How do we build an Internet we're not ashamed of?

May 29th, 2014

Having finally got round to reading the transcript of Maciej Cegłowski's Beyond Tellerrand 2014 Conference Talk , I can but report that – as usual – he talked a lot of sense:

One reason there's a backlash against Google glasses is that they try to bring the online rules into the offline world. Suddenly, anything can be recorded, and there's the expectation (if the product succeeds) that everything will be recorded. The product is called 'glass' instead of 'glasses' because Google imagines a world where every flat surface behaves by the online rules. [The day after this talk, it was revealed Google is seeking patents on showing ads on your thermostat, refrigerator, etc.]

Well, people hate the online rules!

Google's answer is, wake up, grandpa, this is the new normal. But all they're doing is trying to port a bug in the Internet over to the real world, and calling it progress.

You can dress up a bug and call it a feature. You can also put dog crap in the freezer and call it ice cream. But people can taste the difference.

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Data mining as a security measure?

January 5th, 2014

Los Angeles Times reporter David Lazarus, prompted by a tip-off from a reader, tried registering with a UPS service that offered more control over parcel delivery schedules and found that UPS already knew quite a bit about him and his family:

In my case, UPS wanted me to name the city I'd formerly lived in. San Francisco, where I resided before moving back to Los Angeles, was on the list.

The next one was a trick question. It asked me to name the street I'd once lived on or "none of the above." The answer was "none of the above."

The third question asked me to name the city I'd never lived in. The list included three Connecticut cities I'd never visited and the one where I was born. Since you could pick only one answer, I picked "all of the above."

The UPS site then said it would need more information to verify my identity and asked for my birth date. Maybe this was just a glitch. Or maybe it was a sneaky way to get me to cough up this most important of data points.

I provided my birth date and was presented with a trio of much more specific questions. The first asked the month that my wife was born, and it included both the correct month and her full name.

The second one again identified San Francisco as my former home. The third question included the street in San Francisco that I lived on.

Like Miller, I was completely creeped out.

I'm not sure what's creepier about this: the notion that data mining lets companies know this much about potential customers, or the idea that they might have gathered incorrect information and there's no practical way for me to correct it because I don't know where they got it from.

[Via RISKS Digest Vol. 27, Iss. 65]

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The Architecture of Visual Information

September 28th, 2013

Alexander Baxevanis thinks that in the face of the vast number of photos being uploaded every day we need to think harder about why and where people take photographs, what they're trying to accomplish when they share them online.

[Via Martin Belam]

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The spy in your pocket

June 9th, 2013

The most interesting thing about this exploration of how much a German phone company knew about the movements of one particular politician is that it's really just scratching the surface:

Green party politician Malte Spitz sued to have German telecoms giant Deutsche Telekom hand over six months of his phone data that he then made available to ZEIT ONLINE. We combined this geolocation data with information relating to his life as a politician, such as Twitter feeds, blog entries and websites, all of which is all freely available on the internet. […]

Don't get me wrong: the animated map and correlation of the location data with blog entries and tweets to account for what Spitz was up to on a given day in a given place is neatly done, but it's hardly news that having your mobile phone on you allows the phone company to know roughly where your phone is.

The fun bit is the data mining and cross-matching of data. Throw in the sort of information every self-respecting law enforcement agency is itching to get access to, about what phone numbers you called, who you emailed and what web sites you accessed and it's relatively straightforward to build up a picture of what you're doing, where you're doing it and1, who you're doing it with and – crucially – whether you're deviating from your normal pattern of activity.

Imagine a world where we didn't have the internet and mobile phones to make collecting all this data easy and painless. Now imagine the government in that wireless-free world announcing that it would start gathering this sort of information by having a civil servant follow you around, listening to your conversations with people and monitoring what books and magazines you read and taking notes as you go. I think it's fair to say that there would be hell to pay.

Why should governments have an easier time of it just because they can have Internet Service Providers and telecoms companies do the surveillance for them?

[Via MetaFilter]

  1. Given enough data to establish a pattern of behaviour over time.

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'Our moral character dwindles as our instruments get smaller.'

April 14th, 2013

Jan Chipchase's You Lookin' At Me? Reflections on Google Glass. urges us to take advantage of the opportunity we have now that Google Glass is on the verge of escaping into the wild to think about how Glass (or something like it) is going to transform privacy expectations over the next decade or two:

One could argue that the form taken by Glass offers up a lazy futurist's vision of what might be – take the trajectory of one product (displays becoming smaller/cheaper/more efficient over time) and integrate it with another (eyeglasses), sprinkle in connectivity and real-time access to content and big-data-analytics. Our expectations of what it could be are raised in part because this join-the-dots vision of the future fits neatly into Western un/popular young-male culture, from "The Terminator" through to Halo. Glass has a certain inevitability about it, like the weight of expectation on of child born to a great composer or, if you will, to a middle-aged suicide. As any visitor to Yodobashi camera over the past decade will tell you, the hardware technologies that make Glass hardly feel novel (and for recent competitors, see Sony, Golden-i, or this Telepathy device prototype) but neither do they need to be, because this is all about how they are brought together into a holistic experience.

I have a feeling that the prospect of walking round wearing a device that requires an eyeglass-mounted interface is going to be a lot less popular among the ordinary, smartphone-carrying public than Google hope. I can't help but think that if Google/Apple/whoever just pushes speech-driven interfaces a bit further along1 then a fair number of ordinary people will find that the ability to tell their phone to show them maps and directions, pull up details of the person they're speaking to and so on will suffice for now.

Still, even in that scenario we'll have people walking round our towns and cities and homes and workplaces carrying permanently-on devices that default to capturing and storing sound and video2, so almost all the issues Chipchase raises will still apply.

[Via The Browser]

  1. Both in terms of reliability and the ease with which third party applications can use the speech recognition system.
  2. Via a camera mounted on your Bluetooth earpiece?

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OAuth is your future

May 14th, 2012

OAuth is your future. What a cheerful thought.

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Oh, Barcelona…

February 2nd, 2012

The very definition of irony.

[Via Memex 1.1]

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'We are dealing with a certain element of human nature that is unknown how to deal with.'

January 31st, 2012

Aaron Skirboll writes in praise of an invention whose time has come (again):

Thomas Watson was a respectful man. He was working as an assistant to Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 when his name became the first to be uttered into Bell's new invention, the telephone. "Mr. Watson, come here," Bell famously said. "I want to see you." Even before this monumental moment, however, Watson had proved his worth – and his neighborliness. While working out the telephone's kinks with Bell from his apartment, Watson initially had to shout to be heard over the early equipment, prompting complaints from the neighbors. So Watson, ever the courteous gent, wrapped himself inside blanket during these initial telephone trials, creating a tunnel, and, thus, the world's first phone booth: society's great unused invention. […]

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We're all nude and available

October 15th, 2011

Evgeny Morozov finds Jeff Jarvis' latest paean to the wonders of the internet deeply flawed, and rather unserious:

Why are we so obsessed with privacy? Jarvis blames rapacious privacy advocates – "there is money to be made in privacy" – who are paid to mislead the "netizens," that amorphous elite of cosmopolitan Internet users whom Jarvis regularly volunteers to represent in Davos. On Jarvis's scale of evil, privacy advocates fall between Qaddafi's African mercenaries and greedy investment bankers. All they do is "howl, cry foul, sharpen arrows, get angry, get rankled, are incredulous, are concerned, watch, and fret." Reading Jarvis, you would think that Privacy International (full-time staff: three) is a terrifying behemoth next to Google (lobbying expenses in 2010: $5.2 million).

"Privacy should not be our only concern," Jarvis declares. "Privacy has its advocates. So must publicness." He compiles a long and somewhat tedious list of the many benefits of "publicness": "builds relationships," "disarms strangers," "enables collaboration," "unleashes the wisdom (and generosity) of the crowd," "defuses the myth of perfection," "neutralizes stigmas," "grants immortality … or at least credit," "organizes us," and even "protects us." Much of this is self-evident. Do we really need to peek inside the world of Internet commerce to grasp that anyone entering into the simplest of human relationships surrenders a modicum of privacy? But Jarvis has mastered the art of transforming the most trivial observations into empty business maxims.

Contrary to Jarvis' protestations, Morozov's review doesn't read to me as a personal attack – more a clinical, brutal dismantling of a collection of shallow cliches in support of the argument that we shouldn't worry about the way pretty much every commercial entity we deal with online seeks to hoover up as much personal information about our use of the internet as it can because the (somewhat nebulous) benefits outweigh the potential problems. So long as you respect your cultural norms, you'll be fine.

[Via The Awl]

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August 13th, 2011

Noted for future use:

[Context: a comment thread inspired by David Cameron's argument in favour of controlling the type of discussions taking place via social media.]

12 August 2011 4:14PM

12 August 2011 2:51PM

"If you've got nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear"

So glad to hear that, now I'd like your full name, address, date of birth, make and model of car you drive, all telephone numbers mobile and landline, name of employer, email address, annual income (gross and net), and of course I'd also like to know what your daily schedule is and what times you estimate being out of the house this weekend. Come on now, if you've nothing to hide then you've nothing to fear. Please post this information publicly, or are you up to something?

Oh and please post your internet history too, I'd like to check what sites you browse, just to make sure you aren't fapping to something nasty. By your own statement if you are reluctant to do so then you must be up to something criminal. Or you could admit your over simplistic statement was absurd.

[Via Memex 1.1]

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