Wednesday, October 9, 2013

In Google We Trust

Technologically connected but where does our data go? Image source: ABC Four Corners

The ABC current affairs program, Four Corners, recently broadcast an episode that looked at life in the digital age, In Google We Trust. The episode followed the a day in the life of your "average" Australian family, looking at how the everyday technologies they use, create a profile of their movements interests, likes, communications and the extent of the data networks that this information travels through. The program also discusses the opportunities for surveillance, tracking and the general erosion of privacy that these technologies enable, often without much public awareness of these intrusions. Many of these are known to us and our readers here at The Politics of Location, some which will be reiterated in today's post, along with a few examples which are new to us.

The first member of the family to be the focus of the camera's attention is their teenage daughter, Christina. She likes to visit sites such as YouTube, tumblr and instagram to keep up to date with what people and celebrities are doing. She also likes Selena Gomez. Of course, the use of these sites raises the question of privacy agreements required for using such services and whether or not the majority of people read them, and if they do, whether they actually understand them. The answer is a resounding "No". No surprises there. According to Alistair MacGibbon, from the Center for Internet Safety, and former federal police officer:
Even if there are 156 pages of terms and conditions very conveniently though that checkbox is on page one, and I suspect that the majority of Australians have never read a privacy policy and if they had, they probably couldn't understand it.
Furthermore, he notes that people should not be lapsed into a false sense of security based on the familiarity of the environment from which they're accessing the net:
If we think that we're in our lounge room or bedroom engaging in the internet, that it's just us - there're an awful lot of people looking over your shoulder.
This means, that even before Christina starts her school day, her online activity and the data that generates is already travelling internationally and being tracked, providing advertisers with information to directly target marketing to her.  This doesn't really bother Christina because she believes she there is no sensitive information that can be gathered from her internet use and she isn't using her accounts to do anything secret, although one might be doubtful if liking Selena Gomez is something you want shared. But that doesn't particularly seem to bother a twelve year old. The basic message here though is that privacy agreements are often unclear and convoluted, deterring users from perusing and comprehending them fully. Thus people sign up without being fully aware what data is being collected and how it will be used. The data creates a digital profile of the user and companies frequently use this data for targeted advertising. They know a lot about you.

Next up is teenage son Alexi, who is the highest app user in the family. On the topic of apps, Troy Hunt, Internet Security Officer, is quick to point out that apps essentially do what your internet browser does, and again makes your online activity trackable and able to be intercepted. Alexi's apps are scrutinised by Hunt and he finds that some of the apps that users would consider as trustworthy actually have some major security problems, the example here being the app of the NRL team, the Sydney Roosters. Their protocol wasn't encrypted which meant that personal information and credit card data entered into the site would be available to anybody observing the connection. The Sydney Roosters have since fixed this problem.

The problem with apps, according to Hunt, is that they often operate on user trust:

So that's a real problem with this app and it's unfortunate when you're sitting at a PC and you're doing your banking or you're doing your shopping, you get a little padlock icon and you can sort of look for that, and you get some sort of confidence in the security of the website. But you don't get that in an app, so all you know with an app is that these guys are saying, hey trust me with your credit card details - so that one basically has not even an attempt at securing your credentials.

Reporter, Geoff Thompson, next turns his attention to the father, Jim, a financial planner who travels to work by motorbike. Etags are mentioned in passing as a trade off between convenient automatic billing and the road authorities knowing when he uses the tolls. What is news to Jim, and also to us here at this blog, is that NSW Roads and Maritime Services is downloading information on his mobile phone by scanning its Bluetooth signal as he passes particular streetlights. This obviously raises concerns about what data is being stored and whether it is de-identified, as Hunt notes:

It's a question of what they're actually capturing and saving, I mean the concern that I would have is are they tracking identifiable information about individuals, because if they're tracking identifiable information and they're doing it at multiple points, then they're tracking everything from your personal movements, to the average speed that you could be carrying, that would be a bit of a concern to me, it's a question though of whether it's de-identified or not.

The Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) is collecting the Media Access Control (MAC) addresses of mobile phones at 16 sets of traffic lights in inner Sydney. MAC addresses are unique identifiers of mobile phones and similar devices (we talked about their use in so-called 'Spy Bins' in London here). They are not considered as personal information by Australian privacy laws because the phone's owner is not easily identified by the address. This however doesn't mean its not invading privacy or doesn't have the potential to. As Hunt cautions,
this might be one of those cases where you want to get a definition of personal information, is a unique device address personal information? You know, maybe it is not, but it does still track an individual's movements, ah so whether or not they admit to actually tracking it, the capability is there.
The RMS issued a statement in response to the Four Corner's inquiries claiming that,

The devices receive the Bluetooth MAC address but no other identifying information is captured. MAC addresses are anonymous data.
The signals provide RMS with data to show the number of vehicles passing through intersections at particular times which then helps RMS monitor traffic flows. Unlike other devices with measure traffic volumes, this method allows RMS to measure traffic flow and provide information on trip and exit times to customers.

Despite this Four Corners uses examples of technologies which ended up having impacts beyond what was initially intended.San Francisco's toll tag, is one such example, for despite being introduced only with the intention for automatic billing, it eventually had impact on divorce proceedings. The movements of spouses became important information, and the courts acted to subpoena such information from the tags.

The fact that Jim drives to work also brings up the issue of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (APNR) technology which takes photographs of number plates and identifies any "problem" vehicles. Introduced in late 2009, the technology is now installed on 280 police cars across NSW. The cameras take six photos a second and these photos are stored on a data base for approximately five years. But the scanners don't discriminate on which vehicles they photograph. All number plates in view are targeted whether they are doing something illegal or not. According to Four Corners, since 2009 the NSW police force has captured and stored more than 208,799,000 number plates. However, the police are reluctant to explain how exactly they use this data, noting that there are strict protocols for accessing and retrieving the stored information and that none of it is personal, while offering a general statement that:
"The information collected by the ANPR units - car photo, registration plate number ... and where and when the photo was taken - is stored in a separate data base for about five years."
However, as the episode notes, this is essentially a database of where you've been and when for the past for years. Hunt believes we have reason to question the innocuousness of the technology:
Without any confirmation to the contrary, and I can understand why they'd want to be cagey about something like this, that's really the only conclusion you can draw right? Because we know that the data's being collected, we know we have the technology to match a numberplate in one location to a numberplate in another location, I mean this is, this is very basic stuff. So you have to draw the conclusion that that yes they, you know, this is all getting put together at some point.
This clearly shows the potential for metadata to be stored and used to link people and events over a period of years. This potential is voiced by the Australian Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, who notes that:
Metadata can tell quite a lot about a person's activity in terms of the times they're transmitting and who they're transmitting data to or having communications with, certainly it can provide quite a lot of information.
And there are more than 300 000 metadata requests made each year.

However, it is not just internet data, apps, number plates, etags, and mobile phones that are surrendering our data. Thompson, now turns to the mother of the family, Helen, who is heading out to do the grocery shopping. This of course brings up Coles "Flybuys" and Woolworths "Everyday Rewards".

Rob Scott, Finance Director for Coles, claims that the FlyBuys system is an extension of what retailers have been doing for years, in getting to know the customer, what products they need and like, and then tailoriing their services and stock to the customer. As Alastair MacGibbon notes, "loyalty cards and rewards programs are about collecting information about you. Again, it's a perfectly legitimate thing to do, so long as you go into it with your eyes wide open."

It is noted that Woolworth's has bought a 50% share in data analysis company, Quantium, giving Woolworth's access not only to the data of its own clients, but many of Quantium's other clients. This provides Woolworth's with a greater understanding of the buying habits of its own and other customers. Although the data that both companies share supposedly is de-identified, such data is still incredibly valuable in showing customer habits more broadly, which helps businesses to further tailor their products and services to the customer's wants.

Back at home, Helen opens up her yahoo account. Doing so means that her data is re-routed through computer servers in the United States and which of course, as the whistle blowing revelations on the National Security Agency earlier this year showed, makes Helen's data subject to interception by foreign intelligence agencies, something she is not comfortable with. While some "If you haven't done anything wrong, you don't have to worry" rhetoric is rolled out, Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that,

US citizens have, at least in theory, some constitutional rights that protect their data from access by the US government. Those rights don't extend to non-US persons, which means that Australian's data, when it's kept in the United States, has no real legal protection from the government...It gets worse because, not only is there no good legal protections from the US government, 'cause the US government shares its intelligence and research with the rest of the world, including potentially the Australian government. So you have this incredible trade off where the Australian legal system has good protections to prevent data just ending up in the hands of the Australian law enforcement, without you know a good warrant or a judicial process. But that doesn't stop the US from handing data on Australian citizens straight over to those same parties without any of those legal safeguards.

With the potential surveillance and data gathering opportunities in the domestic sphere discussed, the episode moves onto the final member of the Pappas family yet to be addressed, eldest daughter, Katerina. Meeting a friend at Westfield, Bondi Junction, Katerina's movements are monitored by CCTV but also have the potential to be tracked by the shopping center using her mobile phone. Four Corners notes that Westfield's privacy policy claims that,
"...where devices are able to connect to, or are identifiable by, in-centre infrastructure, we may collect data including usage, location and type of device"
Although Westfield states that they are currently not tracking customers via mobile phones despite having the technology installed in three Australian sites. The importance placed on such technologies is demonstrated by the creation of Westfield Labs, a division of Westfield based in San Francisco, which is tasked with developing and perfecting ways to collect data on customers. Another company, RetailNext, has already developed their own version of in-store tracking, something we discussed in a previous blog post. Katerina, understandably is not comfortable with the idea of tracking her movements through the shopping center by wi-fi, suggesting for an opt in, opt out policy.

The Future of Retail. Image Source: Westfield Labs

But it is not quite safe to leave Westfield without another privacy hazard! According to Four Corners, Westfield parking station trialed technology to help shopper locate their cars. This required photographing and uploading the images of every parked car. Hunt, however, had found a security flaw which has now been addressed. It had been possible to obtain more information than the four possible car matches that the product had intended. According to Hunt, anybody with an internet connection could access information on which cars were in the shopping center and when:
And they would get a list of every vehicle that was currently in the car park and then they could repeat it every sixty seconds, every five minutes, whenever they wanted to, so you would get a profile of who's coming and going and how long they're staying.
The episode concludes back at the Pappas' s house, where the complexity of digital assets ownership, particularly after death and the idea of people's data outliving them, is discussed. The relative "newness" of this issue is noted, along with the need to find ways to deal with this, answers to which are far from complete.

That distinguishing between our physical and digital identity is becoming increasingly difficult is remarked upon by Thompson, and the episode has reflected the increasing intertwining of the two through our everyday lives, often through processes of which we are not aware, or only partly so. Our data footprints reveal a considerable amount of detail about ourselves, even if the data is de-identified or not, and it is increasingly salient to develop ways to manage this data in a way that finds a balance with privacy, regardless of whether some commentators have already touted the death of privacy.

It suggests the increasing blurring of the boundaries between public and private places and selves. Many see their mobile phone as a personal and private device, but clearly as this report has showed, the information contained on them can be obtained in public spaces, such as with the MAC address gathering, and without clear explanation of why, or what is used for. This also denotes a disparity between people's perceptions of what is private and what law or government define as personal information, based on ideas of de-identified information, which need to be re-assessed. Because the collection, storing and access to big data raises a multitude of issues concerning privacy, security, policing, government and power, as well as the potential to abuse that power. As O'Brien comments,
I don't think any social system, any government, can survive knowing everything about its citizens without ultimately that being corrupted. I mean I wouldn't be able to take that power. I don't think anyone would want or to take that power, um. But once you've got it, you're gonna find a use for it.

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