Monday, August 12, 2013

Spy bins and passive Wi-Fi monitoring

A spy bin in London. Image source: Mona Boshnaq/AFP/Getty Images
The humble litter bin has now become a high tech device with the ability to track people's movements. The Renew ad firm has installed technology that is able to measure Wi-Fi signals in rubbish bins around London's Square Mile. According to The Guardian the advertising firm has suggested that it,
would apply the concept of "cookies" – tracking files that follow internet users across the web – to the physical world.
Renew's chief executive Kaveh Memari, it quoted as saying, "We will cookie the street."

The spy bin's ability to capture the serial numbers of smartphones and analyse signal strength in order to track people's movement's along the street, have not been without controversy and has resulted in the City of London Corporation demanding Renew to withdraw the program.

The data captured from these devices could have potential uses for advertising. For example, the Sydney Morning Herald, suggests that if it enabled companies to see how long people spent in particular locations each day, commercials could be targeted towards individuals:
But if a company could see that a certain smartphone user spent 20 minutes in a McDonald's every day, it could approach Burger King about airing an ad on the bin's video display whenever that user walks by at lunchtime. Or it could target its commercials in real time by distinguishing between people who work in the area and visiting tourists.
Such surveillance has drawn comparisons with the 2002 film Minority Report and raises important questions about privacy as well as public awareness of the extent to which their movements are being watched. The City of London Coporation, who according to The Guardian, only discovered the use of the spy bins via the press, released a statement noting that "Anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public".

The spy bins are being investigated by Britain's data protection watchdog, while the privacy advocate group Big Brother Watch, is urging that questions should be asked  "about how such a blatant attack on people's privacy was able to occur".

Renew chief executive, Memari, released a statement in response to the media interest which he described as being a bit breathless, and commenting on the future potentials of the spy bins:
"A lot of what had been extrapolated is capabilities that could be developed and none of which are workable right now."

But Wi-Fi tracking of smartphone users is not just restricted to rubbish bins. The Economist reported that American fashion retailer, Nordstrom trialed a system that tracked smartphone users as they moved through its stores or walked nearby. The firm did post a public notice about the system, and withdrew the program when it was covered by a Dallas-based television channel. The New York Times was next to take up the story prompting a privacy debate around passive monitoring.

Nordstrom, and several other companies used a system provided by Euclid Analytics, which can track precise movements of phones without having to connect to Wi-Fi networks. According to The Economist,

The technique takes advantage of the fact that Wi-Fi wireless networking protocols are "promiscuous": the Wi-Fi adaptors in laptops, phones and base-stations reveal a lot of information about those devices as they attempt to negotiate connections with other devices nearby. Even before a device hooks onto a Wi-Fi a network, it continuously spews identifying information, including a unique, factory-set identifier, over the air. Most devices send "probe requests" akin to a town crier shouting out the names of networks which the device has previously connected to, so that a nearby base-station that matches any of these requests can respond. The requests run unremittingly across all available frequencies until a connection is made. Even devices that are seemingly turned off, such as sleeping laptops, send out such probes, though at a slower rate. Place several Wi-Fi base-stations in a shop, then, and you can pick up these probe requests, extract the device IDs, trilaterate the positions of the devices sending them, and thus track the movements of individual shoppers, seeing which racks or displays they stop at, and what paths they follow through the store.

The Economist notes that this is just the next step in the evolution of "retail science", which analyses the movements of shoppers and assists retailers in determining where to best place products and displays. While this used be done by video, Wi-Fi allows more accurate tracking. This concerns privacy advocates because despite, signs notifying them of the tracking, the increasing strength of Wi-Fi means that passers by can also be detected. They also note the possibility that monitoring systems could collect the list of known networks on an individual phone and use it to find out further details including place of work or residence about the phone user, from which individual identities can be plausibly be deducted.

After the New York Times article, Euclid and other firms announced they had joined forces with the Future of Privacy Forum, to create a group focused on developing best practices for retail location analytic's companies. Commenting on the new group, Euclid co-founder and CEO, Will Smith, noted, 

“New technologies are helping retailers better understand what customers want and make shopping more convenient for everyone ... Privacy has always been a priority as we’ve designed and built our services, and we are excited to work with FPF to develop best practices for the retail analytics industry.”
Monitoring smartphone user's location via Wi-Fi may help advertisers and retailers but issues of privacy invasion via these systems must be addressed. And this goes beyond purely location to the data that can be extrapolated from movement patterns. Bradley Voytek, a neuroscientist quoted in The New York Times article notes, “The creepy thing isn’t the privacy violation, it’s how much they can infer.”

The following video explains why and how bricks and mortar shops are using Wi-Fi tracking to monitor customers activity in order to keep pace with online vendors.

Future of Privacy Forum director, Jules Polonetsky maintains that,

“Companies need to ensure they have data protection standards in place to de-identify data, to provide consumers with effective choices to not be tracked and to explain to consumers the purposes for which data is being used ... By being transparent about what is going on, location companies and retailers can make sure shoppers understand the benefit of the bargain."

And considering the spy bin incident, this applies just as much to Wi-Fi monitoring on the street as it does inside retails stores.  

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Wearable computing beyond Google Glass...

While Google Glass is receiving lots of attention at the moment, they're not the only ones in on the wearable computing gig.

Italian company GlassUp has just listed their own wearable computing project on a crowdfunding site in order to raise the $150 000 necessary to complete the project.

Maker, Gianluigi Tregnaghi claims it was already working on the GlassUp project two years ago, well before Google announced its own glass. There are differences between the two Augmented Reality glasses. GlassUp is considerably cheaper, at $US399 ($A432) compared to Google Glass' $US1500 ($A1625) price, and does not have as many features. It is described as a "receive only" device which means that unlike Google Glass, customers are not able to respond to email, text or take photos. The display screen is also directly in front of the eye rather than up to the side on Google's version.

According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald and Mashable, the information in the smartphone is sent to the glasses via Bluetooth. The notifications are displayed on GlassUp's lenses, projected in front of the user. Similar to Google Glass, the notifications are based on which apps the user downloads. 

The company has already been receiving trademark attention from Google who, GlassUp claims, has requested they change the product name.

Meanwhile in Australia, Sydney-based company Explore Engage has been developing wearable computing. For the past two years, the company has devoted $2 million to creating prototype smart glasses. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the company is positioning its glasses as a challenger to Google's version. Explore Engage's chief technology officer, Paul Kouppas notes that certain things aren't possible on Google Glass because they are monocular and not directly augmenting your line of sight. Explore Engage however is augmenting both lenses directly in the user's field of view which means they can put content right in front of your vision.

Explore Engage's Augmented Reality Glasses. Image source: The Sydney Morning Herald

The company is working up navigation, education, tourism, real-time translation, home entertainment, gaming, medical and sports-event glasses apps. The team wants to next work on apps for the glasses which include a CPR instructions overlay with voice prompts for what to do in an emergency, and, a cycling "heads up display" which provides route and safety information, navigation and communication between riders. In a departure from Google's mass market ambitions, Explore Engage says its niche product is, 
"more about particular use cases and bespoke design first, and mass marketing second...You could do a bit of a mashup between something like Second Life and a game like Doom, and allow them to co-exist in the real world."

Kouppas demonstrated the glasses on Cybershack:

So despite the attention currently being give to Glass, there are other contenders in the wearable computing game offering versions tailored to the contexts in which they see the possibilities for augmented reality most relevant. If you're keen on wearing AR glasses, it appears that once these models have been developed there will be increasing choice, making it easier to find a glass that suits you.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Google Glass and Mobile First-Person Journalism

There has been a lot of discussion around the usefulness and appropriateness of Google Glass. While many of the suggested uses focus on its Augmented Reality attributes and new ways of seeing the world, The Guardian recently reported on a more grounded and noteworthy use - that of "mobile first-person" journalism.

Tim Pool, is taking advantage the particular qualities of our smart devices for "mobile first-person journalism". Smartphones, live streaming apps, 3G, and affordable drones, offer an opportunity for the journalism endeavors of both professional journalists and ordinary citizens to stream events captured on their phones and other devices, that give them access to images and events that may otherwise be beyond the reach of traditional journalism. For example, people actually living through political instability, or involved in the protests can film events as they're happening and stream or post them without the censorship sometimes experienced by the media. For example, Pool himself, turned a commercially available remote controlled drone into "Occucopter" which flew over Occupy protests and streamed live footage via smartphone to the world. This was particularly useful when police were trying to keep journalists away during the police removal of protesters from Zuccotti Park during Occupy.

More recently however, Pool has been using Google Glass to cover protests in Istanbul. As a "Glass Explorer", Pool has had the opportunity to trial Glass and has found it is particularly useful for live streaming protests:

"When there's a wall of police firing plastic bullets at you, and you're running through a wall of tear-gas, having your hands free to cover your face, while saying 'OK Glass, record a video', makes that recording process a lot… easier," says Pool. 
"As soon as I saw Google Glass, I realised that it would allow me to do what I always do with this first-person live recording, but my hands would be free... I don't want to stand filming in front of the water cannon and guys with Molotovs. I want to show you what it's like to be there as best I can, even if that ends with me running full-speed into a cafe and rubbing lemons all over my face after being tear-gassed."
"There's no one standing in front of you: you're looking through a window at this event. And with social media, people can chat with me while I'm broadcasting, and chat to one another, which is just as powerful."

Pool has been working for Vice covering the protests in Istanbul, Cairo and Brazil during 2013 but has been doing this style of journalism since Occupy Wall Street in 2011.  Rather than seeing it replacing traditional journalism, he sees it as complementary, and his coverage has also been broadcast by major media networks. However data connection is a major issue with mobile journalism particularly when livestreaming. To accommodate this Pool takes multiple SIM cards enabling him to switch networks if they drop out. But even without livestream video, mobile-first journalism can provide useful commentary. He notes a recent example where a teenage girl's tweeting of a shooting in shopping mall in Wisconsin, became the primary source of information for journalists.

But Glass is proving particularly apt for "mobile first-person journalism" or "citizen journalism". A clip was recently posted on YouTube of "The First Fight and Arrest Caught on Glass", and while the majority of what is on film is a crowd of people, and a pretty uneventful arrest, the clip demonstrates the potentials - both good and privacy encroaching - that Glass can offer.

On the upside, it can encourage "citizen journalism", and  in cases as the fight above you can easily see its uses as evidence or if there had been police misconduct. It could also capture less serious and more entertaining events. In this sense it is not much different from the filming capabilities of a mobile phone, except that it is less obvious and hands-free which makes it easier to use. On the downside are the obvious privacy and surveillance concerns. As Stop the Cyborgs note, 

Notice the long tracking shots. Also notice that no one notices. Now imagine 10% of the population doing this all the time, walking in and out of buildings and homes. Imagine all this data being time stamped and geotagged, flowing to a large database in the cloud. A omniscient eye; a real time streetview extending into homes and businesses; society as a glass prism.

The ability for Glass to take surveillance to an even more creepy level is obvious. But Stop the Cyborg's also raise the question in relation to "citizen journalism", whether Glass will actually transform what events we see:

While undoubtedly it is true that more news footage will be captured by amateurs, this does not mean that citizens will become investigative journalists exposing systematic issues. Rather citizens will become crowd sourced paparazzi and informers. They will of course expose celebs. They will catch the occasional crime or even Rodney King style police abuse not just humorous incidents. However this will still be embedded within the dominant dispositif. They will contribute images to be judged by the existing legal, economic and media apparatus rather than challenging it. This is not the activist journalism of Indymedia, secret revelations of ‘Spies For Peace‘ and Wikileaks, or the muck raking investigation of Private Eye but rather the crowd sourced submission of America’s Funniest Home Videos or World’s Dumbest criminals. Video is typically something which reveals human actions rather than systematic organizational issues. The normalizing gaze is extended and reproduced not fundamentally challenged by placing cameras on people’s heads.

Thus while Glass may give us tools to see the world in a new way, what we choose to see is not always determined by the technology, but by us.