31 posts categorized "Privacy"

Nest and the Google privacy policy

I was talking to a famous technologist this week, and in the course of conversation, Google's acquisition of the startup smart-thermostat maker, Nest, came up.

I told him the tweets I'd been seeing on the news were to the effect of, "all good things must come to an end."

But he was disdainful of the knee-jerk privacy concerns. "No one cares about privacy. They say they do in the abstract, but it doesn't impact how they behave."

Maybe so.

It sure seems to me that people get worked up over NSA surveillance that seems, so far as I've gathered, to be much more attenuated, in terms of how the intelligence gets used to manipulate behavior.

Anyway, that was a detour. What I mean to say here is, it sure will be interesting to see what accomodation Google makes, in terms of its privacy policy, as it brings Nest into the Google, er, nest.

As of this writing, the two privacy policies, Nest's and Google's, are inapposite, not capable of being compared by redline. That said, I did think it would be fun to manually generate a redline of the basic privacy promise each company makes, as of today, as to the use it makes of the user information it collects.

And here we go (Google's current policy overlaying Nest's, naturally):


Data trolls

What if the term "data troll" caught currency and captured public imagination?

The NSA would be a data troll, of course.

But, if and as it came to be believed that the government grossly under-exploits the wealth of data it collects, its trolling at the point of application might seem trivial compared to the uses to which players in the interactive advertising media complex (something Eisenhower did not foresee) put big data.

It's one thing to be surveilled; it's another to have your behavior tracked for the purpose of influencing your future behavior.

Big data in corporate hands could become the means to cycle through ever more effective ways to enforce compliance with ever more onerous commercial terms. Resistance is not futile; it's a breach of contract and grounds for denial of service. The Singularity achieved by sucking from each human all traces of personality.

Kellycol0906008Imagine if, back when the telephone was a more important means of communication than it is today, laws and norms had not trended toward a cultural expectation that phone calls might be private. Also suppose that software was applied to analyze the content of those calls (readers here are sophisticated enough to understand that "content" includes both what is said and where, when and how it is routed).

There would be "benefits" to such automated wiretapping, just as there are to mailtapping. You might be offered coupons for goods and services that are better tailored to your conversations. The price of goods sold to you via online stores might be optimized. Anything that might be done by analyzing the data inherent in your email, could be done with your phone calls equally well.

A person who grew up with different expectations for phone calls than for online communications, she or he might take to the term, "data troll."

Buster Simpson's laundry

To prep for the retrospective of Buster Simpson's work opening this weekend at the Frye Art Museum, I looked up the artist's name on Wikipedia.

Turns out he's referenced in entries for other artists, but does not have a Wikipedia entry of his own!

9034913054_484fa26580_bThis in spite of a body of work in public, metropolitan spaces (New York, Boston, Seattle, probably others) over decades.

The search result has me thinking: how does one live in an open, thoroughly engaged manner that nevertheless resists digitization? In philosophical terms, what behaviors will not be assimilated into the Singularity? In terms of the news of the day, what is it about certain kinds of information in plain sight that causes the surveillance state to not know how to see?

One answer may be to not consume anything.

Resisting commercial supply chains certainly seems to be the operative guideline for how the Simpson show was installed at the Frye. At a preview of the show, Curator Scott Lawrimore explained that no new materials were used in the installation. Instead of cutting new vinyl for signs to identify and explain pieces, curators wrote on the walls. To support a sculpture needing a base, geometric sections of drywall were sawed out and folded to make a table. In order to provide seating to permit viewers to relax while watching looped videos, Simpson fashioned stools using screens from discarded televisions.


I plan on being at the Frye Saturday, June 15, at 2 pm, when Simpson and Lawrimore are scheduled to lead a public tour of the show. Meantime, you can go visit a Buster Simpson installation of clean laundry in Post Alley, off Virginia Street, just north of Pike Place Market, or the southern edge of the Belltown neighborhood in Seattle.

9032765891_830936a202_bAt a preview of the show at the Frye, Curator Lawrimore joked that Simpson had spent as much time writing letters and seeking permits for the outdoor laundry installation as he did prepping the interior of the museum. "In the old days," Simpson rejoined, "we just put things up." (That may not be an exact quote.)

Hats off to Linda Thomas whose early morning tweet confirmed that the Simpson laundry was flying. I went down and snapped photos.

Spying vs. stealing

Imagine Facebook had to pay you for using any information about you.

Instead of balancing "personal privacy" against some super-secret corporate imperative to profile you for the purposes of manipulating you, instead of that, your individual interests, and Facebook corporate interests, were perfectly aligned.

MV5BMTk4OTE2NjU1MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzQ5MDQ1Ng@@._V1_SY317_CR46,0,214,317_You and Facebook were partners in the monetization of your information, your personality.

In short, your information was your intellectual property.

In the privacy paradigm, Facebook may or may not get the "balance" - between your interests and its commercial imperatives - exactly right, but Facebook alone controls all exclusive intellectual property rights.

In the personal-information-as-intellectual-property paradigm, Facebook must account to you for how your information is processed and exploited. No "balancing act" required; simple commercial reporting obligations ensure accountability.

If we thought about our information this way, and if our commercial relationships with large web services were built to meet such expectations, it would be harder for companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, etc., to cooperate with government requests for all the data that runs through the corporate servers.

"That data does not belong to us," they could say. Depending on their contract with customers, they might also say, "It is, however, available for a premium fee."

Some people might be willing to sell their information to the government in exchange for good and valuable consideration - say, a federal income tax credit. For some, maybe patriotism would be sufficient consideration.

Mere metadata

Yesterday, I listened to C-SPAN's rebroadcast of the ABC Sunday news show, This Week, and heard Senator Dianne Feinstein and Congressperson Mike Rogers speak about the government's collection and use of phone records.

Both feel that the surveillance being conducted is appropriate, and that there are programmatic safeguards that limit use of the collected data.


The positions expressed by both of these elected representatives were not absurd on their face, not to me. Obviously, there are separate process questions that can be asked. For instance, shouldn't more people have access to full and complete information about the program, and shouldn't the existence and parameters of the programs be subject to public debate? But both of these public officials left me with the impression that they, at least, are minding the store, and are betting their personal and professional reputations on the integrity of this national counterintelligence program.

At this stage in the developing story, both the President and those legislators defending the executive branch are emphasizing that the "content" of phone calls is not being collected. Of course, those of us working in and around technology industries know that the very most valuable content is exactly what is being assembled: the social graph, the data connecting and placing every participant in the network. It's also possible that the government may have a meta-view of all information networks, making its potential insight into patterns of both collective and individual behavior more exhaustive and more authoritative then anything a single Internet company or single telephone company could aspire to. Imagine combining all data from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and every phone company, into a single social graph. What advertisers might not pay to the government to run algorithms against that data!

Neither Feinstein door Rogers made the mistake of saying that the metadata represented by call records was harmless. Sen. Feinstein did say that the Supreme Court has held that phone records are not protected personal information, but she also clearly appreciates how valuable big data is. I say this because she made the remark that "human intelligence alone" is not adequate to foil terrorist plots in the planning. Algorithms are finding the patterns, while human covert agents watch.

If Feinstein and Rogers are to be believed, the government does not look for patterns outside of specific investigations of specific foreigners. (Unless I misheard. Thinking about it, it's hard to imagine that the program would not be used to generate leads in the first place, spawning investigations, rather than assisting in investigations opened for other reasons.) in other words, the database is queried only in connection with the pursuit of a particular target within the social graph.

Private companies with Siren Servers (Lanier's term) have no such constraints. They can mine the data, they can fix the patterns, and they can employ the intelligence bus derived to sell to and manipulate the very persons in the network whose behavior is being mapped.

We should be talking about web commerce at the same time we are debating the trade-offs in the government's counter-intelligence program.

Cartoon by John Norris / Flickr.

Pressing questions for the corporate surveillance state

As news organizations turn attention to government intelligence gathering among the citizenry, let's hope the civic debate expands to include attention to private, corporate intelligence gathering.

Pressing questions we should ask:

>>>Why don't social media, search and other web services built on targeted advertising pay the people whose information and personality rights are exploited (in Jaron Lanier's view, these kinds of exchange are a form of accounting fraud; in legal terms, these are contracts that arguably should fail to be enforceable for lack of consideration)?

>>>Why hasn't a startup or entrepreneur emerged who would turn the advertising business on its head, instead of conforming to old business models as meekly as a telco complies with a government subpoena?

>>>Why won't leading social media and search services permit users to pay cash for the service?

>>>National security may justify massive information asymmetry, but, turning to the private sector, how can markets and capitalism work when big data is deemed to be proprietary?

Circling back on Dropbox

Because a couple of years ago we unpacked, in a post here and in a follow-up post, the details in that devil of an iteration of legal terms of service from Dropbox - a version that had users worrying that the company would mine their uploaded files for nefarious corporate purpose - I thought we should circle back and formally acknowledge that Dropbox has (again) received high marks from a famous, progressive privacy watchdog, the EFF.

Here's a link to a new, 2013 iteration of the EFF report, "Who Has Your Back: Which companies help protect your data from government?"

Dropbox gets five stars out of a possible six. Only Twitter and Sonic.net score better.

Dropbox icon(True, I'm comparing an apple and orange here. The ToS flap was over how Dropbox might monetize user content. The EFF report is about actions and policies Dropbox takes and follows with respect to government demands or requests for user content. Not the same thing.)

And here's a personal endorsement.

I get a lot of mileage out of Dropbox. It's a terrific service, and so far they haven't asked a thing of me, not even to expose myself to ads. So far, when I've hit my storage limit, I take that as an occasion to cull folders and big files I no longer need.

Thanks to Ken Priore for a tweet that gave the heads up.

Related Posts with Thumbnails