Tag: surveillance

To be perfectly symmetrical is to be perfectly dead

So said Igor Stravinsky. I’m a little behind on my writing, and prioritised writing up my experiences in the Lake District over the past couple of days.

Today’s update is therefore a list post:

  • Degrowth: a Call for Radical Abundance (Jason Hickel) — “In other words, the birth of capitalism required the creation of scarcity. The constant creation of scarcity is the engine of the juggernaut.”
  • Hey, You Left Something Out (Cogito, Ergo Sumana) — “People who want to compliment work should probably learn to give compliments that sound encouraging.”
  • The Problem is Capitalism (George Monbiot) — “A system based on perpetual growth cannot function without peripheries and externalities. There must always be an extraction zone, from which materials are taken without full payment, and a disposal zone, where costs are dumped in the form of waste and pollution.”
  • In Stores, Secret Surveillance Tracks Your Every Move (The New York Times) — “For years, Apple and Google have allowed companies to bury surveillance features inside the apps offered in their app stores. And both companies conduct their own beacon surveillance through iOS and Android.”
  • The Inevitable Same-ification of the Internet
    (Matthew Ström) — “Convergence is not the sign of a broken system, or a symptom of a more insidious disease. It is an emergent phenomenon that arises from a few simple rules.”


Wretched is a mind anxious about the future

So said one of my favourite non-fiction authors, the 16th century proto-blogger Michel de Montaigne. There’s plenty of writing about how we need to be anxious because of the drift towards a future of surveillance states. Eventually, because it’s not currently affecting us here and now, we become blasé. We forget that it’s already the lived experience for hundreds of millions of people.

Take China, for example. In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes about the Chinese government’s brutality against the Muslim Uyghur population in the western province of Xinjiang:

[The] horrifying situation is built on the scaffolding of mass surveillance. Cameras fill the marketplaces and intersections of the key city of Kashgar. Recording devices are placed in homes and even in bathrooms. Checkpoints that limit the movement of Muslims are often outfitted with facial-recognition devices to vacuum up the population’s biometric data. As China seeks to export its suite of surveillance tech around the world, Xinjiang is a kind of R&D incubator, with the local Muslim population serving as guinea pigs in a laboratory for the deprivation of human rights.

Derek Thompson

As Ian Welsh points out, surveillance states usually involve us in the West pointing towards places like China and shaking our heads. However, if you step back a moment and remember that societies like the US and UK are becoming more unequal over time, then perhaps we’re the ones who should be worried:

The endgame, as I’ve been pointing out for years, is a society in which where you are and what you’re doing, and have done is, always known, or at least knowable. And that information is known forever, so the moment someone with power wants to take you out, they can go back thru your life in minute detail. If laws or norms change so that what was OK 10 or 30 years ago isn’t OK now, well they can get you on that.

Ian Welsh

As the world becomes more unequal, the position of elites becomes more perilous, hence Silicon Valley billionaires preparing boltholes in New Zealand. Ironically, they’re looking for places where they can’t be found, while making serious money from providing surveillance technology. Instead of solving the inequality, they attempt to insulate themselves from the effect of that inequality.

A lot of the crazy amounts of money earned in Silicon Valley comes at the price of infringing our privacy. I’ve spent a long time thinking about quite nebulous concept. It’s not the easiest thing to understand when you examine it more closely.

Privacy is usually considered a freedom from rather than a freedom to, as in “freedom from surveillance”. The trouble is that there are many kinds of surveillance, and some of these we actively encourage. A quick example: I know of at least one family that share their location with one another all of the time. At the same time, of course, they’re sharing it with the company that provides that service.

There’s a lot of power in the ‘default’ privacy settings devices and applications come with. People tend to go with whatever comes as standard. Sidney Fussell writes in The Atlantic that:

Many apps and products are initially set up to be public: Instagram accounts are open to everyone until you lock them… Even when companies announce convenient shortcuts for enhancing security, their products can never become truly private. Strangers may not be able to see your selfies, but you have no way to untether yourself from the larger ad-targeting ecosystem.

Sidney Fussell

Some of us (including me) are willing to trade some of that privacy for more personalised services that somehow make our lives easier. The tricky thing is when it comes to employers and state surveillance. In these cases there are coercive power relationships at play, rather than just convenience.

Ellen Sheng, writing for CNBC explains how employees in the US are at huge risk from workplace surveillance:

In the workplace, almost any consumer privacy law can be waived. Even if companies give employees a choice about whether or not they want to participate, it’s not hard to force employees to agree. That is, unless lawmakers introduce laws that explicitly state a company can’t make workers agree to a technology…

One example: Companies are increasingly interested in employee social media posts out of concern that employee posts could reflect poorly on the company. A teacher’s aide in Michigan was suspended in 2012 after refusing to share her Facebook page with the school’s superintendent following complaints about a photo she had posted. Since then, dozens of similar cases prompted lawmakers to take action. More than 16 states have passed social media protections for individuals.

Ellen Sheng

It’s not just workplaces, though. Schools are hotbeds for new surveillance technologies, as Benjamin Herold notes in an article for Education Week:

Social media monitoring companies track the posts of everyone in the areas surrounding schools, including adults. Other companies scan the private digital content of millions of students using district-issued computers and accounts. Those services are complemented with tip-reporting apps, facial-recognition software, and other new technology systems.

[…]

While schools are typically quiet about their monitoring of public social media posts, they generally disclose to students and parents when digital content created on district-issued devices and accounts will be monitored. Such surveillance is typically done in accordance with schools’ responsible-use policies, which students and parents must agree to in order to use districts’ devices, networks, and accounts.
Hypothetically, students and families can opt out of using that technology. But doing so would make participating in the educational life of most schools exceedingly difficult.

Benjamin Herold

In China, of course, a social credit system makes all of this a million times worse, but we in the West aren’t heading in a great direction either.

We’re entering a time where, by the time my children are my age, companies, employers, and the state could have decades of data from when they entered the school system through to them finding jobs, and becoming parents themselves.

There are upsides to all of this data, obviously. But I think that in the midst of privacy-focused conversations about Amazon’s smart speakers and Google location-sharing, we might be missing the bigger picture around surveillance by educational institutions, employers, and governments.

Returning to Ian Welsh to finish up, remember that it’s the coercive power relationships that make surveillance a bad thing:

Surveillance societies are sterile societies. Everyone does what they’re supposed to do all the time, and because we become what we do, it affects our personalities. It particularly affects our creativity, and is a large part of why Communist surveillance societies were less creative than the West, particularly as their police states ramped up.

Ian Welsh

We don’t want to think about all of this, though, do we?


Also check out:

Tracking vs advertising

We tend to use words to denote something right up to the time that term becomes untenable. Someone has to invent a better one. Take mobile phones, for example. They’re literally named after the least-used app on there, so we’re crying out for a different way to refer to them. Perhaps a better name would be ‘trackers’.

These days, most people use mobile devices for social networking. These are available free at the point of access, funded by what we’re currently calling ‘advertising’. However, as this author notes, it’s nothing of the sort:

What we have today is not advertising. The amount of personally identifiable information companies have about their customers is absolutely perverse. Some of the world’s largest companies are in the business of selling your personal information for use in advertising. This might sound innocuous but the tracking efforts of these companies are so accurate that many people believe that Facebook listens to their conversations to serve them relevant ads. Even if it’s true that the microphone is not used, the sum of all other data collected is still enough to show creepily relevant advertising.

Unfortunately, the author doesn’t seem to have come to the conclusion yet that it’s the logic of capitalism that go us here. Instead, he just points out that people’s privacy is being abused.

[P]eople now get most of their information from social networks yet these networks dictate the order in which content is served to the user. Google makes the worlds most popular mobile operating system and it’s purpose is drive the company’s bottom line (ad blocking is forbidden). “Smart” devices are everywhere and companies are jumping over each other to put more shit in your house so they can record your movements and sell the information to advertisers. This is all a blatant abuse of privacy that is completely toxic to society.

Agreed, and it’s easy to feel a little helpless against this onslaught. While it’s great to have a list of things that users can do, if those things are difficult to implement and/or hard to understand, then it’s an uphill battle.

That being said, the three suggestions he makes are use

To combat this trend, I have taken the following steps and I think others should join the movement:

  • Aggressively block all online advertisements
  • Don’t succumb to the “curated” feeds
  • Not every device needs to be “smart”

I feel I’m already way ahead of the author in this regard:

  • Aggressively block all online advertisements
  • Don’t succumb to the “curated” feeds
    • I quit Facebook years ago, haven’t got an Instagram account, and pretty much only post links to my own spaces on Twitter and LinkedIn.
  • Not every device needs to be “smart”
    • I don’t really use my Philips Hue lights, and don’t have an Amazon Alexa — or even the Google Assistant on my phone).

It’s not easy to stand up to Big Tech. The amount of money they pour into things make their ‘innovations’ seem inevitable. They can afford to make things cheap and frictionless so you get hooked.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that those that previously defended Apple as somehow ‘different’ on privacy, despite being the world’s most profitable company, are starting to backtrack.

Source: Nicholas Rempel

It’s called Echo for a reason

That last-minute Christmas gift sounds like nothing but unadulterated fun after reading this, doesn’t it?

It is a significant thing to allow a live microphone in your private space (just as it is to allow them in our public spaces). Once the hardware is in place, and receiving electricity, and connected to the Internet, then you’re reduced to placing your trust in the hands of two things that unfortunately are less than reliable these days: 1) software, and 2) policy.

Software, once a mic is in place, governs when that microphone is live, when the audio it captures is transmitted over the Internet, and to whom it goes. Many devices are programmed to keep their microphones on at all times but only record and transmit audio after hearing a trigger phrase—in the case of the Echo, for example, “Alexa.” Any device that is to be activated by voice alone must work this way. There are a range of other systems. Samsung, after a privacy dust-up, assured the public that its smart televisions (like others) only record and transmit audio after the user presses a button on its remote control. The Hello Barbie toy only picks up and transmits audio when its user presses a button on the doll.

Software is invisible, however. Most companies do not make their code available for public inspection, and it can be hacked, or unscrupulous executives can lie about what it does (think Volkswagen), or government agencies might try to order companies to activate them as a surveillance device.

I sincerely hope that policy makers pay heed to the recommendations section, especially given the current ‘Wild West’ state of affairs described in the article.

Source: ACLU