Thursday, April 28, 2011

It's 10pm, does Steve Jobs know where you are?

by Michelle Gagnon

A bit of a brouhaha erupted this week over the discovery that Apple might be collecting data on iPhone users' locations. Apple immediately released a response firmly denying any malfeasance. However, they did acknowledge that their software contains "flaws" that affect the collection of data required for location-based services.

Don't worry, I'm not about to wander off into the conspiracy theory woods. Well, not too far at least. I'd actually be impressed if Apple managed to track my iPhone, considering the fact that I can barely get it to function properly to make calls.

And the truth is that these days, by and large people don't mind making their every move public. They're freely offering up data on nearly every aspect of their lives. Via Facebook and Twitter, I receive a slew of daily posts along the lines of: "John Doe just checked into Four Barrel," and, "Jane Doe is at SFO." (Side note: what a gift FourSquare and programs like it are for thieves and stalkers!) Some restaurants and bars encourage "checking in" like this, offering a discount or bonus for people who do it. You can apparently even become "mayor" of the place you check into most frequently.

We've become a nation of oversharing, from tweeting about the bagel we just ate to discussing how much sleep we got last night and what the doctor said about our blood pressure. And it doesn't stop there. All those little tools designed to make our lives easier also quietly file away information about us and our habits. Grocery savings cards record what you're eating and using to clean your house. Fastrak passes record your car every time it crosses a bridge (and allegedly, according to internet posts that boldly march much deeper into the conspiracy forest, they might also be tracking your movements around major cities). In many urban areas, CCTV cameras are set up to discourage criminal activity.

I recently read Cory Doctorow's excellent novel LITTLE BROTHER. The story is set in a near future, so many of the tracking tools that play into the plot already exist and are deeply rooted in our day to day lives. And as Doctorow points out, it wouldn't take much for these seemingly helpful tools to be turned against us. In his book, police are able to collate data from electronic public transportation cards (like the Clipper pass we have here in SF) to track "irregular" movement patterns. In addition to metal detectors, schools are equipped with cameras that analyze students' walking patterns, and every laptop comes with a chip that monitors key strokes.

Of course, none of this is new, as any Philip K. Dick fan knows. But we're certainly a lot closer to that potential future than we used to be. In London, the average resident is filmed 300 times a day; Britain has 4.2 million closed-circuit surveillance cameras, one for every 15 people in the country. Did you know that your computer webcam can be turned on remotely? It can. In fact, the Lower Merion School District near Philadelphia admitted to activating Webcams 42 times during a 14-month period, claiming that it did so only to track lost or stolen laptops.

But as I said, no one seems to mind. People already film the most intimate aspects of their lives for public consumption on YouTube. How do you value privacy in a culture where the prevailing dream is to become famous, even if that fame is tied to a videotaped pratfall off a ladder?

All right, I'm stepping back out of the woods. And of course,
all of this provides rich material for crime fiction writers like me to mine, so I'm hardly one to complain.

By the way, I had oatmeal for breakfast, and the doctor said I'm doing just fine. Go ahead and turn on my webcam if you want to see for yourself.

21 comments:

  1. Up here there are plenty of chances to be totally off the grid if you really want to be. We have real wilderness, the kind you could walk in a straight line for a month and not see a road or another person the whole time. One could totally subsist off the land and never worry about others tracking you. Of course one could also die and no one would know it, and the body would never be found. Which asks the question, do I want to give up the conveniences of the city, even though folks are watching?

    Nah. Been there, done that, it's hard.

    Now keep in mind, if you decide you want to remotely activate my webcam that I am an IT guy. That means my laptop goes where I go...even to the bathroom when I shower and ...stuff. You might end up with an eyeful of unspeakable terrors, cuz unlike Michelle I am built like an orangutan...all hairy and round and whatnot.

    Me: "Hey honey, is this a god bod or what?"

    Wife: "Yeah sure baby....Dionysus after a month long binge."

    there's an image that'll make you reach for PineSol eyewash

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  2. The right to privacy is dead, which shouldn't be news, IMHO.

    Angry Birds is used to data mine cellphones. Facebook sells your info and preferences to companies. That's why the site is valued at over a billion dollars: because it's the largest consumer behavior database in the world. Google tracks your keystrokes. Last year, they finally admitted to working with NSA and HSA. The fact that they won't cooperate with the Chinese government in the same way is part of the reason why they've had so many issues with product penetration in that country. Microsoft and Webroot go through your computer's registry and record websurfing data, to expand the list of sites Windows Defender and Spysweeper can categorize as safe or dangerous.

    What I think is interesting about all of this is that we expect the convenience of these tools without having to sacrifice anything. It just seems ludicrous. Speaking of which, is anyone else going to go see Fast Five when it comes out?

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  3. Michelle, Thought-provoking and a bit scary. I've turned off the part of Facebook that tells people where I am, but it's frustrating that the information is still out there for the people that are set up to acquire it.

    Of course, when I use my "favored shopper" key tag at the grocery or drugstore, they're keeping track of what I buy, but at least I get discounts and coupons as a result. Not sure what I get from the information transmitted by my smart phone.

    Wonder if wearing my aluminum foil helmet and dressing in natural fibers will prevent Big Brother from picking up information from the fillings in my teeth?

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  4. So why don't we just give all the bad guys and terrorists a free IPhone?

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  5. Great post, Michelle. Facebook and Google especially make me angry because even when you think you've tightened your profile privacy, they find new way to change the rules and invade you. I've quit accessing Facebook off my cell because they broadcasted my number to all my 3500 friends. Apps on your Droid or smart phones are the latest way to data mine things about you for profit and other reasons. Apps are the Trojan Horse.

    And Joe--I think you're on to something.

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  6. I'm telling you, it would never work. I barely get reception in San Francisco. The great irony would be if iPhones actually worked better in Waziristan.
    I bet the bad guys would love angry birds. But then, who doesn't.
    Oh, and Basil, thanks for that mental image. Reaching for the PineSol now...

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  7. The phone wouldn't need to work. As long as the bad guys kept the lithium battery in place, they could be tracked by heat its signature. When I was stationed overseas, they made us take our cellphone batteries out when we went into certain buildings specifically for that reason.

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  8. Any advances have more than one use, and benefits as well as liabilities. While it will aid law enforcement in solving crimes, it also might implicate an innocent person who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. For every advance in protection, we lose a little of something in exchange.

    The other day I was tagging people's names in a picture on my Facebook page and the names came up as soon as I put the cursor on their faces. Freaky, right? They know.

    Orwell was probably right, just bad with dates.

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  9. "Orwell was probably right, just bad with dates."

    My new favorite bumper sticker, JRM.

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  10. Angry orangutans...

    Now there's an app.

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  11. I'd read an article recently saying that Smartphones need to get smarter about security. We have anti-spyware and virus detection on our computers. We need to deploy them on our phones, too.

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  12. Ooooh....I could be rich!

    All the bananas I want!

    interesting monkey fact...banana wine while it sounds good, actually has a very similar taste to terpentine unless you add a ton of sugar...I was one angry orangutan after swallowing a mouthful of that!

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  13. Banana wine? Seriously? Did it come in a box or screw top?

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  14. The people who design these things for Apple, Facebook, Google et al share an attitude that privacy is not a right--it's an afterthought. Anyone who values privacy must remain vigilant. Just ask the 73 million Sony game network users who got their personal information hacked recently. Unfortunately, the hackers usually remain a step ahead of the rest of us when it comes to exploiting privacy exposures for criminal gain.

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  15. #banana wine: it was self induced...home made experiment....baaaad idea

    #Privacy:
    The only real way to stay private is to live stone age style...but then again the person living off the grid is actually the only who doesn't know the stuff that's out there on them, 'they' will still find you.

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  16. I gotta say, banana wine doesn't sound good to me, wine lover though I am. Is angry orangutans really a game?

    I heard about that, Kathryn- and the other day I got a letter from my blood bank after it apparently experienced data theft. Yet I've basically given up on trying to opt out of all the sharing of info between credit cards, banks, etc. Too time consuming (cuts into angry bird playtime).

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  17. Great post. I love this techno-conspiracy stuff. If you haven't seen "Enemy of the State" I highly recommend it. It's a bit dated, but it gives you some great ideas of what's possible with this technology.

    In my novel "Erased" I had my FBI agent use a very real cell phone tracking program that works even when the phone is shut off. Ironically, the target was a senator who had helped pass the law allowing it's use. Sometimes truth is strange enough for fiction. Did you know they're also using face-recognition technology on those cctv cams in the UK now?

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  18. Thanks for the reminder. I forgot to check in today. Someone swiped the mayorship from me last week.

    In all seriousness, nice post. I may have to read that book as there are doubtless parts I can use in my own near-future WIP.

    Also a reality check: Much of our daily lives is already being digitized but so what? There's so much data most of it just gets aggregated somewhere. It's very rarely used on an individual basis and you don't normally trigger that level of intrusion until they are already looking for you... So, keep your nose clean and life will be simpler with targeted ads!

    Basil: Chatroulette much?

    Joe Moore: Great idea but they'd probably not allow their followers to go near them. Filthy western technology! (Now let's all go blog about our angst and skype our brothers in America.)

    Fletch: Thanks for the tip.

    John R: Everything is a tool and can be used for good or ill.

    Nancy: AV protection on most phones is overkill for most users at the moment. Smartphones with their data packages are another thing entirely. I'm sure my Droid X did have something on it and now I run Lookout to prevent a recurrence. (The phone probably cleaned the offending item off by itself though.) All smartphone app networks are controlled by the company so it's far more difficult to get bad stuff on them unlike your average computer connected to the vast and dangerous internet.

    All: Basil is right about the only real way to stay private. I'm afraid we're stuck with the way things are. Better to know you're a target and be vigilant than be oblivious.

    Jordan M: I *loved* enemy of the state. Great movie.

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  19. FYI: Cory Doctorow has made his book LITTLE BROTHER available free for download at http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download/

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  20. I'll step into that conspiracy theory woods with you, Michelle. . . I just got a phone call (as I was reading this, by the way!) from Florida State asking me to vote on approving cameras added to more traffic lights at intersections. I asked her to take my number off the phone list.

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  21. Factoid: In 1985 Big Brother died after a self induced OD of Banana Wine. So who is watching the store?

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