Is it time to hang up on eavesdropping social networks?

Wednesday, 4 June, 2014

The world’s largest social network wants to tap into what we’re listening to way by of the microphone on our smartphones. If you’re listening to some music, or watching a TV show, the Facebook app will attempt to identify what it is, and use the information as part of a status update that you may wish to post to your network:

When writing a status update – if you choose to turn the feature on – you’ll have the option to use your phone’s microphone to identify what song is playing or what show or movie is on TV. That means if you want to share that you’re listening to your favorite Beyoncé track or watching the season premiere of Game of Thrones, you can do it quickly and easily, without typing.

At the moment this feature is opt-in and optional. While it sounds all very convenient, the prospect has alarmed some civil liberties and privacy advocates who fear the feature may be used to listen into phone calls, and who knows, any other conversations taking place within the range of our phones.

Facebook says the feature will be used for harmless things, like identifying the song or TV show playing in the background, but by using the phone’s microphone every time you write a status update, it has the ability to listen to everything.

It’s great that voice and sound recognition technologies have evolved to the point that a smartphone app can name the song we’re listening to, but this might be a potentially risky misuse of the know how, and by partaking we are, little by little, allowing ourselves to become subject to ever more surveillance.

Maybe this is an over reaction though. Some will say our smartphones already allow anyone with the means to identify our present location. Plus all the places we’ve been to since whenever. What difference therefore does it make then if someone can hear what’s happening around us? What could possibly be wrong with that?

It may be just another brick in the wall – which of course they already knew we were listening to – but all those little bricks are beginning to build up to something all together too imposing.

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Living life offline, and off the grid? That’s easier to say than do

Thursday, 24 October, 2013

It’ll take a little more than ditching your smartphone, internet access, and social media presence, to truly vanish from the grid, as it were. There are, it seems, still numerous ways the powers that be can keep tabs on you, if they so desire:

It’s almost impossible to think of all the data you create on a daily basis. Even something as simple as using electricity is creating data about your habits. It’s more than whether or not you turned the lights on – it’s how many people are in your house and when you’re usually around. RFID tags aren’t just in tires, they’re in your clothing, your tap-to-pay credit cards, and your dry cleaning. Ollmann zaps his T-shirts in the microwave. Others carry an RFID-blocking wallet to avoid having their RFID-enabled cards read when they’re not making a purchase.

Might moving to an uninhabited, uncharted, desert island, if there are any, be the answer?

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If you’re reading this, then you too are generating metadata

Wednesday, 19 June, 2013

News broke about two weeks ago that a US security agency has been collecting summary details, or metadata, of the phone calls that some US citizens have been making. Essentially metadata is information about information, and each time we, say, make a phone call, take a photo, use a search engine, or send a tweet, we generate a trove of it.

While this information, in isolation at least, doesn’t say much about our identity, or where we live, someone could learn a lot about us if they were to cross reference it with other forms of data. And, as it happens, we do give rise to a fair amount of metadata, as this guide, put together by The Guardian, goes to show.

Examples include the date and time you called somebody or the location from which you last accessed your email. The data collected generally does not contain personal or content-specific details, but rather transactional information about the user, the device and activities taking place. In some cases you can limit the information that is collected – by turning off location services on your cell phone for instance – but many times you cannot.

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“Nineteen Eighty-Four” sales spike, do the powers that be know?

Tuesday, 18 June, 2013

George Orwell’s 1949 novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, has been bounding up Amazon Movers & Shakers list in recent weeks. When I last checked in, a few days ago, its sales rank was 213, compared with a previous reading of 13,039.

Coincidence, no?

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There is no such thing as privacy until you tell the world it all

Friday, 4 November, 2011

After being detained by the FBI in 2002, Hasan Elahi, an Associate Professor of Art at the University of Maryland, decided to publish every last piece of information, down to the food he eats and financial data, about himself to his website, in the interests of being as open and transparent as possible.

Despite the fact anyone, anywhere, could learn anything about him, including his current location, Elahi still feels his privacy remains intact.

People who visit my site – and my server logs indicate repeat visits from the Department of Homeland Security, the C.I.A., the National Reconnaissance Office and the Executive Office of the President – don’t find my information organized clearly. In fact, the interface I use is deliberately user-unfriendly. A lot of work is required to thread together the thousands of available points of information. By putting everything about me out there, I am simultaneously telling everything and nothing about my life. Despite the barrage of information about me that is publicly available, I live a surprisingly private and anonymous life.

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Big Brother is actually the sum of its parts, in other words us all

Tuesday, 26 October, 2010

It wasn’t the prospect of an all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother like dictator, as envisaged by George Orwell in his novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, that we had to worry about when it came to the sanctity of our privacy… rather it is our own family, friends, and even ourselves, who through the likes of smartphone cameras and social media, are to thank for the increasing public surveillance we are now subject to.

As the Internet proves every day, it isn’t some stern and monolithic Big Brother that we have to reckon with as we go about our daily lives, it’s a vast cohort of prankish Little Brothers equipped with devices that Orwell, writing 60 years ago, never dreamed of and who are loyal to no organized authority. The invasion of privacy – of others’ privacy but also our own, as we turn our lenses on ourselves in the quest for attention by any means – has been democratized.

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To exit “the grid” switch off your phone and pay cash

Wednesday, 25 March, 2009

Meeting an accomplice or partner-in-crime in a park, or shopping mall, as per many a stereotypical movie scene, to discuss a heist probably remains a sound strategy, provided you’ve switched off your mobile phone, travelled on public transport (having paid cash) to the meeting point, and worn a disguise.

Being visible, or “on the grid”, in any shape or form however is bound to very quickly bring about your downfall

“The big lesson now is don’t try and con anyone, stay on the up and up,” said private investigator Charlie Rahim, of the Charlie’s Angels investigation company. “If you’re ‘on the grid’ – that’s a term that means you’re on anything electronic like mobile phones, the internet, credit cards … anything linked to a database – then they can check anything on what you’ve done.” Mr Rahim said authorities – with proper warrants – had access to a wide array of phone logs, camera footage and account statements that allowed them to piece together a person’s day. “The mobile phone is where authorities get the best information – they tell who you called, who called you, when you spoke to them, where you spoke from. “And with mobile phones, even if you’ve not made calls, it’s possible for the phone company to use the antenna to tell what area you are in.

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The new “Big Brother”: pattern-recognition software

Wednesday, 27 August, 2008

While still in its infancy, and not completely accurate, according to some experts, pattern-recognition software could nevertheless prove effective at finding links between disparate sets of information and data streams, such as phone usage and bank transactions.

This software is trained on a large number of sample documents to pick out items such as names, phone numbers and places from generic text. This means it can spot names or numbers that crop up alongside anyone already of interest to the authorities, and then catalogue any documents that contain such associates. Once a person is being monitored, pattern-recognition software first identifies their typical behaviour, such as repeated calls to certain numbers over a period of a few months. The software can then identify any deviations from the norm and flag up unusual activities, such as transactions with a foreign bank, or contact with someone who is also under surveillance, so that analysts can take a closer look.

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