Archive for May, 2012

They’ve Your Data, Whether You’re on Facebook or Not!

May 30, 2012 Leave a comment

(c) Facebook

Yes, there are still some people out there who refuse to join Facebook. And they refuse for good reasons, such as their personal privacy. However, it seems like Facebook has grown so big already, that staying off of it won’t protect your privacy as much as you think. According to a recent publication at the University of Heidelberg / Germany, it is possible to determine with an accuracy of at least 85% (!) if two people know each other, even if both are not on Facebook! Using machine learning methods, which analyze common friends of members as well as email contacts, scientists could deduct common friends of non-members and guess if two non-members know each other. And this does not even factor in such questionable practices as uploading cellphone contacts to social networks!

This is a quite significant finding, which shows that social networks like Facebook have become so ubiquitous that they have significant information about us, even if we never agreed to that. In many cases we cannot decide anymore what happens with our data, our “friends” or social networks decide for us!


“Spying Lamp Posts” Not So Scary After All

May 24, 2012 2 comments

Not believing everything you read on the Internet is generally good advice and this is just another good example.

In October 2011 Infowars, among many other blogs, reported about new “spying lamp posts” that covertly record videos and audio of citizens on streets and parks and are even able to “talk back” using integrated microphones. They called it “Big Brother on steroids” and something that not even Orwell dreamed of.

Now, the first of these lamp posts are being deployed in several cities in the US and accordingly the blogosphere is raging again, scaring us about secret spying lamp posts. However, instead of just re-blogging this, granted, very nice story, I would like to take it as an example how some things we read on the Internet are just bullshit. It is a good example how someone just read what he/she wanted to read about a product and made a “scandal” out of it. Because if you look at the “incriminating” company video (below this post) or just the company website of the developer Intellistreets there is no mention of people being filmed or otherwise surveilled (their statement following this story is interesting as well). Actually, these lamp posts sound pretty cool, intelligently saving energy and money and providing safety features in case of an incident.

Unfortunately, sometimes people just hear what they want to hear and make a flashy headline. It is important to check at least basic facts before re-blogging such a story. Reporting facts might be more important than a headline, which gets many clicks. Maybe the world is not as bad as many think!

Concerned About Privacy? Probably you are a Terrorist!

May 21, 2012 Leave a comment

As part of a campaign by the FBI and the US Department of Justice, 25 different flyers for different industries were distributed to businesses to look out for suspicious activity that might indicate terrorism. There are flyers for Airports, shopping malls, the general public and even tattoo shops. However, the flyer for internet cafes is particularly interesting (funny, that is). It states that people who are “overly concerned about privacy, attempt to shield the screen from view of others” are suspicious, potential terrorists and should be reported to the FBI.

This is not the first time FBI flyers made some people upset. In 1999 (“discovered” by the Internet in 2001) the FBI distributed a similar flyer suggesting that people who “defend the US constitution” are terrorists. While in Austria no-one would even think about doing such a thing, the constitution in the US is something quite sacred.

I wonder if such flyers really help finding terrorists or criminals or if they just provide a hobby for bored neighbors to spy on each other. But I doubt there are any public studies about that.

Twitter Fights for Occupy Protester: Data Belongs to User!

May 16, 2012 1 comment

Last October an Occupy Wall Street protester was arrested for “disorderly conduct” in New York City. As part of his prosecution Twitter received a court order, requiring it to hand over 3 months of Twitter data to the court. The prosecutors obviously hoped that he sent some infringing direct messages since usual Twitter messages are public anyway. It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Twitter would have handed over the data without complaining. However, recently the company refused! And not only that, the amazing part is that they did this because they state that the data belongs to their users! Thus, the court has to ask the user to hand over the data (who is not very willing either). This is an astounding development, given that generally Internet companies make their privacy policies stricter so they can do whatever they want with their users data.

These are the cases when companies can show how serious they take their privacy policy and, essentially, on which side they are on.

Artist Implanted Camera in Back of his Head

May 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Wafaa Bilal implanted a camera in the back of his head

In an interesting or crazy performance (depending on your point-of-view I guess), Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal implanted a camera in
the back of his head, which took a snapshot once every 60 seconds for a year (December 2010 – December 2011). This photo was automatically posted to the performance website and to the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar to be viewed by anyone interested. Additionally, his current GPS coordinates were shown as well. He explained the reasoning behind the performance as “a comment on the inaccessibility of time, and the inability to capture memory and experience,” and further that he always wished to have a record of places left behind (he lived in several arab refugee camps after fleeing Iraq during the first Gulf war).

This performance triggered a privacy discussion on university campus, which forced him to cover the camera while being there. However, I’m surprised that this was not a bigger issue, outside the campus. What about people on the street? They just become part of the performance, without consent or even knowledge about it. However, this is a very good example of how a Transparent Society might look like in the future, where we achieve equality by complete and ultimate transparency. Recently, retinal implants successfully let patients see again in the UK. Wouldn’t cameras implanted into the eye be an interesting idea for the not-so-distant future?

Reading Privacy Policies Would Cost us 250 hours per year

May 2, 2012 1 comment

Google's unified privacy policy

A paper, already published in 2008, by Aleecia McDonald and Lorrie Cranor of the Carnegie Mellon University, suggests that the time needed to read all privacy policies we accept in our daily online lives amounts to 250 hours of “work” in a year and the cost of reading these policies amounts to $781 Billion per year. It is obvious that no one can spare the time to read these policies and I do not know anyone who does. It is also obvious that these are not there to inform the user in any way but to create legal protection for the companies against lawsuits. As a result, it is claimed that only 3% percent of users read the policies carefully (though this number still sounds quite high to me, the original study does not seem to be available anymore).

Even though quite controversial, I believe the new Google Privacy Policy, which unifies privacy policies from all Google services, is a step in the right direction. At least they try to explain to the user what it means. Also Facebook recently proposed to update their policies in order to be easier to understand for users. And since a large portion of services we use are Google or Facebook anyway, we save a big chunk from those 250 hours per year…

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