Putting An Old Face On Privacy

And A New Face On The Solution

George Orwell passed away 70 years ago today (January 21st), so in commemoration, it seemed ‘right to write’ about privacy, security, surveillance, et al. Were he to see where we have got to since he wrote Animal Farm (published 1945) and 1984 (published 1949), I think he would not so much be ‘Resting in Peace’ as ‘Turning in his Grave’.

I was chatting with a new friend. Intelligent, bright, interesting ... and as we talked, the topics drifted towards 'surveillance capitalism'. I was rapping on my usual themes, to which he responded

"I don't get it, I have nothing to hide, it's only the bad guys that should be worried."

And as I started to respond, I slowed down to a stop and changed the subject because I still need to work out how to explain the Google, Facebook et al business models and their impact on society if they continue unfettered - without coming off as a total nut job/foil-head/off-the-grid survivalist.

SIDE NOTE - the newsletter is little longer than usual - so if you want to speed read I have divided the post up with handy dandy separators. Each section relatively self contained.

But I’ve done nothing wrong!

If you think the loss of privacy doesn’t matter, because you have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide, consider the words of Ben Wizner, a director of the American Civil Liberties Union and a legal adviser to Edward Snowden

"For every single one of us, there is some pile of aggregated data that exists, the publication of which would cause us enormous harm and, in some cases, even professional and personal ruin. Every single one of us has a database of ruin."

… Ben Wizner

… but wait - Ed Snowden is hardly the ‘average citizen’ I hear you cry.

That’s right, but he does know what he is talking about and without him, much of what we the people know about what our government and corporations are doing would still be hidden from us.

Today, it’s better. Now everything is hidden in plain sight.

Twenty Eight ways - and that’s just the start.

Let’s start with just 28 ways companies and governments can collect your personal data and invade your privacy every day.

When, exactly did ‘we the people’ ever agree that this was all right?

Of course today it is ‘common knowledge’ that London has more surveillance cameras than any other city in the world. Except it doesn’t. London actually has more surveillance cameras per head of population than any other city. Except it doesn’t (the methodology used to arrive at those statements is flawed).

But what we do know is that whatever the number, it is BIG.

A BSIA survey covered the whole of the UK, not just London, and its maximum estimate suggested there was a CCTV camera for every 11 people in the country though it said the most likely figure was closer to one for every 14 people.

BSIA (pdf)

In London, for 2019 that puts the number well in excess of 600,000 - but most of them are private;

  • TfL operates 15,516 cameras across the London Underground network.

  • The City of London Police has 110 surveillance cameras.

And really there is a big difference between private security cameras that a store uses and a police network isn’t there?

Isn’t there?

Private -v- Public.

In San Francisco, privacy advocates are concerned over a billionaire-funded surveillance camera network that has been built. It is a private network, or more accurately it is a series of private networks, that utilizes facial recognition software to catch the bad guys. All good - but wait …

… didn’t San Francisco pass a law last year banning the use of facial recognition?

They did and law enforcement now has to jump through all kinds of hoops to buy such surveillance software - but nothing stops them just getting the information from those private sources.

And it’s not just in San Francisco.

Ever heard of Clearview? Thought not. Few have. But you may remember that funny little app a couple of years ago that let you put Donald Trump’s yellow hair on your own photos. That app came to you courtesy of Mr. Ton-That who is also the brains behind Clearview.

In addition to Mr. Ton-That, Clearview was founded by Richard Schwartz — who was an aide to Rudolph W. Giuliani when he was mayor of New York — and backed financially by Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist behind Facebook and Palantir.

Clearview has already scraped billions (that is a ‘b’) of images from web sites and social media and copied them all into a big database, together with the meta-information associated with those images. Now, take a picture of anybody, drop it into the ‘black box’ and back will come all the images that the system has deemed is that same person. Law Enforcement organizations across the US have taken a deep interest in this system. Not because they are investigating them - but because they want to use it. (The company has even made it all very easy - by providing access to the system as a free trial - maybe that explains why hundred of authorities are using the system.)

Again, this is not a rant against law enforcement. It is a wake-up call as to what is being done by your elected officials and police forces who arguably serve at the pleasure of ‘we the people’. Are we good with their decisions?

But surely, eventually, we will rein it all in?

Are we?

We know that in places like Honk Kong, Iran, Russia and China facial recognition technologies are routinely used - but did you know that the Trump campaign has been using tracking technologies at their rallies? How long before they are used to pick out people they don’t like? Oh, wait. (Spoiler alert - they aren’t - but only because they have been told that the tech isn’t reliable enough yet, not that they shouldn’t.)

And if you are Trump why wouldn’t you use the same technologies at protests against your administration to identify those that are against you and your policies so that the administration can threaten and cajole the dissenters (I choose the word specifically and carefully). It happens elsewhere - why not in the USA?

Couple that with a recent funding round of $120M to deploy indoor positioning tech to find people in skyscrapers. Why? To help the likes of Lyft and Uber and food delivery services make it easier to deliver/find you in that additional ‘third dimension’. It’s all well and good knowing that you are on ‘Park and 56th- but what floor?

Seriously? THAT’s why they have taken $120 million (and counting) in funding? To make it easier to deliver your lunch?

Remember Cambridge Analytica (that went well didn’t it). What they did was illegal - and there have been zero consequences for anybody involved. ZERO. And those people continue their work under new names. Check out Emerdata - the link takes you to the corporate structure of Cambridge Analytica, SCL and Emerdate - they are all essentially the same thing.

SCL - the mothership still has an online presence. Their home page reads …

Indeed. A very good question and put in those terms we start to understand why Erik Prince (Blackwater and Betsy Devos’ brother) might be so tight to Trump’s single largest election funds - Robert Mercer and his family, all the old Cambridge Analytica staff and of course Trump supporter Peter Thiel.

We will only get smart cities if we are smart.

Which brings it all to our environment. The cities where most of us live.

The new cities that we are building and shaping. The ‘smart cities’ that people like Google’s Sidewalk Labs are attempting to bring to Toronto (as one example), but of course smart cities need ‘sensors’ to properly work and as Cory Doctorow has pointed out that …

“It all comes down to whether you are a sensor – or a thing to be sensed … and anyone who’s used these technologies for more than a few minutes quickly starts to suspect that they are … just another thing to be sensed and acted upon from a distance.”

The case for cities that aren't dystopian surveillance states does an excellent job at explaining how ‘smart’ came to be a bad thing, highlights what is wrong with the current situation and how easily we can change it. If there is a will.

“Imagine a human-centred smart city that knows everything it can about things. It knows how many seats are free on every bus, it knows how busy every road is, it knows where there are short-hire bikes available and where there are potholes. It knows how much footfall every metre of pavement receives, and which public loos are busiest.

What it doesn’t know is anything about individuals in the city.”

Me. I think there is a will - but that will needs to be made known. It is not. We are being divided and conquered and shaped to the will of ‘the controllers’.

If it sounds utopian, it’s only because of how far we have come from the idea of a city being designed to serve its demos, rather than its lordly masters. We must recover that idea. As a professional cyberpunk dystopian writer, I’m here to tell you that our ideas were intended as warnings, not suggestions.

… Cory Doctorow

Do Not Track

When I read the NYT’s article, I noticed that they had nine trackers embedded on the site from Optimizely, Google, Amazon, Media.Net, Doubleclick and the NYT itself. Glad to see that they are so concerned about people being tracked!

Which made me wonder about the other sites I linked to. Here’s the ‘411’.

  • The Hill - 21

  • Android Authority - 15

  • Business Insider - 15

  • Kron 4 - 13

  • Buzzfeed - 13

  • Vox/Recode - 12

  • Techcrunch - 9

  • New York Times - 9

  • The Guardian - 8

  • Amazon - 7

  • Medium - 6

  • CCTV.co.uk - 3

  • Front 404 - 2

  • The Intercept - 2

  • BSIA - 1

  • People First - 1 (It seems that even I am not innocent. I use a special font from Adobe for the People First site. Today I learnt that as a result of that - I have an ‘essential tracker’ embedded on my site. I need to explore exactly what it is doing!)

This type of tracking has been going on for years. The tech being used is over ten years old. Everybody knows about. We don’t like it. It still continues. So why do we think that newer technlologies like facial recognition, AI, machine learning, algorithms are somehow going to be brought under control? Let’s be clear. If Amazon is offering free facial recognition for anyone who signs up for AWS, how does that genie get back in the bottle?

Georges Birthday

If all of this seems a little too Orwellian for you, well it’s been going on a long time. Orwell died 70 years ago today (Jan 21st) and though death is not something we celebrate, births are, so back in 2013 the Dutch art collaborative Front 404 celebrated his 110th birthday by putting party hats on surveillance cameras throughout Utrecht.

I think its important to remember and act with humour. With art. The very things that don’t seem to be understood by the people and organizations who seek to be ‘the masters’.

This Week’s Eight Pillar Index

My thanks for your continued support and attention. Please do like the post, share through your social channels of choice and forward the email to colleagues, friends and family that want to join us on this journey. I truly appreciate all of your support and all your comments (positive and negative).