden (1961-2015), who did so much to improve and explain surveillance policy in general and crypto policy in particular (via rama at Wikmedia).

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.

August 21, 2020

The end of choice

new-22portobelloroad.jpgAt the Congressional hearings a few weeks ago, all four CEOs who appeared - Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Sundar Pichai (Google), and Tim Cook (Apple) - said essentially the same thing in their opening statements: they have lots of competitors, they have enabled millions of people to build small businesses on their platforms, and they do not have monopoly power. The first of these is partly true, the second is true, and the third...well, it depends which country you're talking about, how you look at it, and what you think they're competing for. In some countries outside the US, for example, Facebook *is* the Internet because of its Free Basics program.

In the weeks since: Google still intends to buy Fitbit, which for $2.1 billion would give it access to a huge pile of health-data-that's-not-categorized-as-health data; both the US and the EU are investigating.

In California, an appeals court has found that Amazon can be liable for defective products sold by third-party sellers.

Meanwhile, Apple, which this week became the first company in history to hit a $2 trillion market cap, deleted Epic's hugely popular game Fortnite from the App Store because its latest version breaks Apple's rules by allowing players to bypass the Apple payment system (and 30% commission) to pay Epic directly for in-game purchases. In response, Epic has filed suit - and, writes Matt Stoller, if a company with Epic's clout can't force Apple to negotiate terms, who can? Stoller describes the Apple-Epic suit as certainly about money but even more about "the right way to run an economy". Stoller goes on to find this thread running through other current disputes, and believes this kind of debate leads to real change.

At Stratechery Ben Thompson argues that the Democrats didn't prove their case. Most interesting of the responses to the hearings, though, is an essay by Benedict Evans, who argues that breaking up the platforms will achieve nothing. Instead, he says, citing relevant efforts by the EU and UK competition authorities, better to dig into how the platforms operate and write rules to limit the potential for abuse. I like this idea, in part because it is genuinely difficult to see how break-ups would work. However, the key issue is enforcement; the EU made not merging databases a condition of Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp - and three years later Facebook decided to do it anyway. The resulting fine of €110 million was less than 1% of the $19 billion purchase price.

In 1998, when the Evil Borg of Tech was Microsoft, it, too, was the subject of antitrust actions. Echoing the 1984 breakup of AT&T, people speculated about creating "Baby Bills", either by splitting the company between operating systems and productivity software or by splitting it into clones and letting them compete with each other. Instead, in 2004 the EU ordered Microsoft to unbundle its media player and, in 2009, Internet Explorer to avoid new fines. The company changed, but so did the world around it: the web, online services, free software, smartphones, and social media all made Microsoft less significant. Since 2010, the landscape has changed again. As the economist Lina Khan wrote in 2017, two guys in a garage can no longer knock off the current crop by creating the next new big technology.

Today's expanding hybrid cyber-physical systems will entrench choices none of us made into infrastructure none of us can avoid. In 2017, for example, San Diego began installing "smart" streetlights intended to do all sorts of good things: drive down energy costs, monitor air pollution, point out empty parking spaces, and so on. The city also thought it might derive some extra income from allowing third parties to run apps on its streetlight network. Instead, as Tekla S. Perry reported at IEEE Spectrum in January, to date the system's sole use has been to provide video footage to law enforcement, which has taken advantage to solve serious crimes but also to investigate vandalism and illegal dumping.

In the UK, private developers and police have been rolling out automated facial recognition without notifying the public; this week, in a case brought by Liberty, the UK Court of Appeal ruled that its use breaches privacy rights and data protection and equality laws. This morning, I see that, undeterred, Lincolnshire Police will trial a facial recognition system that is supposed to be able to detect people's moods.

The issue of monopoly power is important. But even if we find a way to ensure fair competition we won't have solved a bigger problem that is taking shape: individuals increasingly have no choice about whether to participate in the world these companies are building. For decades we have had no choice about being credit-scored. Three years ago, despit the fatuous comments of senior politicians, it was obvious that the only people who can opt out of using the Internet are those who are economically inactive or highly privileged; last year journalist Kashmir Hill proved the difficulty of doing without GAFA. The pandemic response is making opting out either antisocial, a health risk, or both. And increasingly, going out of your house means being captured on video and analyzed whether you like it or not. No amount of controlling individual technology companies will solve this loss of agency. That is up to us.

Illustrations: Orwell's house at 22 Portobello Road, London, complete with CCTV camera.

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.

June 26, 2020

Mysticism: curmudgeon

Carole_Cadwalladr_2019.jpg"Not voting, or not for us?" the energetic doorstep canvasser asked when I started closing the door as soon as I saw her last November. "Neither," I said. "I just don't want to have the conversation." She nodded and moved on. That's the only canvasser I've seen in years. Either they have me written down as a pointless curmudgeon or they (like so many others) don't notice my very small street.

One of the open questions of the three years since Carole Cadwalladr broke the Cambridge Analytica story is how much impact data profiling had on the 2016 EU referendum vote and US presidential election. We know that thousands of ads were viewed millions of times and aimed at promoting division and that they were precisely targeted. But did they make the crucial difference?

We'll never really know. For its new report, Who Do They Think We Are?, the Open Rights Group set out to explore a piece of this question by establishing what data the British political parties hold on UK voters and where they get it. This week, Pascal Crowe, who leads the data and democracy project, presented the results to date.

You can still participate via tools to facilitate subject access requests and analyze the results. The report is based on the results of SARs submitted by 496 self-selected people, 344 of whom opted into sharing their results with ORG. The ability to do this derives from changes brought in by the General Data Protection Regulation, which eliminated the fees, shrank the response time to 30 days, removed the "in writing" requirement, and widened the range of information organizations were required to supply.

ORG's main findings from the three parties from which it received significant results:

- Labour has compiled up to 100 pages of data per individual, broken down into over 80 categories from sources including commercial suppliers, the electoral register, data calculated in-house, and the subjects themselves. The data included estimates of how long someone had lived at their address, their income, number of children, and scores on issues such as staying in the EU, supporting the Scottish National Party, and switching to vote for another party. Even though participants submitted identification along with their request, they all were asked again for further documentation. None received a response within the statutory time limit.

- The Lib Dems referred ORG to their privacy policy for details of their sources; the data was predominantly from the electoral rolls and includes fields indicating the estimated number of different families in a home, the likelihood that they favored remaining I the EU, or were a "soft Tory". The LibDems outsource some of their processing to CACI.

- The Conservatives also use the electoral rolls and buy data from Experian, but outsource a lot of profiling to the political consultancy Hanbury Strategy. Their profiles include estimates of how long someone has lived at their current address, number of children, age, employment status, income, educational level, preferred newspaper, and first language. Plus "mysticism", an attempt to guess the individual's religion.

There are three separate issues here. The first is whether the political parties have the legal right to engage in this extensive political profiling. The second is whether voters find the practice acceptable or disquieting. The third is the one we began with: does it work to deliver election results?

Regarding the first, there's no question that these profiles contain personal and sensitive data. ORG is doubtful about the parties' claim that "democratic engagement" provides a legal basis, and recommends three remedies: the Information Commissioner's Office should provide guidance and enforcement; the UK should implement the collective redress provision in GDPR that would allow groups like ORG to represent the interests of an ill-informed public; and the political parties should move to a consent-based opt-in model.

More interesting, ORG found that people simply did not recognize themselves in the profiles the parties collected, which were full of errors - even information as basic as gender and age. Under data protection law, correcting such errors is a fundamental right, but the bigger question is how all this data is helping the parties if it's so badly wrong (and whether we should be more scared if it were accurate). For this reason, Crowe suggested the parties would be better served by returning to the traditional method of knocking on every door, not just the doors of those the parties think already agree with them. The data they collected in such an exercise would be right - and consent would be unambiguous. My canvasser, even after five seconds, knows more about me than a pile of data does.

For the third question, this future was predicted: in 2011, Jeff Chester worried greatly about the potential of profiling to enable political manipulation. Even before that, it was the long-running theme inside the TV series Mad Men that pits advertising as persuasion and emotional engagement (the Don Draper or knocking-on-doors approach) or as a numbers game in you just need media space targeted at exactly the right selection of buyers (the Harry Crane and Facebook/Google approach). Draper, who ruled the TV show's 1960s, has lost ground to the numbers guys ever since, culminating in Facebook, which allows the most precise audience targeting we've ever known. Today, he'd be 94 and struggling to convince 20-somethings addicted to data-wrangling that he still knows how to sell things.


Illustrations: Carole Cadwalladr (via MollyMEP at Wikimedia).

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.

May 22, 2020

The pod exclusion

Vintage_Gloritone_Model_27_Cathedral-Tombstone_Style_Vacuum_Tube_Radio,_AM_Band,_TRF,_Circa_1930_(14663394535).jpgThis week it became plain that another bit of the Internet is moving toward the kind of commercialization and control the Internet was supposed to make difficult in the first place: podcasts. The announcement that one of the two most popular podcasts, the Joe Rogan Experience, will move both new episodes and its 11-year back catalogue to Spotify exclusively in a $100 million multiyear deal is clearly a step change. Spotify has also been buying up podcast networks, and at the Verge, Ashley Carman suggests the podcast world will bifurcate into twin ecosystems, Spotify versus Everyone Else.

Like a few hundred million other people, I am an occasional Rogan listener, my interest piqued by a web forum mention of his interview with Jeff Novitzky, the investigator in the BALCO doping scandal. Other worth-the-time interviews from his prolific output include Lawrence Lessig, epidemiologist Michael Osterholm (particularly valuable because of its early March timing), Andrew Yang, and Bernie Sanders. Parts of Twitter despise him; Rogan certainly likes to book people (usually, but not always, men - for example Roseanne Barr) who are being pilloried in the news and jointly chew over their situation. Even his highest-profile interviewees rarely find, anywhere else, the two to three hours Rogan spends letting them talk quietly about their thinking. He draws them out by not challenging them much, and his predilection for conspiracy theories and interest in unproven ideas about nutrition make it advisable to be selective and look for countervailing critiques.

It's about 20 years since I first read about Dave Winers early experiments in "audio blogging", renamed "podcast" after the 2001 release of the iPod eclipsed all previously existing MP3 players. The earliest podcasts tended to be the typical early-stage is-this-thing-on? that leads the unimaginative to dismiss the potential. But people with skills honed in radio were obviously going to do better, and within a few years (to take one niche example) the skeptical world was seeing weekly podcasts like Skepchick (beginning 2005) and The Pod Delusion (2009-2014). By 2014, podcast networks were forming, and an estimated 20% of Americans were listening to podcasts at least once a month.

That era's podcasts, although high-quality, were - and in some cases still are - produced by people seeking to educate or promote a cause, and were not generally money-making enterprises in their own right. The change seems to have begun around 2010, as the acclerating rise of smartphones made podcasts as accessible as radio for mobile listening. I didn't notice until late 2016, when the veteran screenwriter and former radio announcer and DJ Ken Levine announced on his daily 11-year-old blog that he was starting up Hollywood & Levine and I discovered the ongoing influx of professional comedians, actors, and journalists into podcasting. Notably, they all carried ads for the same companies - at the minimum, SquareSpace and Blue Apron. Like old-time radio, these minimal-production ads were read by the host, sometimes making the whole affair feel uncomfortably fake. Per the Wall Street Journal, US advertising revenue from podcasting was $678.7 million last year, up 42% over 2018.

No wonder advertisers like podcasts: users can block ads on a website or read blog postings via RSS, but no matter how you listen to a podcast the ads remain in place, and if you, like most people, listen to podcasts (like radio) when your hands are occupied, you can't easily skip past them. For professional communicators, podcasts therefore provide direct access to revenues that blogging had begun to offer before it was subsumed by social media and targeted advertising.

The Rogan deal seems a watershed moment that will take all this to a new level. The key element really isn't the money, as impressive as it sounds at first glance; it's the exclusive licensing. Rogan built his massive audience by publishing his podcast in both video and audio formats widely on multiple platforms, primarily his own websites and YouTube; go to any streaming site and you're likely to find it listed. Now, his audience is big enough that Spotify apparently thinks that paying for exclusivity will net the company new subscribers. If you prefer downloads to streaming, however, you'll need a premium subscription. Rogan himself apparently thinks he will lose no control over his show; he distrusts YouTube's censorship.

At his blog on corporate competition, Matt Stoller proclaims that the Rogan deal means the death of independent podcasting. While I agree that podcasts circa 2017-2020 are in a state similar to the web in the 2000s, I don't agree this means the death of all independent podcasting - but it will be much harder for their creators to find audiences and revenues as Spotify becomes the primary gatekeeper. This is what happened with blogs between 2008 and 2015 as social media took over.

Both Carman's and Stoller's predictions are grim: that podcasts will go the way of today's web and become a vector for data collection and targeted advertising. Carman, however, imagines some survival for a privacy-protecting, open ecosystem of podcasts. I want to believe this. But, like blogging now, that ecosystem will likely have to find a new business model.


Illustrations: 1930s vacuum tube radio (via Joe Haupte).

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.

May 15, 2020

Quincunx

Thumbnail image for sidewalklabs-streetcrossing.pngIn the last few weeks, unlike any other period in the 965 (!) previous weeks of net.wars columns: there were *five* pieces of (relatively) good news in the (relatively) restricted domain of computers, freedom, and privacy.

One: Google sibling Sidewalk Labs has pulled out of the development it had planned with Waterfront Toronto. This project has been contentious ever since the contract was signed in 2017 to turn a 12-acre section of Toronto's waterfront into a data-driven, sensor-laden futuristic city. In 2018, leading Canadian privacy pioneer Ann Cavoukian quit the project after Sidewalk Labs admitted that instead of ensuring the data it collected wouldn't be identifiable it actually would grant third parties access to it. At a panel on smart city governance at Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection 2019, David Murakami Wood gave the local back story (go to 43:30) on the public consultations and the hubris on display. Now, blaming the pandemic-related economic conditions, Sidewalk Labs has abandoned the plan altogether; its public opponents believe the scheme was really never viable in the first place. This is good news, because although technology can help some of urban centers' many problems, it should always be in the service of the public, not an opportunity for a private company to seize control.

Two: The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has rejected the Internet Society's proposal to sell PIR, the owner of the .org generic top-level domain, to the newly created private equity firm Ethos Capital, Timothy B. Lee reports at Ars Technica. Among its concerns, ICANN cited the $360 million in debt that PIR would have been required to take on, Ethos' lack of qualifications to run such a large gTLD, and the lack of transparency around the whole thing. The decision follows an epistolary intervention by California's Attorney General, who warned ICANN that it thought that the deal "puts profit above the public interest" and that ICANN was "abandoning its core duty to protect the public interest". As the overseer of both it (as a non-profit) and the sale, the AG was in a position to make its opinion hurt. At the time when the sale was announced, the Internet Society claimed there were other suitors. Perhaps now we'll find out who those were.

Three: The textbook publishers Cengage and McGraw-Hill have abandoned their plan to merge, saying that antitrust enforcers' requirements that they divest their overlapping businesses made the merger uneconomical. The plan had attracted pushback from students, consumer groups, libraries, universities, and bookstores, as well as lawmakers and antitrust authorities.

Four: Following a similar ruling from the UK Intellectual Property Office, the US Patent and Trademark Office has rejected two patents listing the Dabus AI system as the inventor. The patent offices argue that innovations must be attributed to humans in order to avoid the complications that would arise from recognizing corporations as inventors. There's been enough of a surge in such applications that the World Intellectual Property Organization held a public consultation on this issue that closed in February. Here again my inner biological supremacist asserts itself: I'd argue that the credit for anything an AI creates belongs with the people who built the AI. It's humans all the way down.

Five: The US Supreme Court has narrowly upheld the right to freely share the official legal code of the state of Georgia. Carl Malamud, who's been liberating it-ought-to-be-public data for decades - he was the one who first got Securities and Exchange Commission company reports online in the 1990s, and on and on - had published the Official Code of Georgia Annotated. The annotations in question, which include summaries of judicial opinions, citations, and other information about the law, are produced by Lexis-Nexus under contract to the state of Georgia. No one claimed the law itself could be copyrighted, but the state argued it owned copyright in the annotations, with Lexis-Nexus as its contracted commercial publisher. The state makes no other official version of its code available, meaning that someone consulting the non-annotated free version Lexis-Nexus does make available would be unaware of later court decisions rejecting parts of some of the laws the legislature passed. So Malamud paid the hundreds of dollars to buy a full copy of the official annotated version, and published it in full on his website for free access. The state sued. Public.Resource lost in the lower courts but won on appeal - and, in a risky move, urged the Supreme Court to take the case and set the precedent. The vote went five to four. The impact will be substantial. Twenty-two other states publish their legal code under similar arrangements with Lexis-Nexus. They will now have to rethink.

All these developments offer wins for the public in one way or another. None should be cause for complacence. Sidewalk Labs and other "surveillance city" purveyors will try again elsewhere with less well-developed privacy standards - and cities still have huge problems to solve. The future of .org, the online home for the world's non-profits and NGOs, is still uncertain. Textbook publishing is still disturbingly consolidated. The owners of AIs will go on seeking ways to own their output. And ensuring that copyright does not impede access to the law that governs those 23 American states does not make those laws any more just. But, for a brief moment, it's good.

Illustrations:

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.

This week's net.wars, "Quincunx", wakes up to discover a confluence of (relatively) good news in the last few weeks of computers, freedom, and privacy: https://www.pelicancrossing.net/netwars/2020/05/quincunx.html

May 1, 2020

Appified

china-alihealth.jpegAround 2010, when smartphones took off (Apple's iPhone user base grew from 8 million in 2009 to 100 million in early 2011), "There's an app for that" was a joke widely acknowledged as true. Faced with a pandemic, many countries are looking to develop apps that might offer shortcuts to reaching some variant of "old normal". The UK is no exception, and much of this week has been filled with debate about the nascent contact tracing app being developed by the National Health Service's digital arm, NHSx. The logic is simple: since John Snow investigated cholera in 1854, contact tracing has remained slow, labor-intensive , and dependent on infected individuals' ability to remember all their contacts. With a contagious virus that spreads promiscuously to strangers who happen to share your space for a time, individual memory isn't much help. Surely we can do better. We have technology!

In 2011, Jon Crowcroft and Eiko Yoneki had that same thought. Their Fluphone proved the concept, even helping identify asymptomatic superspreaders through the social graph of contacts developing the illness.

In March, China's Alipay Health got our attention. This all-seeing, all-knowing, data-mining, risk score-outputting app whose green, yellow, and red QR codes are inspected by police at Chinese metro stations, workplaces, and other public areas seeks to control the virus's movements by controlling people's access. The widespread Western reaction, to a first approximation: "Ugh!" We are increasingly likely to end up with something similar, but with very different enforcement and a layer of "democratic voluntary" - *sort* of China, but with plausible deniability.

Or we may not. This is a fluid situation!

This week has been filled with debate about why the UK's National Health Service's digital arm (NHSx) is rolling its own app when Google and Apple are collaborating on a native contact-tracing platform. Italy and Spain have decided to use it; Germany, which was planning to build its own app, pivoted abruptly, and Australia and Singapore (whose open source app, TraceTogether, was finding some international adoption) are switching. France balked, calling Apple "uncooperative".

France wants a centralized system, in which matching exposure notifications is performed on a government-owned central server. That means trusting the government to protect it adequately and not start saying, "Oooh, data, we could do stuff with that!" In a decentralized system, the contact matching us performed on the device itself, with the results released to health officials if the user decides to do so. Apple and Google are refusing to support centralized systems, largely because in many of the countries where iOS and Android phones are sold it poses significant dangers for the population. Essentially, the centralized ones ask you for a lot more trust in your government.

All this led to Parliament's Human Rights Committee, which spent the week holding hearings on the human rights implications of contact tracing apps. (See Michael Veale's and Orla Lynskey's written evidence and oral testimony.) In its report, the committee concluded that the level of data being collected isn't justifiable without clear efficacy and benefits; rights-protecting legislation is needed (helpfully, Lilian Edwards has spearheaded an effort to produce model safeguarding legislation; an independent oversight body is needed along with a Digital Contact Tracing Human Rights Commissioner; the app's efficacy and data security and privacy should be reviewed every 21 days; and the government and health authorities need to embrace transparency. Elsewhere, Marion Oswald writes that trust is essential, and the proposals have yet to earn it.

The specific rights discussion has been accompanied by broader doubts about the extent to which any app can be effective at contact tracing and the other flaws that may arise. As Ross Anderson writes, there remain many questions about practical applications in the real world. In recent blog postings, Crowcroft mulls modern contact tracing apps based on what they learned from Fluphone.

The practical concerns are even greater when you look at Ashkan Soltani's Twitter feed, in which he's turning his honed hacker sensibilities on these apps, making it clear that there are many more ways for these apps to fail than we've yet recognized. The Australian app, for example, may interfere with Bluetooth-connected medical devices such as glucose monitors. Drug interactions matter; if apps are now medical devices, then their interactions must be studied, too. Soltani also raises the possibility of using these apps for voter suppression. The hundreds of millions of downloads necessary to make these apps work means even small flaws will affect large numbers of people.

All of these are reasons why Apple and Google are going to wind up in charge of the technology. Even the UK is now investigating switching. Fixing one platform is a lot easier than debugging hundreds, for example, and interoperability should aid widespread use, especially when international travel resumes, currently irrelevant but still on people's minds. In this case, Apple's and Google's technology, like the Internet itself originally, is a vector for spreading the privacy and human rights values embedded in its design, and countries are changing plans to accept it - one more extraordinary moment among so many.

Illustrations: Alipay Health Code in action (press photo).

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.

March 12, 2020

Privacy matters

china-alihealth.jpegSometime last week, Laurie Garrett, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Coming Plague, proposed a thought experiment to her interviewer on MSNBC. She had been describing the lockdown procedures in place in China, and mulling how much more limited actions are available to the US to mitigate the spread. Imagine, she said (or more or less), the police out on the interstate pulling over a truck driver "with his gun rack" and demanding a swab, running a test, and then and there ordering the driver to abandon the truck and putting him in isolation.

Um...even without the gun rack detail...

The 1980s AIDS crisis may have been the first time my generation became aware of the tension between privacy and epidemiology. Understanding what was causing the then-unknown "gay cancer" involved tracing contacts, asking intimate questions, and, once it was better understood, telling patients to contact their former and current sexual partners. At a time when many gay men were still closeted, this often meant painful conversations with wives as well as ex-lovers. (Cue a well-known joke from 1983: "What's the hardest part of having AIDS? Trying to convince your wife you're Haitian.")

The descriptions emerging of how China is working to contain the virus indicate a level of surveillance that - for now - is still unthinkable in the West. In a Huangzhou project, for example, citizens are required to install the Alipay Health Code app on their phones that assigns them a traffic light code based on their recent contacts and movements - which in turn determines which public and private spaces they're allowed to enter. Paul Mozur, who co-wrote that piece for the New York Times with Raymond Zhong and Aaron Krolik, has posted on Twitter video clips of how this works on the ground, while Ryutaro Uchiyama marvels at Singapore's command and open publication of highly detailed data This is a level of control that severely frightened people, even in the West, might accept temporarily or in specific circumstances - we do, after all, accept being data-scanned and physically scanned as part of the price of flying. I have no difficulty imagining we might accept barriers and screening before entering nursing homes or hospital wards, but under what conditions would the citizens of democratic societies accept being stopped randomly on the street and our phones scanned for location and personal contact histories?

The Chinese system has automated just such a system. Quite reasonably, at the Guardian Lily Kuo wonders if the system will be made permanent, essentially hijacking this virus outbreak in order to implement a much deeper system of social control than existed before. Along with all the other risks of this outbreak - deaths, widespread illness, overwhelmed hospitals and medical staff, widespread economic damage, and the mental and emotional stress of isolation, loss, and lockdown - there is a genuine risk that "the new normal" that emerges post-crisis will have vastly more surveillance embedded in it.

Not everyone may think this is bad. On Twitter, Stewart Baker, whose long-held opposition to "warrant-proof" encryption we noted last week, suggested it was time for him to revive his "privacy kills" series. What set him off was a New York Times piece about a Washington-based lab that was not allowed to test swabs they'd collected from flu patients for coronavirus, on the basis that the patients would have to give consent for the change of use. Yes, the constraint sounds stupid and, given the situation, was clearly dangerous. But it would be more reasonable to say that either *this* interpretation or *this* set of rules needs to be changed than to conclude unliterally that "privacy is bad". Making an exemption for epidemics and public health emergencies is a pretty easy fix that doesn't require up-ending all patient confidentiality on a permanent basis. The populations of even the most democratic, individualistic countries are capable of understanding the temporary need for extreme measures in a crisis. Even the famously national ID-shy UK accepted identity papers during wartime (and then rejected them after the war ended (PDF)).

The irony is that lack of privacy kills, too. At The Atlantic, Zeynep Tufecki argues that extreme surveillance and suppression of freedom of expression paradoxically results in what she calls "authoritarian blindness": a system designed to suppress information can't find out what's really going on. At The Bulwark, Robert Tracinski applies Tufecki's analysis to Donald Trump's habit of labeling anything he doesn't like "fake news" and blaming any events he doesn't like on the "deep state" and concludes that this, too, engenders widespread and dangerous distrust. It's just as hard for a government to know what's really happening when the leader doesn't want to know as when the leader doesn't want anyone *else* to know.

At this point in most countries it's early stages, and as both the virus and fear of it spread, people will be willing to consent to any measure that they believe will keep them and their loved ones safe. But, as Access Now agrees, there will come a day when this is past and we begin again to think about other issues. When that day comes, it will be important to remember that privacy is one of the tools needed to protect public health.


Illustrations: Alipay Health Code in action (press photo).

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.

March 6, 2020

Transitive rage

cropped-Spies_and_secrets_banner_GCHQ_Bude_dishes.jpgSomething has changed," a privacy campaigner friend commented last fall, observing that it had become noticeably harder to get politicians to understand and accept the reasons why strong encryption is a necessary technology to protect privacy, security, and, more generally, freedom. This particular fight had been going on since the 1990s, but some political balance had shifted. Mathematical reality of course remains the same. Except in Australia.

At the end of January, Bloomberg published a leaked draft of the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act (EARN IT), backed by US Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). In its analysis the Center for Democracy and Technology find the bill authorizes a new government commission, led by the US attorney general, to regulate online speech and, potentially, ban end-to-end encryption. At Lawfare, Stewart Baker, a veteran opponent of strong cryptography, dissents, seeing the bill as combating child exploitation by weakening the legal liability protection afforded by Section 230. Could the attorney general mandate that encryption never qualifies as "best practice"? Yes, even Baker admits, but he still thinks the concerns voiced by CDT and EFF are overblown.

In our real present, our actual attorney general, William Barr believes "warrant-proof encryption" is dangerous. His office is actively campaigning in favor of exactly the outcome CDT and EFF fear.

Last fall, my friend connected the "change" to recent press coverage of the online spread of child abuse imagery. Several - such as Michael H. Keller and Gabriel J.X. Dance's November story - specifically connected encryption to child exploitation, complaining that Internet companies fail to use existing tools, and that Facebook's plans to encrypt Messenger, "the main source of the imagery", will "vastly limit detection".

What has definitely changed is *how* encryption will be weakened. The 1990s idea was key escrow, a scheme under which individuals using encryption software would deposit copies of their private keys with a trusted third party. After years of opposition, the rise of ecommerce and its concomitant need to secure in-transit financial details eventually led the UK government to drop key escrow before the passage of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), which closed that chapter of the crypto debates. RIPA and its current successor, the Investigatory Powers Act (2016), requires individuals to descrypt information or disclose keys to government representatives. There have have been three prosecutions.

In 2013, we learned from Edward Snowden's revelations that the security services had not accepted defeat but had gone dark, deliberately weakening standards. The result: the Internet engineering community began the work of hardening the Internet as much as they could.

In those intervening years, though, outside of a few very limited cases - SSL, used to secure web transactions - very few individuals actually used encryption. Email and messaging remained largely open. The hardening exercise Snowden set off eventually included companies like Facebook, which turned on end-to-end encryption for all of WhatsApp in 2016, overnight turning 1 billion people into crypto users and making real the long-ago dream of the crypto nerds of being lost in the noise. If 1 billion people use messaging and only a few hundred use encryption, the encryption itself is a flag that draws attention. If 1 billion people use encrypted messaging, those few hundred are indistinguishable.

In June 2018, at the 20th birthday of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, Ross Anderson predicted that the battle over encryption would move to device hacking. The reasoning is simple: if they can't read the data in transit because of end-to-end encryption, they will work to access it at the point of consumption, since it will be cleartext at that point. Anderson is likely still to be right - the IPA includes provisions allowing the security services to engage in "bulk equipment interference", which means, less politely, "hacking".

At the same time, however, it seems clear that those governments that are in a position to push back at the technology companies now figure that a backdoor in the few giant services almost everyone uses brings back the good old days when GCHQ could just put in a call to BT. Game the big services, and the weirdos who use Signal and other non-mainstream services will stick out again.

At Stanford's Center for Internet and Society, Riana Pfefferkorn believes the DoJ is opportunistically exploiting the techlash much the way the security services rushed through historically and politically unacceptable surveillance provisions in the first few shocked months after the 9/11 attacks. Pfefferkorn calls it "transitive rage": Congresspeople are already mad at the technology companies for spreading false news, exploiting personal data, and not paying taxes, so encryption is another thing to be mad about - and pass legislation to prevent. The IPA and Australia's Assistance and Access Act are suddenly models. Plus, as UN Special Rapporteur David Keye writes in his book Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet, "Governments see that company power and are jealous of it, as they should be."

Pfefferkorn goes on to point out the inconsistency of allowing transitive rage to dictate banning secure encryption. It protects user privacy, sometimes against the same companies they're mad at. We'll let Alec Muffett have the last word, reminding that tomorrow's children's freedom is also worth protecting.


Illustrations: GCHQ's Bude listening post, at dawn (by wizzlewick at Wikimedia, CC3.0).

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.

cropped-Spies_and_secrets_banner_GCHQ_Bude_dishes.jpg

February 14, 2020

Pushy algorithms

cyberporn.jpgOne consequence of the last three and a half years of British politics, which saw everything sucked into the Bermuda Triangle of Brexit debates, is that things that appeared to have fallen off the back of the government's agenda are beginning to reemerge like so many sacked government ministers hearing of an impending cabinet reshuffle and hoping for reinstatement.

One such is age verification, which was enshrined in the Digital Economy Act (2017) and last seen being dropped to wait for the online harms bill.

A Westminster Forum seminar on protecting children online shortly before the UK's December 2019 general election, reflected that uncertainty. "At one stage it looked as if we were going to lead the world," Paul Herbert lamented before predicting it would be back "sooner or later".

The expectation for this legislation was set last spring, when the government released the Online Harms white paper. The idea was that a duty of care should be imposed on online platforms, effectively defined as any business-owned website that hosts "user-generated content or user interactions, for example through comments, forums, or video sharing". Clearly they meant to target everyone's current scapegoat, the big social media platforms, but "comments" is broad enough to include any ecommerce site that accepts user reviews. A second difficulty is the variety of harms they're concerned about: radicalization, suicide, self-harm, bullying. They can't all have the same solution even if, like one bereaved father, you blame "pushy algorithms".

The consultation exercise closed in July, and this week the government released its response. The main points:

- There will be plentiful safeguards to protect freedom of expression, including distinguishing between illegal content and content that's legal but harmful; the new rules will also require platforms to publish and transparently enforce their own rules, with mechanisms for redress. Child abuse and exploitation and terrorist speech will have the highest priority for removal.

- The regulator of choice will be Ofcom, the agency that already oversees broadcasting and the telecommunications industry. (Previously, enforcing age verification was going to be pushed to the British Board of Film Classification.)

- The government is still considering what liability may be imposed on senior management of businesses that fall under the scope of the law, which it believes is less than 5% of British businesses.

- Companies are expected to use tools to prevent children from accessing age-inappropriate content "and protect them from other harms" - including "age assurance and age verification technologies". The response adds, "This would achieve our objective of protecting children from online pornography, and would also fulfill the aims of the Digital Economy Act."

There are some obvious problems. The privacy aspects of the mechanisms proposed for age verification remain disturbing. The government's 5% estimate of businesses that will be affected is almost certainly a wild underestimate. (Is a Patreon page with comments the responsibility of the person or business that owns it or Patreon itself?). At the Guardian, Alex Hern explains the impact on businesses. The nastiest tabloid journalism is not within scope.

On Twitter, technology lawyer Neil Brown identifies four fallacies in the white paper: the "Wild West web"; that privately operated computer systems are public spaces; that those operating public spaces owe their users a duty of care; and that the offline world is safe by default. The bigger issue, as a commenter points out, is that the privately operated computer systems UK government seeks to regulate are foreign-owned. The paper suggests enforcement could include punishing company executives personally and ordering UK ISPs to block non-compliant sites.

More interesting and much less discussed is the push for "age-appropriate design" as a method of harm reduction. This approach was proposed by Lorna Woods and Will Perrin in January 2019. At the Westminster eForum, Woods explained, "It is looking at the design of the platforms and the services, not necessarily about ensuring you've got the latest generation of AI that can identify nasty comments and take it down."

It's impossible not to sympathize with her argument that the costs of move fast and break things are imposed on the rest of society. However, when she started talking about doing risk assessments for nascent products and services I could only think she's never been close to software developers, who've known for decades that from the instant software goes out into the hands of users they will use it in ways no one ever imagined. So it's hard to see how it will work, though last year the ICO proposed a code of practice.

The online harms bill also has to be seen in the context of all the rest of the monitoring that is being directed at children in the name of keeping them - and the rest of us - safe. DefendDigital.me has done extensive work to highlight the impact of such programs as Prevent, which requires schools and libraries to monitor children's use of the Internet to watch for signs of radicalization, and the more than 20 databases that collect details of every aspect of children's educational lives. Last month, one of these - the Learning Records Service - was caught granting betting companies access to personal data about 28 million children. DefendDigital.me has called for an Educational Rights Act. This idea could be usefully expanded to include children's online rights more broadly.


Illustrations: Time magazine's 1995 "Cyberporn" cover, which marked the first children-Internet panic.

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.

February 6, 2020

Mission creep

Haystack-Cora.png"We can't find the needles unless we collect the whole haystack," a character explains in the new play The Haystack, written by Al Blyth and in production at the Hampstead Theatre through March 7. The character is Hannah (Sarah Woodward), and she is director of a surveillance effort being coded and built by Neil (Oliver Johnstone) and Zef (Enyi Ororonkwo), familiarly geeky types whose preferred day-off activities are the cinema and the pub, rather than catching up on sleep and showers, as Hannah pointedly suggests. Zef has a girlfriend (and a "spank bank" of downloaded images) and is excited to work in "counter-terrorism". Neil is less certain, less socially comfortable, and, we eventually learn, more technically brilliant; he must come to grips with all three characteristics in his quest to save Cora (Rona Morison). Cue Fleabag: "This is a love story."

The play is framed by an encrypted chat between Neil and Denise, Cora's editor at the Guardian (Lucy Black). We know immediately from the technological checklist they run down in making contact that there has been a catastrophe, which we soon realize surrounds Cora. Even though we're unsure what it is, it's clear Neil is carrying a load of guilt, which the play explains in flashbacks.

As the action begins, Neil and Zef are waiting to start work as a task force seconded to Hannah's department to identify the source of a series of Ministry of Defence leaks that have led to press stories. She is unimpressed with their youth, attire, and casual attitude - they type madly while she issues instructions they've already read - but changes abruptly when they find the primary leaker in seconds. Two stories remain; because both bear Cora's byline she becomes their new target. Both like the look of her, but Neil is particularly smitten, and when a crisis overtakes her, he breaks every rule in the agency's book by grabbing a train to London, where, calling himself "Tom Flowers", he befriends her in a bar.

Neil's surveillance-informed "god mode" choices of Cora's favorite music, drinks, and food when he meets her remind of the movie Groundhog Day, in which Phil (Bill Murray) slowly builds up, day by day, the perfect approach to the women he hopes to seduce. In another cultural echo, the tense beginning is sufficiently reminiscent of the opening of Laura Poitras's film about Edward Snowden, CitizenFour, that I assumed Neil was calling from Moscow.

The requirement for the haystack, Hannah explains at the beginning of Act Two, is because the terrorist threat has changed from organized groups to home-grown "lone wolves", and threats can come from anywhere. Her department must know *everything* if it is to keep the nation safe. The lone-wolf theory is the one surveillance justification Blyth's characters don't chew over in the course of the play; for an evidence-based view, consult the VOX-Pol project. In a favorite moment, Neil and Hannah demonstrate the frustrating disconnect between technical reality and government targets. Neil correctly explains that terrorists are so rare that, given the UK's 66 million population, no matter how much you "improve" the system's detection rate it will still be swamped by false positives. Hannah, however, discovers he has nonetheless delivered. The false positive rate is 30% less! Her bosses are thrilled! Neil reacts like Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife after one of her morally uncomfortable wins.

Related: it is one of the great pleasures of The Haystack that its three female characters (out of a total of five) are smart, tough, self-reliant, ambitious, and good at their jobs.

The Haystack is impressively directed by Roxana Silbert. It isn't easy to make typing look interesting, but this play manages it, partly by the well-designed use of projections to show both the internal and external worlds they're seeing, and partly by carefully-staged quick cuts. In one section, cinema-style cross-cutting creates a montage that fast-forwards the action through six months of two key relationships.

Technically, The Haystack is impressive; Zef and Neil speak fluent Python, algorithms, and Bash scripts, and laugh realistically over a journalist's use of Hotmail and Word with no encryption ("I swear my dad has better infosec"), while the projections of their screens are plausible pieces of code, video games, media snippets, and maps. The production designers and Blyth, who has a degree in econometrics and a background as a research economist, have done well. There were just a few tiny nitpicks: Neil can't trace Cora's shut-down devices "without the passwords" (huh?); and although Neil and Zef also use Tor, at one point they use Firefox (maybe) and Google (doubtful). My companion leaned in: "They wouldn't use that." More startling, for me, the actors who play Neil and Zef pronounce "cache" as "cachet"; but this is the plaint of a sound-sensitive person. And that's it, for the play's 1:50 length (trust me; it flies by).

The result is an extraordinary mix of a well-plotted comic thriller that shows the personal and professional costs of both being watched and being the watcher. What's really remarkable is how many of the touchstone digital rights and policy issues Blyth manages to pack in. If you can, go see it, partly because it's a fine introduction to the debates around surveillance, but mostly because it's great entertainment.


Illustrations: Rona Morison, as Cora, in The Haystack.

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.

January 24, 2020

The inevitability narrative

new-22portobelloroad.jpg"We could create a new blueprint," Woody Hartzog said in a rare moment of hope on Wednesday at this year's Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection in a panel on facial recognition. He went on stress the need to move outside of the model of privacy for the last two decades: get consent, roll out technology. Not necessarily in that order.

A few minutes earlier, he had said, "I think facial recognition is the most dangerous surveillance technology ever invented - so attractive to governments and industry to deploy in many ways and so ripe for abuse, and the mechanisms we have so weak to confront the harms it poses that the only way to mitigate the harms is to ban it."

This week, a leaked draft white paper revealed that the EU is considering, as one of five options, banning the use of facial recognition in public places. In general, the EU has been pouring money into AI research, largely in pursuit of economic opportunity: if the EU doesn't develop its own AI technologies, the argument goes, Europe will have to buy it from China or the United States. Who wants to be sandwiched between those two?

This level of investment is not available to most of the world's countries, as Julia Powles elsewhere pointed out with respect to AI more generally. Her country, Australia, is destined to be a "technology importer and data exporter", no matter how the three-pronged race comes out. "The promises of AI are unproven, and the risks are clear," she said. "The real reason we need to regulate is that it imposes a dramatic acceleration on the conditions of the unrestrained digital extractive economy." In other words, the companies behind AI will have even greater capacity to grind us up as dinosaur bones and use the results to manipulate us to their advantage.

At this event last year there was a general recognition that, less than a year after the passage of the general data protection regulation, it wasn't going to be an adequate approach to the growth of tracking through the physical world. This year, the conference is awash in AI to a truly extraordinary extent. Literally dozens of sessions: if it's not AI in policing it's AI and data protection, ethics, human rights, algorithmic fairness, or embedded in autonomous vehicles, Hartzog's panel was one of at least half a dozen on facial recognition, which is AI plus biometrics plus CCTV and other cameras. As interesting are the omissions: in two full days I have yet to hear anything about smart speakers or Amazon Ring doorbells, both proliferating wildly in the soon-to-be non-EU UK.

These technologies are landing on us shockingly fast. This time last year, automated facial recognition wasn't even on the map. It blew up just last May, when Big Brother Watch pushed the issue into everyone's consciousness by launching a campaign to stop the police from using what is still a highly flawed technology. But we can't lean too heavily on the ridiculous - 98%! - inaccuracy of its real-world trials, because as it becomes more accurate it will become even more dangerous to anyone on the wrong list. Here, it has become clear that it's being rapidly followed by "emotional recognition", a build-out of technology pioneered 25 years ago at MIT by Rosalind Picard under the rubric "affective computing".

"Is it enough to ban facial recognition?" a questioner asked. "Or should we ban cameras?"

Probably everyone here is carrying at least two camera (pause to count: two on phone, one on laptop).

Everyone here is also conscious that last week, Kashmir Hill broke the story that the previously unknown, Peter Thiel-backed company Clearview AI had scraped 3 billion facial images off social media and other sites to create a database that enables its law enforcement cutomers to grab a single photo and get back matches from dozens of online sites. As Hill reminds, companies like Facebook have been able to do this since 2011, though at the time - just eight and a half years ago! - this was technology that Google (though not Facebook) thought was "too creepy" to implement.

In the 2013 paper A Theory of Creepy, Omer Tene and Jules Polonetsky. cite three kinds of "creepy" that apply to new technologies or new uses: it breaks traditional social norms; it shows the disconnect between the norms of engineers and those of the rest of society; or applicable norms don't exist yet. AI often breaks all three. Automated, pervasive facial recognition certainly does.

And so it seems legitimate to ask: do we really want to live in a world where it's impossible to go anywhere without being followed? "We didn't ban dangerous drugs or cars," has been a recurrent rebuttal. No, but as various speakers reminded, we did constrain them to become much safer. (And we did ban some drugs.) We should resist, Hartzog suggested, "the inevitability narrative".

Instead, the reality is that, as Lokke Moerel put it, "We have this kind of AI because this is the technology and expertise we have."

One panel pointed us at the AI universal guidelines, and encouraged us to sign. We need that - and so much more.


Illustrations: Orwell's house at 22 Portobello Road, London, complete with CCTV camera.

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.

December 27, 2019

Runaway

shmatikov.jpgFor me, the scariest presentation of 2019 was a talk given by Cornell University professor Vitaly Shmatikov about computer models. It's partly a matter of reframing the familiar picture; for years, Bill Smart and Cindy Grimm have explained to attendees at We Robot that we don't necessarily really know what it is that neural nets are learning when they're deep learning.

In Smart's example, changing a few pixels in an image can change the machine learning algorithm's perception of it from "Abraham Lincoln" to "zebrafish". Misunderstanding what's important to an algorithm is the kind of thing research scientist Janelle Shane exploits when she pranks neural networks and asks them to generate new recipes or Christmas carols from a pile of known examples. In her book, You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, she presents the inner workings of many more examples.

All of this explains why researchers Kate Crawford and Trevor Paglen's ImageNet Roulette experiment tagged my my Twitter avatar as "the Dalai Lama". I didn't dare rerun it, because how can you beat that? The experiment over, would-be visitors are now redirected to Crawford's and Paglen's thoughtful examination of the problems they found in the tagging and classification system that's being used in training these algorithms.

Crawford and Paglen write persuasively about the world view captured by the inclusion of categories such as "Bad Person" and "Jezebel" - real categories in the Person classification subsystem. The aspect has gone largely unnoticed until now because conference papers focused on the non-human images in ten-year-old ImageNet and its fellow training databases. Then there is the *other* problem, that the people's pictures used to train the algorithm were appropriated from search engines, photo-sharing sites such as Flickr, and video of students walking their university campuses. Even if you would have approved the use of your forgotten Flickr feed to train image recognition algorithms, I'm betting you wouldn't have agreed to be literally tagged "loser" so the algorithm can apply that tag later to a child wearing sunglasses. Why is "gal" even a Person subcategory, still less the most-populated one? Crawford and Paglen conclude that datasets are "a political intervention". I'll take "Dalai Lama", gladly.

Again, though, all of this fits with and builds upon an already known problem: we don't really know which patterns machine learning algorithms identify as significant. In his recent talk to a group of security researchers at UCL, however, Shmatikov, whose previous work includes training an algorithm to recognize faces despite obfuscation, outlined a deeper problem: these algorithms "overlearn". How do we stop them from "learning" (and then applying) unwanted lessons? He says we can't.

"Organically, the model learns to recognize all sorts of things about the original data that were not intended." In his example, in training an algorithm to recognize gender using a dataset of facial images, alongside it will learn to infer race, including races not represented in the training dataset, and even identities. In another example, you can train a text classifier to infer sentiment - and the model also learns to infer authorship.

Options for counteraction are limited. Censoring unwanted features doesn't work because a) you don't know what to censor; b) you can't censor something that isn't represented in the training data; and c) that type of censoring damages the algorithm's accuracy on the original task. "Either you're doing face analysis or you're not." Shmatikov and Congzheng Song explain their work more formally in their paper Overlearning Reveals Sensitive Attributes.

"We can't really constrain what the model is learning," Shmatikov told a group of security researchers at UCL recently, "only how it is used. It is going to be very hard to prevent the model from learning things you don't want it to learn." This drives a huge hole through GDPR, which relies on a model of meaningful consent. How do you consent to something no one knows is going to happen?

What Shmatikov was saying, therefore, is that from a security and privacy point of view, the typical question we ask, "Did the model learn its task well?", is too limited. "Security and privacy people should also be asking: what else did the model learn?" Some possibilities: it could have memorized the training data; discovered orthogonal features; performed privacy-violating tasks; or incorporated a backdoor. None of these are captured in assessing the model's accuracy in performing the assigned task.

My first reaction was to wonder whether a data-mining company like Facebook could use Shmatikov's explanation as an excuse when it's accused of allowing its system to discriminate against people - for example, in digital redlinining. Shmatikov thought not, at least, not more than their work helps people find out what their models are really doing.

"How to force the model to discover the simplest possible representation is a separate problem worth invdstigating," he concluded.

So: we can't easily predict what computer models learn when we set them a task involving complex representations, and we can't easily get rid of these unexpected lessons while retaining the usefulness of the models. I was not the only person who found this scary. We are turning these things loose on the world and incorporating them into decision making without the slightest idea of what they're doing. Seriously?


Illustrations: Vitaly Shmatikov (via Cornell).

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.

November 21, 2019

The choices of others

vlcsnap-2019-11-21-21h32m40s545.pngFor the last 30 years, I've lived in the same apartment on a small London street. So small, in fact, that even though London now has so many CCTV cameras - an estimated 627,707 - that the average citizen is captured on camera 300 times a day, it remains free of these devices. Camera surveillance and automated facial recognition are things that happen when I go out to other places.

Until now.

It no longer requires state-level resources to put a camera in place to watch your front door. This is a function that has been wholly democratized. And so it is that my downstairs neighbors, whose front door is side by side with mine, have inserted surveillance into the alleyway we share via an Amazon Ring doorbell.

Now, I understand there are far worse things, both as neighbors go and as intrusions go. My neighbors are mostly quiet. We take in each other's packages. They would never dream of blocking up the alleyway with stray furniture. And yet it never occurred to them that a 180-degree camera watching their door is, given the workings of physics and geography, also inevitably watching mine. And it never occurred to them to ask me whether I minded.

I do mind.

I have nothing to hide, and I mind.

Privacy advocates have talked and written for years about the many ways that our own privacy is limited by the choices of others. I use Facebook very little - but less-restrained friends nonetheless tag me in photographs, and in posts about shared activities. My sister's decision to submit a DNA sample to a consumer DNA testing service in order to get one of those unreliable analyses of our ancestry inevitably means that if I ever want to do the same thing the system will find the similarity and identify us as relatives, even though it may think she's my aunt.

We have yet to develop social norms around these choices. Worse, most people don't even see there's a problem. My neighbor is happy and enthusiastic about the convenience of being able to remotely negotiate with package-bearing couriers and be alerted to possible thieves. "My office has one," he said, explaining that they got it after being burgled several times to help monitor the premises.

We live down an alleyway so out of the way that both we and couriers routinely leave packages on our doorsteps all day.

I do not want to fight with my neighbor. We live in a house with just two flats, one up, one down, on a street with just 20 households. There is no possible benefit to be had from being on bad terms. And yet.

I sent him an email: would he mind walking me through the camera's app so I can see what it sees? In response, he sent a short video; the image above, taken from it, shows clearly that the camera sees all the way down the alleyway in both directions.

So I have questions: what does Amazon say about what data it keeps and for how long? If the camera and microphone are triggered by random noises and movements, how can I tell whether they're on and if they're recording?

Obviously, I can read the terms and conditions for myself, but I find them spectacularly unclear. Plus, I didn't buy this device or agree to any of this. The document does make mention of being intended for monitoring a single-family residence, but I don't think this means Amazon is concerned that people will surveil their neighbors; I think it means they want to make sure they sell a separate doorbell to every home.

Examination of the video and the product description reveals that camera, microphone, and recording are triggered by movement next to his - and therefore also next to my - door. So it seems likely that anyone with access to his account can monitor every time I come or go, and all my visitors. Will my privacy advocate friends ever visit me again? How do my neighbors not see why I think this is creepy?

Even more disturbing is the cozy relationship Amazon has been developing with police, especially in the US, where the company has promoted the doorbells by donating units for neighborhood watch purposes, effectively allowing police to build private surveillance networks with no public oversight. The Sun reports similar moves by UK police forces.

I don't like the idea of the police being able to demand copies of recordings of innocent people - couriers, friends, repairfolk - walking down our alleyway. I don't want surveillance-by-default. But as far as I can tell, this is precisely what this doorbell is delivering.

A lawyer friend corrects my impression that GDPR does not apply. The Information Commissioner's Office is clear that cameras should not be pointed at other people's property or shared spaces, and under GDPR my neighbor is now a data controller. My friends can make subject access requests. Even so: do I want to pick a fight with people who can make my life unpleasant? All over the country, millions of people are up against the reality that no matter how carefully they think through their privacy choices they are exposed by the insouciance of other people and robbed of agency not by police or government action but by their intimate connections - their neighbors, friends, and family..

Yes, I mind. And unless my neighbor chooses to care, there's nothing I can practically do about it.

Illustrations: Ring camera shot of alleyway.

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.

November 1, 2019

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

Monty_Python_Live_02-07-14-sporti-jpgSo can we stop now with the fantasy that data can be anonymized?

Two things sparked this train of thought. The first was seeing that researchers at the Mayo Clinic have shown that commercial facial recognition software accurately identified 70 of a sample set of 84 (that's 83%) MRI brain scans. For ten additional subjects, the software placed the correct identification in its top five choices. Yes, on reflection, it's obvious that you can't scan a brain without including its container, and that bone structure defines a face. It's still a fine example of data that is far more revealing than you expect.

The second was when Phil Booth, the executive director of medConfidential, on Twitter called out the National Health Service for weakening the legal definition of "anonymous" in its report on artificial intelligence (PDF).

In writing the MRI story for the Wall Street Journal (paywall), Melanie Evans notes that people have also been reidentified from activity patterns captured by wearables, a cautionary tale now that Google's owner, Alphabet, seeks to buy Fitbit. Cautionary, because the biggest contributor to reidentifying any particular dataset is other datasets to which it can be matched.

The earliest scientific research on reidentification I know of was Latanya Sweeney's 1997 success in identifying then-governor William Weld's medical record by matching the "anonymized" dataset of records of visits to Massachusetts hospitals against the voter database for Cambridge, which anyone could buy for $20. Sweeney has since found that 87% of Americans can be matched from just their gender, date of birth, and zip code. More recently, scientists at Louvain and Imperial College found that just 15 attributes can identify 99.8% of Americans. Scientists have reidentified individuals from anonymized shopping data, and by matching mobile phone logs against transit trips. Combining those two datasets identified 95% of the Singaporean population in 11 weeks; add GPS records and you can do it in under a week.

This sort of thing shouldn't be surprising any more.

The legal definition that Booth cited is Recital 26 of the General Data Protection Regulation, which specifies in a lot more detail about how to assess the odds ("all the means likely to be used", "account should be taken of all objective factors") of successful reidentification.

Instead, here's the passage he highlighted from the NHS report as defining "anonymized" data (page 23 of the PDF, 44 of the report): "Data in a form that does not identify individuals and where identification through its combination with other data is not likely to take place."

I love the "not likely". It sounds like one of the excuses that's so standard that Matt Blaze put them on a bingo card. If you asked someone in 2004 whether it was likely that their children's photos would be used to train AI facial recognition systems that in 2019 would be used to surveil Chinese Muslims and out pornography actors in Russia. And yet here we are. You can never reliably predict what data will be of what value or to whom.

At this point, until proven otherwise it is safer to assume that that there really is no way to anonymize personal data and make it stick for any length of time. It's certainly true that in some cases the sensitivity of any individual piece of data - say your location on Friday at 11:48 - vanishes quickly, but the same is not true of those data points when aggregated over time. More important, patient data is not among those types and never will be. Health data and patient information are sensitive and personal not just for the life of the patient but for the lives of their close relatives on into the indefinite future. Many illnesses, both mental and physical, have genetic factors; many others may be traceable to conditions prevailing where you live or grew up. Either way, your medical record is highly revealing - particularly to insurance companies interested in minimizing their risk of payouts or an employer wishing to hire only robustly healthy people - about the rest of your family members.

Thirty years ago, when I was first encountering large databases and what happens when you match them together, I came up with a simple privacy-protecting rule: if you do not want the data to leak, do not put it in the database. This still seems to me definitive - but much of the time we have no choice.

I suggest the following principles and assumptions.

One: Databases that can be linked, will be. The product manager's comment Ellen Ullman reported in 1997 still pertains: "I've never seen anyone with two systems who didn't want us to hook them together."

Two: Data that can be matched, will be.

Three: Data that can be exploited for a purpose you never thought of, will be.

Four: Stop calling it "sharing" when the entities "sharing" your personal data are organizations, especially governments or commercial companies, not your personal friends. What they're doing is *disclosing* your information.

Five: Think collectively. The worst privacy damage may not be to *you*.

The bottom line: we have now seen so many examples of "anonymized" data that can be reidentified that the claim that any dataset is anonymized should be considered as extraordinary a claim as saying you've solved Brexit. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, as the skeptics say.

Addendum: if you're wondering why net.wars skipped the 50th anniversary of the first ARPAnet connection: first of all, we noted it last week; second of all, whatever headline writers think, it's not the 50th anniversary of the Internet, whose beginnings, as we wrote in 2004, are multiple. If you feel inadequately served, I recommend this from 2013, in which some of the Internet's fathers talk about all the rules they broke to get the network started.


Illustrations: Monty Python performing the Spanish Inquisition sketch in 2014 (via Eduardo Unda-Sanzana at Wikimedia.

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.

October 18, 2019

I never paid for it in my life

lanier-lrm-2017.jpgSo Jaron Lanier is back, arguing that we should be paid for our data. He was last seen in net.wars two years back, arguing that if people had started by charging for email we would not now be the battery fuel for "behavior modification empires". In a 2018 TED talk, he continued that we should pay for Facebook and Google in order to "fix the Internet".

Lanier's latest disquisition goes like this: the big companies are making billions from our data. We should have some of it. That way lies human dignity and the feeling that our lives are meaningful. And fixing Facebook!

The first problem is that fixing Facebook is not the same as fixing the Internet, a distinction Lanier surely understands. The Internet is a telecommunications network; Facebook is a business. You can profoundly change a business by changing who pays for its services and how, but changing a telecommunications network that underpins millions of organizations and billions of people in hundreds of countries is a wholly different proposition. If you mean, as Lanier seems to, that what you want to change is people's belief that content on the Internet should be free, then what you want to "fix" is the people, not the network. And "fixing" people at scale is insanely hard. Just ask health professionals or teachers. We'd need new incentives,

Paying for our data is not one of those incentives. Instead of encouraging people to think more carefully about privacy, being paid to post to Facebook would encourage people to indiscriminately upload more data. It would add payment intermediaries to today's merry band of people profiting from our online activities, thereby creating a whole new class of metadata for law enforcement to claim it must be able to access.

A bigger issue is that even economists struggle to understand how to price data; as Diane Coyle asked last year, "Does data age like fish or like wine?" Google's recent announcement that it would allow users to set their browser histories to auto-delete after three or 12 months has been met by the response that such data isn't worth much three months on, though the privacy damage may still be incalculable. We already do have a class of people - "influencers" - who get paid for their social media postings, and as Chris Stokel-Walker portrays some of their lives, it ain't fun. Basically, while paying us all for our postings would put a serious dent into the revenues of companies like Google, and Facebook, it would also turn our hobbies into jobs.

So a significant issue is that we would be selling our data with no concept of its true value or what we were actually selling to companies that at least know how much they can make from it. Financial experts call this "information asymmetry". Even if you assume that Lanier's proposed "MID" intermediaries that would broker such sales will rapidly amass sufficient understanding to reverse that, the reality remains that we can't know what we're selling. No one happily posting their kids' photos to Flickr 14 years ago thought that in 2014 Yahoo, which owned the site from 2005 to 2015, was going to scrape the photos into a database and offer it to researchers to train their AI systems that would then be used to track protesters, spy on the public, and help China surveil its Uighur population.

Which leads to this question: what fire sales might a struggling company with significant "data assets" consider? Lanier's argument is entirely US-centric: data as commodity. This kind of thinking has already led Google to pay homeless people in Atlanta to scan their faces in order to create a more diverse training dataset (a valid goal, but oh,.the execution).

In a paywalled paper for Harvard Business Review, Lanier apparently argues that instead he views data as labor. That view, he claims, opens the way to collective bargaining via "data labor unions" and mass strikes.

Lanier's examples, however, are all drawn from active data creation: uploading and tagging photos, writing postings. Yet much of the data the technology companies trade in is stuff we unconsciously create - "data exhaust" - as we go through our online lives: trails of web browsing histories, payment records, mouse movements. At Tech Liberation, Will Rinehart critiques Lanier's estimates, both the amount (Lanier suggests a four-person household could gain $20,000 a year) and the failure to consider the differences between and interactions among the three classes of volunteered, observed, and inferred data. It's the inferences that Facebook and Google really get paid for. I'd also add the difference between data we can opt to emit (I don't *have* to type postings directly into Facebook knowing the company is saving every character) and data we have no choice about (passport information to airlines, tax data to governments). The difference matters: you can revise, rethink, or take back a posting; you have no idea what your unconscious mouse movements reveal and no ability to edit them. You cannot know what you have sold.

Outside the US, the growing consensus is that data protection is a fundamental human right. There's an analogy to be made here between bodily integrity and personal integrity more broadly. Even in the US, you can't sell your kidney. Isn't your data just as intimate a part of you?


Illustrations: Jaron Lanier in 2017 with Luke Robert Mason (photo by Eva Pascoe).

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.

September 27, 2019

Balancing acts

800px-Netherlands-4589_-_Lady_of_Justice_&_William_of_Orange_Coat-o-Arms_(12171086413).jpgThe Court of Justice of the European Union had an important moment on Tuesday, albeit overshadowed by another court elsewhere, ruling that the right to be forgotten can be limited to the EU. To recap: in 2014, in its ruling in Google Spain v. AEPD and Mario Costeja González ("Costeja") CJEU required Google to delist results returned by searches on a person's name under certain circumstances. Costeja had complained that the fact that a newspaper record of the foreclosure on his house in 1998 was the first thing people saw when they searched for him gave them a false impression. In an effort to balance freedom of expression and privacy, the court's ruling left the original newspaper announcement intact, but ordered Google to remove the link from its index of search results. Since then, Google says it has received 845,501 similar requests representing 3.3 million links, of which it has dereferenced 45%.

Well, now. Left unsettled was the question of territorial jurisdiction: one would think that a European court doesn't have the geographical reach to require Google to remove listings worldwide - but if Google doesn't, then the ability to switch to a differently-located version of the search engine trivially defeats the ruling. What is a search engine to do?

This is a dispute we've seen before, beginning in 2000, when, in a case brought by the Ligue contre le racisme et l'antisémitisme et Union des étudiants juifs de France (LICRA), a French tribunal ordered Yahoo to block sales of Nazi memorabilia on its auction site. Yahoo argued that it was a US company, therefore the sales were happening in the US, and don't-break-the-Internet; the French court claimed jurisdiction anyway. Yahoo appealed *in the US*, where the case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Eventually, Yahoo stopped selling the memorabilia everywhere, and the fuss died down.

Costeja offered the same conundrum with a greater degree of difficulty; the decision has been subsumed into GDPR as Article 17, "right to erasure". Google began delisting Costeja's unwanted result, along with those many others, from EU versions of its search engine but left them accessible in the non-EU domains. The French data protection regulator, CNIL, however, felt this didn't go far enough and in May 2015 it ordered Google to expand dereferencing to all its servers worldwide. Google's version of compliance was to deny access to the listings to anyone coming from the country where the I-want-to-be-forgotten complaint originated. In March 2016 CNIL fined Google €100,000 (pocket change!), saying that the availability of content should not depend on the geographic location of the person seeking to view it. In response to Google's appeal, the French court referred several questions to CJEU, leading to this week's ruling.

The headlines announcing this judgment - for example, the Guardian's - give the impression that the judgment is more comprehensive than it is. Yes, the court ruled that search engines are not required to delist results worldwide in right to be forgotten cases, citing the need to balance the right to be forgotten against other fundamental rights such as freedom of expression. But it also ruled that search engines are not prohibited from doing so. The judgment suggests that they should take into account the details of the particular case and the complainant, as well as the need to balance data protection and privacy rights against the public interest.

The remaining ambiguity means we should expect there will be another case along any minute. Few are going to much happier than they were in 2013, when putting right to be forgotten into law was proposed, or in 2014, when Costeja was decided, or shortly afterwards, when Google first reported on its delisting efforts. Freedom of speech advocates and journalists are still worried that the system is an invitation to censorship, as it has proved to be in at least one case; the French regulator, and maybe some other privacy advocates and data protection authorities, is still unhappy; and we still have a situation where a private company is being asked to make even more nuanced decisions on our behalf. The reality, however, is that given the law there is no solution, only compromise.

This is a good moment for a couple of other follow-ups:

- Mozilla has announced it will not turn on DNS-over-HTTPS by default in Firefox in the UK. This is in response to the complaints noted in May that DoH will break workarounds used in the UK to block child abuse images.

- Uber and Transport for London aren't getting along any better than they were in 2017, when TfL declined to renew its license to operate. Uber made a few concessions, and on appeal it was granted a 15-month extension. With that on the verge of running out, TfL has given the company two months to produce additional information before it makes a final decision. As Hubert Horan continues to point out, the company's aggressive regulation-breaking approach is a strategy, not the work of a rogue CEO, and its long-term prospects remain those of a company with "terrible underlying economics".


Illustrations: Justitia outside the Delft Town Hall, the Netherlands (via Dennis Jarvis at Wikimedia.

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.

August 16, 2019

The law of the camera

compressed-King's_Cross_Western_Concourse-wikimedia.jpgAs if cued by the end of last week's installment, this week the Financial Times (paywalled), followed by many others broke the news that Argent LLP, the lead developer in regenerating the Kings Cross district of London in the mid-2000s, is using facial recognition to surveil the entire area. The 67-acre site includes two mainline railway stations, a major Underground interchange station, schools, retailers, the Eurostar terminal, a local college, ten public parks, 20 streets, 50 buildings, 1,900 homes...and, because it happens to be there, Google's UK headquarters. (OK, Google: how do you like it when you're on the receiving end instead of dishing it out?)

So, to be clear: this system has been installed - doubtless "for your safety" - even though over and over these automated facial recognition systems are being shown to be almost laughably inaccurate: in London, Big Brother Watch found a 95% inaccuracy rate (PDF); in California, the ACLU found that the software incorrectly matched one in five lawmakers to criminals' mugshots. US cities - San Francisco, Oakland, Somerville, Massachusetts - are legislating bans as a result. In London, however, Canary Wharf, a large development area in east London, told the BBC and the Financial Times that it is considering following Kings Cross's lead.

Inaccuracy is only part of the problem with the Kings Cross situation - and the deeper problem will persist even if and when the systems become accurate enough for prime time (which will open a whole new can of worms). The deeper problem is the effective privatization of public space: here, a private entity has installed a facial recognition system with no notice to any of the people being surveilled, with no public debate, and, according to the BBC, no notice to either local or central government.

To place this in context, it's worth revisiting the history of the growth of CCTV cameras in the UK, the world leader (if that's the word you want) in this area. As Simon Davies recounts in his recently-published memoir about his 30 years of privacy campaigning (and as I also remember), the UK began embracing CCTV in the mid-1990s (PDF), fueled in part by the emotive role it played in catching the murderers in the 1993 Jamie Bulger case. Central government began offering local councils funding to install cameras. Deployment accelerated after 9/11, but the trend had already been set.

By 2012, when the Protection of Freedoms Act was passed to create the surveillance camera commissioner's office, public resistance had largely vanished. At the first Surveillance Camera Conference, in 2013, representatives from several local councils said they frequently received letters from local residents requesting additional cameras. They were not universally happy about this; around that time the responsibility for paying for the cameras and the systems to run them was being shifted to the councils themselves, and many seemed to be reconsidering their value. There has never been much research assessing whether the cameras cut crime; what there is suggests CCTV diverts it rather than stops it. A 2013 briefing paper by the College of Policing (PDF) says CCTV provides a "small, but statistically significant, reduction in crime", though it notes that effectiveness depends on the type of crime and the setting. "It has no impact on levels of violent crime," the paper concludes. A 2014 summary of research to date notes the need to balance privacy concerns and assess cost-effectiveness. Adding on highly unreliable facial recognition won't change that - but it will entrench unnecessary harassment.

The issue we're more concerned about here is the role of private operators. At the 2013 conference, public operators complained that their private counterparts, operating at least ten times as many cameras, were not required to follow the same rules as public bodies (although many did). Reliable statistics are hard to find. A recent estimate claims London hosts 627,707 CCTV cameras, but it's fairer to say that not even the Surveillance Camera Commissioner really knows. It is clear, however, that the vast majority of cameras are privately owned and operated.

Twenty years ago, Davies correctly foresaw that networking the cameras would enable tracking people across the city. Neither he nor the rest of us saw that (deeply flawed) facial recognition would arrive this soon, if only because it's the result of millions of independent individual decisions to publicly post billions of facial photographs. This is what created the necessary mass of training data that, as Olivia Solon has documented, researchers have appropriated.

For an area the size and public importance of Kings Cross to be monitored via privately-owned facial recognition systems that have attracted enormous controversy in the public sector is profoundly disturbing. You can sort of see their logic: Kings Cross station is now a large shopping mall surrounding a major train station, so what's the difference between that and a shopping mall without one? But effectively, in setting the rules of engagement for part of our city that no one voted to privatize, Argent is making law, a job no one voted to give it. A London - or any other major city - carved up into corporately sanitized districts connected by lawless streets - is not where any of us asked to live.


Illustrations: The new Kings Cross Western Concourse (via Colin on Wikimedia).

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.

August 9, 2019

Collision course

800px-Kalka-Shimla_Railway_at_night_in_Solan_-_approaching_train.JPGThe walk from my house to the tube station has changed very little in 30 years. The houses and their front gardens look more or less the same, although at least two have been massively remodeled on the inside. More change is visible around the tube station, where shops have changed hands as their owners retired. The old fruit and vegetable shop now sells wine; the weird old shop that sold crystals and carved stones is now a chain drug store. One of the hardware stores is a (very good) restaurant and the other was subsumed into the locally-owned health food store. And so on.

In the tube station itself, the open platforms have been enclosed with ticket barriers and the second generation of machines has closed down the ticket office. It's imaginable that had the ID card proposed in the early 2000s made it through to adoption the experience of buying a ticket and getting on the tube could be quite different. Perhaps instead of an Oyster card or credit card tap, we'd be tapping in and out using a plastic ID smart card that would both ensure that only I could use my free tube pass and ensure that all local travel could be tracked and tied to you. For our safety, of course - as we would doubtless be reminded via repetitive public announcements like the propaganda we hear every day about the watching eye of CCTV.

Of course, tracking still goes on via Oyster cards, credit cards, and, now, wifi, although I do believe Transport for London when it says its goal is to better understand traffic flows through stations in order to improve service. However, what new, more intrusive functions TfL may choose - or be forced - to add later will likely be invisible to us until an expert outsider closely studies the system.

In his recently published memoir, the veteran campaigner and Privacy International founder Simon Davies tells the stories of the ID cards he helped to kill: in Australia, in New Zealand, in Thailand, and, of course, in the UK. What strikes me now, though, is that what seemed like a win nine years ago, when the incoming Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance killed the ID card, is gradually losing its force. (This is very similar to the early 1990s First Crypto Wars "win" against key escrow; the people who wanted it have simply found ways to bypass public and expert objections.)

As we wrote at the time, the ID card itself was always a brightly colored decoy. To be sure, those pushing the ID card played on it and British wartime associations to swear blind that no one would ever be required to carry the ID card and forced to produce it. This was an important gambit because to much of the population at the time being forced to carry and show ID was the end of the freedoms two world wars were fought to protect. But it was always obvious to those who were watching technological development that what mattered was the database because identity checks would be carried out online, on the spot, via wireless connections and handheld computers. All that was needed was a way of capturing a biometric that could be sent into the cloud to be checked. Facial recognition fits perfectly into that gap: no one has to ask you for papers - or a fingerprint, iris scan, or DNA sample. So even without the ID card we *are* now moving stealthily into the exact situation that would have prevailed if we had. Increasing numbers of police departments - South Wales, London, LA, India, and, notoriously, China - as Big Brother Watch has been documenting for the UK. There are many more remotely observable behaviors to be pressed into service, enhanced by AI, as the ACLU's Jay Stanley warns.

The threat now of these systems is that they are wildly inaccurate and discriminatory. The future threat of these systems is that they will become accurate and discriminatory, allowing much more precise targeting that may even come to seem reasonable *because* it only affects the bad people.

This train of thought occurred to me because this week Statewatch released a leaked document indicating that most of the EU would like to expand airline-style passenger data collection to trains and even roads. As Daniel Boffay explains at the Guardian (and as Edward Hasbrouck has long documented), the passenger name records (PNRs) airlines create for every journey include as many as 42 pieces of information: name, address, payment card details, itinerary, fellow travelers... This is information that gets mined in order to decide whether you're allowed to fly. So what this document suggests is that many EU countries would like to turn *all* international travel into a permission-based system.

What is astonishing about all of this is the timing. One of the key privacy-related objections to building mass surveillance systems is that you do not know who may be in a position to operate them in future or what their motivations will be. So at the very moment that many democratic countries are fretting about the rise of populism and the spread of extremism, those same democratic countries are proposing to put in place a system that extremists who get into power can operate anti-democratic ways. How can they possibly not see this as a serious systemic risk?


Illustrations: The light of the oncoming train (via Andrew Gray at Wikimedia).

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.

July 26, 2019

Hypothetical risks

Great Hack - data connections.png"The problem isn't privacy," the cryptography pioneer Whitfield Diffie said recently. "It's corporate malfeasance."

This is obviously right. Viewed that way, when data profiteers claim that "privacy is no longer a social norm", as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg did in 2010, the correct response is not to argue about privacy settings or plead with users to think again, but to find out if they've broken the law.

Diffie was not, but could have been, talking specifically about Facebook, which has blown up the news this week. The first case grabbed most of the headlines: the US Federal Trade Commission fined the company $5 billion. As critics complained, the fine was insignificant to a company whose Q2 2019 revenues were $16.9 billion and whose quarterly profits are approximately equal to the fine. Medium-term, such fines have done little to dent Facebook's share prices. Longer-term, as the cases continue to mount up...we'll see. Also this week, the US Department of Justice launched an antitrust investigation into Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), and Facebook.

The FTC fine and ongoing restrictions have been a long time coming; EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg has been arguing ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke that Facebook had violated the terms of its 2011 settlement with the FTC.

If you needed background, this was also the week when Netflix released the documentary, The Great Hack, in which directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujairn investigate the role Cambridge Analytica and Facebook played in the 2016 EU referendum and US presidential election votes. The documentary focuses primarily on three people: David Carroll, who mounted a legal action against Facebook to obtain his data; Brittany Kaiser, a director of Cambridge Analytica who testified against the company; and Carole Cadwalladr, who broke the story. In his review at the Guardian, Peter Bradwell notes that Carroll's experience shows it's harder to get your "voter profile" out of Facebook than from the Stasi, as per Timothy Garton Ash. (Also worth viewing: the 2006 movie The Lives of Others.)

Cadwalladr asks in her own piece about The Great Hack and in her 2019 TED talk, whether we can ever have free and fair elections again. It's a difficult question to answer because although it's clear from all these reports that the winning side of both the US and UK 2016 votes used Facebook and Cambridge Analytica's services, unless we can rerun these elections in a stack of alternative universes we can never pinpoint how much difference those services made. In a clip taken from the 2018 hearings on fake news, Damian Collins (Conservative, Folkstone and Hythe), the chair of the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee, asks Chris Wylie, a whistleblower who worked for Cambridge Analytica, that same question (The Great Hack, 00:25:51). Wylie's response: "When you're caught doping in the Olympics, there's not a debate about how much illegal drug you took or, well, he probably would have come in first, or, well, he only took half the amount, or - doesn't matter. If you're caught cheating, you lose your medal. Right? Because if we allow cheating in our democratic process, what about next time? What about the time after that? Right? You shouldn't win by cheating."

Later in the film (1:08:00), Kaiser, testifying to DCMS, sums up the problem this way: "The sole worth of Google and Facebook is the fact that they own and possess and hold and use the personal data from people all around the world.". In this statement, she unknowingly confirms the prediction made by the veteran Australian privacy advocate Roger Clarke,who commented in a 2009 interview about his 2004 paper, Very Black "Little Black Books", warning about social networks and privacy: "The only logical business model is the value of consumers' data."

What he got wrong, he says now, was that he failed to appreciate the importance of micro-pricing, highlighted in 1999 by the economist Hal Varian. In his 2017 paper on the digital surveillance economy, Clarke explains the connection: large data profiles enable marketers to gauge the precise point at which buyers begin to resist and pitch their pricing just below it. With goods and services, this approach allows sellers to extract greater overall revenue from the market than pre-set pricing would; with politics, you're talking about a shift from public sector transparency to private sector black-box manipulation. Or, as someone puts it in The Great Hack, a "full-service propaganda machine". Load, aim at "persuadables", and set running.

Less noticed than either of these is the Securities and Exchange Commission settlement with Facebook, also announced this week. While the fine is relatively modest - a mere $100 million - the SEC has nailed the company's conflicting statements. On Twitter, Jason Kint has helpfully highlighted the SEC's statements laying out the case that Facebook knew in 2016 that it had sold Cambridge Analytica some of the data underlying the 30 million personality profiles CA had compiled - and then "misled" both the US Congress and its own investors. Besides the fine, the SEC has permanently enjoined Facebook from further violations of the laws it broke in continuing to refer to actual risks as "hypothetical". The mills of trust have been grinding exceeding slow; they may yet grind exceeding small.


Illustrations: Data connections in The Great Hack.

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.

June 28, 2019

Failure to cooperate

sweat-nottage.jpgIn her 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Sweat, on display nightly in London's West End until mid-July, Lynn Nottage explores class and racial tensions in the impoverished, post-industrial town of Reading, PA. In scenes alternating between 2000 and 2008, she explores the personal-level effects of twin economic crashes, corporate outsourcing decisions, and tribalism: friends become opposing disputants; small disagreements become violent; and the prize for "winning" shrinks to scraps. Them who has, gets; and from them who have little, it is taken.

Throughout, you wish the characters would recognize their real enemies: the company whose steel tubing factory has employed them for decades, their short-sighted union, and a system that structurally short-changes them. The pain of the workers when they are locked out is that of an unwilling divorce, abruptly imposed.

The play's older characters, who would be in their mid-60s today, are of the age to have been taught that jobs were for life. They were promised pensions and could look forward to wage increases at a steady and predictable pace. None are wealthy, but in 2000 they are financially stable enough to plan vacations, and their children see summer jobs as a viable means of paying for college and climbing into a better future. The future, however, lies in the Spanish-language leaflets the company is distributing to frustrated immigrants the union has refused to admit and who will work for a quarter the price. Come 2008, the local bar is run by one of those immigrants, who of necessity caters to incoming hipsters. Next time you read an angry piece attacking Baby Boomers for wrecking the world, remember that it's a big demographic and only some were the destructors. *Some* Baby Boomers were born wreckage, some achieved it, and some had it thrust upon them.

We leave the characters there in 2008: hopeless, angry, and alienated. Nottage, who has a history of researching working class lives and the loss of heavy industry, does not go on to explore the inner workings of the "digital poorhouse" they're moving into. The phrase comes from Virginia Eubanks' 2018 book, Automating Inequality, which we unfortunately missed reviewing before now. If Nottage had pursued that line, she might have found what Eubanks finds: a punitive, intrusive, judgmental, and hostile benefits system. Those devastated factory workers must surely have done something wrong to deserve their plight.

Eubanks presents three case studies. In the first, struggling Indiana families navigate the state's new automated welfare system, a $1.3 billion, ten-year privatization effort led by IBM. Soon after its 2006 launch, it began sending tens of thousands of families notices of refusal on this Kafkaesque basis: "Failure to cooperate". Indiana eventually canceled IBM's contract, and the two have been suing each other ever since. Not represented in court is, as Eubanks says, the incalculable price paid in the lives of the humans the system spat out.

In the second, "coordinated entry" matches homeless Los Angelenos to available resources in order of vulnerability. The idea was that standardizing the intake process across all possible entryways would help the city reduce waste and become more efficient while reducing the numbers on Skid Row. The result, Eubanks finds, is an unpredictable system that mysteriously helps some and not others, and that ultimately fails to solve the underlying structural problem: there isn't enough affordable housing.

In the third, a Pennsylvania predictive system is intended to identify children at risk of abuse. Such systems are proliferating widely and controversially for varying purposes, and all raise concerns about fairness and transparency: custody decisions (Durham, England), gang membership and gun crime (Chicago and London), and identifying children who might be at risk (British local councils). All these systems gather and retain, perhaps permanently, huge amounts of highly intimate data about each family. The result in Pennsylvania was to deter families from asking for the help they're actually entitled to, lest they become targets to be watched. Some future day, those same records may pop when a hostile neighbor files a minor complaint, or haunt their now-grown children when raising their own children.

All these systems, Eubanks writes, could be designed to optimize access to benefits instead of optimizing for efficiency or detecting fraud. I'm less sanguine. In prior art, Danielle Citron has written about the difficulties of translating human law accurately into programming code, and the essayist Ellen Ullman warned in 1996 that even those with the best intentions eventually surrender to computer system imperatives of improving data quality, linking databases, and cross-checking, the bedrock of surveillance.

Eubanks repeatedly writes that middle class people would never put up with this level of intrusion. They may have no choice. As Sweat highlights, many people's options are shrinking. Refusal is only possible for those who can afford to buy their help, an option increasingly reserved for a privileged few. Poor people, Eubanks is frequently told, are the experimental models for surveillance that will eventually be applied to all of us.

In 2017, Cathy O'Neil argued in Weapons of Math Destruction that algorithmic systems can be designed for fairness. Eubanks' analysis suggests that view is overly optimistic: the underlying morality dates back centuries. Digitization has, however, exacerbated its effects, as Eubanks concludes. County poorhouse inmates at least had the community of shared experience. Its digital successor squashes and separates, leaving each individual to drink alone in that Reading bar.


Illustrations: Sweat's London production poster.

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.

June 7, 2019

The right to lie

Sand_Box-wikimedia.JPGPrivacy, pioneering activist Simon Davies writes in his new book, Privacy: A Personal Chronicle, "varies widely according to context and environment to the extent that even after decades of academic interest in the subject, the world's leading experts have been unable to agree on a single definition." In 2010, I suggested defining it as being able to eat sand without fear. The reference was to the prospect that detailed electronic school records present to small children and their parents of a permanently stored data on everything they do. It didn't occur to me at the time, but in a data-rich future when eating sand has been outlawed (because some pseudoscientist believes it leads to criminality) and someone asks, "Did you eat sand as a child?", saying no because you forgot the incident (because you were *three* and now you're 65) will make you a dangerous liar.

The fact that even innocent pastimes - like eating sand - look sinister when the beholder is already prejudiced - is the kind of reason why sometimes we need privacy even from the people we're supposed to be able to trust. This year's Privacy Law Scholars tossed up two examples, provided by Najarian Peters, whose project examines the reasons why black Americans adopt edu0cational alternatives - home-schooling, "un-schooling" (children follow their own interests, Summerhill-style), and self-directed education (children direct their own activities), and Carleen M. Zubrzycki, who has been studying privacy from doctors. Cue Greg House: Everybody lies. Judging from the responses Zubrzycki is getting from everyone she talks to about her projects, House is right, but, as he would not accept, we have our reasons.

Sometimes lying is essential to get a new opinion untainted by previous incorrect diagnoses or dismissals (women in pain, particularly). In some cases, the problem isn't the doctor but the electronic record and the wider health system that may see it. In some cases, lying may protect the doctor, too; under the new, restrictive Alabama law that makes performing an abortion after six weeks a felony, doctors would depend on their patients' silence. This last topic raised a question: given that women are asked the date of their last period at every medical appointment, will states with these restrictive laws (if they are allowed to stand) begin demanding to inspect women's menstrual apps?

The intriguing part of Peters' project is that most discussions of home-schooling and other alternative approaches to education focus on the stereotype of parents who don't want their kids to learn about evolution, climate change, or sex. But her interviewees have a different set of concerns: they want a solid education for their children, but they also want to protect them from prejudice, stigmatization, and the underachievement that comes with being treated as though you can't achieve much. The same infraction that is minor for a white kid may be noted and used to confirm teachers' prejudices against a black child. And so on. It's another reminder of how little growing up white in America may tell you about growing up black in America.

Zybrzycki and Peters were not alone in finding gaps in our thinking: Anne Toomey McKenna, Amy C. Gaudion, and Jenni L. Evans have discovered that existing laws do not cover the use of data collected by satellites and aggregated via apps - think last year's Strava incident, in which a heat map published by the company from aggregated data exposed the location of military bases and the identities of personnel - while PLSC co-founder Chris Hoofnagle began the initial spadework on the prospective privacy impacts of quantum computing.

Both of these are gaps in current law. GDPR covers processing data; it says little about how the predictions derived from that data may be used. GDPR also doesn't cover the commercial aggregation of satellite data, an intersectional issue requiring expertise in both privacy law and satellite technology. Yet all data may eventually be personal data, as 100,000 porn stars may soon find out. (Or they may not; the claim that a programmer has been able to use facial recognition to match porn performers to social media photographs is considered dubious, at least for now) For this reason, Margot Kaminski is proposing "binary governance", in which one prong governs the use of data and the other ensures due process.

Tl;dr: it's going to be rough. Quantum computing is expected to expose things that today can successfully be hidden- including stealth surveillance technologies. It's long been mooted, for example, that quantum computing will render all of today's encryption crackable, opening up all our historical encrypted data. PLSC's discussion suggests it will also vastly increase the speed of communications. More interesting was a comment from Pam Dixon, whose research shows that high-speech biometric analysis is already beginning to happen, as companies in China find new, much faster, search methods that are bringing "profound breakthroughs" in mass surveillance.

"The first disruption was the commodification of data and data breakers," she said. "What's happening now is the next phase, the commodification of prediction. It's getting really cheap." If the machine predicts that you fit the profile of people who ate sand, what will it matter if you say you didn't? Even if it's true.


Illustrations: Sand box (via Janez Novak at Wikimedia).

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.

May 24, 2019

Name change

Dns-rev-1-wikimedia.gifIn 2014, six months after the Snowden revelations, engineers began discussing how to harden the Internet against passive pervasive surveillance. Among the results have been efforts like Let's Encrypt, EFF's Privacy Badger, and HTTPS Everywhere. Real inroads have been made into closing some of the Internet's affordances for surveillance and improving security for everyone.

Arguably the biggest remaining serious hole is the domain name system, which was created in 1983. The DNS's historical importance is widely underrated; it was essential in making email and the web usable enough for mass adoption before search engines. Then it stagnated. Today, this crucial piece of Internet infrastructure still behaves as if everyone on the Internet can trust each other. We know the Internet doesn't live there any more; in February the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which manages the DNS, warned of large-scale spoofing and hijacking attacks. The NSA is known to have exploited it, too.

The problem is the unprotected channel between the computer into which we type humanly-readable names such as pelicancrossing.net and the computers that translate those names into numbered addresses the Internet's routers understand, such as 216.92.220.214. The fact that routers all trust each other is routinely exploited for the captive portals we often see when we connect to public wi-fi systems. These are the pages that universities, cafes, and hotels set up to redirect Internet-bound traffic to their own page so they can force us to log in, pay for access, or accept terms and conditions. Most of us barely think about it, but old-timers and security people see it as a technical abuse of the system.

Several hijacking incidents raised awareness of DNS's vulnerability as long ago as 1998, when security researchers Matt Blaze and Steve Bellovin discussed it at length at Computers, Freedom, and Privacy. Twenty-one years on, there have been numerous proposals for securing the DNS, most notably DNSSEC, which offers an upwards chain of authentication. However, while DNSSEC solves validation, it still leaves the connection open to logging and passive surveillance, and the difficulty of implementing it has meant that since 2010, when ICANN signed the global DNS root, uptake has barely reached14% worldwide.

In 2018, the IETF adopted DNS-over-HTTPS as a standard. Essentially, this sends DNS requests over the same secure channel browsers use to visit websites. Adoption is expected to proceed rapidly because it's being backed by Mozilla, Google, and Cloudflare, who jointly intend to turn it on by default in Chrome and Firefox. In a public discussion at this week's Internet Service Providers Association conference, a fellow panelist suggested that moving DNS queries to the application level opens up the possibility that two different apps on the same device might use different DNS resolvers - and get different responses to the same domain name.

Britain's first public notice of DoH came a couple of week ago in the Sunday Times, which billed it as Warning over Google Chrome's new threat to children. This is a wild overstatement, but it's not entirely false: DoH will allow users to bypass the parts of Britain's filtering system that depend on hijacking DNS requests to divert visitors to blank pages or warnings. An engineer would probably argue that if Britain's many-faceted filtering system is affected it's because the system relies on workarounds that shouldn't have existed in the first place. In addition, because DoH sends DNS requests over web connections, the traffic can't be logged or distinguished from the mass of web traffic, so it will also render moot some of the UK's (and EU's) data retention rules.

For similar reasons, DoH will break captive portals in unfriendly ways. A browser with DoH turned on by default will ignore the hotel/cafe/university settings and instead direct DNS queries via an encrypted channel to whatever resolver it's been set to use. If the network requires authentication via a portal, the connection will fail - a usability problem that will have to be solved.

There are other legitimate concerns. Bypassing the DNS resolvers run by local ISPs in favor of those belonging to, say, Google, Cloudflare, and Cisco, which bought OpenDNS in 2015, will weaken local ISPs' control over the connections they supply. This is both good and bad: ISPs will be unable to insert their own ads - but they also can't use DNS data to identify and block malware as many do now. The move to DoH risks further centralizing the Internet's core infrastructure and strengthening the power of companies most of us already feel have too much control.

The general consensus, however, is that like it or not, this thing is coming. Everyone is still scrambling to work out exactly what to think about it and what needs to be done to mitigate accompanying risks, as well as find solutions to the resulting problems. It was clear from the ISPA conference panel that everyone has mixed feelings, though the exact mix of those feelings and which aspects are identified as problems - differ among ISPs, rights activists, and security practitioners. But it comes down to this: whether you like this particular proposal or not, the DNS cannot be allowed to remain in its present insecure state. If you don't want DoH, come up with a better proposal.


Illustrations: DNS diagram (via Б.Өлзий at Wikimedia.

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.

May 17, 2019

Genomics snake oil

DNA_Double_Helix_by_NHGRI-NIH-PD.jpgIn 2011, as part of an investigation she conducted into the possible genetic origins of the streak of depression that ran through her family, the Danish neurobiologist Lone Frank had her genome sequenced and interviewed many participants in the newly-opening field of genomics that followed the first complete sequencing of the human genome. In her resulting book, My Beautiful Genome, she commented on the "Wild West" developing around retail genetic testing being offered to consumers over the web. Absurd claims such as using DNA testing to find your perfect mate or direct your child's education abounded.

This week, at an event organized by Breaking the Frame, New Zealand researcher Andelka M. Phillips presented the results of her ongoing study of the same landscape. The testing is just as unreliable, the claims even more absurd - choose your diet according to your DNA! find out what your superpower is! - and the number of companies she's collected has reached 289 while the cost of the tests has shrunk and the size of the databases has ballooned. Some of this stuff makes astrology look good.

To be perfectly clear: it's not, or not necessarily, the gene sequencing itself that's the problem. To be sure, the best lab cannot produce a reading that represents reality from poor-quality samples. And many samples are indeed poor, especially those snatched from bed sheets or excavated from garbage cans to send to sites promising surreptitious testing (I have verified these exist, but I refuse to link to them) to those who want to check whether their partner is unfaithful or whether their child is in fact a blood relative. But essentially, for health tests at least, everyone is using more or less the same technology for sequencing.

More crucial is the interpretation and analysis, as Helen Wallace, the executive director of GeneWatch UK, pointed out. For example, companies differ in how they identify geographical regions, frame populations , and the makeup of their databases of reference contributions. This is how a pair of identical Canadian twins got varying and non-matching test results from five companies, one Ashkenazi Jew got six different ancestry reports, and, according to one study, up to 40% of DNA results from consumer genetic tests are false positives. As I type, the UK Parliament is conducting an inquiry into commercial genomics.

Phillips makes the data available to anyone who wants to explore it. Meanwhile, so far she's examined the terms of service and privacy policies of 71 companies, and finds them filled with technology company-speak, not medical information. They do not explain these services' technical limitations or the risks involved. Yet it's so easy to think of disastrous scenarios: this week, an American gay couple reported that their second child's birthright citizenship is being denied under new State Department rules. A false DNA test could make a child stateless.

Breaking the Frame's organizer, Dave King, believes that a subtle consequence of the ancestry tests - the things everyone was quoting in 2018 that tell you that you're 13% German, 1% Somalian, and whatever else - is to reinforce the essentially racist notion that "Germanness" has a biological basis. He also particularly disliked the services claiming they can identify children's talents; these claim, as Phillips highlighted, that testing can save parents money they might otherwise waste on impossible dreams. That way lies Gattaca and generations of children who don't get to explore their own abilities because they've already been written off.

Even more disturbing questions surround what happens with these large databases of perfect identifiers. In the UK, last October the Department of Health and Social Care announced its ambition to sequence 5 million genomes. Included was the plan to being in 2019 to offer whole genome sequencing to all seriously ill children and adults with specific rare diseases or hard-to-treat cancers as part of their care. In other words, the most desperate people are being asked first, a prospect Phil Booth, coordinator of medConfidential, finds disquieting. As so much of this is still research, not medical care, he said, like the late despised care.data, it "blurs the line around what is your data, and between what the NHS was and what some would like it to be". Exploitation of the nation's medical records as raw material for commercial purposes is not what anyone thought they were signing up for. And once you have that giant database of perfect identifiers...there's the Home Office, which has already been caught using the NHS to hunt illegal immigrants and DNA testing immigrants.

So Booth asked this: why now? Genetic sequencing is 20 years old, and to date it has yet to come close to being ready to produce the benefits predicted for it. We do not have personalized medicine, or, except in a very few cases (such as a percentage of breast cancer) drugs tailored to genetic makeup. "Why not wait until it's a better bet?" he asked. Instead of spending billions today - billions that, as an audience member pointed out, would produce better health more widely if spent on improving the environment, nutrition, and water - the proposal is to spend them on a technology that may still not be producing results 20 years from now. Why not wait, say, ten years and see if it's still worth doing?


Illustrations: DNA double helix (via Wikimedia)

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.

May 10, 2019

Slime trails

ghostbusters-murray-slime.pngIn his 2000 book, Which Lie Did I Tell?, the late, great screenwriter William Goldman called the brilliant 1963 Stanley Donen movie Charade a "money-loser". Oh, sure, it was a great success - for itself. But it cost Hollywood hundreds of millions of dollars in failed attempts to copy its magical romantic-comedy-adventure-thriller mixture. (Goldman's own version, 1992's The Year of the Comet, was - his words - "a flop".) In this sense, Amazon may be the most expensive company ever launched in Silicon Valley because it encouraged everyone to believe losing money in 17 of its first 18 years doesn't matter.

Uber has been playing up this comparison in the run-up to its May 2019 IPO. However, two things make it clear the comparison is false. First - duh - losing money just isn't a magical sign of a good business, even in the Internet era. Second, Amazon had scale on its side, as well as a pioneering infrastructure it was able later to monetize. Nothing about transport scales, as Hubert Horan laid out in 2017; even municipalities can't make Uber cheaper than public transit. Horan's analysis of Uber's IPO filing is scathing. Investment advisers love to advise investing in companies that make popular products, but *not this time*.

Meanwhile, network externalities abound. The Guardian highlights the disparity between Uber's drivers, who have been striking this week, and its early investors, who will make billions even while the company says it intends to continue slicing drivers' compensation. The richest group, says the New York Times, have already decamped to lower-tax states.

If Horan is right, however, the impending shift of billions of dollars from drivers and greater fools to already-wealthy early investors will arguably be a regulatory failure on the part of the Securities and Exchange Commission. I know the rule of the stock market is "buyer beware", but without the trust conferred by regulators there will *be* no buyers, not even pension funds. Everyone needs government to ensure fair play.

Somewhere in one of his 500-plus books, the science/fiction writer Isaac Asimov commented that he didn't like to fly because in case of a plane crash his odds of survival were poor. "It's not sporting." In fact, most passengers survive, unharmed, but not, obviously, in the recent Boeing crashes. Blame, as Madeline Elish correctly predicted in her paper on moral crumple zones, is being sprayed widely, particularly among the humans who build and operate these things: faulty sensors, pilots, and software issues.

The reality seems more likely to be a perfect storm comprising numerous components: 1) the same kind of engineering-management disconnect that doomed Challenger in 1986, 2) trying to compensate with software for a hardware problem, 3) poorly thought-out cockpit warning light design, 4) the number and complexity of vendors involved, and 5) receding regulators. As hybrid cyber-physical systems become more pervasive, it seems likely we will see many more situations where small decisions made by different actors will collide to create catastrophes, much like untested drug interactions.

Again, regulatory failure is the most alarming. Any company can screw up. The failure of any complex system can lead to companies all blaming each other. There are always scapegoats. But in an industry where public perception of safety is paramount, regulators are crucial in ensuring trust. The flowchart at the Seattle Times says it all about how the FAA has abdicated its responsibility. It's particularly infuriating because many in the cybersecurity industry cite aviation as a fine example of what an industry can do to promote safety and security when the parties recognize their collective interests are best served by collaborating and sharing data. Regulators who audit and test provide an essential backstop.

The 6% of the world that flies relies on being able to trust regulators to ensure their safety. Even if the world's airlines now decide that they can't trust the US system, where are they going to go for replacement aircraft? Their own governments will have to step in where the US is failing, as the EU already does in privacy and antitrust. Does the environment win, if people decide it's too risky to fly? Is this a plan?

I want regulators to work. I want to be able to fly with reasonable odds of survival, have someone on the job to detect financial fraud, and be able to trust that medical devices are safe. I don't care how smart you are, no consumer can test these things for themselves, any more than we can tell if a privacy policy is worth the electrons it's printed on.

On that note, last week on Twitter Demos researcher Carl Miller, author of The Death of the Gods, made one of his less-alarming suggestions. Let's replace "cookie": "I'm willing to bet we'd be far less willing to click yes, if the website asked if we [are] willing to have a 'slime trail', 'tracking beacon' or 'surveillance agent' on our browser."

I like "slime trail", which extends to cover the larger use of "cookie" in "cookie crumbs" to describe the lateral lists that show the steps by which you arrived at the current page. Now, when you get a targeted ad, people will sympathize as you shout, "I've been slimed!"


Illustrations: Bill Murray, slimed in Ghostbusters (1984).

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.

April 26, 2019

This house

2001-hal.pngThis house may be spying on me.

I know it listens. Its owners say, "Google, set the timer for one minute," and a male voice sounds: "Setting the timer for one minute."

I think, one minute? You need a timer for one minute? Does everyone now cook that precisely?

They say, "Google, turn on the lamp in the family room." The voice sounds: "Turning on the lamp in the family room." The lamp is literally sitting on the table right next to the person issuing the order.

I think, "Arm, hand, switch, flick. No?"

This happens every night because the lamp is programmed to turn off earlier than we go to bed.

I do not feel I am visiting the future. Instead, I feel I am visiting an experiment that years from now people will look back on and say, "Why did they do that?"

I know by feel how long a minute is. A child growing up in this house would not. That child may not even know how to operate a light switch, even though one of the house's owners is a technical support guy who knows how to build and dismember computers, write code, and wire circuits. Later, this house's owner tells me, "I just wanted a reminder."

It's 16 years since I visited Microsoft's and IBM's visions of the smart homes they thought we might be living in by now. IBM imagined voice commands; Microsoft imagined fashion advice-giving closets. The better parts of the vision - IBM's dashboard with a tick-box so your lawn watering system would observe the latest municipal watering restrictions - are sadly unavailable. The worse parts - living in constant near-darkness so the ubiquitous projections are readable - are sadly closer. Neither envisioned giant competitors whose interests are served by installing in-house microphones on constant alert.

This house inaudibly alerts its owner's phones whenever anyone approaches the front door. From my perspective, new people mysteriously appear in the kitchen without warning.

This house has smartish thermostats that display little wifi icons to indicate that they're online. This house's owners tell me these are Ecobee Linux thermostats; the wifi connection lets them control the heating from their phones. The thermostats are not connected to Google.

None of this is obviously intrusive. This house looks basically like a normal house. The pile of electronics in the basement is just a pile of electronics. Pay no attention to the small blue flashing lights behind the black fascia.

One of this house's owners tells me he has deliberately chosen a male voice for the smart speaker so as not to suggest that women are or should be subservient to men. Both owners are answered by the same male voice. I can imagine personalized voices might be useful for distinguishing who asked what, particularly in a shared house or a company, and ensuring only the right people got to issue orders. Google says its speakers can be trained to recognize six unique voices - a feature I can see would be valuable to the company as a vector for gathering more detailed information about each user's personality and profile. And, yes, it would serve users better.

Right now, I could come down in the middle of the night and say, "Google, turn on the lights in the master bedroom." I actually did something like this once by accident years ago in a friend's apartment that was wirelessed up with X10 controls. I know this system would allow it because I used the word "Google" carelessly in a sentence while standing next to a digital photo frame, and the unexpected speaker inside it woke up to say, "I don't understand". This house's owner stared: "It's not supposed to do that when Google is not the first word in the sentence". The photo frame stayed silent.

I think it was just marking its territory.

Turning off the fan in their bedroom would be more subtle. They would wake up more slowly, and would probably just think the fan had broken. This house will need reprogramming to protect itself from children. Once that happens, guests will be unable to do anything for themselves.

This house's owners tell me there are many upgrades they could implement, and they will but: managing them needs skill and thought to segment and secure the network and implement local data storage. Keeping Google and Amazon at bay requires an expert.

This house's owners do not get their news from their smart speakers, but it may be only a matter of time. At a recent Hacks/Hackers, Nic Newman gave the findings of a recent Reuters Institute study: smart speakers are growing faster than smartphones at the same stage, they are replacing radios, and "will kill the remote control". So far, only 46% use them to get news updates. What was alarming was the gatekeeper control providers have: on a computer, the web could offer 20 links; on a smartphone there's room for seven, voice...one. Just one answer to, "What's the latest news on the US presidential race?"

At OpenTech in 2017, Tom Steinberg observed that now that his house was equipped with an Amazon Echo, homes without one seemed "broken". He predicted that this would become such a fundamental technology that "only billionaires will be able to opt out". Yet really, the biggest advance since the beginning of remote controls is that now your garage door opener can collect your data and send it to Google.

My house can stay "broken".


Illustrations: HAL (what else?).

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.

March 8, 2019

Pivot

parliament-whereszuck.jpgWould you buy a used social media platform from this man?

"As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today's open platform," Mark Zuckerberg wrote this week at the Facebook blog, also summarized at the Guardian.

Zuckerberg goes on to compare Facebook and Instagram to "the digital equivalent of a town square".

So many errors, so little time. Neither Facebook nor Instagram is open. "Open information, Rufus Pollock explained last year in The Open Revolution, "...can be universally and freely used, built upon, and shared." While, "In a Closed world information is exclusively 'owned' and controlled, its attendant wealth and power more and more concentrated".

The alphabet is open. I do not need a license from the Oxford English Dictionary to form words. The web is open (because Tim Berners-Lee made it so). One of the first social media, Usenet, is open. Particularly in the early 1990s, Usenet really was the Internet's town square.

*Facebook* is *closed*.

Sure, anyone can post - but only in the ways that Facebook permits. Running apps requires Facebook's authorization, and if Facebook makes changes, SOL. Had Zuckerberg said - as some have paraphrased him - "town hall", he'd still be wrong, but less so: even smaller town halls have metal detectors and guards to control what happens inside. However, they're publicly owned. Under the structure Zuckerberg devised when it went public, even the shareholders have little control over Facebook's business decisions.

So, now: this week Zuckerberg announced a seeming change of direction for the service. Slate, the Guardian, and the Washington Post all find skepticism among privacy advocates that Facebook can change in any fundamental way, and they wonder about the impact on Facebook's business model of the shift to focusing on secure private messaging instead of the more public newsfeed. Facebook's former chief security officer Alex Stamos calls the announcement a "judo move" that removes both the privacy complaints (Facebook now can't read what you say to your friends) and allows the site to say that complaints about circulating fake news and terrorist content are outside its control (Facebook now can't read what you say to your friends *and* doesn't keep the data).

But here's the thing. Facebook is still proposing to unify the WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook user databases. Zuckerberg's stated intention is to build a single unified secure messaging system. In fact, as Alex Hern writes at the Guardian that's the one concrete action Zuckerberg has committed to, and that was announced back in January, to immediate privacy queries from the EU.

The point that can' t be stressed enough is that although Facebook is trading away the ability to look at the content of what people post it will retain oversight of all the traffic data. We have known for decades that metadata is even more revealing than content; I remember the late Caspar Bowden explaining the issues in detail in 1999. Even if Facebook's promise to vape the messages doesn't include keeping no copies for itself (a stretch, given that we found out in 2013 that the company keeps every character you type), it will be able to keep its insights into the connections between people and the conclusions it draws from them. Or, as Hern also writes, Zuckerberg "is offering privacy on Facebook, but not necessarily privacy from Facebook".

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Antisocial Media, seems to be the first to get this, and to point out that Facebook's supposed "pivot" is really just a decision to become more dominant, like China's WeChat.WeChat thoroughly dominates Chinese life: it provides messaging, payments, and a de facto identity system. This is where Vaidhyanathan believes Facebook wants to go, and if encrypting messages means it can't compete in China...well, WeChat already owns that market anyway. Let Google get the bad press.

Facebook is making a tradeoff. The merged database will give it the ability to inspect redundancy - are these two people connected on all three services or just one? - and therefore far greater certainty about which contacts really matter and to whom. The social graph that emerges from this exercise will be smaller because duplicates will have been merged, but far more accurate. The "pivot" does, however, look like it might enable Facebook to wriggle out from under some of its numerous problems - uh, "challenges". The calls for regulation and content moderation focus on the newsfeed. "We have no way to see the content people write privately to each other" ends both discussions, quite possibly along with any liability Facebook might have if the EU's copyright reform package passes with Article 11 (the "link tax") intact.

Even calls that the company should be broken up - appropriate enough, since the EU only approved Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp when the company swore that merging the two databases was technically impossible - may founder against a unified database. Plus, as we know from this week's revelations, the politicians calling for regulation depend on it for re-election, and in private they accommodate it, as Carole Cadwalladr and Duncan Campbell write at the Guardian and Bill Goodwin writes at Computer Weekly.

Overall, then, no real change.


Illustrations: The international Parliamentary committee, with Mark Zuckerberg's empty seat.

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.

February 22, 2019

Metropolis

Metropolis-openingshot.png"As a citizen, how will I know I live in a smarter city, and how will life be different?" This question was probably the smartest question asked at yesterday's Westminster Forum seminar on smart cities (PDF); it was asked by Tony Sceales, acting as moderator.

"If I feel safe and there's less disruption," said Peter van Manen. "You won't necessarily know. Thins will happen as they should. You won't wake up and say, 'I'm in the city of the future'," said Sam Ibbott. "Services become more personalized but less visible," said Theo Blackwell the Chief Digital Office for London.

"Frictionless" said Jacqui Taylor, offering it as the one common factor she sees in the wildly different smart city projects she has encountered. I am dubious that this can ever be achieved: one person's frictionless is another's desperate frustration: streets cannot be frictionless for *both* cars and cyclists, just as a city that is predicted to add 2 million people over the next ten years can't simultaneously eliminate congestion. "Working as intended" was also heard. Isn't that what we all wish computers would do?

Blackwell had earlier mentioned the "legacy" of contactless payments for public transport. To Londoners smushed into stuffed Victoria Line carriages in rush hour, the city seems no smarter than it ever was. No amount of technological intelligence can change the fact that millions of people all want to go home at the same time or the housing prices that force them to travel away from the center to do so. We do get through the ticket barriers faster.

"It's just another set of tools," said Jennifer Schooling. "It should feel no different."

The notion of not knowing as the city you live in smartens up should sound alarm bells. The fair reason for that hiddenness is the reality that, as Sara Degli Esposti pointed out at this year's Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection, this whole area is a business-to-business market. "People forget that, especially at the European level. Users are not part of the picture, and that's why we don't see citizens engaged in smart city projects. Citizens are not the market. This isn't social media."

She was speaking at CPDP's panel on smart cities and governance, convened by the University of Stirling's William Webster, who has been leading a research project, CRISP, to study these technologies. CRISP asked a helpfully different question: how can we use smart city technologies to foster citizen engagement, coproduction of services, development of urban infrastructure, and governance structures?

The interesting connection is this: it's no surprise when CPDP's activists, regulators, and academics talk about citizen engagement and participation, or deplore a model in which smart cities are a business-led excuse for corporate and government, surveillance. The surprise comes when two weeks later the same themes arise among Westminster Forum's more private and public sector speakers and audience. These are the people who are going to build these new programs and services, and they, too, are saying they're less interested in technology and more interested in solving the problems that keep citizens awake at night: health, especially.

There appears to be a paradigm shift beginning to happen as municipalities begin to seriously consider where and on what to spend their funds.

However, the shift may be solely European. At CPDP, Canadian surveillance studies researcher David Murakami Wood told the story of Toronto, where (Google owner) Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs swooped in circa 2014 with proposals to redevelop the Quayside area of Toronto in partnership with Waterfront Toronto. The project has been hugely controversial - there were hearings this week in Ottawa, the provincial capital.

As Murakami Wood's tells it, for Sidewalk Labs the area is a real-world experiment using real people's lives as input to create products the company can later sell elsewhere. The company has made clear it intends to keep all the data the infrastructure generates on its servers in the US as well as all the intellectual property rights. This, Murakami Wood argued, is the real cost of the "free" infrastructure. It is also, as we're beginning to see elsewhere, the extension of online tracking or, as Murakami Wood put it, surveillance capitalism into the physical world: cultural appropriation at municipal scale from a company that has no track record in building buildings, or even publishing detailed development plans. Small wonder that Murakami Wood laughed when he heard Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff impress a group of enthusiastic young Canadian bankers with the news that the company had been studying cities for *two years*.

Putting these things together, we have, as Andrew Adams suggested, three paradigms, which we might call US corporate, Chinese authoritarian, and, emerging, European participatory and cooperative. Is this the choice?

Yes and no. Companies obviously want to develop systems once, sell them everywhere. Yet the biggest markets are one-off outliers. "Croydon," said Blackwell, "is the size of New Orleans." In addition, approaches vary widely. Some places - Webster mentioned Glasgow - are centralized command and control; others - Brazil - are more bottom-up. Rick Robinson finds that these do not meet in the middle.

The clear takeaway overall is that local context is crucial in shaping smart city projects and despite some common factors each one is different. We should built on that.


Illustrations: Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927).

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.

February 1, 2019

Beyond data protection

3rd-cpdp2019-sign.jpgFor the group assembled this week in Brussels for Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection, the General Data Protection Regulation that came into force in May 2018 represented the culmination of years of effort. The mood, however, is not so much self-congratulatory as "what's next?".

The first answer is a lot of complaints. An early panel featured a number of these. Max Schrems, never one to shirk, celebrated GDPR day in 2018 by joining with La Quadrature du Net to file two complaints against Google, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook over "forced consent". Last week, he filed eight more complaints against Amazon, Apple, Spotify, Netflix, YouTube, SoundCloud, DAZN, and Flimmit regarding their implementation of subject access rights. A day or so later, the news broke: the French data protection regulator, CNIL, has fined Google €50 million (PDF) on the basis of their complaint - the biggest fine so far under the new regime that sets the limit at 4% of global turnover. Google is considering an appeal.

It's a start. We won't know for probably five years whether GDPR will have the intended effect of changing the balance of power between citizens and data-driven companies (even though one site is already happy to call it a failure already. Meanwhile, one interesting new development is Apple's crackdown on Facebook and then Google for abusing its enterprise app system to collect comprehensive data on end users. While Apple is certainly far less dependent on data collection than the rest of GAFA/FAANG, this action is a little like those types of malware that download anti-virus software to clean your system of the competition.

The second - more typical of a conference - is to stop and think: what doesn't GDPR cover? The answers are coming fast: AI, automated decision-making, household or personal use of data, and (oh, lord) blockchain. And, a questioner asked late on Wednesday, "Is data protection privacy, data, or fairness?"

Several of these areas are interlinked: automated decision-making is currently what we mean when we say "AI", and while we talk a lot about the historical bias stored in data and the discrimination that algorithms derive from training data and bake into their results. Discussions of this problem, Angsar Koene tend to portray accuracy and fairness as a tradeoff, with accuracy presented as a scientifically neutral reality and fairness as a fuzzy human wish. Instead, he argued, accuracy depends on values we choose to judge it by. Why shouldn't fairness just be one of those values?

A bigger limitation - which we've written about here since 2015 - is that privacy law tends to focus on the individual. Seda Gürses noted that focusing on the algorithm - how to improve it and reduce its bias - similarly ignores the wider context and network externalities. Optimize the Waze algorithm so each driver can reach their destination in record time, and the small communities whose roads were not built for speedy cut-throughs bear the costs of extra traffic, noise, and pollution they generate. Next-generation privacy will have to reflect that wider context; as Dennis Hirsch put it, social protection rather than individual control. As Schrems' and others' complaints show, individual control is rarely ours on today's web in any case.

Privacy is not the only regulation that suffers from that problem. At Tuesday's pre-conference Privacy Camp, several speakers deplored the present climate in which platforms' success in removing hate speech, terrorist content, and unauthorized copyright material is measured solely in numbers: how many pieces, how fast. Such a regime does not foster thoughtful consideration, nuance, respect for human rights, or the creation of a robust system of redress for the wrongly accused. "We must move away from the idea that illegal content can be perfectly suppressed and that companies are not trying hard enough if they aren't doing it," Mozilla Internet policy manager Owen Bennett said, going on to advocate for a wider harm reduction approach.

The good news, in a way, is that privacy law has fellow warriors: competition, liability, and consumer protection law. The first two of those, said Mireille Hildebrandt need to be rethought, in part because some problems will leave us no choice. She cited, for example, the energy market: as we are forced to move to renewables both supply and demand will fluctuate enormously. "Without predictive technology I don't see how we can solve it." Continuously predicting the energy use of each household will, she wrote in a paper in 2013 (PDF), pose new threats to privacy, data protection non-discrimination, and due process.

One of the more interesting new (to me, at least) players on this scene is Algorithm Watch, which has just released a report on algorithmic decision-making in the EU that recommends looking at other laws that are relevant to specific types off decisions, such as applying equal pay legislation to the gig economy. Data protection law doesn't have to do it all.

Some problems may not be amenable to law at all. Paul Nemitzposed this question: given that machine learning training data is always historical, and that therefore the machines are always perforce backward-looking, how do we as humans retain the drive to improve if we leave all our decisions to machines? No data protection law in the world can solve that.

Illustrations: The CPDP 2019 welcome sign in Brussels.

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.

January 17, 2019

Misforgotten

European_Court_of_Justice_(ECJ)_in_Luxembourg_with_flags.jpg"It's amazing. We're all just sitting here having lunch like nothing's happening, but..." This was on Tuesday, as the British Parliament was getting ready to vote down the Brexit deal. This is definitely a form of privilege, but it's hard to say whether it's confidence born of knowing your nation's democracy is 900 years old, or aristocrats-on-the-verge denial as when World War I or the US Civil War was breaking out.

Either way, it's a reminder that for many people historical events proceed in the background while they're trying to get lunch or take the kids to school. This despite the fact that all of us in the UK and the US are currently hostages to a paralyzed government. The only winner in either case is the politics of disgust, and the resulting damage will be felt for decades. Meanwhile, everything else is overshadowed.

One of the more interesting developments of the past digital week is the European advocate general's preliminary opinion that the right to be forgotten, part of data protection law, should not be enforceable outside the EU. In other words, Google, which brought the case, should not have to prevent access to material to those mounting searches from the rest of the world. The European Court of Justice - one of the things British prime minister Theresa May has most wanted the UK to leave behind since her days as Home Secretary - typically follows these preliminary opinions.

The right to be forgotten is one piece of a wider dispute that one could characterize as the Internet versus national jurisdiction. The broader debate includes who gets access to data stored in another country, who gets to crack crypto, and who gets to spy on whose citizens.

This particular story began in France, where the Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL), the French data protection regulator, fined Google €100,000 for selectively removing a particular person's name from its search results on just its French site. CNIL argued that instead the company should delink it worldwide. You can see their point: otherwise, anyone can bypass the removal by switching to .com or .co.jp. On the other hand, following that logic imposes EU law on other countries, such as the US's First Amendment. Americans in particular tend to regard the right to be forgotten with the sort of angry horror of Lady Bracknell contemplating a handbag. Google applied to the European Court of Justice to override CNIL and vacate the fine.

A group of eight digital rights NGOs, led by Article 19 and including Derechos Digitales, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Clinique d'intérêt public et de politique d'Internet du Canada (CIPPIC), the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Open Net Korea, and Pen International, welcomed the ruling. Many others would certainly agree.

The arguments about jurisdiction and censorship were, like so much else, foreseen early. By 1991 or thereabouts, the question of whether the Internet would be open everywhere or devolve to lowest-common-denominator censorship was frequently debated, particularly after the United States v. Thomas case that featured a clash of community standards between Tennessee and California. If you say that every country has the right to impose its standards on the rest of the world, it's unclear what would be left other than a few Disney characters and some cat videos.

France has figured in several of these disputes: in (I think) the first international case of this kind, in 2000, it was a French court that ruled that the sale of Nazi memorabilia on Yahoo!'s site was illegal; after trying to argue that France was trying to rule over something it could not control, Yahoo! banned the sales on its French auction site and then, eventually, worldwide.

Data protection law gave these debates a new and practical twist. The origins of this particular case go back to 2014, when the European Court of Justice ruled in Google Spain v AEPD and Mario Costeja González that search engines must remove links to web pages that turn up in a name search and contain information that is irrelevant, inadequate, or out of date. This ruling, which arguably sought to redress the imbalance of power between individuals and corporations publishing information about them and free expression. Finding this kind of difficult balance, the law scholar Judith Rauhofer argued at that year's Computers, Freedom, and Privacy, is what courts *do*. The court required search engines to remove from the search results that show up in a *name* search the link to the original material; it did not require the original websites to remove it entirely or require the link's removal from other search results. The ruling removed, if you like, a specific type of power amplification, but not the signal.

How far the search engines have to go is the question the ECJ is now trying to settle. This is one of those cases where no one gets everything they want because the perfect is the enemy of the good. The people who want their past histories delinked from their names don't get a complete solution, and no one country gets to decide what people in other countries can see. Unfortunately, the real winner appears to be geofencing, which everyone hates.


Illustrations:

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.

January 10, 2019

Secret funhouse mirror room

Lost_City_-_Fun_House.jpg"Here," I said, handing them an old pocket watch. "This is your great-grandfather's watch." They seemed a little stunned.

As you would. A few weeks earlier, one of them had gotten a phone call from a state trooper. A cousin they'd never heard of had died, and they might be the next of kin.

"In this day and age," one of them told me apologetically, "I thought it must be a scam."

It wasn't. Through the combined offices of a 1940 divorce and a lifetime habit of taciturnity on personal subjects, a friend I'd known for 45 years managed to die without ever realizing his father had an extensive tree of living relatives. They would have liked each other, I think.

So they came to the funeral and met their cousin through our memories and the family memorabilia we found in his house. And then they went home bearing the watch, understandably leaving us to work out the rest.

Whenever someone dies, someone else inherits a full-time job. In our time, that full-time job is located at the intersection of security, privacy - and secrecy, the latter a complication rarely discussed. In the eight years since I was last close to the process of closing out someone's life, very much more of the official world has moved online. This is both help and hindrance. I was impressed with the credit card company whose death department looked online for obits to verify what I was saying instead of demanding an original death certificate (New York state charges $15 per copy). I was also impressed with - although a little creeped out by - the credit card company that said, "Oh, yes, we already know." (It had been three weeks, two of them Christmas and New Year's.)

But those, like the watch, were easy, accounts with physical embodiments - that is, paper statements. It's the web that's hard. All those privacy and security settings that we advocate for live someones fall apart when they die without disclosing their passwords. We found eight laptops, the most recent an actively hostile mid-2015 MacBook Pro. Sure, reset the password, but doing so won't grant access to any other stored passwords. If File Vault is turned on, a beneficent fairy - or a frustrated friend trying to honor your stated wishes that you never had witnessed or notarized - is screwed. I'd suggest an "owner deceased" mode, but how do you protect *that* for a human rights worker or a journalist in a war zone holding details of at-risk contacts? Or when criminals arrive knowing how to unlock it? Privacy and security are essential, but when someone dies they turn into secrecy that - I seem to recall predicting in 1997 - means your intended beneficiaries *don't* inherit because they can't unlock your accounts.

It's a genuinely hard problem, not least because most people don't want to plan for their own death. Personal computers operate in binary mode: protect everything, or nothing, and protect it all the same way even though exposing a secret not-so-bad shame is a different threat model from securing a bank account. But most people do not think, "After I'm dead, what do I care?" Instead, they think, "I want people to remember me the way I want and this thing I'm ashamed of they must never, ever know, or they'll think less of me." It takes a long time in life to arrive at, "People think of me the way they think of me, and I can't control that. They're still here in my life, and that must count for something." And some people never realize that they might feel more secure in their relationships if they hid less.

So, the human right to privacy bequeaths a problem: how do you find your friend's long-lost step-sibling, who is now their next of kin, when you only know their first name and your friend's address book is encrypted on a hard drive and not written, however crabbily, in a nice, easily viewed paper notebook?

If there's going to be an answer, I imagine it lies in moving away from binary mode. It's imaginable that a computer operating system could have a "personal rescue mode" that would unlock some aspects of the computer and not others, an extension of the existing facilities for multiple accounts and permissions, though these are geared to share resources, not personal files. The owner of such a system would have to take some care which information went in which bucket, but with a system like that they could give a prospective executor a password that would open the more important parts.

No such thing exists, of course, and some people wouldn't use it even if it did. Instead, the key turned out to be the modest-sized-town people network, which was and is amazing. It was through human connections that we finally understood the invoices we found for a storage unit. Without ever mentioning it, my friend had, for years, at considerable expense, been storing a mirror room from an amusement park funhouse. His love of amusement parks was no surprise. But if we'd known, the mirror room would now be someone's beloved possession instead of broken up in a scrapyard because a few months before he died my friend had stopped paying his bills - also without telling anyone.

Illustrations: The Lost City Fun House (via Wikimedia).

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.

December 21, 2018

Behind you!

640px-Aladdin_pantomime_Nottingham_Playhouse_2008.jpgFor one reason or another - increasing surveillance powers, increasing awareness of the extent to which online activities are tracked by myriad data hogs, Edward Snowden - crypto parties have come somewhat back into vogue over the last few years after a 20-plus-year hiatus. The idea behind crypto parties is that you get a bunch of people together and they all sign each other's keys. Fun! For some value of fun.

This is all part of the web of trust that is supposed to accrue when you use public key cryptography software like PGP or GPG: each new signature on a person's public key strengthens the trust you can have that the key truly belongs to that person. In practice, the web of trust, also known as "public key infrastructure", does not scale well, and the early 1990s excitement about at least the PGP version of the idea died relatively quickly.

A few weeks ago, ORG Norwich held such a meeting and I went along to help workshop about when and how you want to use crypto. Like any security mechanism, encrypting email has its limits. Accordingly, before installing PGP and saying, "Secure now!" a little threat modeling is a fine thing. As bad as it can be to operate insecurely, it is much, much worse to operate under the false belief that you are more secure than you are because the measures you've taken don't fit the risks you face.

For one thing, PGP does nothing to obscure metadata - that is, the record of who sent email to whom. Newer versions offer the option to encrypt the subject line, but then the question arises: how do you get busy people to read the message?

For another thing, even if you meticulously encrypt your email, check that the recipient's public key is correctly signed, and make no other mistakes, you are still dependent on your correspondent to take appropriate care of their archive of messages and not copy your message into a new email and send it out in plain text. The same is true of any other encrypted messaging program such as Signal; you depend on your correspondents to keep their database encrypted and either password-protect their phone and other devices or keep them inaccessible. And then, too, even the most meticulous correspondent can be persuaded to disclose their password.

For that reason, in some situations it may in fact be safer not to use encryption and remain conscious that anything you send may be copied and read. I've never believed that teenagers are innately better at using technology than their elders, but in this particular case they may provide role models: research has found that they are quite adept at using codes only they understand. To their grown-ups, it just looks like idle Facebook chatter.

Those who want to improve their own and others' protection against privacy invasion therefore need to think through what exactly they're trying to achieve.

Some obvious questions are, partly derived from Steve Bellovin's book Thinking Security:

- Who might want to attack you?
- What do they want?
- Are you a random target, the specific target, or a stepping stone to mount attacks on others?
- What do you want to protect?
- From whom do you want to protect it?
- What opportunities do they have?
- When are you most vulnerable?
- What are their resources?
- What are *your* resources?
- Who else's security do you have to depend on whose decisions are out of your control?

At first glance, the simple answer to the first of those is "anyone and everyone". This helpful threat pyramid shows the tradeoff between the complexity of the attack and the number of people who can execute it. If you are the target of a well-funded nation-state that wants to get you, just you, and nobody else but you, you're probably hosed. Unless you're a crack Andromedan hacker unit (Bellovin's favorite arch-attacker), the imbalance of available resources will probably be insurmountable. If that's your situation, you want expert help - for example, from Citizen Lab.

Most of us are not in that situation. Most of us are random targets; beyond a raw bigger-is-better principle, few criminals care whose bank account they raid or which database they copy credit card details from. Today's highly interconnected world means that even a small random target may bring down other, much larger entities when an attacker leverages a foothold on our insignificant network to access the much larger ones that trusts us. Recognizing who else you put at risk is an important part of thinking this through.

Conversely, the point about risks that are out of your control is important. Forcing everyone to use strong, well-designed passwords will not matter if the site they're used for stores them in with inadequate protections.

The key point that most people forget: think about the individuals involved. Security is about practice, not just technology; as Bruce Schneier likes to say, it's a process not a product. If the policy you implement makes life hard for other people, they will eventually adopt workarounds that make their lives more manageable. They won't tell you what they've done, and you won't have anyone to shout to warn you where the risk is lurking.

Illustrations: Aladdin panomime at Nottingham Playhouse, 2008 (via Wikimedia).

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.

December 14, 2018

Entirely preventable

cropped-Spies_and_secrets_banner_GCHQ_Bude_dishes.jpgThis week, the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform used this phrase to describe the massive 2017 Equifax data breach: "Entirely preventable." It's not clear that the ensuing recommendations, while all sensible and valuable stuff - improve consumers' ability to check their records, reduce the use of Social Security numbers as unique identifiers, improve oversight of credit reporting agencies, increase transparency and accountability, hold federal contractors liable, and modernize IT security - will really prevent another similar breach from taking place. A key element was a bit of unpatched software that left open a vulnerability used by the attackers to gain a foothold - in part, the report says, because the legacy IT systems made patching difficult. Making it easier to do the right thing is part of the point of the recommendation to modernize the IT estate.

How closely is it feasible to micromanage companies the size and complexity of Equifax? What protection against fraud will we have otherwise?

The massive frustration is that none of this is new information or radical advice. On the consumer rights side, the committee is merely recommending practices that have been mandated in the EU for more than 20 years in data protection law. Privacy advocates have been saying for more than *30* years that the SSN is every example of how a unique identifier should *not* be used. Patching software is so basic that you can pick any random top ten security tips and find it in the top three. We sort of make excuses for small businesses because their limited resources mean they don't have dedicated security personnel, but what excuse can there possibly be for a company the size of Equifax that holds the financial frailty of hundreds of millions of people in its grasp?

The company can correctly say this: we are not its customers. It is not its job to care about us. Its actual customers - banks, financial services, employers, governments - are all well served. What's our problem? Zeynep Tufecki summed it up correctly on Twitter when she commented that we are not Equifax's customers but its victims. Until there are proportionate consequences for neglect and underinvestment in security, she said later, the companies and their departing-with-bonuses CEOs will continue scrimping on security even though the smallest consumer infraction means they struggle for years to reclaim their credit rating.

If Facebook and Google should be regulated as public utilities, the same is even more true for the three largest credit agencies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, who all hold much more power over us, and who are much less accountable. We have no opt-out to exercise.

But even the punish-the-bastards approach merely smooths over and repaints the outside of a very ugly tangle of amyloid plaques. Real change would mean, as Mydex CEO David Alexander is fond of arguing, adopting a completely different approach that puts each of us in charge of our own data and avoids creating these giant attacker-magnet databases in the first place. See also data brokers, which are invisible to most people.

Meanwhile, in contrast to the committee, other parts of the Five Eyes governments seem set on undermining whatever improvements to our privacy and security we can muster. Last week the Australian parliament voted to require companies to back-door their encryption when presented with a warrant. While the bill stops at requiring technology companies to build in such backdoors as a permanent fixture - it says the government cannot require companies to introduce a "systemic weakness" or "systemic vulnerability" - the reality is that being able to break encryption on demand *is* a systemic weakness. Math is like that: either you can prove a theorem or you can't. New information can overturn existing knowledge in other sciences, but math is built on proven bedrock. The potential for a hole is still a hole, with no way to ensure that only "good guys" can use it - even if you can agree who the good guys are.

In the UK, GCHQ has notified the intelligence and security committee that it will expand its use of "bulk equipment interference". In other words, having been granted the power to hack the world's computers - everything from phones and desktops to routers, cars, toys, and thermostats - when the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act was being debated, GCHQ now intends to break its promise to use that power sparingly.

As I wrote in a submission to the consultation, bulk hacking is truly dangerous. The best hackers make mistakes, and it's all too easy to imagine a hacking error becoming the cause of a 100-car pile-up. As smart meters roll out, albeit delayed, and the smart grid takes shape, these, too, will be "computers" GCHQ has the power to hack. You, too, can torture someone in their own home just by controlling their thermostat. Fun! And important for national security. So let's do more of it.

In a time when attacks on IT infrastructure are growing in sophistication, scale, and complexity, the most knowledgeable people in government, whose job it is to protect us, are deliberately advocating weakening it. The consequences that are doubtless going to follow the inevitable abuse of these powers - because humans are humans and the mindset inside law enforcement is to assume the worst of all of us - will be entirely preventable.


Illustrations: GCHQ listening post at dawn (via Wikimedia).

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.


November 2, 2018

The Brother proliferation

Thumbnail image for Security_Monitoring_Centre-wikimedia.jpgThere's this about having one or two big threats: they distract attention from the copycat threats forming behind them. Unnoticed by most of us - the notable exception being Jeff Chester and his Center for Digital Democracy, the landscape of data brokers is both consolidating and expanding in new and alarming ways. Facebook and Google remain the biggest data hogs, but lining up behind them are scores of others embracing the business model of surveillance capitalism. For many, it's an attempt to refresh their aging business models; no one wants to become an unexciting solid business.

The most obvious group is the telephone companies - we could call them "legacy creepy". We've previously noted their moves into TV. For today's purposes, Exhibit A is Verizon's 2015 acquisition of AOL, which Fortune magazine attributed to AOL's collection of advertising platforms, particularly in video, as well as its more visible publishing sites (which include the Huffington Post, Engadget, and TechCrunch). Verizon's 2016 acquisition of Yahoo! and its 3 billion user accounts and long history also drew notice, most of it negative. Yahoo!, the reasoning went, was old and dying, plus: data breaches that were eventually found to have affected all 3 billion Yahoo! accounts. Oath, Verizon's name for the division that owns AOL and Yahoo!, also owns MapQuest and Tumblr. For our purposes, though, the notable factor is that with these content sites Verizon gets a huge historical pile of their users' data that it can combine with what it knows about its subscribers in truly disturbing ways. This is a company that only two years ago was fined $1.35 million for secretly tracking its customers.

Exhibit B is AT&T, which was barely finished swallowing Time-Warner (and presumably its customer database along with it) when it announced it would acquire the adtech company AppNexus, a deal Forrester's Joanna O'Connell calls a material alternative to Facebook and Google. Should you feel insufficiently disturbed by that prospect, in 2016 AT&T was caught profiting from handing off data to federal and local drug officials without a warrant. In 2015, the company also came up with the bright idea of charging its subscribers not to spy on them via deep packet inspection. For what it's worth, AT&T is also the longest-serving campaigner against network neutrality.

In 2017, Verizon and AT&T were among the biggest lobbyists seeking to up-end the Federal Communications Commission's privacy protections.

The move into data mining appears likely to be copied by legacy telcos internationally. As evidence, we can offer Exhibit C, Telenor, which in 2016 announced its entry into the data mining business by buying the marketing technology company Tapad.

Category number two - which we can call "you-thought-they-had-a-different-business-model creepy" - is a surprise, at least to me. Here, Exhibit A is Oracle, which is reinventing itself from enterprise software company to cloud and advertising platform supplier. Oracle's list of recent acquisitions is striking: the consumer spending tracker Datalogix, the "predictive intelligence" company DataFox, the cross-channel marketing company Responsys, the data management platform BlueKai, the cross-channel machine learning company Crosswise, and audience tracker AddThis. As a result, Oracle claims it can link consumers' activities across devices, online and offline, something just about everyone finds creepy except, apparently, the people who run the companies that do it. It may surprise you to find Adobe is also in this category.

Category number three - "newtech creepy" - includes data brokers like Acxiom, perhaps the best-known of the companies that have everyone's data but that no one's ever heard of. It, too, has been scooping up competitors and complementary companies, for example LiveRamp, which it acquired from fellow profiling company RapLeaf, and which is intended to help it link online and offline identities. The French company Criteo uses probabilistic matching to send ads following you around the web and into your email inbox. My favorite in this category is Quantcast, whose advertising and targeting activities include "consent management". In other words, they collect your consent or lack thereof to cookies and tracking at one website and then follow you around the web with it. Um...you have to opt into tracking to opt out?

Meanwhile, the older credit bureaus Experian and Equifax - "traditional creepy" - have been buying enhanced capabilities and expanded geographical reach and partnering with telcos. One of Equifax's acquisitions, TALX, gave the company employment and payroll information on 54 million Americans.

The detail amounts to this: big companies with large resources are moving into the business of identifying us across devices, linking our offline purchases to our online histories, and packaging into audience segments to sell to advertisers. They're all competing for the same zircon ring: our attention and our money. Doesn't that make you feel like a valued member of society?

At the 2000 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson presciently warned that focusing solely on the threat of Big Brother was leaving us open to invasion by dozens of Little Brothers. It was good advice. Now, Very Large Brothers are proliferating all around us. GDPR is supposed to redress this imbalance of power, but it only works when you know who's watching you so you can mount a challenge.


Illustrations: "Security Monitoring Centre" (via Wikimedia).

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.

September 27, 2018

We know where you should live

Thumbnail image for PatCadigan-Worldcon75.jpgIn the memorable panel "We Know Where You Will Live" at the 1996 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, the science fiction writer Pat Cadigan startled everyone, including fellow panelists Vernor Vinge, Tom Maddox, and Bruce Sterling, by suggesting that some time in the future insurance companies would levy premiums for "risk purchases" - beer, junk foods - in supermarkets in real time.

Cadigan may have been proved right sooner than she expected. Last week, John Hancock, a 156-year-old US insurance company, announced it would discontinue underwriting traditional life insurance policies. Instead, in future all its policies will be "interactive"; that is, they will come with the "Vitality" program, under which customers supply data collected by their wearable fitness trackers or smartphones. John Hancock promotes the program, which it says is already used by 8 million customers in 18 countries, and as providing discounts. In the company's characterization, it's a sort of second reward for "living healthy". In the company's depiction, everyone wins - you get lower premiums and a healthier life, and John Hancock gets your data, enabling it to make more accurate risk assessments and increase its efficiency.

Even then, Cadigan was not the only one with the idea that insurance companies would exploit the Internet and the greater availability of data. A couple of years later, a smart and prescient friend suggested that we might soon be seeing insurance companies offer discounts for mounting a camera on the hood of your car so they could mine the footage to determine blame when accidents occurred. This was long before smartphones and GoPros, but the idea of small, portable cameras logging everything goes back at least to 1945, when Vannevar Bush wrote As We May Think, an essay that imagined something a lot like the web, if you make allowances for storing the whole thing on microfilm.

This "interactive" initiative is clearly a close relative of all these ideas, and is very much the kind of thing University of Maryland professor Frank Pasquale had in mind when writing his book The Black Box Society. John Hancock may argue that customers know what data they're providing, so it's not all that black a box, but the reality is that you only know what you upload. Just like when you download your data from Facebook, you do not know what other data the company matches it with, what else is (wrongly or rightly) in your profile, or how long the company will keep penalizing you for the month you went bonkers and ate four pounds of candy corn. Surely it's only a short step to scanning your shopping cart or your restaurant meal with your smartphone to get back an assessment of how your planned consumption will be reflected in your insurance premium. And from there, to automated warnings, and...look, if I wanted my mother lecturing me in my ear I wouldn't have left home at 17.

There has been some confusion about how much choice John Hancock's customers have about providing their data. The company's announcement is vague about this. However, it does make some specific claims: Vitality policy holders so far have been found to live 13-21 years longer than the rest of the insured population; generate 30% lower hospitalization costs; take nearly twice as many steps as the average American; and "engage with" the program 576 times a year.

John Hancock doesn't mention it, but there are some obvious caveats about these figures. First of all, the program began in 2015. How does the company have data showing its users live so much longer? Doesn't that suggest that these users were living longer *before* they adopted the program? Which leads to the second point: the segment of the population that has wearable fitness trackers and smartphones tends to be more affluent (which tends to favor better health already) and more focused on their health to begin with (ditto). I can see why an insurance company would like me to "engage with" its program twice a day, but I can't see why I would want to. Insurance companies are not my *friends*.

At the 2017 Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection, one of the better panels discussed the future for the insurance industry in the big data era. For the insurance industry to make sense, it requires an element of uncertainty: insurance is about pooling risk. For individuals, it's a way of managing the financial cost of catastrophes. Continuously feeding our data into insurance companies so they can more precisely quantify the risk we pose to their bottom line will eventually mean a simple equation: being able to get insurance at a reasonable rate is a pretty good indicator you're unlikely to need it. The result, taken far enough, will be to undermine the whole idea of insurance: if everything is known, there is no risk, so what's the point? betting on a sure thing is cheating in insurance just as surely as it is in gambling. In the panel, both Katja De Vries and Mireille Hildebrandt noted the sinister side of insurance companies acting as "nudgers" to improve our behavior for their benefit.

So, less "We know where you will live" and more "We know where and how you *should* live."


Illustrations: Pat Cadigan (via Wikimedia).

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.

September 14, 2018

Hide by default

Beeban-Kidron-Dubai-2016.jpgLast week, defenddigitalme, a group that campaigns for children's data privacy and other digital rights, and Livingstone's group at the London School of Economics assembled a discussion of the Information Commissioner's Office's consultation on age-appropriate design for information society services, which is open for submissions until September 19. The eventual code will be used by the Information Commissioner when she considers regulatory action, may be used as evidence in court, and is intended to guide website design. It must take into account both the child-related provisions of the child-related provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation and the United National Convention on the Rights of the Child.

There are some baseline principles: data minimization, comprehensible terms and conditions and privacy policies. The last is a design question: since most adults either can't understand or can't bear to read terms and conditions and privacy policies, what hope of making them comprehensible to children? The summer's crop of GDPR notices is not a good sign.

There are other practical questions: when is a child not a child any more? Do age bands make sense when the capabilities of one eight-year-old may be very different from those of another? Capacity might be a better approach - but would we want Instagram making these assessments? Also, while we talk most about the data aggregated by commercial companies, government and schools collect much more, including biometrics.

Most important, what is the threat model? What you implement and how is very different if you're trying to protect children's spaces from ingress by abusers than if you're trying to protect children from commercial data aggregation or content deemed harmful. Lacking a threat model, "freedom", "privacy", and "security" are abstract concepts with no practical meaning.

There is no formal threat model, as the Yes, Minister episode The Challenge (series 3, episode 2), would predict. Too close to "failure standards". The lack is particularly dangerous here, because "protecting children" means such different things to different people.

The other significant gap is research. We've commented here before on the stratification of social media demographics: you can practically carbon-date someone by the medium they prefer. This poses a particular problem for academics, in that research from just five years ago is barely relevant. What children know about data collection has markedly changed, and the services du jour have different affordances. Against that, new devices have greater spying capabilities, and, the Norwegian Consumer Council finds (PDF), Silicon Valley pays top-class psychologists to deceive us with dark patterns.

Seeking to fill the research gap are Sonia Livingstone and Mariya Stoilova. In their preliminary work, they are finding that children generally care deeply about their privacy and the data they share, but often have little agency and think primarily in interpersonal terms. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has helped inform them about the corporate aggregation that's taking place, but they may, through familiarity, come to trust people such as their favorite YouTubers and constantly available things like Alexa in ways their adults disl. The focus on Internet safety has left many thinking that's what privacy means. In real-world safety, younger children are typically more at risk than older ones; online, the situation is often reversed because older children are less supervised, explore further, and take more risks.

The breath of passionate fresh air in all this, is Beeban Kidron, an independent - that is, appointed - member of the House of Lords who first came to my attention by saying intelligent and measured things during the post-referendum debate on Brexit. She refuses to accept the idea that oh, well, that's the Internet, there's nothing we can do. However, she *also* genuinely seems to want to find solutions that preserve the Internet's benefits and incorporate the often-overlooked child's right to develop and make mistakes. But she wants services to incorporate the idea of childhood: if all users are equal, then children are treated as adults, a "category error". Why should children have to be resilient against systemic abuse and indifference?

Kidron, who is a filmmaker, began by doing her native form of research: in 2013 she made a the full-length documentary InRealLife that studied a number of teens using the Internet. While the film concludes on a positive note, many of the stories depressingly confirm some parents' worst fears. Even so it's a fine piece of work because it's clear she was able to gain the trust of even the most alienated of the young people she profiles.

Kidron's 5Rights framework proposes five essential rights children should have: remove, know, safety and support, informed and conscious use, digital literacy. To implement these, she proposes that the industry should reverse its current pattern of defaults which, as is widely known, 95% of users never change (while 98% never read terms and conditions). Companies know this, and keep resetting the defaults in their favor. Why shouldn't it be "hide by default"?

This approach sparked ideas. A light that tells a child they're being tracked or recorded so they can check who's doing it? Collective redress is essential: what 12-year-old can bring their own court case?

The industry will almost certainly resist. Giving children the transparency and tools with which to protect themselves, resetting the defaults to "hide"...aren't these things adults want, too?


Illustrations: Beeban Kidron (via Wikimedia)

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.

August 24, 2018

Cinema surveillant

Dragonfly-Eyes_poster_3-web-460.jpgThe image is so low-resolution that it could be old animation. The walking near-cartoon figure has dark, shoulder-length hair and a shape that suggests: young woman. She? stares at a dark oblong in one hand while wandering ever-closer to a dark area. A swimming pool? A concrete river edge? She wavers away, and briefly it looks like all will be well. Then another change of direction, and in she falls, with a splash.

This scene opens Dragonfly Eyes, which played this week at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts. All I knew going in was that the movie had been assembled from fragments of imagery gathered from Chinese surveillance cameras. The scene described above wasn't *quite* the beginning - first, the filmmaker, Chinese artist Xu Bing, provides a preamble explaining that he originally got the idea of telling a story through surveillance camera footage in 2013, but it was only in 2015, when the cameras began streaming live to the cloud, that it became a realistic possibility. There was also, if I remember correctly, a series of random images and noise that in retrospect seem like an orchestra tuning up before launching into the main event, but at the time were rather alarming. Alarming as in, "They're not going to do this for an hour and a half, are they?"

They were not. It was when the cacophony briefly paused to watch a bare-midriffed young woman wriggle suggestively on a chair, pushing down on the top of her jeans (I think) that I first thought, "Hey, did these guys get these people's permission?" A few minutes later, watching the phone?-absorbed woman ambling along the poolside seemed less disturbing, as her back was turned to the camera. Until: after she fell the splashing became fainter and fainter, and after a little while she did not reappear and the water calmed. Did we just watch the recording of a live drowning?

Apparently so. At various times during the rest of the movie we return to a police control room where officers puzzle over that same footage much the way we in the audience were puzzling over Xu's film. Was it suicide? the police ponder while replaying the footage.

Following the plot was sufficiently confusing that I'm grateful that Variety explains it. Ke Fan, an agricultural technician, meets a former Buddhist-in-training, Qing Ting, while they bare both working at a dairy farm and follows her when she moves to a new city. There, she gets fired from her job at a dry cleaner's for failing to be sufficiently servile to an unpleasant, but wealthy and valuable customer. Angered by the situation, Ke Fan repeatedly rams the unpleasant customer's car; this footage is taken from inside the car being rammed, so he appears to be attacking you directly. Three years later, when he gets out of prison, he finds (or possibly just believes he finds) that Qing Ting has had plastic surgery and under a new name is now a singing webcam celebrity who makes her living by soliciting gifts and compliments from her viewers, who turn nasty when she insults a more popular rival...

The characters and narration are voiced by Chinese actors, but the pictures, as one sees from the long list of camera locations and GPS coordinates included in the credits, are taken from 10,000 hours of real-world found imagery, which Xu and his assistants edited down to 81 minutes. Given this patchwork, it's understandably hard to reliably follow the characters through the storyline; the cues we usually rely on - actors and locations that become familiar - simply aren't clear. Some sequences are tagged with the results of image recognition and numbering; very Person of Interest. About a third of the way through, however, the closer analogue that occurred to me is Woody Allen's 1966 movie What's Up, Tiger Lily?, which Allen constructed by marrying the footage from a Japanese spy film to his own unrelated dialogue. It was funny, in 1966.

While Variety calls the storyline "run-of-the-mill melodramatic", in reality the plot is supererogatory. Much more to the point - and indicated in the director's preamble - is that all this real-life surveillance footage can be edited into any "reality" you want. We sort of knew this from reality TV, but the casts of those shows signed up to perform, even if they didn't quite expect the extent to which they'd be exploited. The people captured on Xu's extracts from China's estimated 200 million surveillance cameras, are...just living. The sense of that dissonance never leaves you at any time during the movie.

I can't spoil the movie's ending by telling you whether Ke Fan finds Qing Ting because it matters so little that I don't remember. The important spoiler is this: the filmmaker has managed to obtain permission from 90% of the people who appear in the fragments of footage that make up the film (how he found them would be a fascinating story in itself), and advertises a contact address for the rest to seek him out. In one sense, whew! But then: this is the opt-out, "ask forgiveness, not permission" approach we're so fed up with from Silicon Valley. The fact that Chinese culture is different and the camera streams were accessible via the Internet doesn't make it less disturbing. Yes, that is the point.


Illustrations: Dragonfly Eyes poster.

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.


August 17, 2018

Redefinition

Robber-barons2-bosses-senate.pngOnce upon a nearly-forgotten time, the UK charged for all phone calls via a metered system that added up frighteningly fast when you started dialing up to access the Internet. The upshot was that early Internet services like the now-defunct Demon Internet could charge a modest amount (£10) per month, secure that the consciousness of escalating phone bills would drive subscribers to keep their sessions short. The success of Demon's business model, therefore, depended on the rapaciousness of strangers.

I was reminded of this sort of tradeoff by a discussion in the LA Times (proxied for EU visitors) of cable-cutters. Weary of paying upwards of $100 a month for large bundles of TV channels they never watch, Americans are increasingly dumping them in favor of cheaper streaming subscriptions. As a result, ISPs that depend on TV package revenues are raising their broadband prices to compensate, claiming that the money is needed to pay for infrastructure upgrades. In the absence of network neutrality requirements, those raised prices could well be complemented by throttling competitors' services.

They can do this, of course, because so many areas of the US are lucky if they have two choices of Internet supplier. That minimalist approach to competition means that Americans pay more to access the Internet than many other countries - for slower speeds. It's easy to raise prices when your customers have no choice.

The LA Times holds out hope that technology will save them; that is, the introduction of 5G, which promises better speeds and easier build-out, will enable additional competition from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint - or, writer David Lazarus adds, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. In the sense of increasing competition, this may be the good news Lazarus thinks it is, even though he highlights AT&T's and Verizon's past broken promises. I'm less sure: physics dictates that despite its greater convenience the fastest wireless will never be as fast as the fastest wireline.

5G has been an unformed mirage on the horizon for years now, but apparently no longer: CNBC says Verizon's 5G service will begin late this year in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento and give subscribers TV content in the form of an Apple TV and a YouTube subscription. A wireless modem will obviate the need for cabling.

The potential, though, is to entirely reshape competition in both broadband and TV content, a redefinition that began with corporate mergers such as Verizon's acquisition of AOL and Yahoo (now gathered into its subsidiary, "Oath") and AT&T's whole-body swallowing of Time Warner, which includes HBO. Since last year's withdrawal of privacy protections passed during the Obama administration, ISPs have greater latitude to collect and exploit their customers' online data trails. Their expansion into online content makes AT&T and Verizon look more like competitors to the online behemoths. For consumers, greater choice in bandwidth provider is likely to be outweighed by the would-you-like-spam-with-that complete lack of choice about data harvesting. If the competition 5G opens up is provided solely by avid data miners who all impose the same terms and conditions...well, which robber baron would you like to pay?

There's a twist. The key element that's enabled Amazon and, especially, Netflix to succeed in content development is being able to mine the data they collect about their subscribers. Their business models differ - for Amazon, TV content is a loss-leader to sell subscriptions to its premium delivery service; for Netflix, TV production is a bulwark against dependence on third-party content creators and their licensing fees - but both rely on knowing what their customers actually watch. Their ambitions, too, are changing. Amazon has canceled much of its niche programming to chase HBO-style blockbusters, while Netflix is building local content around the world. Meanwhile, AT&T wants HBO to expand worldwide and focus less on its pursuit of prestige; Apple is beginning TV production; and Disney is pulling its content from Netflix to set up its own streaming service.

The idea that many of these companies will be directly competing in all these areas is intriguing, and its impact will be felt outside the US. It hardly matters to someone in London or Siberia how much Internet users in Indianapolis pay for their broadband service or how good it is. But this reconfiguration may well end the last decade's golden age of US TV production, particularly but not solely for drama. All the new streaming services began by mining the back catalogue to build and understand an audience and then using creative freedom to attract talent frustrated by the legacy TV networks' micromanagement of every last detail, a process the veteran screenwriter Ken Levine has compared to being eaten to death by moths.

However, one last factor could provide an impediment to the formation of this landscape: on June 28, California adopted the Consumer Privacy Act, which will come into force in 2020. As Nick Confessore recounts in the New York Times Magazine, this "overnight success" required years of work. Many companies opposed the bill: Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Uber, Comcast, AT&T, Cox, Verizon, and several advertising lobbying groups; Facebook withdrew its initial opposition.. EFF calls it "well-intentioned but flawed", and is proposing changes. ISPs and technology companies also want (somewhat different) changes. EPIC's Mark Rotenberg called the bill's passage a "milestone moment". It could well be.


Illustrations: Robber barons overseeing the US Congress (via Wikimedia).

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.

June 22, 2018

Humans

virginmary-devil.jpgOne of the problems in writing about privacy over the last nearly 30 years is that it's easy for many people to see it as a trivial concern when you look at what's going on in the world: terrorist attacks, economic crashes, and the rise of extremism. To many, the case for increasing surveillance "for your safety" is a reasonable one.

I've never believed the claim that people - young or old - don't care about their privacy. People do care about their privacy, but, as previously noted, it's complicated. The biggest area of agreement is money: hardly anyone publishes the details of their finances unless forced. But beyond that, people have different values about what is private, and who should know it. For some women, saying openly they've had abortions is an essential political statement to normalize a procedure and a choice that is under threat. For others, it's too personal to disclose.

The factors involved vary: personality, past experience, how we've been treated, circumstances. It is easy for those of us who were born into economic prosperity and have lived in sectors of society where the governments in our lifetimes have treated us benignly to underestimate the network externalities of the decisions we make.

In February 2016, when the UK's Investigatory Power Act (2016) was still a mere bill under discussion, I wrote this:

This column has long argued that whenever we consider granting the State increased surveillance powers we should imagine life down the road if those powers are available to a government less benign than the present one. Now, two US 2016 presidential primaries in, we can say it thusly: what if the man wielding the Investigatory Powers Bill is Donald Trump?

Much of the rest of that net.wars focused on the UK bill and some aspects of the data protection laws. However, it also included this:

Finally, Privacy International found "thematic warrants" hiding in paragraph 212 of the explanatory notes and referenced in clauses 13(2) and 83 of the draft bill. PI calls this a Home Office attempt to disguise these as "targeted surveillance". They're so vaguely defined - people or equipment "who share a common purpose who carry on, or may carry on, a particular activity" - that they could include my tennis club. PI notes that such provisions contravene a long tradition of UK law that has prohibited general warrants, and directly conflict with recent rulings by the European Court of Human Rights.

It's hard to guess who Trump would turn this against first: Muslims, Mexicans, or Clintons.

The events of the last year and a half - parents and children torn apart at the border; the Border Patrol operating an 11-hour stop-and-demand-citizenship checkpoint on I-95 in Maine, legal under the 1953 rule that the "border" is a 100-mile swath in which the Fourth Amendment is suspended; and, well you read the news - suggest the question was entirely fair.

Now, you could argue that universal and better identification could stop this sort of the thing by providing the facility to establish quickly and unambiguously who has rights. You could even argue that up-ending the innocent-until-proven-guilty principle (being required to show papers on demand presumes that you have no right to be where you are until you prove you do) is worth it (although you'd still have to fight an angry hive of constitutional lawyers). I believe you'd be wrong on both counts. Identification is never universal; there are always those who lack the necessary resources to acquire it. The groups that wind up being disenfranchised by such rules are the most vulnerable members of the groups that are suffering now. It won't even deter those who profit from spreading hate - and yes, I am looking at the Daily Mail - from continuing to do so; they will merely target another group. The American experience already shows this. Despite being a nation of immigrants, Americans are taught that their own rights matter more than other people's; and as Hua Hsu writes in a New Yorker review of Nancy Isenberg's recent book, White Trash, that same view is turned daily on the "lower" parts of the US's classist and racist hierarchy.

I have come to believe that there is a causative link between violating people's human rights and the anti-privacy values of surveillance and control. The more horribly we treat people and the less we offer them trust, the more reason we have to be think that they and their successors will want revenge - guilt and the expectation of punishment operating on a nation-state scale. The logic would then dictate that they must be watched even more closely. The last 20 years of increasing inequality have caused suspicion to burst the banks of "the usual suspects". "Privacy" is an inadequate word to convey all this, but it's the one we have.

A few weeks ago, I reminded a friend of the long-running mantra that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. "I don't see it that way at all," he said. "I see it as, I have nothing to hide, so why are you looking at me?"


Illustrations: 'Holy Mary full of grace, punch that devil in the face', book of hours ('The De Brailes Hours'), Oxford ca. 1240 BL, Add 49999, fol. 40V (via Discarding Images).


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.

June 8, 2018

Block that metaphor

oldest-robot-athens-2015-smaller.jpgMy favourite new term from this year's Privacy Law Scholars conference is "dishonest anthropomorphism". The term appeared in a draft paper written by Brenda Leung and Evan Selinger as part of a proposal for its opposite, "honest anthropomorphism". The authors' goal was to suggest a taxonomy that could be incorporated into privacy by design theory and practice, so that as household robots are developed and deployed they are less likely to do us harm. Not necessarily individual "harm" as in Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics, which tended to see robots as autonomous rather than a projection of its manufacturer into our personal space, therefore glossing over this more intentional and diffuse kind of deception. Pause to imagine that Facebook goes into making robots and you can see what we're talking about here.

"Dishonest anthropomorphism" derives from an earlier paper, Averting Robot Eyes by Margo Kaminski, Matthew Rueben, Bill Smart, and Cindy Grimm, which proposes "honest anthropomorphism" as a desirable principle in trying to protect people from the privacy problems inherent in admitting a robot, even something as limited as a Roomba, into your home. (At least three of these authors are regular attendees at We Robot since its inception in 2012.) That paper categorizes three types of privacy issues that robots bring: data privacy, boundary management, and social/relational.

The data privacy issues are substantial. A mobile phone or smart speaker may listen to or film you, but it has to stay where you put it (as Smart has memorably put it, "My iPad can't stab me in my bed"). Add movement and processing, and you have a roving spy that can collect myriad kinds of data to assemble an intimate picture of your home and its occupants. "Boundary management" refers to capabilities humans may not realize their robots have and therefore don't know to protect themselves against - thermal sensors that can see through walls, for example, or eyes that observe us even when the robot is apparently looking elsewhere (hence the title).

"Social/relational" refers to the our social and cultural expectations of the beings around us. In the authors' examples, unscrupulous designers can take advantage of our inclination to apply our expectations of other humans to entice us into disclosing more than we would if we truly understood the situation. A robot that mimics human expressions that we understand through our own muscle memory may be highly deceptive, inadvertently or intentionally. Robots may also be given the capability of identifying micro-reactions we can't control but that we're used to assuming go unnoticed.

A different session - discussing research by Marijn Sax, Natalie Helberger, and Nadine Bol - provided a worked example, albeit one without the full robot component. In other words: they've been studying mobile health apps. Most of these are obviously aimed at encouraging behavioral change - walk 10,000 steps, lose weight, do yoga. What the authors argue is that they are more aimed at effecting economic change than at encouraging health, an aspect often obscured from users. Quite apart from the wrongness of using an app marketed to improve your health as a vector for potentially unrelated commercial interests, the health framing itself may be questionable. For example, the famed 10,000 steps some apps push you to take daily has no evidence basis in medicine: the number was likely picked as a Japanese marketing term in the 1960s. These apps may also be quite rigid; in one case that came up during the discussion, an injured nurse found she couldn't adapt the app to help her follow her doctor's orders to stay off her feet. In other words, they optimize one thing, which may or may not have anything to do with health or even health's vaguer cousin, "wellness".

Returning to dishonest anthropomorphism, one suggestion was to focus on abuse rather than dishonesty; there are already laws that bar unfair practices and deception. After all, the entire discipline of user design is aimed at nudging users into certain behaviors and discouraging others. With more complex systems, even if the aim is to make the user feel good it's not simple: the same user will react differently to the same choice at different times. Deciding which points to single out in order to calculate benefit is as difficult as trying to decide where to begin and end a movie story, which the screenwriter William Goldman has likened to deciding where to cut a piece of string. The use of metaphor was harmless when we were talking desktops and filing cabinets; much less so when we're talking about a robot cat that closely emulates a biological cat and leads us into the false sense that we can understand it in the same way.

Deception is becoming the theme of the year, perhaps partly inspired by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. It should be a good thing. It's already clear that neither the European data protection approach nor the US consumer protection approach will be sufficient in itself to protect privacy against the incoming waves of the Internet of Things, big data, smart infrastructure, robots, and AI. As the threats to privacy expand, the field itself must grow in new directions. What made these discussions interesting is that they're trying to figure out which ones.

Illustrations: Recreation of oldest known robot design (from the Ancient Greek Technology exhibition)

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.

June 1, 2018

The three IPs

Thumbnail image for 1891_Telegraph_Lines.jpgAgainst last Friday's date history will record two major European events. The first, as previously noted is the arrival into force of the General Data Protection Regulation, which is currently inspiring a number of US news sites to block Europeans. The second is the amazing Irish landslide vote to repeal the 8th amendment to the country's constitution, which barred legislators from legalizing abortion. The vote led the MEP Luke Ming Flanagan to comment that, "I always knew voters were not conservative - they're just a bit complicated."

"A bit complicated" sums up nicely most people's views on privacy; it captures perfectly the cognitive dissonance of someone posting on Facebook that they're worried about their privacy. As Merlin Erroll commented, terrorist incidents help governments claim that giving them enough information will protect you. Countries whose short-term memories include human rights abuses set their balance point differently.

The occasion for these reflections was the 20th birthday of the Foundation for Information Policy Research. FIPR head Ross Anderson noted on Tuesday that FIPR isn't a campaigning organization, "But we provide the ammunition for those who are."

Led by the late Caspar Bowden, FIPR was most visibly activist in the late 1990s lead-up to the passage of the now-replaced Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000). FIPR in general and Bowden in particular were instrumental in making the final legislation less dangerous than it could have been. Since then, FIPR helped spawn the 15-year-old European Digital Rights and UK health data privacy advocate medConfidential.

Many speakers noted how little the debates have changed, particularly regarding encryption and surveillance. In the case of encryption, this is partly because mathematical proofs are eternal, and partly because, as Yes, Minister co-writer Antony Jay said in 2015, large organizations such as governments always seek to impose control. "They don't see it as anything other than good government, but actually it's control government, which is what they want.". The only change, as Anderson pointed out, is that because today's end-to-end connections are encrypted, the push for access has moved to people's phones.

Other perennials include secondary uses of medical data, which Anderson debated in 1996 with the British Medical Association. Among significant new challenges, Anderson, like many others noted the problems of safety and sustainability. The need to patch devices that can kill you changes our ideas about the consequences of hacking. How do you patch a car over 20 years? he asked. One might add: how do you stop a botnet of pancreatic implants without killing the patients?

We've noted here before that built infrastructure tends to attract more of the same. Today, said Duncan Campbell, 25% of global internet traffic transits the UK; Bude, Cornwall remains the critical node for US-EU data links, as in the days of the telegraph. As Campbell said, the UK's traditional position makes it perfectly placed to conduct global surveillance.

One of the most notable changes in 20 years: there were no less than two speakers whose open presence would have been unthinkable: Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security centre, the defensive arm of GCHQ, and Anthony Finkelstein, the government's chief scientific advisor for national security. You wouldn't have seen them even ten years ago, when GCHQ was deploying its Mastering the Internet plan, known to us courtesy of Edward Snowden. Levy made a plea to get away from the angels versus demons school of debate.

"The three horsemen, all with the initials 'IP' - intellectual property, Internet Protocol, and investigatory powers - bind us in a crystal lattice," said Bill Thompson. The essential difficulty he was getting at is that it's not that organizations like Google DeepMind and others have done bad things, but that we can't be sure they haven't. Being trustworthy, said medConfidential's Sam Smith, doesn't mean you never have to check the infrastructure but that people *can* check it if they want to.

What happens next is the hard question. Onora O'Neill suggested that our shiny, new GDPR won't work, because it's premised on the no-longer-valid idea that personal and non-personal data are distinguishable. Within a decade, she said, new approaches will be needed. Today, consent is already largely a façade; true consent requires understanding and agreement.

She is absolutely right. Even today's "smart" speakers pose a challenge: where should my Alexa-enabled host post the privacy policy? Is crossing their threshold consent? What does consent even mean in a world where sensors are everywhere and how the data will be used and by whom may be murky. Many of the laws built up over the last 20 years will have to be rethought, particularly as connected medical devices pose new challenges.

One of the other significant changes will be the influx of new and numerous stakeholders whose ideas about what the internet is are very different from those of the parties who have shaped it to date. The mobile world, for example, vastly outnumbers us; the Internet of Things is being developed by Asian manufacturers from a very different culture.

It will get much harder from here, I concluded. In response, O'Neill was not content. It's not enough, she said, to point out problems. We must propose at least the bare bones of solutions.


Illustrations: 1891 map of telegraph lines (via Wikimedia)

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.


May 18, 2018

Fool me once

new-22portobelloroad.jpgMost of the "us" who might read this rarely stop to marvel at the wonder that is our daily trust in the society that surrounds us. One of the worst aspects of London Underground's incessant loud reminders to report anything suspicious - aside from the slogan, which is dumber than a bag of dead mice - is that it interrupts the flow of trust. It adds social friction. I hear it, because I don't habitually block out the world with headphones.

Friction is, of course, the thing that so many technologies are intended to eliminate. And they might, if only we could trust them.

Then you read things like this news, that Philip Morris wants to harvest data from its iQOS e-cigarette. If regulators allow, Philip Morris will turn on functions in the device's internal chips that capture data on its user's smoking habits, not unlike ebook readers' fine-grained data collection. One can imagine the data will be useful for testing strategies for getting people to e-smoke longer.

This example did not arrive in time for this week's Nuances of Trust event, hosted by the Alliance for Internet of Things Innovation (AIOTI) and aimed at producing intelligent recommendations for how to introduce trust into the Internet of Things. But, so often, it's the company behind the devices you can't trust. For another example: Volkswagen.

Partly through the problem-solving session, we realized we had regenerated three of Lawrence Lessig's four modalities of constraining behavior: technology/architecture, law, market, social norms. The first changes device design to bar shipping loads of data about us to parts unknown; law pushes manufacturers into that sort of design, even if it cost more; market would mean people refused to buy privacy-invasive devices, and social norms used to be known as "peer pressure". Right now, technology is changing faster than we can create new norms. If a friend has an Amazon Echo at home, does entering their house constitute signing Amazon's privacy policy? Should they show me the privacy policy before I enter? Is it reasonable to ask them to turn it off while I'm there? We could have asked questions like "Are you surreptitiously recording me?" at any time since portable tape recorders were invented, but absent a red, blinking light we felt safe in assuming no. Now, suddenly, trusting my friend requires also trusting a servant belonging to a remote third party. If I don't, it's a social cost - to me, and maybe to my friend, but not to Amagoople.

On Tuesday, Big Brother Watch provided a far more alarming example when director Silkie Carlo launched BBW's report on automated facial recognition (PDF). Now, I know the technically minded will point out grumpily that all facial recognition is "automated" because it's a machine what does it, but what BBW means is a system in which CCTV and other cameras automatically feed everything they gather into a facial recognition system that sprinkles AI fairy dust and pops out Persons of Interest (I blame TV). Various UK police have deployed these AFR systems at concerts and football and rugby games; at the 2016 and 2017 Notting Hill Carnivals; on Remembrance Sunday 2017 to restrict "fixated individuals"; and at peaceful demonstrations. On average, fewer than 9% of matches were accurate; but that's little consolation when police pick you out of the hordes arriving by train for an event and insist on escorting you under watch. The system London's Met Police used had a false positive rate of over 98%! How does a system like that even get out of the lab?

Neither the police nor the Home Office seem to think that bringing in this technology requires any public discussion; when asked they play the Yes, Minister game of pass the policy. Within the culture of the police, it may in fact be a social norm that invasive technologies whose vendors promise magical preventative results should be installed as quickly as possible before anyone can stop them. Within the wider culture...not so much.

This is the larger problem with what AIOTI is trying to do. It's not just that the devices themselves are insecure, their risks capricious, and the motives of their makers suspect. It's that long after you've installed and stopped thinking about a system incorporating these devices someone else can come along to subvert the whole thing. How do you ensure that the promise you make today cannot be broken by yourself or others in future? The problem is near-identical to the one we face with databases: each may be harmless on its own, but mash them together and you have a GDPR fine-to-the-max dataset of reidentification.

Somewhere in the middle of this an AIOTI participant suggested that the IoT rests on four pillars: people, processes, things, data. Trust has pillars, too, that take a long time to build but that can be destroyed in an instant: choice, control, transparency, and, the one we talk about least, but perhaps the most important, familiarity. The more something looks familiar, the more we trust it, even when we shouldn't. Both the devices AIOTI is fretting about and the police systems BBW deplores have this in common: they center on familiar things whose underpinnings have changed without our knowledge - yet their owners want us to trust them. We wish we could.


Illustrations:: 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.

May 3, 2018

Data protection panic

gdpr-countdown.jpgWherever you go at the moment someone is asking panicked questions about the General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into effect on May 25, 2018. The countdown above appeared at a privacy engineering workshop on April 27, and looked ominous enough for Buffy to want to take a whack at it.

Every day new emails arrive asking me to confirm I want to stay on various mailing lists and announcing new privacy policies. Most seem to have grasped the idea that positive consent is required, but some arrive saying you need to nothing to stay stay on their list. I am not a lawyer, but I know that's backwards. The new regime is opt-in, not opt-out. You cannot extract consent from silence.

At the local computer repair place (hard drive failure, don't ask), where my desktop was being punished with diagnostics, the owner asks, "Is encryption necessary? A customer is asking." We agree, from our own reading, that encryption is not *required*, but that liability is less if the data is encrypted and therefore can't be read, and as a consequence sold, reidentified, sprayed across the internet, or used for blackmail. And you don't have to report it as a data breach or notify customers. I explain this to my tennis club and another small organization. Then I remember: crypto is ridiculously hard to implement.

The UK's Information Commissioner's Office has a helpful 12-step guide to assessing what you have to do. My reading, for example, is that a small community interest organization does not have to register or appoint a data controller, though it does need to agree who will answer any data protection complaints it gets. The organization's web host, however, has sent a contract written in data-protectionese, a particularly arcane subset of lawyerese. Asked to look at it, I blanched and started trying to think which of my privacy lawyer friends might be most approachable. Then I realized: tear up that contract and write a new one in English that says who's responsible for what. Someone probably found a model contract somewhere that was written for businesses with in-house lawyers who understood it.

So much is about questioning your assumptions. You think the organization you're involved with has acquired all its data one record at a time when people have signed up to become members. Well, is that true? Have you ever used anyone else's mailing list to trawl for new members? Have you ever shared yours with another organization because you were jointly running a conference? How many copies of the data exist and where are they stored, and how? These are audits few ever stop to do. The threat of the loss of 4% of global revenues is very effective in making them happen.

The computer repair store owner began to realize this aspect. The shop asks new customers to fill out a form, and then adds their information to their database, which means that the next time you bring your machine in they have its whole service history. We mulled over this form for a bit. "I should add a line at the bottom," he said. Yes: a line that asks for permission to include the person on their mailing list for offers and discounts and that says the data won't be shared.

Then I asked him, "How much benefit does the shop get from emailing these offers?" Um, well...none, really. People sometimes come in and ask about them, but they don't buy. So why do them? Good point. The line shrank to something on the order of: "We do not share your data with any third parties".

This is in fact the effect GDPR is intended to have: make people rethink their practices. Some people don't need to keep all the data they have - one organization I'm involved with has a few thousand long-lapsed members in its database with no clear way to find and delete them. For others, the marketing they do isn't really worth the customer irritation. Getting organizations to clean up just those two things seems worth the trouble.

But then he asked, "Who is going to enforce this?" And the reality is there is probably no one until there's a complaint. In the UK, the ICO's budget (PDF) is widely held to be inadequate, and it's not increasing. Elsewhere, it took the tenacity of Max Schrems to get regulators to take the actions that eventually brought down Safe Harbor. A small shop would be hugely unlucky to be a target of regulatory action unless customers were complaining and possibly not even then. Except in rare cases these aren't the people we want targeted; we want the regulators to focus first on egregious harms, repeat offenders with great power, such as Google, and incessant offenders, such as Facebook, whose list of apologies and missteps includes multiple entries for every year of its existence. No wonder the WhatsApp CEO quit (though there's little else he can do, since he sold his company).

Nonetheless, it's the smallest companies and charities who are in the greatest panic about this. Possibly for good reason: there is mounting concern that GDPR will be the lever via which the big data-driven companies lock out small competitors and start-ups. Undesirable unintended consequences, if that's the outcome.


Illustrations: GDPR countdown clock on April 27.

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.

April 20, 2018

Deception

werobot-pepper-head_zpsrvlmgvgl.jpg"Why are robots different?" 2018 co-chair Mark Lemley asked repeatedly at this year's We Robot. We used to ask this in the late 1990s when trying to decide whether a new internet development was worth covering. "Would this be a story if it were about telephones?" Tom Standage and Ben Rooney frequently asked at the Daily Telegraph.

The obvious answer is physical risk and our perception of danger. The idea that autonomously moving objects may be dangerous is deeply biologically hard-wired. A plant can't kill you if you don't go near it. Or, as Bill Smart put it at the first We Robot in 2012, "My iPad can't stab me in my bed." Autonomous movement fools us into thinking things are smarter than they are.

It is probably not much consolation to the driver of the crashed autopiloting Tesla or his bereaved family that his predicament was predicted two years ago at We Robot 2016. In a paper, Madeline Elish called humans in these partnerships "Moral Crumple Zones", because, she argued, in a human-machine partnership, the human would take all the pressure, like the crumple zone in a car.

Today, Tesla is fulfilling her prophecy by blaming the driver for not getting his hands onto the steering wheel fast enough when commanded. (Other prior art on this: Dexter Palmer's brilliant 2016 book Version Control.)

As Ian Kerr pointed out, the user's instructions are self-contradictory. The marketing brochure uses the metaphors "autopilot" and "autosteer" to seduce buyers into envisioning a ride of relaxed luxury while the car does all the work. But the legal documents and user manual supplied with the car tell you that you can't rely on the car to change lanes, and you must keep your hands on the wheel at all times. A computer ingesting this would start smoking.

Granted, no marketer wants to say, "This car will drive itself in a limited fashion, as long as you watch the road and keep your hands on the steering wheel." The average consumer reading that says, "Um...you mean I have to drive it?"

The human as moral crumple zone also appears in analyses of the Arizona Uber crash. Even-handedly, Brad Templeton points plenty of blame at Uber and its decisions: the car's LIDAR should have spotted the pedestrian crossing the road in time to stop safely. He then writes, "Clearly there is a problem with the safety driver. She is not doing her job. She may face legal problems. She will certainly be fired." And yet humans are notoriously bad at the job required of her: monitor a machine. Safety drivers are typically deployed in pairs to split the work - but also to keep each other attentive.

The larger We Robot discussion was part about public perception of risk, based on a paper (PDF) by Aaron Mannes that discussed how easy it is to derail public trust in a company or new technology when statistically less-significant incidents spark emotional public outrage. Self-driving cars may in fact be safer overall than human drivers despite the fatal crash in Arizona; Mannes also mentioned were Three Mile Island, which made the public much more wary of nuclear power, and the Ford Pinto, which spent the 1970s occasionally catching fire.

Mannes suggested that if you have that trust relationship you may be able to survive your crisis. Without it, you're trying to win the public over on "Frankenfoods".

So much was funnier and more light-hearted seven years ago, as a long-time attendee pointed out; the discussions have darkened steadily year by year as theory has become practice and we can no longer think the problems are as far away as the Singularity.

In San Francisco, delivery robots cause sidewalk congestion and make some homeless people feel surveilled; in Chicago and Durham we risk embedding automated unfairness into criminal justice; the egregious extent of internet surveillance has become clear; and the world has seen its first self-driving car road deaths. The last several years have been full of fear about the loss of jobs; now the more imminent dragons are becoming clearer. Do you feel comfortable in public spaces when there's a like a mobile unit pointing some of its nine cameras at you?

Karen Levy, finds that truckers are less upset about losing their jobs than about automation invading their cabs, ostensibly for their safety. Sensors, cameras, and wearables that monitor them for wakefulness, heart health, and other parameters are painful and enraging to this group, who chose their job for its autonomy.

Today's drivers have the skills to step in; tomorrow's won't. Today's doctors are used to doing their own diagnostics; tomorrow's may not be. In the paper by Michael Froomkin, Ian Kerr, and Joëlle Pinea (PDF), automation may mean not only deskilling humans (doctors) but also a frozen knowledge base. Many hope that mining historical patient data will expose patterns that enable more accurate diagnostics and treatments. If the machines take over, where will the new approaches come from?

Worse, behind all that is sophisticated data manipulation for which today's internet is providing the prototype. When, as Woody Hartzog suggested, Rocco, your Alexa-equipped Roomba, rolls up to you, fakes a bum wheel, and says, "Daddy, buy me an upgrade or I'll die", will you have the heartlessness to say no?

Illustrations: Pepper and handler at We Robot 2016.

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.


March 23, 2018

Aspirational intelligence

2001-hal.png"All commandments are ideals," he said. He - Steven Croft, the Bishop of Oxford - had just finished reading out to the attendees of Westminster Forum's seminar (PDF) his proposed ten commandments for artificial intelligence. He's been thinking about this on our behalf: Croft malware writers not to adopt AI enhancements. Hence the reply.

The first problem is: what counts as AI? Anders Sandberg has quipped that it's only called AI until it starts working, and then it's called automation. Right now, though, to many people "AI" seems to mean "any technology I don't understand".

Croft's commandment number nine seems particularly ironic: this week saw the first pedestrian killed by a self-driving car. Early guesses are that the likely weakest links were the underemployed human backup driver and the vehicle's faulty LIDAR interpretation of a person walking a bicycle. Whatever the jaywalking laws are in Arizona, most of us instinctively believe that in a cage match between a two-ton automobile and an unprotected pedestrian the car is always the one at fault.

Thinking locally, self-driving cars ought to be the most ethics-dominated use of AI, if only because people don't like being killed by machines. Globally, however, you could argue that AI might be better turned to finding the best ways to phase out cars entirely.

We may have better luck at persuading criminal justice systems to either require transparency, fairness, and accountability in machine learning systems that predict recidivism and who can be helped or drop them entirely.

The less-tractable issues with AI are on display in the still-developing Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandals. You may argue that Facebook is not AI, but the platform certainly uses AI in fraud detection and to determine what we see and decide which of our data parts to use on behalf of advertisers. All on its own, Facebook is a perfect exemplar of all the problems Australian privacy advocate foresaw in 2004 after examining the first social networks. In 2012, Clark wrote, "From its beginnings and onward throughout its life, Facebook and its founder have demonstrated privacy-insensitivity and downright privacy-hostility." The same could be said of other actors throughout the tech industry.

Yonatan Zunger is undoubtedly right when he argues in the Boston Globe that computer science has an ethics crisis. However, just fixing computer scientists isn't enough if we don't fix the business and regulatory environment built on "ask forgiveness, not permission". Matthew Stoll writes in the Atlantic about the decline since the 1970s of American political interest in supporting small, independent players and limiting monopoly power. The tech giants have widely exported this approach; now, the only other government big enough to counter it is the EU.

The meetings I've attended of academic researchers considering ethics issues with respect to big data have demonstrated all the careful thoughtfulness you could wish for. The November 2017 meeting of the Research Institute in Science of Cyber Security provided numerous worked examples in talks from Kat Hadjimatheou at the University of Warwick, C Marc Taylor from the the UK Research Integrity Office, and Paul Iganski the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). Their explanations of the decisions they've had to make about the practical applications and cases that have come their way are particularly valuable.

On the industry side, the problem is not just that Facebook has piles of data on all of us but that the feedback loop from us to the company is indirect. Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, some commenters have indicated that being able to do without Facebook is a luxury many can't afford and that in some countries Facebook *is* the internet. That in itself is a global problem.

Croft's is one of at least a dozen efforts to come up with an ethics code for AI. The Open Data Institute has its Data Ethics Canvas framework to help people working with open data identify ethical issues. The IEEE has published some proposed standards (PDF) that focus on various aspects of inclusion - language, cultures, non-Western principles. Before all that, in 2011, Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford penned Six Provocations for Big Data, which included a discussion of the need for transparency, accountability, and consent. The World Economic Forum published its top ten ethical issues in AI in 2016. Also in 2016, a Stanford University Group published a report trying to fend off regulation by saying it was impossible.

If the industry proves to be right and regulation really is impossible, it won't be because of the technology itself but because of the ecosystem that nourishes amoral owners. "Ethics of AI", as badly as we need it, will be meaningless if the necessary large piles of data to train it are all owned by just a few very large organizations and well-financed criminals; it's equivalent to talking about "ethics of agriculture" when all the seeds and land are owned by a child's handful of global players. The pre-emptive antitrust movement of 2018 would find a way to separate ownership of data from ownership of the AI, algorithms, and machine learning systems that work on them.


Illustrations: HAL.

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.

March 16, 2018

Homeland insecurity

United_Kingdom_foreign_born_population_by_country_of_birth.pngTo the young people," a security practitioner said at a recent meeting, speaking of a group he'd been working with, "it's life lived on their phone."

He was referring to the tendency for adults to talk to kids about fake news, or sexting, or sexual abuse and recruitment, and so on as "online" dangers the adults want to protect them from. But, as this practitioner was trying to explain (and we have said here before), "online" isn't separate to them. Instead, all these issues are part of the context of pressures, relationships, economics, and competition that makes up their lives. This will become increasingly true as widely deployed sensors and hybrid cyber-physical systems and tracking become the norm.

This is a real generation gap. Older adults have taken on board each of these phenomena as we've added it into our existing understanding of the world. Watching each arrive singly over time allows the luxury of consideration and the mental space in which to plot a strategy. If you're 12, all of these things are arriving at once as pieces that are coalescing into your picture of the world. Even if you only just finally got your parents to let you have your own phone you've been watching videos on YouTube, FaceTiming your friends, and playing online games all your life.

An important part of "life lived on the phone" is in the UK's data protection bill implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation, now going through Parliament. The bill carves out some very broad exemptions. Most notably, opposed by the Open Rights Group and the3million, the bill would remove a person's rights as a data subject in the interests of "effective immigration control". In other words, under this exemption the Home Office could make decisions about where and whether you were allowed to live but never have to tell you the basis for its decisions. Having just had *another* long argument with a different company about whether or not I've ever lived in Iowa, I understand the problem of being unable to authenticate yourself because of poor-quality data.

It's easy for people to overlook laws that "only" affect immigrants, but as Gracie Mae Bradley, an advocacy and policy officer, made clear at this week's The State of Data 2018 event, hosted by Jen Persson, one of the consequences is to move the border from Britain's ports into its hospitals, schools, and banks, which are now supposed to check once a quarter that their 70 million account holders are legitimate. NHS Digital is turning over confidential patient information to help the Home Office locate and deport undocumented individuals. Britain's schools are being pushed to collect nationality. And, as Persson noted, remarkably few parents even know the National Pupil Database exists, and yet it catalogues highly detailed records of every schoolchild.

"It's obviously not limited to immigrants," Bradley said of the GDPR exemption. "There is no limit on the processes that might apply this exemption". It used to be clear when you were approaching a national border; under these circumstances the border is effectively gummed to your shoe.

The data protection bill also has the usual broad exemptions for law enforcement and national security.

Both this discussion (implicitly) and the security conversation we began with (explicitly) converged on security as a felt, emotional state. Even a British citizen living in their native country in conditions of relative safety - a rich country with good health care, stable governance, relatively little violence, mostly reasonable weather - may feel insecure if they're constantly being required to prove the legitimacy of their existence. Conversely, people may live in objectively more dangerous conditions and yet feel more secure because they know the local government is not eying them suspiciously with a view to telling them to repatriate post-haste.

Put all these things together with other trends, and you have the potential for a very high level of social insecurity that extends far outwards from the enemy class du jour, "illegal immigrants". This in itself is a damaging outcome.

And the potential for social control is enormous. Transport for London is progressively eliminating both cash and its Oyster payment cards in favor of direct payment via credit or debit card. What happens to people who one quarter fail the bank's inspection. How do they pay the bus or tube fare to get to work?

Like gender, immigration status is not the straightforward state many people think. My mother, brought to the US when she was four, often talked about the horror of discovering in her 20s that she was stateless: marrying my American father hadn't, as she imagined, automatically made her an American, and Switzerland had revoked her citizenship because she had married a foreigner. In the 1930s, she was naturalized without question. Now...?

Trying to balance conflicting securities is not new. The data protection bill-in-progress offers the opportunity to redress a serious imbalance, which Persson called, rightly, a "disconnect between policy, legislation, technological change, and people". It is, as she and others said, crucial that the balance of power that data protection represents not be determined by a relatively small, relatively homogeneous group.


Illustrations: 2008 map of nationalities of UK residents (via Wikipedia

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.

February 16, 2018

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.

February 2, 2018

Schrödinger's citizen

cpdp-nationality2.pngOne of the more intriguing panels at this year's Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection (obEgo: I moderated) began with a question from Peter Swire: Can the nationality of the target ever be a justified basis for different surveillance rules?

France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, and the UK, explained Mario Oetheimer, an expert on data protection and international human rights with the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, do apply a lower level of safeguards for international surveillance as compared to domestic surveillance. He believes Germany is the only EU country whose surveillance legislation includes nationality criteria.

The UK's 2016 Investigatory Powers Act (2016), parts of which were struck down this week in the European Court of Justice, was an example. Oetheimer, whose agency has a report on fundamental rights in surveillance, said introducing nationality-based differences will "trickle down" into an area where safeguards are already relatively underdeveloped and hinder developing further protections.

Thumbnail image for peterswire-cpdp2018.pngIn his draft paper, Swire favors allowing greater surveillance of non-citizens than citizens. While some countries - he cited the US and Germany - provide greater protection from surveillance to their own citizens than to foreigners, there is little discussion about why that's justified. In the US, he traces the distinction to Watergate, when Nixon's henchmen were caught unacceptably snooping on the opposition political party. "We should have very strong protections in a democracy against surveilling the political opposition and against surveilling the free press." But granting everyone else the same protection, he said, is unsustainble politically and incorrect as a matter of law and philosophy.

This is, of course, a very American view, as the late Caspar Bowden impatiently explained to me in 2013. Elsewhere, human rights - including privacy - are meant to be universal. Still, there is a highly practical reason for governments and politicians to prefer their own citizens: foreigners can't vote them out of office. For this reason (besides being American), I struggle to believe in the durability of any rights granted to non-citizens. The difference seems to me the whole point of having citizens in the first place. At the very least, citizens have the unquestioned right to live and enter the country, which non-citizens do not have. But, as Bowden might have said, there is a difference between *fewer* rights and *no* rights. Before that conversation, I did not really understand about American exceptionalism.

Like so many other things, citizenship and nationality are multi-dimensional rather than binary. Swire argues that it's partly a matter of jurisdiction: governments have greater ability and authority to ask for information about their own citizens. Here is my reference to Schrödinger's cat: one may be a dual citizen, simultaneously both foreign and not-foreign and regarded suspiciously by all.

Joseph Cannataci disagreed, saying that nationality does not matter: "If a person is a threat, I don't care if he has three European passports...The threat assessment should reign supreme."

German privacy advocate Thorsten Wetzling outlined Germany's surveillance law, recently reformulated in response to the Snowden revelations. Germany applies three categories to data collection: domestic, domestic-foreign (or "international"), and foreign. "International" means that one end of the communication is in Germany; "foreign" means that both ends are outside the country. The new law specifically limits data collected on those outside Germany and subjects non-targeted foreign data collection to new judicial oversight.

Wetzling believes we might find benefits in extending greater protection to foreigners than accrues to domestic citizens. Extending human rights protection would mean "the global practice of intelligence remains within limits", and would give a country the standing to suggest to other countries that they reciprocate. This had some resonance for me: I remember hearing the computer scientist George Danezis say something about since we all have few nationalities, at any given time we can be surveilled by a couple of hundred other countries. We can have a race to the bottom...or to the top.

One of Swire's points was that one reason to allow greater surveillance of foreigners is that it's harder to conduct. Given that technology is washing away that added difficulty, Amie Stepanovich asked, shouldn't we recognize that? Like Wetzling, she suggested that privacy is a public good; the greater the number of people who have it the more we may benefit.

As abstruse as these legal points may sound, ultimately the US's refusal to grant human rights to foreigners is part of what's at stake in determining whether the US's privacy regime is strong enough for the EU-US Privacy Shield to pass its legal challenges. As the internet continues to raise jurisdictional disputes, Swire's question will take its place alongside others, such as how much location should matter when law enforcement wants access to data (Microsoft v. United States, due to be heard in the US Supreme Court on February 27) and countries follow the UK's lead in claiming extraterritorial jurisdiction over data and the right to bulk-hack computers around the world.

But, said Cannataci in disputing Swire's arguments, the US Constitution says, "All men are created equal". Yes, it does. But in "men" the Founding Fathers did not include women, black people, slaves, people who didn't own property.... "They didn't mean it," I summarized. Replied Cannataci: "But they *should* have." Indeed.


Illustrations: The panel, left to right: Cannataci, Swire, Stepanovich, Grossman, Wetzling, Oetheimer.

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.

October 27, 2017

The opposite of privilege

new-22portobelloroad.jpgA couple of weeks ago, Cybersalon held an event to discuss modern trends in workplace surveillance. In the middle, I found myself reminding the audience, many of whom were too young to remember, that 20 or so years ago mobile phones were known locally as "poserphones". "Poserphone" because they were still expensive enough recently enough that they were still associated with rich businessmen who wanted to show off their importance.

The same poseurship today looks like this: "I'm so grand I don't carry a mobile phone." In a sort of rerun of the 1997 anti-internet backlash, which was kicked off by Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake-Oil, all over the place right now we're seeing numerous articles and postings about how the techies of Silicon Valley are disconnecting themselves and removing technology from the local classrooms. Granted, this has been building for a while: in 2014 the New York Times reported that Steve Jobs didn't let his children use iPhones or iPads.

It's an extraordinary inversion in a very short time. However, the notable point is that the people profiled in these stories are people with the agency to make this decision and not suffer for it. In April, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), claimed airily that "Nobody has to use the internet", a statement easily disputed. A similar argument can be made about related technology such as phones and tablets: it's perfectly reasonable to say you need downtime or that you want your kids to have a solid classical education with plenty of practice forming and developing long-form thinking. But the option to opt out depends on a lot of circumstances outside of most people's control. You can't, for example disconnect your phone if your zero-hours contracts specifies you will be dumped if you don't answer when they call, nor if you're in high-urgency occupations like law, medicine, or journalism; nor can you do it if you're the primary carer for anyone else. For a homeless person, their mobile phone may be their only hope of finding a job or a place to live.

Battery concerns being what they are, I've long had the habit of turning off wifi and GPS unless I'm actively using them. As Transport for London increasingly seeks to use passenger data to understand passenger flow through the network and within stations, people who do not carry data-generating devices are arguably anti-social because they are refusing to contribute to improving the quality of the service. This argument has been made in the past with reference to NHS data, suggesting that patients who declined to share their data didn't deserve care.

cybersalon-october.jpgToday's employers, as Cybersalon highlighted and as speakers have previously pointed out at the annual Health Privacy Summit, may learn an unprecedented amount of intimate information about their employees via efforts like wellness programs and the data those capture from devices like Fitbits and smart watches. At Cornell, Karen Levy has written extensively about the because-safety black box monitoring coming to what historically has been the most independent of occupations, truck driving. At Middlesex Phoebe Moore is studying the impact of workplace monitoring on white collar workers. How do you opt out of monitoring if doing so means "opting out" of employment?

The latest in facial recognition can identify people in the backgrounds of photos, making it vastly harder to know which of the sidewalk-blockers around you snapping pictures of each other on their phones may capture and upload you as well, complete with time and location. Your voice may be captured by the waiting speech-driven device in your friend's car or home; ever tried asking someone to turn off Alexa-Siri-OKGoogle while you're there?

For these reasons, publicly highlighting your choice to opt out reads as, "Look how privileged I am", or some much more compact and much more offensive term. This will be even more true soon, when opting out will require vastly more effort than it does now and there will be vastly fewer opportunities to do it. Even today, someone walking around London has no choice about how many CCTV cameras capture them in motion. You can ride anonymously on the tube and buses as long as you are careful to buy, and thereafter always top up, your Oyster smart card with cash. But the latest in facial recognition can identify people in the backgrounds of photos, making it vastly harder to know which of the sidewalk-blockers around you snapping pictures of each other on their phones may capture and upload you as well, complete with time and location.

It's clear "normal" people are beginning to know this. This week, in a supermarket well outside of London, I was mocking a friend for paying for some groceries by tapping a credit card. "Cash," I said. "What's wrong with nice, anonymous cash?" "It took 20 seconds!" my friend said. The aging cashier regarded us benignly. "They can still track you by the mobile phones you're carrying," she said helpfully. Touché.

Illustrations: George Orwell's house at 22 Portobello road; Cybersalon (Phoebe Moore, center).

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.

October 20, 2017

Risk profile

Thumbnail image for Fingerprint-examiner-FBI-1930s.jpgSo here is this week's killer question: "Are you aware of any large-scale systems employing this protection?"

It's a killer question because this was the answer: "No."

Rewind. For as long as I can remember - and I first wrote about biometrics in 1999 - biometrics vendors have claimed that these systems are designed to be privacy-protecting. The reason, as I was told for a Guardian article on fingerprinting in schools in 2006, is that these systems don't store complete biometric images. Instead, when your biometric is captured, whether that's a fingerprint to pay for a school lunch or an iris scan for some other purpose - the system samples points in the resulting image and deploys some fancy mathematics to turn them into a "template", a numerical value that is what the system stores. The key claim: there is no way to reverse-engineer the template to derive the original image because the template doesn't contain enough information.

The claim sounds plausible to anyone used to one-way cryptographic hashes, or who is used to thinking about compressed photographs and music files, where no amount of effort can restore Humpty-Dumpty's missing data. And yet.

Even at the time, some of the activists I interviewed were dubious about the claim. Even if it was true in 1999, or 2003, or 2006, they argued, it might not be true in the future. Plus, in the meantime these systems were teaching kids that it was OK to use these irreplaceable iris scans, fingerprints, and so on for essentially trivial purposes. What would the consequences be someday in the future when biometrics might become a crucial element of secure identification?

Thumbnail image for wayman-from-video.pngWell, here we are in 2017, and biometrics are more widely used, even though not as widely deployed as they might have hoped in 1999. (There are good reasons for this, as James L. Wayman explained in a 2003 interview for New Scientist: deploying these systems is much harder than anyone ever thinks. The line that has always stuck in my mind: "No one ever has what you think they're going to have where you think they're going to have it." His example was the early fingerprint system he designed that was flummoxed on the first day by the completely unforeseen circumstance of a guy who had three thumbs.)

So-called "presentation attacks" - for example, using high-resolution photographs to devise a spoof dummy finger - have been widely discussed already. For this reason, such applications have a "liveness" test. But it turns out there are other attacks to be worried about.

Thumbnail image for rotated-nw-marta-gomez-barrerro-2017.jpgThis week, at the European Association for Biometrics held a symposium on privacy, surveillance, and biometrics, I discovered that Andrew Clymer, who said in 2003 that, "Anybody who says it is secure and can't be compromised is silly", was precisely right. As Marta Gomez-Barrero explained, in 2013 she published a successful attack on these templates she called "hill climbing". Essentially, this is an iterative attack. Say you have a database of stored templates for an identification system; a newly-presented image is compared with the database looking for a match. In a hill-climbing attack, you generate synthetic templates and run them through the comparator, and then apply a modification scheme to the synthetic templates until you get a match. The reconstructions Gomez-Barrero showed aren't always perfect - the human eye may see distortions - but to the biometrics system it's the same face. You can fix the human problem by adding some noise to the image. The same is true of iris scans (PDF), hand shapes, and so on.

Granted, someone wishing to conduct this attack has to have access to that database, but given the near-daily headlines about breaches, this is not a comforting thought.

Slightly better is the news that template protection techniques do exist; in fact, they've been known for ten to 15 years and are the subject of ISO standard 24745. Simply encrypting the data doesn't help as much as you might think, because every attempted match requires the template to be decrypted. Just like reused passwords, biometric templates are vulnerable to cross-matching that allows an attacker to extract more information. Second, if the data is available on the internet - this is especially applicable to face-based systems - an attacker can test for template matches.

It was at this point that someone asked the question we began with: are these protection schemes being used in large-scale systems? And...Gomez-Barrerra said: no. Assuming she's right, this is - again - one of those situations where no matter how carefully we behave we are the mercy of decisions outside our control that very few of us even know are out there waiting to cause trouble. It is market failure in its purest form, right up there with Equifax, which none of us chooses to use but still inflicted intimate exposure on hundreds of millions of people; and the 7547 bug, which showed you can do everything right in buying network equipment and still get hammered.

It makes you wonder: when will people learn that you can't avoid problems by denying there's any risk? Biometric systems are typically intended to handle the data of millions of people in sensitive applications such as financial transactions and smartphone authentication. Wouldn't you think security would be on the list of necessary features?


Illustrations: A 1930s FBI examiner at work (via FBI); James Wayman; Marta Gomez-Barrero.

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.

October 6, 2017

Send lawyers, guns, and money

Thumbnail image for Las_Vegas_strip.jpgThere are many reasons why, Bryan Schatz finds at Mother Jones, people around Las Vegas disagree with President Donald Trump's claim that now is not the time to talk about gun control. The National Rifle Association probably agrees; in the past, it's been criticized for saving its public statements for proposed legislation and staying out of the post-shooting - you should excuse the expression - crossfire.

Gun control doesn't usually fit into net.wars' run of computers, freedom, and privacy subjects. There are two reasons for making an exception now. First, the discovery of the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which prohibits the creation of *any* searchable registry of firearms in the US. Second, the rhetoric surrounding gun control debates.

To take the second first, in a civil conversation on the subject, it was striking that the arguments we typically use to protest knee-jerk demands for ramped-up surveillance legislation to atrocious incidents are the same ones used to oppose gun control legislation. Namely: don't pass bad laws out of fear that do not make us safer; tackle underlying causes such as mental illness and inequality; put more resources into law enforcement/intelligence. In the 1990s crypto wars, John Perry Barlow deliberately and consciously adapted the NRA' slogan to create "You can have my encryption algorithm...when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers from my private key".

Using the same rhetoric doesn't mean both are right or both are wrong: we must decide on evidence. Public debates over surveillance do typically feature evidence about the mathematical underpinnings of how encryption works, day-to-day realities of intelligence work, and so on. The problem with gun control debates in the US is that evidence from other countries is automatically written off as irrelevant, and, more like the subject of copyright reform, lobbying money hugely distorts the debate.

Thumbnail image for Atf_ffl_check-licensed-gun-dealer.jpgThe second issue touches directly on privacy. Soon after the news of the Las Vegas shooting broke, a friend posted a link to the 2016 GQ article Inside the Federal Bureau of Way Too Many Guns. In it, writer and author Jeanne Marie Laskas pays a comprehensive visit to Martinsburg, West Virginia, where she finds a "low, flat, boring building" with a load of shipping containers kept out in the parking lot so the building's floors don't collapse under the weight of the millions of gun license records they contain. These are copies of federal form 4473, which is filled out at the time of gun purchases and retained by the retailer. If a retailer goes out of business, the forms it holds are shipped to the tracing center. When a law enforcement officer anywhere in the US finds a gun at a crime scene, this is where they call to trace it. The kicker: all those records are eventually photographed and stored on microfilm. Miles and miles of microfilm. Charlie Houser, the tracing center's head, has put enormous effort into making his human-paper-microfilm system as effective and efficient as possible; it's an amazing story of what humans can do.

Why microfilm? Gun control began in 1968, five years after the shooting of President John F. Kennedy. Even at that moment of national grief and outrage, the only way President Lyndon B. Johnson could get the Gun Control Act passed was to agree not to include a clause he wanted that would have set up a national gun registry to enable speedy tracing. In 1986, the NRA successfully lobbied for the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which prohibits the creation of *any* registry of firearms. What you register can be found and confiscated, the reasoning apparently goes. So, while all the rest of us engaged in every other activity - getting health care, buying homes, opening bank accounts, seeking employment - were being captured, collected, profiled, and targeted, the one group whose activities are made as difficult to trace as possible is...gun owners?

It is to boggle.

That said, the reasons why the American gun problem will likely never be solved include the already noted effect of lobbying money and, as E.J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann discuss in the Washington Post, the non-majoritarian democracy the US has become. Even though majorities in both major parties favor universal background checks and most Americans want greater gun control, Congress "vastly overrepresents the interests of rural areas and small states". In the Senate that's by design to ensure nationwide balance: the smallest and most thinly populated states have the same number of senators - two - as the biggest, most populous states. In Congress, the story is more about gerrymandering and redistricting. Our institutions, they conclude, are not adapting to rising urbanization: 63% in 1960, 84% in 2010.

Besides those reasons, the identification of guns and personal safety endures, chiefly in states where at one time it was true.

A month and a half ago, one of my many conversations around Nashville went like this, after an opening exchange of mundane pleasantries:

"I live in London."

"Oh, I wouldn't want to live there."

"Why?"

"Too much terrorism." (When you recount this in London, people laugh.)

"If you live there, it actually feels like a very safe city." Then, deliberately provocative, "For one thing, there are practically no guns."

"Oh, that would make me feel *un"safe."

Illustrations: Las Vegas strip, featuring the Mandelay Bay; an ATF inspector checks up on a gun retailer.

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.

September 15, 2017

Equifaction

equifax-announcement.pngThe Equifax announcement this week is peculiarly terrible. It's not just that 143 million Americans and uncertain numbers of Canadians and Britons are made vulnerable to decades of identity fraud (social security numbers can't - yet - be replaced with new ones). Nor is it the unusually poor apology issued by the company or its ham-fisted technical follow-up (see also Argentina). No, the capper is that no one who is in Equifax's database has had any option about being in it in the first place. "We are its victims, not its customers," a number of people observed on Twitter this week.

Long before Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple became GAFA, Equifax and its fellow credit bureaus viewed consumers as the product. Citizens have no choice about this; our reward is access to financial services, which we *pay* for. Americans' credit reports are routinely checked on every applications forcredit, bank accounts, or even employment. The impact was already visibly profound enough in 1970, when Congress passed the Fair Credit Reporting Act. In granting Americans the right to inspect their credit reports and request corrections, it is the only US legislation offering rights similar to those granted to Europeans by the data protection laws. The only people who can avoid the tentacled reach of Equifax are those who buy their homes and cars with cash, operate no bank accounts or credit cards, pay cash for medical care and carry no insurance, and have not need for formal employment or government benefits.

Based on this breach and prior examples, investigative security journalist Brian Krebs calls the credit bureaus "terrible stewards of very sensitive data".

It was with this in the background that I attended a symposium on reforming Britain's Computer Misuse Act run by the Criminal Law Reform Now Network. In most hacking cases you don't want to blame the victim, but one might make an exception for Equifax. Since the discussion allowed for such flights of fancy, I queried whether a reformed act should include something like "contributory negligence" to capture such situations. "That's data protection laws," someone said (the between-presentation discussions were under the Chatham House Rule). True. Later, however, merging that thought with other comments about the fact that the public interest in secure devices is not being met either by legislators or by the market inspired Duncan Campbell to suggest that perhaps what we need as a society is a "computer security act" that embraces the whole of society - individuals and companies - that needs protection. Companies like Equifax, with whom we have no direct connection but whose data management deeply affects our lives, he suggested, should arguably be subject to a duty of care. Another approach several of those at the meeting favored was introducing a public interest defense for computer misuse, much as the Defamation Act has for libel. Such a defense could reasonably include things like security research, journalism, and whistleblowing,

The law we have is of course nothing like this.

As of 2013, according to the answer to a Parliamentary question, there had been 339 prosecutions and 262 convictions under the CMA. A disproportionate number of those who are arrested under the act are young - average age, 17. There is ongoing work on identifying ways to turn the paths for young computer whizzes toward security and societal benefit rather than cracking and computer crime. In the case of "Wannacry hero" Marcus Hutchins, arrested by the FBI after Defcon, investigative security journalist Brian Krebs did some digging and found that it appears likely he was connected to writing malware at one time but had tried to move toward more socially useful work. Putting smart young people with no prior criminal record in prison with criminals and ruining their employment prospects isn't a good deal for either them or us.

Yet it's not really surprising that this is who the CMA is capturing, since in 1990 that was the threat: young, obsessive, (predominantly) guys exploring the Net and cracking into things. Hardly any of them sought to profit financially from their exploits beyond getting free airtime so they could stay online longer - not even Kevin Mitnick, the New York Times's pick for "archetypal dark side hacker", now a security consultant and book author. In the US, the police Operation Sundown against this type of hacker spurred the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "I've begun to wonder if we wouldn't also regard spelunkers as desperate criminals if AT&T owned all the caves," John Perry Barlow wrote at the time.

Thumbnail image for schifreen.jpgSchifreen and Gold , who were busted for hacking into Prince Philip's Prestel mailbox, established the need for a new law. The resulting CMA was not written for a world in which everyone is connected, street lights have their own network nodes, and Crime as a Service relies on a global marketplace of highly specialized subcontractors. Lawmakers try to encode principles, not specifics, but anticipating such profound change is hard. Plus, as a practical matter, it is feasible to capture a teenaged kid traceable to (predominantly) his parents' basement, but not the kingpin of a worldwide network who could be anywhere. And so CLRNN's question: what should a new law look like? To be continued...


Illustrations: Equifax CEO Rick Smith; Robert Schifreen;

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.

August 4, 2017

Imaginary creatures

virginmary-devil.jpgI learned something new this week: I may not be a real person.

"Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security."

So spake the UK's Home Secretary Amber Rudd on August 1, and of course what she was really saying was, We need a back door in all encryption so we can read anything we deem necessary, and anyone who opposes this perfectly sensible idea is part of a highly vocal geek minority who can safely be ignored.

The way I know I'm not a real person is that around the time she was saying that I was emailing my accountant a strongly-worded request that they adopt some form of secured communications for emailing tax returns and accounts back and forth. To my astonishment, their IT people said they could do PGP. Oh, frabjous day. Is PGP-encrypted email more of a pain in the ass than ordinary email? You betcha. Conclusion: I am an imaginary number.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Amber_Rudd_2016.jpgAccording to Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing's potted history of this sort of pronouncement, Rudd is at a typical first stage. At some point in the future, Doctorow predicts, she will admit that people want encryption but say they shouldn't have it, nonetheless.

I've been trying to think of analogies that make clear how absurd her claim is. Try food safety: >>Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, healthy food.>> Well, that's actually true. People grab fast food, they buy pre-prepared meals, and we all know why: a lot of people lack the time, expertise, kitchen facilities, sometimes even basic access to good-quality ingredients to do their own cooking, which overall would save them money and probably keep them in better health (if they do it right). But they can choose this convenience in part because they know - or hope - that food safety regulations and inspections mean the convenient, feature-rich food they choose is safe to eat. A government could take the view that part of its role is to ensure that when companies promise their encryption is robust it actually is.

But the real issue is that it's an utterly false tradeoff. Why shouldn't "real people" want both? Why shouldn't we *have* both? Why should anyone have to justify why they want end-to-end encryption? "I'm sorry, officer. I had to lock my car because I was afraid someone might steal it." Does anyone query that logic on the basis that the policeman might want to search the car?

The second-phase argument (the first being in the 1990s) about planting back doors has been recurring for so long now that it's become like a chronic illness with erupting cycles. In response, so much good stuff has been written to point out the technical problems with that proposal that there isn't really much more to say about it. Go forth and read that link.

There is a much more interesting question we should be thinking about. The 1990s public debate about back doors in the form of key escrow ended with the passage in the UK of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) and in the US with the gradual loosening of the export controls. We all thought that common sense and ecommerce had prevailed. Instead, we now know, the security services ignored these public results and proceeded to go their own way. As we now know, they secretly spent a decade working to undermine security standards. They installed vulnerabilities, and generally borked public trust in the infrastructure.

So: it seems reasonable to assume that the present we-must-have-back-doors noise is merely Plan A. What's Plan B ? What other approaches would you be planning if you ran the NSA or GCHQ? I'm not enough of a technical expert to guess at what clever solutions they might find, but historically a lot of access has been gained by leveraging relationships with appropriate companies such as BT (in the UK) and AT&T (in the US). Today's global tech companies have so far seemed to be more resistant to this approach than a prior generation's national companies were.

Tim_Cook_2009_cropped.jpgThis week's news that Apple began removing censorship-bypassing VPNs from its app store in China probably doesn't contradict this. The company says it complies with national laws; in the FBI case it fought an order in court. However, Britain's national laws unfortunately include 2016's Investigatory Powers Act (2016), which makes it legal for security services to hack everyone's computers ("bulk equipment interference" by any other name...) and has many other powers that have barely been invoked publicly yet. A government that's rational on this sort of topic might point this out, and say, let's give these new powers a chance to bed down for a year or two and *then* see what additional access we might need.

Instead, we seem doomed to keep having this same conversation on an endless loop. Those of us wanting to argue for the importance of securing national infrastructure, particularly as many more billions of points of vulnerability are added to it, can't afford to exit the argument. But, like decoding a magician's trick, we should remember to look in all those other directions. That may be where the main action is, for those of us who aren't real enough to count.

Illustrations: The Virgin Mary punching the devil in the face (book of hours ('The De Brailes Hours'), Oxford ca. 1240 (BL, Add 49999, fol. 40v), via Discarding Images); Amber Rudd; Tim Cook (Valery Marchive).

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.

October 12, 2012

My identity, my self

Last week, the media were full of the story that the UK government was going to start accepting Facebook logons for authentication. This week, in several presentations at the RSA Conference, representatives of the Government Digital Service begged to differ: the list of companies that have applied to become identity providers (IDPs) will be published at the end of this month and until then they are not confirming the presence or absence of any particular company. According to several of the spokesfolks manning the stall and giving presentations, the press just assumed that when they saw social media companies among the categories of organization that might potentially want to offer identity authentication, that meant Facebook. We won't actually know for another few weeks who has actually applied.

So I can mercifully skip the rant that hooking a Facebook account to the authentication system you use for government services is a horrible idea in both directions. What they're actually saying is, what if you could choose among identification services offered by the Post Office, your bank, your mobile network operator (especially for the younger generation), your ISP, and personal data store services like Mydex or small, local businesses whose owners are known to you personally? All of these sounded possible based on this week's presentations.

The key, of course, is what standards the government chooses to create for IDPs and which organizations decide they can meet those criteria and offer a service. Those are the details the devil is in: during the 1990s battles about deploying strong cryptography, the government's wanted copies of everyone's cryptography keys to be held in escrow by a Trusted Third Party. At the time, the frontrunners were banks: the government certainly trusted those, and imagined that we did, too. The strength of the disquiet over that proposal took them by surprise. Then came 2008. Those discussions are still relevant, however; someone with a long memory raised the specter of Part I of the Electronic Communications Act 2000, modified in 2005, as relevant here.

It was this historical memory that made some of us so dubious in 2010, when the US came out with proposals rather similar to the UK's present ones, the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC). Ross Anderson saw it as a sort of horror-movie sequel. On Wednesday, however, Jeremy Grant, the senior executive advisor for identity management at the US National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), the agency charged with overseeing the development of NSTIC, sounded a lot more reassuring.

Between then and now came both US and UK attempts to establish some form of national ID card. In the US, "Real ID", focused on the state authorities that issue driver's licenses. In the UK, it was the national ID card and accompanying database. In both countries the proposals got howled down. In the UK especially, the combination of an escalating budget, a poor record with large government IT projects, a change of government, and a desperate need to save money killed it in 2006.

Hence the new approach in both countries. From what the GDS representatives - David Rennie (head of proposition at the Cabinet Office), Steven Dunn (lead architect of the Identity Assurance Programme; Twitter: @cuica), Mike Pegman (security architect at the Department of Welfare and Pensions, expected to be the first user service; Twitter: @mikepegman), and others manning the GDS stall - said, the plan is much more like the structure that privacy advocates and cryptographers have been pushing for 20 years: systems that give users choice about who they trust to authenticate them for a given role and that share no more data than necessary. The notion that this might actually happen is shocking - but welcome.

None of which means we shouldn't be asking questions. We need to understand clearly the various envisioned levels of authentication. In practice, will those asking for identity assurance ask for the minimum they need or always go for the maximum they could get? For example, a bar only needs relatively low-level assurance that you are old enough to drink; but will bars prefer to ask for full identification? What will be the costs; who pays them and under what circumstances?

Especially, we need to know what the detail of the standards organizations must meet to be accepted as IDPs, in particular, what kinds of organization they exclude. The GDS as presently constituted - composed, as William Heath commented last year, of all the smart, digitally experienced people you *would* hire to reinvent government services for the digital world if you had the choice - seems to have its heart in the right place. Their proposals as outlined - conforming, as Pegman explained happily, to Kim Cameron's seven laws of identity - pay considerable homage to the idea that no one party should have all the details of any given transaction. But the surveillance-happy type of government that legislates for data retention and CCDP might also at some point think, hey, shouldn't we be requiring IDPs to retain all data (requests for authentication, and so on) so we can inspect it should we deem it necessary? We certainly want to be very careful not to build a system that could support such intimate secret surveillance - the fundamental objection all along to key escrow.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series.


September 21, 2012

This is not (just) about Google

We had previously glossed over the news, in February, that Google had overridden the "Do Not Track" settings in Apple's Safari Web browser, used on both its desktop and mobile machines. For various reasons, Do Not Track is itself a divisive issue, pitting those who favour user control over privacy issues against those who ask exactly how people plan to pay for all that free content0 if not through advertising. But there was little disagreement about this: Google goofed badly in overriding users' clearly expressed preferences. Google promptly disabled the code, but the public damage was done - and probably made worse by the company's initial response.

In August, the US Federal Trade Commission fined Google $22.5 million for that little escapade. Pocket change, you might say, and compared to Google's $43.6 billion in 2011 revenues you'd be right. As the LSE's Edgar Whitely pointed out on Monday, a sufficiently large company can also view such a fine strategically: paying might be cheaper than fixing the problem. I'm less sure: fines have a way of going up a lot if national regulators believe a company is deliberately and repeatedly flouting their authority. And to any of the humans reviewing the fine - neither Page nor Brin grew up particularly wealthy, and I doubt Google pays its lawyers more than six figures - I'd bet $22.5 million still seems pretty much like real money.

On Monday, Simon Davies, the founder and former director of Privacy International, convened a meeting at the LSE to discuss this incident and its eventual impact. This was when it became clear that whatever you think about Google in particular, or online behavioral advertising in general, the questions it raises will apply widely to the increasing numbers of highly complex computer systems in all sectors. How does an organization manage complex code? What systems need to be in place to ensure that code does what it's supposed to do, no less - and no more? How do we make these systems accountable? And to whom?

The story in brief: Stanford PhD student Jonathan Mayer studies the intersection of technology and privacy, not by writing thoughtful papers studying the law but empirically, by studying what companies do and how they do it and to how many millions of people.

"This space can inherently be measured," he said on Monday. "There are wide-open policy questions that can be significantly informed by empirical measurements." So, for example, he'll look at things like what opt-out cookies actually do (not much of benefit to users, sadly), what kinds of tracking mechanisms are actually in use and by whom, and how information is being shared between various parties. As part of this, Mayer got interested in identifying the companies placing cookies in Safari; the research methodology involved buying ads that included codes enabling him to measure the cookies in place. It was this work that uncovered Google's bypassage of Safari's Do Not Track flag, which has been enabled by default since 2004. Mayer found cookies from four companies, two of which he puts down to copied and pasted circumvention code and two of which - Google and Vibrant - he were deliberate. He believes that the likely purpose of the bypass was to enable social synchronizing features (such as Google+'s "+1" button); fixing one bit of coded policy broke another.

This wasn't much consolation to Whitley, however: where are the quality controls? "It's scary when they don't really tell you that's exactly what they have chosen to do as explicitly corporate policy. Or you have a bunch of uncontrolled programmers running around in a large corporation providing software for millions of users. That's also scary."

And this is where, for me, the issue at hand jumped from the parochial to the global. In the early days of the personal computer or of the Internet, it didn't matter so much if there were software bugs and insecurities, because everything based on them was new and understood to be experimental enough that there were always backup systems. Now we're in the computing equivalent of the intermediate period in a pilot's career, which is said to be the more dangerous time: that between having flown enough to think you know it all, and having flown enough to know you never will. (John F. Kennedy, Jr, was in that window when he crashed.)

Programmers are rarely brought into these kinds of discussions, yet are the people at the coalface who must transpose human language laws, regulations, and policies into the logical precision of computer code. As Danielle Citron explains in a long and important 2007 paper, Technological Due Process, that process inevitably generates many errors. Her paper focuses primarily on several large, automated benefits systems (two of them built by EDS) where the consequences of the errors may be denying the most needy and vulnerable members of society the benefits the law intends them to receive.

As the LSE's Chrisanthi Avgerou said, these issues apply across the board, in major corporations like Google, but also in government, financial services, and so on. "It's extremely important to be able to understand how they make these decisions." Just saying, "Trust us" - especially in an industry full of as many software holes as we've seen in the last 30 years - really isn't enough.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


September 14, 2012

What did you learn in school today?

One of the more astonishing bits of news this week came from Big Brother Watch: 207 schools across Britain have placed 825 CCTV cameras in toilets or changing rooms. The survey included more than 2,000 schools, so what this is basically saying is that a tenth of the schools surveyed apparently saw nothing wrong in spying on its pupils in these most intimate situations. Overall, the survey found that English, Welsh, and Scottish secondary schools and academies have a total of 106,710 cameras overall, or an average camera-to-pupil ratio of 1:38. As a computer scientist would say, this is non-trivial.

Some added background: the mid 2000s saw the growth of fingerprinting systems for managing payments in school cafeterias, checking library books in and out, and registering attendance. In 2008, the Leave Them Kids Alone campaign, set up by a concerned parent, estimated that more than 2 million UK kids had been fingerprinted, often without the consent of their parents. The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 finally requires schools and colleges to get parental consent before collecting children's biometrics. That doesn't stop the practice but at least it establishes that these are serious decisions whose consequences need to be considered.

Meanwhile, Ruth Cousteau, the editor of the Open Rights Group's ORGzine, one of the locations where you can find net.wars every week, sends the story that a Texas school district is requiring pupils to carry RFID-enabled cards at all times while on school grounds. The really interesting element is that the real goal here is primarily and unashamedly financial, imposed on the school by its district: the school gets paid per pupil per day, and if a student isn't in homeroom when the teacher takes attendance, that's a little less money to finance the school in doing its job. The RFID cards enable the school to count the pupils who are present somewhere on the grounds but not in their seats, as if they were laptops in danger of being stolen. In the Wired write-up linked above, the school's principal seems not to see any privacy issues connecting to the fact that the school can track kids anywhere on the campus. It's good for safety. And so on.

There is constant debate about what kids should be taught in schools with respect to computers. In these discussions, the focus tends to be on what kids should be directly taught. When I covered Young Rewired State in 2011, one of the things we asked the teams I followed was about the state of computer education in their schools. Their answers: dire. Schools, apparently under the impression that their job was to train the office workforce of the previous decade, were teaching kids how to use word processors, but nothing or very little about how computers work, how to program, or how to build things.

There are signs that this particular problem is beginning to be rectified. Things like the Raspberry Pi and the Arduino, coupled with open source software, are beginning provide ways to recapture teaching in this area, essential if we are to have a next generation of computer scientists. This is all welcome stuff: teaching kids about computers by supplying them with fundamentally closed devices like iPads and Kindles is the equivalent of teaching kids sports by wheeling in a TV and playing a videotape of last Monday's US Open final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.

But here's the most telling quote from that Wired article: "The kids are used to being monitored."

Yes, they are. And when they are adults, they will also be used to being monitored. I'm not quite paranoid enough to suggest that there's a large conspiracy to "soften up" the next generation (as Terri Dowty used to put it when she was running Action for the Rights of Children), but you can have the effect whether or not you have the intent. All these trends are happening in multiple locations: in the UK, for example, there were experiments in 2007 with school uniforms with embedded RFID chips (that wouldn't work in the US, where school uniforms are a rarity); in the trial, these not only tracked students' movements but pulled up data on academic performance.

These are the lessons we are teaching these kids indirectly. We tell them that putting naked photos on Facebook is a dumb idea and may come back to bite them in the future - but simultaneously we pretend to them that their electronic school records, down to the last, tiniest infraction, pose no similar risk. We tell them that plagiarism is bad and try to teach them about copyright and copying - but real life is meanwhile teaching them that a lot of news is scraped almost directly from press releases and that cheating goes on everywhere from financial markets and sports to scientific research. And although we try to tell them that security is important, we teach them by implication that it's OK to use sensitive personal data such as fingerprints and other biometrics for relatively trivial purposes, even knowing that these data's next outing may be to protect their bank accounts and validate their passports.

We should remember: what we do to them now they will do to us when we are old and feeble, and they're the ones in charge.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series

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August 10, 2012

Wiped out

There are so many awful things in the story of what happened this week to technology journalist Matt Honan that it's hard to know where to start. The fundamental part - that through not particularly clever social engineering an outsider was able in about 20 minutes to take over and delete his Google account, take over and defame his Twitter account, and then wipe all the data on his iPhone, iPad, and MacBook - would make a fine nightmare, or maybe a movie with some of the surrealistic quality of Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985). And all, as Honan eventually learned, because the hacker fancied an outing with his three-digit Twitter ID, a threat so unexpected there's no way you'd make it your model.

Honan's first problem was the thing Suw Charman-Anderson put her finger on for an Infosecurity Magazine piece I did earlier this year: gaining access to a single email address to which every other part of your digital life - ecommerce accounts, financial accounts, social media accounts, password resets all over the Web - is locked puts you in for "a world of hurt". If you only have one email account you use for everything, given access to it, an attacker can simply request password resets all over the place - and then he has access to your accounts and you don't. There are separate problems around the fact that the information required for resets is both the kind of stuff people disclose without thinking on social networks and commonly reused. None of this requires fancy technology fix, just smarter, broader thinking

There are simple solutions to the email problem: don't use one email account for everything and, in the case of Gmail, use two-factor authentication. If you don't operate your own server (and maybe even if you do) it may be too complicated to create a separate address for every site you use, but it's easy enough to have a public address you use for correspondence, a private one you use for most of your site accounts, and then maybe a separate, even less well-known one for a few selected sites that you want to protect as much as you can.

Honan's second problem, however, is not so simple to fix unless an incident like this commands the attention of the companies concerned: the interaction of two companies' security practices that on their own probably seemed quite reasonable. The hacker needed just two small bits of information: Honan's address (sourced from the Whois record for his Internet domain name), and the last four digits of a credit card number, The hack to get the latter involved adding a credit card to Honan's Amazon.com account over the phone and then using that card number, in a second phone call, to add a new email address to the account. Finally, you do a password reset to the new email address, access the account, and find the last four digits of the cards on file - which Apple then accepted, along with the billing address, as sufficient evidence of identity to issue a temporary password into Honan's iCloud account.

This is where your eyes widen. Who knew Amazon or Apple did any of those things over the phone? I can see the point of being able to add an email address; what if you're permanently locked out of the old one? But I can't see why adding a credit card was ever useful; it's not as if Amazon did telephone ordering. And really, the two successive calls should have raised a flag.

The worst part is that even if you did know you'd likely have no way to require any additional security to block off that route to impersonators; telephone, cable, and financial companies have been securing telephone accounts with passwords for years, but ecommerce sites do not (or haven't) think of themselves as possible vectors for hacks into other services. Since the news broke, both Amazon and Apple have blocked off this phone access. But given the extraordinary number of sites we all depend on, the takeaway from this incident is that we ultimately have no clue how well any of them protect us against impersonation. How many other sites can be gamed in this way?

Ultimately, the most important thing, as Jack Schofield writes in his Guardian advice column is not to rely on one service for everything. Honan's devastation was as complete as it was because all his devices were synched through iCloud and could be remotely wiped. Yet this is the service model that Apple has and that Microsoft and Google are driving towards. The cloud is seductive in its promises: your data is always available, on all your devices, anywhere in the world. And it's managed by professionals, who will do all the stuff you never get around to, like make backups.

But that's the point: as Honan discovered to his cost, the cloud is not a backup. If all your devices are hooked to it, it is your primary data pool, and, as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak pointed out this week it is out of your control. Keep your own backups, kids. Develop multiple personalities. Be careful out there.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


June 15, 2012

A license to print money

"It's only a draft," Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, said repeatedly yesterday. He was talking about the Draft Communications Data Bill (PDF), which was published on Wednesday. Yesterday, in a room in a Parliamentary turret, Hupper convened a meeting to discuss the draft; in attendance were a variety of Parliamentarians plus experts from civil society groups such as Privacy International, the Open Rights Group, Liberty, and Big Brother Watch. Do we want to be a nation of suspects?

The Home Office characterizes the provisions in the draft bill as vital powers to help catch criminals, save lives, and protect children. Everyone else - the Guardian, ZDNet UK, and dozens more - is calling them the "Snooper's charter".

Huppert's point is important. Like the Defamation Bill before it, publishing a draft means there will be a select committee with 12 members, discussion, comments, evidence taken, a report (by November 30, 2012), and then a rewritten bill. This draft will not be voted on in Parliament. We don't have to convince 650 MPs that the bill is wrong; it's a lot easier to talk to 12 people. This bill, as is, would never pass either House in any case, he suggested.

This is the optimistic view. The cynic might suggest that since it's been clear for something like ten years that the British security services (or perhaps their civil servants) have a recurring wet dream in which their mountain of data is the envy of other governments, they're just trying to see what they can get away with. The comprehensive provisions in the first draft set the bar, softening us up to give away far more than we would have in future versions. Psychologists call this anchoring, and while probably few outside the security services would regard the wholesale surveillance and monitoring of innocent people as normal, the crucial bit is where you set the initial bar for comparison for future drafts of the legislation. However invasive the next proposals are, it will be easy for us to lose the bearings we came in with and feel that we've successfully beaten back at least some of the intrusiveness.

But Huppert is keeping his eye on the ball: maybe we can not only get the worst stuff out of this bill but make things actually better than they are now; it will amend RIPA. The Independent argues that private companies hold much more data on us overall but that article misses that this bill intends to grant government access to all of it, at any time, without notice.

The big disappointment in all this, as William Heath said yesterday, is that it marks a return to the old, bad, government IT ways of the past. We were just getting away from giant, failed public IT projects like the late unlamented NHS platform for IT and the even more unlamented ID card towards agile, cheap public projects run by smart guys who know what they're doing. And now we're going to spend £1.8 billion of public money over ten years (draft bill, p92) building something no one much wants and that probably won't work? The draft bill claims - on what authority is unclear - that the expenditure will bring in £5 to £6 billion in revenues. From what? Are they planning to sell the data?

Or are they imagining the economic growth implied by the activity that will be necessary to build, install, maintain, and update the black boxes that will be needed by every ISP in order to comply with the law. The security consultant Alec Muffet has laid out the parameters for this SpookBox 5000: certified, tested, tamperproof, made by, say, three trusted British companies. Hundreds of them, legally required, with ongoing maintenance contracts. "A license to print money," he calls them. Nice work if you can get it, of course.

So we're talking - again - about spending huge sums of government money on a project that only a handful of people want and whose objectives could be better achieved by less intrusive means. Give police better training in computer forensics, for example, so they can retrieve the evidence they need from the devices they find when executing a search warrant.

Ultimately, the real enemy is the lack of detail in the draft bill. Using the excuse that the communications environment is changing rapidly and continuously, the notes argue that flexibility is absolutely necessary for Clause 1, the one that grants the government all the actual surveillance power, and so it's been drafted to include pretty much everything, like those contracts that claim copyright in perpetuity in all forms of media that exist now or may hereinafter be invented throughout the universe. This is dangerous because in recent years the use of statutory instruments to bypass Parliamentary debate has skyrocketed. No. Make the defenders of this bill prove every contention; make them show the evidence that makes every extra bit of intrusion necessary.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


May 25, 2012

Camera obscura

There was a smoke machine running in the corner when I arrived at today's Digital Shoreditch, an afternoon considering digital identity, part of a much larger, multi-week festival. Briefly, I wondered if the organizers making a point about privacy. Apparently not; they shut it off when the talks started.

The range of speakers served as a useful reminder that the debates we in what I think of as the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy sector are rather narrowly framed around what we can practically build into software and services to protect privacy (and why so few people seem to care). We wrangle over what people post on Facebook (and what they shouldn't), or how much Google (or the NHS) knows about us and shares with other organizations.

But we don't get into matters of what kinds of lies we tell to protect our public image. Lindsey Clay, the managing director of Thinkbox, the marketing body for UK commercial TV, who kicked off an array of people talking about brands and marketing (though some of them in good causes), did a good, if unconscious, job of showing what privacy activists are up against: the entire mainstream of business is going the other way.

Sounding like Dr Gregory House, people lie in focus groups, she explained, showing a slide comparing actual TV viewer data from Sky to what those people said about what they watched. They claim to fast-forward; really, they watch ads and think about them. They claim to time-shift almost everything; really, they watch live. They claim to watch very little TV; really, they need to sign up for the SPOGO program Richard Pearey explained a little while later. (A tsk-tsk to Pearey: Tim Berners-Lee is a fine and eminent scientist, but he did not invent the Internet. He invented the *Web*.) For me, Clay is confusing "identity" with "image". My image claims to read widely instead of watching TV shows; my identity buys DVDs from Amazon..

Of course I find Clay's view of the Net dismaying - "TV provides the content for us to broadcast on our public identity channels," she said. This is very much the view of the world the Open Rights Group campaigns to up-end: consumers are creators, too, and surely we (consumers) have a lot more to talk about than just what was on TV last night.

Tony Fish, author of My Digital Footrprint, following up shortly afterwards, presented a much more cogent view and some sound practical advice. Instead of trying to unravel the enduring conundrum of trust, identity, and privacy - which he claims dates back to before Aristotle - start by working out your own personal attitude to how you'd like your data treated.

I had a plan to talk about something similar, but Fish summed up the problem of digital identity rather nicely. No one model of privacy fits all people or all cases. The models and expectations we have take various forms - which he displayed as a nice set of Venn diagrams. Underlying that is the real model, in which we have no rights. Today, privacy is a setting and trust is the challenger. The gap between our expectations and reality is the creepiness factor.

Combine that with reading a book of William Gibson's non-fiction, and you get the reflection that the future we're living in is not at all like the one we - for some value of "we" that begins with those guys who did the actual building instead of just writing commentary about it - though we might be building 20 years ago. At the time, we imagined that the future of digital identity would look something like mathematics, where the widespread use of crypto meant that authentication would proceed by a series of discrete transactions tailored to each role we wanted to play. A library subscriber would disclose different data from a driver stopped by a policeman, who would show a different set to the border guard checking passports. We - or more precisely, Phil Zimmermann and Carl Ellison - imagined a Web of trust, a peer-to-peer world in which we could all authenticate the people we know to each other.

Instead, partly because all the privacy stuff is so hard to use, even though it didn't have to be, we have a world where at any one time there are a handful of gatekeepers who are fighting for control of consumers and their computers in whatever the current paradigm is. In 1992, it was the desktop: Microsoft, Lotus, and Borland. In 1997, it was portals: AOL, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. In 2002, it was search: Google, Microsoft, and, well, probably still Yahoo!. Today, it's social media and the cloud: Google, Apple, and Facebook. In 2017, it will be - I don't know, something in the mobile world, presumably.

Around the time I began to sound like an anti-Facebook obsessive, an audience questioner made the smartest comment of the day: "In ten years Facebook may not exist." That's true. But most likely someone will have the data, probably the third-party brokers behind the scenes. In the fantasy future of 1992, we were our own brokers. If William Heath succeeds with personal data stores, maybe we still can be.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


April 24, 2012

A really fancy hammer with a gun

Is a robot more like a hammer, a monkey, or the Harley-Davidson on which he rode into town? Or try this one: what if the police program your really cute, funny robot butler (Tony Danza? Scarlett Johansson?) to ask you a question whose answer will incriminate you (and which it then relays). Is that a violation of the Fourth Amendment (protection against search and seizure) or the Fifth Amendment (you cannot be required to incriminate yourself)? Is it more like flipping a drug dealer or tampering with property? Forget science fiction, philosophy, and your inner biological supremacist; this is the sort of legal question that will be defined in the coming decade.

Making a start on this was the goal of last weekend's We Robot conference at the University of Miami Law School, organized by respected cyberlaw thinker Michael Froomkin. Robots are set to be a transformative technology, he argued to open proceedings, and cyberlaw began too late. Perhaps robotlaw is still a green enough field that we can get it right from the beginning. Engineers! Lawyers! Cross the streams!

What's the difference between a robot and a disembodied artificial intelligence? William Smart (Washington University, St Louis) summed it up nicely: "My iPad can't stab me in my bed." No: and as intimate as you may become with your iPad you're unlikely to feel the same anthropomorphic betrayal you likely would if the knife is being brandished by that robot butler above, which runs your life while behaving impeccably like it's your best friend. Smart sounds unsusceptible. "They're always going to be tools," he said. "Even if they are sophisticated and autonomous, they are always going to be toasters. I'm wary of thinking in any terms other than a really, really fancy hammer."

Traditionally, we think of machines as predictable because they respond the same way to the same input, time after time. But Smart, working with Neil Richards (University of Washinton, St Louis), points out that sensors are sensitive to distinctions analog humans can't make. A half-degree difference in temperature, or a tiny change in lighting are different conditions to a robot. To us, their behaviour will just look capricious, helping to foster that anthropomorphic response, wrongly attributing to them the moral agency necessary for guilt under the law: the "Android Fallacy".

Smart and I may be outliers. The recent Big Bang Theory episode in which the can't-talk-to-women Rajesh, entranced with Siri, dates his iPhone is hilarious because in Raj's confusion we recognize our own ability to have "relationships" with almost anything by projecting human capacities such as cognition, intent, and emotions. You could call it a design flaw (if humans had a designer), and a powerful one: people send real wedding presents to TV characters, name Liquid Robotics' Wave Gliders, and characterize sending a six-legged land mine-defusing robot that's lost a leg or two to continue work as "cruel". (Kate Darling, MIT Media Lab).

What if our rampant affection for these really fancy hammers leads us to want to give them rights? Darling asked. Or, asked Sinziana Gutiu (University of Ottawa), will sex robots like Roxxxy teach us wrong expectations of humans? (When the discussion briefly compared sex robots to pets, a Twitterer quipped, "If robots are pets is sex with them bestiality?")

Few are likely to fall in love with the avatars in the automated immigration kiosks proposed at the University of Arizona (Kristen Thomasen, University of Ottawa) with two screens, one with a robointerrogator and the other flashing images and measuring responses. Automated law enforcement, already with us in nascent form, raises a different set of issues (Lisa Shay . Historically, enforcement has never been perfect; laws only have to be "good enough" to achieve their objective, whether that's slowing traffic or preventing murder. These systems pose the same problem as electronic voting: how do we audit their decisions? In military applications, disclosure may tip off the enemy, as Woodrow Hartzog (Samford University). Yet here - and especially in medicine, where liability will be a huge issue - our traditional legal structures decide whom to punish by retracing the reasoning that led to the eventual decision. But even today's systems are already too complex.

When Hartzog asks if anyone really knows how Google or a smartphone tracks us, it reminds me of a recent conversation with Ross Anderson, the Cambridge University security engineer. In 50 years, he said, we have gone from a world whose machines could all be understood by a bright ten-year-old with access to a good library to a world with far greater access to information but full of machines whose inner workings are beyond a single person's understanding. And so: what does due process look like when only seven people understand algorithms that have consequences for the fates of millions of people? Bad enough to have the equivalent of a portable airport scanner looking for guns in New York City; what about house arrest because your butler caught you admiring Timothy Olyphant's gun on Justified?

"We got privacy wrong the last 15 years." Froomkin exclaimed, putting that together. "Without a strong 'home as a fortress right' we risk a privacy future with an interrogator-avatar-kiosk from hell in every home."

The problem with robots isn't robots. The problem is us. As usual, Pogo had it right.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


April 13, 2012

The people perimeter

People with jobs are used to a sharp division between their working lives and their private lives. Even in these times, when everyone carries a mobile phone and may be on call at any moment, they still tend to believe that what they say to their friends is no concern of their employer's. (Freelances tend not to have these divisions; to a much larger extent we have always been "in public" most of the time.)

These divisions were always less in small towns, where teachers or clergy had little latitude, and where even less-folk would be well advised to leave town before doing anything they wouldn't want discussed in detail. Then came social media, which turns everywhere into a small town and where even if you behave impeccably details about you and your employer may be exposed without your knowledge.

That's all a roundabout way of leading to yesterday's London Tea camp, where the subject of discussion was developing guidelines for social media use by civil servants.

Civil servants! The supposedly faceless functionaries who, certainly at the senior levels, are probably still primarily understood by most people through the fictional constructs of TV shows like Yes, Minister and The Thick of It. All of the 50 or 60 people from across government who attended yesterday have Twitter IDs; they're on Facebook and Foursquare, and probably a few dozen other things that would horrify Sir Humphrey. And that's as it should be: the people administering the nation's benefits, transport, education, and health absolutely should live like the people they're trying to serve. That's how you get services that work for us rather than against us.

The problem with social media is the same as their benefit: they're public in a new and different way. Even if you never identify your employer, Foursquare or the geotagging on Twitter or Facebook checks you in at a postcode that's indelibly identified with the very large government building where your department is the sole occupant. Or a passerby photographs you in front of it and Facebook helpfully tags your photograph with your real name, which then pops up in outside searches. Or you say something to someone you know who tells someone else who posts it online for yet another person to identify and finally the whole thing comes back and bites you in the ass. Even if your Tweets are clearly personal, and even if your page says, "These are just my personal opinions and do not reflect those of my employer", the fact of where you can be deduced to work risks turning anything connected to you into something a - let's call it - excitable journalist can make into a scandal. Context is king.

What's new about this is the uncontrollable exposure of this context. Any Old Net Curmudgeon will tell you that the simple fact of people being caught online doing things their employers don't like goes back to the dawn of online services. Even now I'm sure someone dedicated could find appalling behavior in the Usenet archives by someone who is, 25 years on, a highly respected member of society. But Usenet was a minority pastime; Facebook, Twitter et al are mainstream.

Lots has been written by and about employers in this situation: they may suffer reputational damage, legal liability, or a breach that endangers their commercial secrets. Not enough has been written about individuals struggling to cope with sudden, unwanted exposure. Don't we have the right to private lives? someone asked yesterday. What they are experiencing is the same loss of border control that security engineers are trying to cope with. They call it "deperimeterization", because security used to mean securing the perimeter of your network and now security means coping with its loss. Adding wireless, remote access for workers at home, personal devices such as mobile phones, and links to supplier and partner networks have all blown holes in it.

There is no clear perimeter any more for networks - or individuals, either. Trying to secure one by dictating behavior, whether by education, leadership by example, or written guidelines, is inevitably doomed. There is, however, a very valid reason to have these things: to create a general understanding between employer and employee. It should be clear to all sides what you can and cannot get fired for.

In 2003, Danny O'Brien nailed a lot of this when he wrote about the loss of what he called the "private-intermediate sphere". In that vanishing country, things were private without being secret. You could have a conversation in a pub with strangers walking by and be confident that it would reach only the audience present at the time and that it would not unexpectedly be replayed or published later (see also Don Harmon and Chevy Chase's voicemail). Instead, he wrote, the Net is binary: secret or public, no middle ground.

What's at stake here is really not private life, but *social* life. It's the addition of the online component to our social lives that has torn holes in our personal perimeters.

"We'll learn a kind of tolerance for the private conversation that is not aimed at us, and that overreacting to that tone will be a sign of social naivete," O'Brien predicted. Maybe. For now, hard cases make bad law (and not much better guidelines) *First* cases are almost always hard cases.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


March 9, 2012

Private parts

In 1995, when the EU Data Protection Directive was passed, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was 11 years old. Google was three years away from incorporation. Amazon.com was a year old and losing money fast enough to convince many onlookers that it would never be profitable; the first online banner ads were only months old. It was the year eBay and Yahoo! were founded and Netscape went public. This is how long ago it was: CompuServe was a major player in online services, AOL was just setting up its international services, and both of them were still funded by per-minute usage fees.

In other words: even when it was published there were no Internet companies whose business models depended on exploiting user data. During the years it was being drafted only posers and rich people owned mobile phone, selling fax machines was a good business, and women were still wearing leggings the *first* time. It's impressive that the basic principles formulated then have held up well. Practice, however, has been another matter.

The discussions that led to the publication in January of of a package of reforms to the data protection rules began in 2008. Discussions among data protection commissioners, Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor, said at Thursday's Westminster eForum on data protection and electronic privacy, produced a consensus that changes were needed, including making controllers more accountable, increasing "privacy by design", and making data protection a top-level issue for corporate governance.

These aren't necessarily the issues that first spring to mind for privacy advocates, particularly in the UK, where many have complained that the Information Commissioner's Office has failed. (It was, for example, out of step with the rest of the world with respect to Google's Street View.) Privacy International has a long history of complaints about the ICO's operation. But even the EU hasn't performed as well as citizens might hope under the present regime: PI also exposed the transfer of SWIFT financial data to the US, while Edward Hasbrouck has consistently and publicly opposed the transfer of passenger name record data from the EU to the US.

Hustinx has published a comprehensive opinion of the reform package. The details of both the package itself and the opinion require study. But some of the main points are an effort to implement a single regime and the rights to erasure (aka the right to be forgotten), require breach notification within 24 hours of discovery, strengthen the data protection authorities and make them more accountable.

Of course, everyone has a complaint. The UK's deputy information commissioner, David Smith, complained that the package is too prescriptive of details and focuses on paperwork rather than privacy risk. Lord McNally, Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, complained that the proposed fines of up to 2 percent of global corporate income are disproportionate and that 24 hours is too little time. Hustinx outlined his main difficulties: that the package has gaps, most notably surrounding the transfer of telephone data to law enforcement; that fines should be discretionary and proportionate rather than compulsory; and that there remain difficulties in dealing with national and EU laws.

We used to talk about the way the Internet enabled the US to export the First Amendment. You could, similarly, see the data protection laws as the EU's effort to export privacy rules; a key element is the prohibition on transferring data to countries without similar regimes - which is why the SWIFT and PNR cases were so problematic. In 1999, for a piece that's now behind Scientific American's paywall, PI's Simon Davies predicted that US companies might find themselves unable to trade in Europe because of data flows. Big questions, therefore, revolve around the business corporate rules, which allow companies to transfer data to third countries without equivalent data protection as long as the data stays within their corporate boundaries.

The arguments over data protection law have a lot in common with the arguments over copyright. In both cases, the goal is to find a balance of power between competing interests that keeps individuals from being squashed. Also like copyright, data protection policy is such a dry and esoteric subject that it's hard to get non-specialists engaged with it. Hard, but not impossible: copyright has never had a George Orwell to make the dangers up close and personal. Copyright law began, Lawrence Lessig argued in (I think it was) Free Culture, as a way to curb the power of publishers (although by now it has ended up greatly empowering them). Similarly while most of us may think of data protection law as protecting the abuse of personal data, a voice argued from the floor yesterday that the law was originally drafted to enable free data transfers within the single market.

There is another similarity. Rightsholders and government policymakers often talk as though the population-at-large are consumers, not creators in their own right. Similarly, yesterday, Mydex's David Alexander had this objection to make: "We seem to keep forgetting that humans are not just subjects, but participants in the management of their own personal data...Why can't we be participants?"


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


January 27, 2012

Principle failure

The right to access, correct, and delete personal information held about you and the right to bar data collected for one purpose from being reused for another are basic principles of the data protection laws that have been the norm in Europe since the EU adopted the Privacy Directive in 1995. This is the Privacy Directive that is currently being updated; the European Commission's proposals seem, inevitably, to please no one. Businesses are already complaining compliance will be unworkable or too expensive (hey, fines of up to 2 percent of global income!). I'm not sure consumers should be all that happy either; I'd rather have the right to be anonymous than to be forgotten (which I believe will prove technically unworkable), and the jurisdiction for legal disputes with a company to be set to my country rather than theirs. Much debate lies ahead.

In the meantime, the importance of the data protection laws has been enhanced by Google's announcement this week that it will revise and consolidate the more than 60 privacy policies covering its various services "to create one beautifully simple and intuitive experience across Google". It will, the press release continues, be "Tailored for you". Not the privacy policy, of course, which is a one-size-fits-all piece of corporate lawyer ass-covering, but the services you use, which, after the fragmented data Google holds about you has been pooled into one giant liquid metal Terminator, will be transformed into so-much-more personal helpfulness. Which would sound better if 2011 hadn't seen loud warnings about the danger that personalization will disappear stuff we really need to know: see Eli Pariser's filter bubble and Jeff Chester's worries about the future of democracy.

Google is right that streamlining and consolidating its myriad privacy policies is a user-friendly thing to do. Yes, let's have a single policy we can read once and understand. We hate reading even one privacy policy, let alone 60 of them.

But the furore isn't about that, it's about the single pool of data. People do not use Google Docs in order to improve their search results; they don't put up Google+ pages and join circles in order to improve the targeting of ads on YouTube. This is everything privacy advocates worried about when Gmail was launched.

Australian privacy campaigner Roger Clarke's discussion document sets out the principles that the decision violates: no consultation, retroactive application; no opt out.

Are we evil yet?

In his 2011 book, In the Plex, Steven Levy traces the beginnings of a shift in Google's views on how and when it implements advertising to the company's controversial purchase of the DoubleClick advertising network, which relied on cookies and tracking to create targeted ads based on Net users' browsing history. This $3.1 billion purchase was huge enough to set off anti-trust alarms. Rightly so. Levy writes, "...sometime after the process began, people at the company realized that they were going to wind up with the Internet-tracking equivalent of the Hope Diamond: an omniscient cookie that no other company could match." Between DoubleClick's dominance in display advertising on large, commercial Web sites and Google AdSense's presence on millions of smaller sites, the company could track pretty much all Web users. "No law prevented it from combining all that information into one file," Levy writes, adding that Google imposed limits, in that it didn't use blog postings, email, or search behavior in building those cookies.

Levy notes that Google spends a lot of time thinking about privacy, but quotes founder Larry Page as saying that the particular issues the public chooses to get upset about seem randomly chosen, the reaction determined most often by the first published headline about a particular product. This could well be true - or it may also be a sign that Page and Brin, like Facebook's Mark Zuckberg and some other Silicon Valley technology company leaders, are simply out of step with the public. Maybe the reactions only seem random because Page and Brin can't identify the underlying principles.

In blending its services, the issue isn't solely privacy, but also the long-simmering complaint that Google is increasingly favoring its own services in its search results - which would be a clear anti-trust violation. There, the traditional principle is that dominance in one market (search engines) should not be leveraged to achieve dominance in another (social networking, video watching, cloud services, email).

SearchEngineLand has a great analysis of why Google's Search Plus is such a departure for the company and what it could have done had it chosen to be consistent with its historical approach to search results. Building on the "Don't Be Evil" tool built by Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, among others, SEL demonstrates the gaps that result from Google's choices here, and also how the company could have vastly improved its service to its search customers.

What really strikes me in all this is that the answer to both the EU issues and the Google problem may be the same: the personal data store that William Heath has been proposing for three years. Data portability and interoperability, check; user control, check. But that is as far from the Web 2.0 business model as file-sharing is from that of the entertainment industry.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


January 6, 2012

Only the paranoid

Yesterday's news that the Ramnit worm has harvested the login credentials of 45,000 British and French Facebook users seems to me a watershed moment for Facebook. If I were an investor, I'd wish I had already cashed out. Indications are, however, that founding CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in it for the long haul, in which case he's going to have to find a solution to a particularly intractable problem: how to protect a very large mass of users from identity fraud when his entire business is based on getting them to disclose as much information about themselves as possible.

I have long complained about Facebook's repeatedly changing privacy controls. This week, while working on a piece on identity fraud for Infosecurity, I've concluded that the fundamental problem with Facebook's privacy controls is not that they're complicated, confusing, and time-consuming to configure. The problem with Facebook's privacy controls is that they exist.

In May 2010, Zuckerberg enraged a lot of people, including me, by opining that privacy is no longer a social norm. As Judith Rauhofer has observed, the world's social norms don't change just because some rich geeks in California say so. But the 800 million people on Facebook would arguably be much safer if the service didn't promise privacy - like Twitter. Because then people wouldn't post all those intimate details about themselves: their kids' pictures, their drunken, sex exploits, their incitements to protest, their porn star names, their birth dates... Or if they did, they'd know they were public.

Facebook's core privacy problem is a new twist on the problem Microsoft has: legacy users. Apple was willing to make earlier generations of its software non-functional in the shift to OS X. Microsoft's attention to supporting legacy users allows me to continue to run, on Windows 7, software that was last updated in 1997. Similarly, Facebook is trying to accommodate a wide variety of privacy expectations, from those of people who joined back when membership was limited to a few relatively constrained categories to those of people joining today, when the system is open to all.

Facebook can't reinvent itself wholesale: it is wholly and completely wrong to betray users who post information about themselves into what they are told is a semi-private space by making that space irredeemably public. The storm every time Facebook makes a privacy-related change makes that clear. What the company has done exceptionally well is to foster the illusion of a private space despite the fact that, as the Australian privacy advocate Roger Clarke observed in 2003, collecting and abusing user data is social networks' only business model.

Ramnit takes this game to a whole new level. Malware these days isn't aimed at doing cute, little things like making hard drive failure noises or sending all the letters on your screen tumbling into a heap at the bottom. No, it's aimed at draining your bank account and hijacking your identity for other types of financial exploitation.

To do this, it needs to find a way inside the circle of trust. On a computer network, that means looking for an unpatched hole in software to leverage. On the individual level, it means the malware equivalent of viral marketing: get one innocent bystander to mistakenly tell all their friends. We've watched this particular type of action move through a string of vectors as the human action moves to get away from spam: from email to instant messaging to, now, social networks. The bigger Facebok gets, the bigger a target it becomes. The more information people post on Facebook - and the more their friends and friends of friends friend promiscuously - the greater the risk to each individual.

The whole situation is exacerbated by endemic, widespread, poor security practices. Asking people to provide the same few bits of information for back-up questions in case they need a password reset. Imposing password rules that practically guarantee people will use and reuse the same few choices on all their sites. Putting all the eggs in services that are free at point of use and that you pay for in unobtainable customer service (not to mention behavioral targeting and marketing) when something goes wrong. If everything is locked to one email account on a server you do not control, if your security questions could be answered by a quick glance at your Facebook Timeline and a Google search, if you bank online and use the same passwords throughout...you have a potential catastrophe in waiting.

I realize not everyone can run their own mail server. But you can use multiple, distinct email addresses and passwords, you can create unique answers on the reset forms, and you can limit your exposure by presuming that everything you post *is* public, whether the service admits it or not. Your goal should be to ensure that when - it's no longer safe to say "if" - some part of your online life is hacked the damage can be contained to that one, hopefully small, piece. Relying on the privacy consciousness of friends means you can't eliminate the risk; but you can limit the consequences.

Facebook is facing an entirely different risk: that people, alarmed at the thought of being mugged, will flee elsewhere. It's happened before.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

December 23, 2011

Duck amuck

Back in about 1998, a couple of guys looking for funding for their start-up were asked this: How could anyone compete with Yahoo! or Altavista?

"Ten years ago, we thought we'd love Google forever," a friend said recently. Yes, we did, and now we don't.

It's a year and a bit since I began divorcing Google. Ducking the habit is harder than those "They have no lock-in" financial analysts thought when Google went public: as if habit and adaptation were small things. Easy to switch CTRL-K in Firefox to DuckDuckGo, significantly hard to unlearn ten years of Google's "voice".

When I tell this to Gabriel Weinberg, the guy behind DDG - his recent round of funding lets him add a few people to experiment with different user interfaces and redo DDG's mobile application - he seems to understand. He started DDG, he told The Rise to the Top last year, because of Google's increasing amount of spam. Frustration made him think: for many queries wouldn't searching just Delicio.us and Wikipedia produce better results? Since his first weekend mashing that up, DuckDuckGo has evolved to include over 50 sources.

"When you type in a query there's generally a vertical search engine or data source out there that would best serve your query," he says, "and the hard problem is matching them up based on the limited words you type in." When DDG can make a good guess at identifying such a source - such as, say, the National Institutes of Health - it puts that result at the top. This is a significant hint: now, in DDG searches, I put the site name first, where on Google I put it last. Immediate improvement.

This approach gives Weinberg a new problem, a higher-order version of the Web's broken links: as companies reorganize, change, or go out of business, the APIs he relies on vanish.

Identifying the right source is harder than it sounds, because the long tail of queries require DDG to make assumptions about what's wanted.

"The first 80 percent is easy to capture," Weinberg says. "But the long tail is pretty long."

As Ken Auletta tells it in Googled, the venture capitalist Ram Shriram advised Sergey Brin and Larry Page to sell their technology to Yahoo! or maybe Infoseek. But those companies were not interested: the thinking then was portals and keeping site visitors stuck as long as possible on the pages advertisers were paying for, while Brin and Page wanted to speed visitors away to their desired results. It was only when Shriram heard that, Auletta writes, that he realized that baby Google was disruptive technology. So I ask Weinberg: can he make a similar case for DDG?

"It's disruptive to take people more directly to the source that matters," he says. "We want to get rid of the traditional user interface for specific tasks, such as exploring topics. When you're just researching and wanting to find out about a topic there are some different approaches - kind of like clicking around Wikipedia."

Following one thing to another, without going back to a search engine...sounds like my first view of the Web in 1991. But it also sounds like some friends' notion of after-dinner entertainment, where they start with one word in the dictionary and let it lead them serendipitously from word to word and book to book. Can that strategy lead to new knowledge?

"In the last five to ten years," says Weinberg, "people have made these silos of really good information that didn't exist when the Web first started, so now there's an opportunity to take people through that information." If it's accessible, that is. "Getting access is a challenge," he admits.

There is also the frontier of unstructured data: Google searches the semi-structured Web by imposing a structure on it - its indexes. By contrast, Mike Lynch's Autonomy, which just sold to Hewlett-Packard for £10 billion, uses Bayesian logic to search unstructured data, which is what most companies have.

"We do both," says Weinberg. "We like to use structured data when possible, but a lot of stuff we process is unstructured."

Google is, of course, a moving target. For me, its algorithms and interface are moving in two distinct directions, both frustrating. The first is Wal-Mart: stuff most people want. The second is the personalized filter bubble. I neither want nor trust either. I am more like the scientists Linguamatics serves: its analytic software scans hundreds of journals to find hidden links suggesting new avenues of research.

Anyone entering a category that's as thoroughly dominated by a single company as search is now, is constantly asked: How can you possibly compete with ? Weinberg must be sick of being asked about competing with Google. And he'd be right, because it's the wrong question. The right question is, how can he build a sustainable business? He's had some sponsorship while his user numbers are relatively low (currently 7 million searches a month) and, eventually, he's talked about context-based advertising - yet he's also promising little spam and privacy - no tracking. Now, that really would be disruptive.

So here's my bet. I bet that DuckDuckGo outlasts Groupon as a going concern. Merry Christmas.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


December 16, 2011

Location, location, location

In the late 1970s, I used to drive across the United States several times a year (I was a full-time folksinger), and although these were long, long days at the wheel, there were certain perks. One was the feeling that the entire country was my backyard. The other was the sense that no one in the world knew exactly where I was. It was a few days off from the pressure of other people.

I've written before that privacy is not sleeping alone under a tree but being able to do ordinary things without fear. Being alone on an interstate crossing Oklahoma wasn't to hide some nefarious activity (like learning the words to "There Ain't No Instant Replay in the Football Game of Life"). Turn off the radio and, aside from an occasional billboard, the world was quiet.

Of course, that was also a world in which making a phone call was a damned difficult thing to do, which is why professional drivers all had CB radios. Now, everyone has mobile phones, and although your nearest and dearest may not know where you are, your phone company most certainly does, and to a very fine degree of "granularity".

I imagine normal human denial is broad enough to encompass pretending you're in an unknown location while still receiving text messages. Which is why this year's A Fine Balance focused on location privacy.

The travel privacy campaigner Edward Hasbrouck has often noted that travel data is particularly sensitive and revealing in a way few realize. Travel data indicate your religion (special meals), medical problems, and life style habits affecting your health (choosing a smoking room in a hotel). Travel data also shows who your friends are, and how close: who do you travel with? Who do you share a hotel room with, and how often?

Location data is travel data on a steady drip of steroids. As Richard Hollis, who serves on the ISACA Government and Regulatory Advocacy Subcommittee, pointed out, location data is in fact travel data - except that instead of being detailed logging of exceptional events it's ubiquitous logging of everything you do. Soon, he said, we will not be able to opt out - and instead of travel data being a small, sequestered, unusually revealing part of our lives, all our lives will be travel data.

Location data can reveal the entire pattern of your life. Do you visit a church every Monday evening that has an AA meeting going on in the basement? Were you visiting the offices of your employer's main competitor when you were supposed to have a doctor's appointment?

Research supports this view. Some of the earliest work I'm aware of is of Alberto Escudero-Pascual. A month-long experiment tracking the mobile phones in his department enabled him to diagram all the intra-departmental personal relations. In a 2002 paper, he suggests how to anonymize location information (PDF). The problem: no business wants anonymization. As Hollis and others said, businesses want location data. Improved personalization depends on context, and location provides a lot of that.

Patrick Walshe, the director of privacy for the GSM Association, compared the way people care about privacy to the way they care about their health: they opt for comfort and convenience and hope for the best. They - we - don't make changes until things go wrong. This explains why privacy considerations so often fail and privacy advocates despair: guarding your privacy is like eating your vegetables, and who except a cranky person plans their meals that way?

The result is likely to be the world that Microsoft UK's director of Search, advertising, and online UK, Dave Coplin, outlined, arguing that privacy today is at the turning point that the Melissa virus represented for security 11 years ago when it first hit.

Calling it "the new battleground," he said, "This is what happens when everything is connected." Similarly, Blaine Price, a senior lecturer in computing at the Open University, had this cheering thought: as humans become part of the Internet of Things, data leakage will become almost impossible to avoid.

Network externalities mean that the number of people using a network increase its value for all other users of that network. What about privacy externalities? I haven't heard the phrase before, although I see it's not new (PDF). But I mean something different than those papers do: the fact that we talk about privacy as an individual choice when instead it's a collaborative effort. A single person who says, "I don't care about my privacy" can override the pro-privacy decisions of dozens of their friends, family, and contacts. "I'm having dinner with @wendyg," someone blasts, and their open attitude to geolocation reveals mine.

In his research on tracking, Price has found that the more closely connected the trackers are the less control they have over such decisions. I may worry that turning on a privacy block will upset my closest friend; I don't obsess at night, "Will the phone company think I'm mad at it?"

So: you want to know where I am right now? Pay no attention to the geolocated Twitterer who last night claimed to be sitting in her living room with "wendyg". That wasn't me.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

November 11, 2011

The sentiment of crowds

Context is king.

Say to a human, "I'll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time," and they'll show up at the right place. That's from the 1987 movieBroadcast News: Aaron (Albert Brooks) says it; cut to Jane (Holly Hunter), awaiting him at a table.

But what if Jane were a computer and what she wanted to know from Aaron's statement was not where to meet but how Aaron felt about it? This is the challenge facing sentiment analysis.

At Wednesday's Sentiment Analysis Symposium, the key question of context came up over and over again as the biggest challenge to the industry of people who claim that they can turn Tweets, blog postings, news stories, and other mass data sources into intelligence.

So context: Jane can parse "the place", "the thing", and "that time" because she has expert knowledge of her past with Aaron. It's an extreme example, but all human writing makes assumptions about the knowledge and understanding of the reader. Humans even use those assumptions to implement privacy in a public setting: Stephen Fry could retweet Aaron's words and still only Jane would find the cafe. If Jane is a large organization seeking to understand what people are saying about it and Aaron is 6 million people posting on Twitter, Tom can use sentiment analyzer tools to give a numerical answer. And numbers always inspire confidence...

My first encounter with sentiment analysis was this summer during Young Rewired State, when a team wanted to create a mood map of the UK comparing geolocated tweets to indices of multiple deprivation. This third annual symposium shows that here is a rapidly engorging industry, part PR, part image consultancy, and part artificial intelligence research project.

I was drawn to it out of curiosity, but also because it all sounds slightly sinister. What do sentiment analyzers understand when I say an airline lounge at Heathrow Terminal 4 "brings out my inner Sheldon? What is at stake is not precise meaning - humans argue over the exact meaning of even the greatest communicators - but extracting good-enough meaning from high-volume data streams written by millions of not-monkeys.

What could possibly go wrong? This was one of the day's most interesting questions, posed by the consultant Meta Brown to representatives of the Red Cross, the polling organization Harris Interactive, and Paypal. Failure to consider the data sources and the industry you're in, said the Red Cross's Banafsheh Ghassemi. Her example was the period just after Hurricane Irene, when analyzing social media sentiment would find it negative. "It took everyday disaster language as negative," she said. In addition, because the Red Cross's constituency is primarily older, social media are less indicative than emails and call center records. For many organizations, she added, social media tend to skew negative.

Earlier this year, Harris Interactive's Carol Haney, who has had to kill projects when they failed to produce sufficiently accurate results for the client, told a conference, "Sentiment analysis is the snake oil of 2011." Now, she said, "I believe it's still true to some extent. The customer has a commercial need for a dial pointing at a number - but that's not really what's being delivered. Over time you can see trends and significant change in sentiment, and when that happens I feel we're returning value to a customer because it's not something they received before and it's directionally accurate and giving information." But very small changes over short time scales are an unreliable basis for making decisions.

"The difficulty in social media analytics is you need a good idea of the questions you're asking to get good results," says Shlomo Argamon, whose research work seems to raise more questions than answers. Look at companies that claim to measure influence. "What is influence? How do you know you're measuring that or to what it correlates in the real world?" he asks. Even the notion that you can classify texts into positive and negative is a "huge simplifying assumption".

Argamon has been working on technology to discern from written text the gender and age - and perhaps other characteristics - of the author, a joint effort with his former PhD student Ken Bloom. When he says this, I immediately want to test him with obscure texts.

Is this stuff more or less creepy than online behavioral advertising? Han-Sheong Lai explained that Paypal uses sentiment analysis to try to glean the exact level of frustration of the company's biggest clients when they threaten to close their accounts. How serious are they? How much effort should the company put into dissuading them? Meanwhile Verint's job is to analyze those "This call may be recorded" calls. Verint's tools turn speech to text, and create color voiceprint maps showing the emotional high points. Click and hear the anger.

"Technology alone is not the solution," said Philip Resnik, summing up the state of the art. But, "It supports human insight in ways that were not previously possible." His talk made me ask: if humans obfuscate their data - for example, by turning off geolocation - will this industry respond by finding ways to put it all back again so the data will be more useful?

"It will be an arms race," he agrees. "Like spam."

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

November 4, 2011

The identity layer

This week, the UK government announced a scheme - Midata - under which consumers will be able to reclaim their personal information. The same day, the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation assembled a group of experts to ask what the business model for online identification should be. And: whatever that model is, what the the government's role should be. (For background, here's the previous such discussion.)

My eventual thought was that the government's role should be to set standards; it might or might not also be an identity services provider. The government's inclination now is to push this job to the private sector. That leaves the question of how to serve those who are not commercially interesting; at the CSFI meeting the Post Office seemed the obvious contender for both pragmatic and historical reasons.

As Mike Bracken writes in the Government Digital Service blog posting linked above, the notion of private identity providers is not new. But what he seems to assume is that what's needed is federated identity - that is, in Wikipedia's definition, a means for linking a person's electronic identity and attributes across multiple distinct systems. What I meant is a system in which one may have many limited identities that are sufficiently interoperable that you can make a choice which to use at the point of entry to a given system. We already have something like this on many blogs, where commenters may be offered a choice of logging in via Google, OpenID, or simply posting a name and URL.

The government gateway circa Year 2000 offered a choice: getting an identity certificate required payment of £50 to, if I remember correctly, Experian or Equifax, or other companies whose interest in preserving personal privacy is hard to credit. The CSFI meeting also mentioned tScheme - an industry consortium to provide trust services. Outside of relatively small niches it's made little impact. Similarly, fifteen years ago, the government intended, as part of implementing key escrow for strong cryptography, to create a network of trusted third parties that it would license and, by implication, control. The intention was that the TTPs should be folks that everyone trusts - like banks. Hilarious, we said *then*. Moving on.

In between then and now, the government also mooted a completely centralized identity scheme - that is, the late, unlamented ID card. Meanwhile, we've seen the growth a set of competing American/global businesses who all would like to be *the* consumer identity gateway and who managed to steal first-mover advantage from existing financial institutions. Facebook, Google, and Paypal are the three most obvious. Microsoft had hopes, perhaps too early, when in 1999 it created Passport (now Windows Live ID). More recently, it was the home for Kim Cameron's efforts to reshape online identity via the company's now-cancelled CardSpace, and Brendon Lynch's adoption of U-Prove, based on Stefan Brands' technology. U-Prove is now being piloted in various EU-wide projects. There are probably lots of other organizations that would like to get in on such a scheme, if only because of the data and linkages a federated system would grant them. Credit card companies, for example. Some combination of mobile phone manufacturers, mobile network operators, and telcos. Various medical outfits, perhaps.

An identity layer that gives fair and reasonable access to a variety of players who jointly provide competition and consumer choice seems like a reasonable goal. But it's not clear that this is what either the UK's distastefully spelled "Midata" or the US's NSTIC (which attracted similar concerns when first announced, has in mind. What "federated identity" sounds like is the convenience of "single sign-on", which is great if you're working in a company and need to use dozens of legacy systems. When you're talking about identity verification for every type of transaction you do in your entire life, however, a single gateway is a single point of failure and, as Stephan Engberg, founder of the Danish company Priway, has often said, a single point of control. It's the Facebook cross-all-the-streams approach, embedded everywhere. Engberg points to a discussion paper) inspired by two workshops he facilitated for the Danish National IT and Telecom Agency (NITA) in late 2010 that covers many of these issues.

Engberg, who describes himself as a "purist" when it comes to individual sovereignty, says the only valid privacy-protecting approach is to ensure that each time you go online on each device you start a new session that is completely isolated from all previous sessions and then have the choice of sharing whatever information you want in the transaction at hand. The EU's LinkSmart project, which Engberg was part of, created middleware to do precisely that. As sensors and RFID chips spread along with IPv6, which can give each of them its own IP address, linkages across all parts of our lives will become easier and easier, he argues.

We've seen often enough that people will choose convenience over complexity. What we don't know is what kind of technology will emerge to help us in this case. The devil, as so often, will be in the details.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

October 28, 2011

Crypto: the revenge

I recently had occasion to try out Gnu Privacy Guard, the Free Software Foundation's version of PGP, Phil Zimmermann's legendary Pretty Good Privacy software. It was the first time I'd encrypted an email message since about 1995, and I was both pleasantly surprised and dismayed.

First, the good. Public key cryptography is now implemented exactly the way it should have been all along: once you've installed it and generated a keypair, encrypting a message is ticking a box or picking a menu item inside your email software. Even key management is handled by a comprehensible, well-designed graphical interface. Several generations of hard work have created this and also ensured that the various versions of PGP, OpenPGP, and GPG are interoperable, so you don't have to worry about who's using what. Installation was straightforward and the documentation is good.

Now, the bad. That's where the usability stops. There are so many details you can get wrong to mess the whole thing up that if this stuff were a form of contraception desperate parents would be giving babies away on street corners.

Item: the subject line doesn't get encrypted. There is nothing you can do about this except put a lot of thought into devising a subject line that will compel people to read the message but that simultaneously does not reveal anything of value to anyone monitoring your email. That's a neat trick.

Item: watch out for attachments, which are easily accidentally sent in the clear; you need to encrypt them separately before bundling them into the message.

Item: while there is a nifty GPG plug-in for Thunderbird - Enigmail - Outlook, being commercial software, is less easily supported. GPG's GpgOL module works only with 2003 (SP2 and above) and 2007, and not on 64-bit Windows. The problem is that it's hard enough to get people to change *one* habit, let alone several.

Item: lacking appropriate browser plug-ins, you also have to tell them to stop using Webmail if the service they're used to won't support IMAP or POP3, because they won't be able to send encrypted mail or read what others send them over the Web.

Let's say you're running a field station in a hostile area. You can likely get users to persevere despite these points by telling them that this is their work system, for use in the field. Most people will put up with a some inconvenience if they're being paid to do so and/or it's temporary and/or you scare them sufficiently. But that strategy violates one of the basic principles of crypto-culture, which is that everyone should be encrypting everything so that sensitive traffic doesn't stand out. They are of course completely right, just as they were in 1993, when the big political battles over crypto were being fought.

Item: when you connect to a public keyserver to check or download someone's key, that connection is in the clear, so anyone surveilling you can see who you intend to communicate with.

Item: you're still at risk with regard to traffic data. This is what RIPA and data retention are all about. What's more significant? Being able to read a message that says, "Can you buy milk?" or the information that the sender and receiver of that message correspond 20 times a day? Traffic data reveals the pattern of personal relationships; that's why law enforcement agencies want it. PGP/GPG won't hide that for you; instead, you'll need to set up a proxy or use Tor to mix up your traffic and also protect your Web browsing, instant messaging, and other online activities. As Tor's own people admit, it slows performance, although they're working on it (PDF).

All this says we're still a long way from a system that the mass market will use. And that's a damn shame, because we genuinely need secure communications. Like a lot of people in the mid-1990s, I'd have thought that by now encrypted communications would be the norm. And yet not only is SSL, which protects personal details in transit to ecommerce and financial services sites, the only really mass-market use, but it's in trouble. Partly, this is because of the technical issues raised in the linked article - too many certification authorities, too many points of failure - but it's also partly because hardly anyone understands how to check that a certificate is valid or knows what to do when warnings pop up that it's expired or issued for a different name. The underlying problem is that many of the people who like crypto see it as both a cool technology and a cause. For most of us, it's just more fussy software. The big advance since the mid 1990s is that at least now the *developers* will use it.

Maybe mobile phones will be the thing that makes crypto work the way it should. See, for example, Dave Birch's current thinking on the future of identity. We've been arguing about how to build an identity infrastructure for 20 years now. Crypto is clearly the mechanism. But we still haven't solved the how.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

July 29, 2011

Name check

How do you clean a database? The traditional way - which I still experience from time to time from journalist directories - is that some poor schnook sits in an office and calls everyone on the list, checking each detail. It's an immensely tedious job, I'm sure, but it's a living.

The new, much cheaper method is to motivate the people in the database to do it themselves. A government can pass a law and pay benefits. Amazon expects the desire to receive the goods people have paid for to be sufficient. For a social network it's a little harder, yet Facebook has managed to get 750 million users to upload varying amounts of information. Google hopes people will do the same with Google+,

The emotional connections people make on social networks obscure their basic nature as databases. When you think of them in that light, and you remember that Google's chief source of income is advertising, suddenly Google's culturally dysfunctional decision to require real names on |Google+ makes some sense. For an advertising company,a fuller, cleaner database is more valuable and functional. Google's engineers most likely do not think in terms of improving the company's ability to serve tightly targeted ads - but I'd bet the company's accountants and strategists do. The justification - that online anonymity fosters bad behavior - is likely a relatively minor consideration.

Yet it's the one getting the attention, despite the fact that many people seem confused about the difference between pseudonymity, anonymity, and throwaway identity. In the reputation-based economy the Net thrives on, this difference matters.

The best-known form of pseudonymity is the stage name, essentially a form of branding for actors, musicians, writers, and artists, who may have any of a number of motives for keeping their professional lives separate from their personal lives: privacy for themselves, their work mates, or their families, or greater marketability. More subtly, if you have a part-time artistic career and a full-time day job you may not want the two to mix: will people take you seriously as an academic psychologist if they know you're also a folksinger? All of those reasons for choosing a pseudonym apply on the Net, where everything is a somewhat public performance. Given the harassment some female bloggers report, is it any wonder they might feel safer using a pseudonym?

The important characteristic of pseudonyms, which they share with "real names", is persistence. When you first encounter someone like GrrlScientist, you have no idea whether to trust her knowledge and expertise. But after more than ten years of blogging, that name is a known quantity. As GrrlScientist writes about Google's shutting down her account, it is her "real-enough" name by any reasonable standard. What's missing is the link to a portion of her identity - the name on her tax return, or the one her mother calls her. So what?

Anonymity has long been contentious on the Net; the EU has often considered whether and how to ban it. At the moment, the driving justification seems to be accountability, in the hope that we can stop people from behaving like malicious morons, the phenomenon I like to call the Benidorm syndrome.

There is no question that people write horrible things in blog and news site comments pages, conduct flame wars, and engage in cyber bullying and harassment. But that behaviour is not limited to venues where they communicate solely with strangers; every mailing list, even among workmates, has flame wars. Studies have shown that the cyber versions of bullying and harassment, like their offline counterparts, are most often perpetrated by people you know.

The more important downside of anonymity is that it enables people to hide, not their identity but their interests. Behind the shield, a company can trash its competitors and those whose work has been criticized can make their defense look more robust by pretending to be disinterested third parties.

Against that is the upside. Anonymity protects whistleblowers acting in the public interest, and protesters defying an authoritarian regime.

We have little data to balance these competing interests. One bit we do have comes from an experiment with anonymity conducted years ago on the WELL, which otherwise has insisted on verifying every subscriber throughout its history. The lesson they learned, its conferencing manager, Gail Williams, told me once, was that many people wanted anonymity for themselves - but opposed it for others. I suspect this principle has very wide applicability, and it's why the US might, say, oppose anonymity for Bradley Manning but welcome it for Egyptian protesters.

Google is already modifying the terms of what is after all still a trial service. But the underlying concern will not go away. Google has long had a way to link Gmail addresses to behavioral data collected from those using its search engine, docs, and other services. It has always had some ability to perform traffic analysis on Gmail users' communications; now it can see explicit links between those pools of data and, increasingly, tie them to offline identities. This is potentially far more powerful than anything Facebook can currently offer. And unlike government databases, it's nice and clean, and cheap to maintain.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

July 22, 2011

Face to face

When, six weeks or so back, Facebook implemented facial recognition without asking anyone much in advance, Tim O'Reilly expressed the opinion that it is impossible to turn back the clock and pretend that facial recognition doesn't exist or can be stopped. We need, he said, to stop trying to control the existence of these technologies and instead concentrate on controlling the uses to which collected data might be put.

Unless we're prepared to ban face recognition technology outright, having it available in consumer-facing services is a good way to get society to face up to the way we live now. Then the real work begins, to ask what new social norms we need to establish for the world as it is, rather than as it used to be.

This reminds me of the argument that we should be teaching creationism in schools in order to teach kids critical thinking: it's not the only, or even best, way to achieve the object. If the goal is public debate about technology and privacy, Facebook isn't a good choice to conduct it.

The problem with facial recognition, unlike a lot of other technologies, is that it's retroactive, like a compromised private cryptography key. Once the key is known you haven't just unlocked the few messages you're interested in but everything ever encrypted with that key. Suddenly deployed accurate facial recognition means the passers-by in holiday photographs, CCTV images, and old TV footage of demonstrations are all much more easily matched to today's tagged, identified social media sources. It's a step change, and it's happening very quickly after a long period of doesn't-work-as-hyped. So what was a low-to-moderate privacy risk five years ago is suddenly much higher risk - and one that can't be withdrawn with any confidence by deleting your account.

There's a second analogy here between what's happening with personal data and what's happening t