Thursday, September 15, 2016

Privacy Under Siege?

Speaking of privacy, as Rowena's recent post does: Cory Doctorow's column in the latest LOCUS delivers warnings about privacy threats from the Internet and the cutting-edge "Internet of Things."

Privacy Wars

Doctorow discusses the "absurd legal fiction" of the ubiquitous "notice and consent" requirement. You know, those policy statements and conditions of use for which we have to check "accept" before we can run software or access certain web content. As Doctorow points out, nobody can really read all that stuff. To do so in detail with every device or program would eat up most of our waking hours. Yet by checking "accept," we often give permission for all sorts of tracking software to interact with our computers and phones, without even realizing we've done so. Pokemon Go players probably realize the game "knows" where they are at all times, but they accept that knowledge as part of the cost of playing the game.

I don't own a smart phone and never plan to get one (unlike my husband, who upgraded to such a device a while back). So at present my activities and movements in the physical world can't be tracked by any incarnation of Big Brother (public or private—and isn't it interesting that Orwell envisioned an all-seeing government, yet nowadays it's mainly commercial entities that observe us?). I'd direly miss the convenience of ordering from my regularly-visited websites without having the enter information every time, though. And it's a great boon, when I'm not sure whether I own copy of a certain book, to learn from a glance at the Amazon book page whether I've bought it already. To get that convenience, we have to accept cookies and all that comes with them.

Doctorow's vision of the totally connected future takes on an apocalyptic tone, as in this paragraph:

"You will ‘interact’ with hundreds, then thou­sands, then tens of thousands of computers every day. The vast majority of these interactions will be glancing, momentary, and with computers that have no way of displaying terms of service, much less presenting you with a button to click to give your ‘consent’ to them. Every TV in the sportsbar where you go for a drink will have cameras and mics and will capture your image and process it through facial-recognition software and capture your speech and pass it back to a server for continu­ous speech recognition (to check whether you’re giving it a voice command). Every car that drives past you will have cameras that record your like­ness and gait, that harvest the unique identifiers of your Bluetooth and other short-range radio devices, and send them to the cloud, where they’ll be merged and aggregated with other data from other sources."

Do you think our digital footprints will, on a practical level, become that detailed and all-pervasive anytime in the near future? What company or agency would have the time, resources, or motivation to aggregate and make active use of so much miscellaneous data? On the other hand, I agree with Doctorow that the mere fact of having all this information unguardedly accessible SOMEWHERE is frightening.

Coincidentally, in an interview in the same issue of LOCUS, Charles Stross speculates on the benefits and potential hazards of living surrounded by interactive objects. He narrates an anecdote from the pioneering days of microprocessors, back in the 1970s. Someone joked that eventually the chips would become so cheap we'd put them in doorknobs. Everybody laughed. If you've stayed at a hotel lately, you've routinely encountered computerized door locks. Stross proposes the example of replacing city sidewalk pavement with stones containing chips that have "the equivalent of an iPhone 4 in computing power." Then suppose most pedestrians are wearing clothes with radio ID tags designed to interact with the washing machine for optimal cleaning—which incidentally also contain unique identifying data. If a person collapses from a heart attack, the sidewalk could summon an ambulance instantly. But a fully networked city could also track us everywhere we go.

Forsooth, smart technology can indeed be a mixed blessing.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Margaret.

    Today, Google used my aol email account to offer me a targeted advertisement for a vile service that helps students cheat on their important essays. Why on earth would a traditionally published author require paid assistance writing school or college essays? I can only assume it is becaause I have been selling used text books on Amazon, Thus, sell used textbooks on Amazon.... and Amazon, Google, Facebook assume that I am a moron with no morals who is willing to cheat to obtain academic credentials. I am shocked that cheating for students willing to pay $7.5 per page has become a business! And, that such a business can target innocent persons based on internet spying.