"Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." - William Morris

Big Brother’s Data Aquisition Filters

Posted: June 19th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Privacy & Security | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Cory Doctorow has another interesting piece in the Guardian today about how Britain is collecting too much surveillance data to be useful. His argument is that collecting information about everything and trying to create predictions, be it about weather forecasts or terrorist events, will not lead to success due mainly to the computing power required to process such volumes of information.

Although I agree with his stance about their being too much surveillance in British society, something that could well be damaging our population as a whole by removing our need to have personal responsibility for our actions, I disagree with his overall argument. Yes, collecting the movement of every butterfly in the world to predict the weather would be ridiculous and impossible to deal with, but in the world of more directed, human activities information can be much more revealing. Right now we may not know what behaviours indicate a potential attack, but over time with the right data and good analysis it is conceivable that these behaviours can be isolated and hence our limited Police resources can be deployed more effectively.

We’re talking about artificial augmentation of our senses here. Right now, watching 1000s of CCTV cameras is ineffective on the whole at prevention, but potentially automated matching technology could draw attention to those looking more suspicious, to a level a computer can recognise, and then a human can do the final filtering. No way can a team, however big, watch every person in London. In the same way that no person could do what Google does every time we do a search.

Augmentation and filtering based on our needs is a constantly expanding field as we go past the information age and into the ‘Knowledge Age’, whether for security or personal goals. Having a large pool of, ideally non-identifying, data to work on to create these filters is fundamental to success. Although as each level of filter is deployed and improved, then all that will happen is someone will game the system and find a way round – for comparison, spam blogs didn’t exist a few years ago, and now they are everywhere. That said, should we be trying to create an all seeing ‘Big Brother’ computer system that watches us at all time? That’s an ethical and moral question that is harder to answer.

Does Gmail Conflict with International Privacy Laws?

Posted: March 27th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Privacy & Security | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

An article from Canada’s Globe and Mail talks about some of the data privacy concerns facing Gmail users outside the US. Canada, like the UK and other countries outside of the US, has strong data protection laws for individuals. Canadian companies are required by law to keep user’s data private, and inform their users should any access occur. However Google is based in the US, and thus falls under the remit of the ever more evil and invasive US PATRIOT Act which allows the US Authorities to monitor, read and laugh at pretty much any email communication on a server in their jurisdiction.

Companies that use Google’s corporate services to provide email and other capabilities to their employees could be falling foul of a mix of international regulations. This either makes their use of Google’s services untenable going forward, or maybe Google just needs to start fragmenting into localized companies to deal with this issue. I’m not sure if just hosting the mail servers in each country mitigates the legal issues, or whether the parent company being US based is the main requirement, but I suspect that overseas servers would at least make the US enforcement services need to get a warrant of some kind for suspected ‘terrorists’ rather than ‘all you can eat’ data access for the 99.9999999% of innocent people in the US.

Facebook vs. Your Privacy

Posted: February 29th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Privacy & Security | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Somehow I’d managed to miss the bruhaha about Facebook licencing its users’ photos to newspapers – as witnessed in this case of the shooting of a 14 year old girl in Toronto this New Year. The situation was that the newspapers needed some images of the girl, and rather than just use the ones given out by the police or from the family, they went to the ‘source’ as it were and used some from her Facebook profile.

Wow. That seems to me to be a pretty blatent disregard for your user’s data privacy, and it’s seriously making me think that Facebook is not a good place to be right now. I understand that when I upload content to a social network that I should expect my friends to see it, and everyone if I’ve set the viewing privileges that way, but I’d never expect that content to get in a newspaper. Knowing what my little sister and her friends post on Facebook I’m sure they wouldn’t want any of that out in the public! I mean, people might not know exactly how much she likes kittens.

Perhaps it’s actions like this that will cause Facebook to lose all their visitors, as seems to be the trend right now. Of course it would require people to go somewhere else, as it’s now part of our modern culture to be connected with our friends and contacts over a social network. There are no outstanding candidates for the ‘next’ Facebook right now, however much some sites might think they are it looks like, for the time being at least, that Facebook is the last of the monolithic social sithttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifes. What’s coming down the line is a mix of personal control via your own website, feeds and posting aggregate feeds from sits like Twitter, combined with niche sites where you can focus your groups of contacts together – such as LinkedIn for business, or Flickr for photo friends.

Whatever happens, Facebook’s strikes seem to be coming hard and fast now which is never a good sign. As a company like that grows they have to maintain something of what made them popular in the first place, evolving it to meet the demands of their new users – not selling their user’s commodities in a fire sale when they get a chance. Imagine if Google started selling your search results – how quickly would you find another search engine? Anyways, that’s enough for now – I have to go build the next big social network to capture all Facebook’s users when they leave the sinking ship.

Unlicensed Photos in Blog Posts, An Increasing Scourge

Posted: February 26th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Privacy & Security | Tags: , , | No Comments »

With the blogosphere currently growing at around 120,000 blogs a day it’s no surprise that most of my day seems to be spent stuck behind Google Reader, rapid scanning articles to find something of interest – or something not involving Britney at least. Most professional bloggers know this is how we all work now, so in an effort to grab our attention they use the trick of posting an image into the text. The image, depending on how we react to it, will stop most people in their tracks and make them look more closely at a post. Definitely a handy tool in the blogging arsenal.

So all well and good, blog authors can just take their camera out, snap a few cool photos relating to their well written post, and see the viewership ramp up – and one can only assume their sponsorship and adwords payouts as well. A just reward for creating their own quality content and fostering their audience. But wait. It turns out that most bloggers, professional or otherwise, don’t take their own photos.. What! It seems you can just go to a site like Flickr, search for a photo you like and put it up on your site – generally with a handy link back to the photo’s original owner (the attribution). Clever. Why bother taking a photo when someone already has, and by attributing the photo’s owner also gets kudos. Everyone is happy.

Hold on a mo though. The professional blogger is making money from their post.. but does any of this money go back to the photo owner? I mean. They haven’t paid stock fees or anything. That’s OK though, as most photos on Flickr are under Creative Commons licences – the modern form of licencing that supports things like sharing without profit, and creating derivative works. For example, if I take a photo and want to let other, not for profit organisations or artists take it and edit it as they like, then I can set a licence for that under Creative Commons – I can even require that the new output is ‘share alike’ – ie, it also has to be shared. As Jean-Luc Godard said, “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take things to”. Perfect. Everyone’s happy. If a business wants to use the same photo they can approach the owner and ask to licence it, which generally results in a win win.

So we have a situation where professional bloggers sometimes take CC licenced, non-commercial, photos and putting them on their blogs. What gives with that? These bloggers are, plain and simple, breaking the terms of the licence. Should a professional blogger use fully open licenced photos, with free commercial usage then that’s fine and right, but any other licence does not match with their business use. One could argue that where the image is attributed it’s actually beneficial to the photographer – having their photos exposed to a major blog audience, but again this should be the photographer’s choice – unless it is an appropriate usage such as direct publicising of their work.

To summarize: If you’re writing a blog and want to use a photo, then just make sure the photo is licenced correctly for your use – whether personal (non commerical) or professional (commercial). If in doubt, contact the photographer, or find another photo. For photographers, always keep an eye out for your images being linked and you have every right to ask for it to be removed should you want – of course you might enjoy the extra publicity, but that should be your choice. For the rest of us, if you see images inappropriately used in a post then you can always follow the image attribution link through and let the photographer know their image was used in a post on their site, allowing them to make a decision about their content. In a few years this might become moot, as Google, Flickr or someone, creates a service to search for your images being used across the net – proper image for image searching, not text based.