The United States of Authoritarianism

I’m read­ing Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s ‘The New Dig­i­tal Age’ at the moment. It’s a fair­ly dry look at the near future, both per­son­al and polit­i­cal, and the impact of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy. It’s (obvi­ous­ly) in favour of every­thing Google are doing — to the extent that anonymi­ty is seen as a gen­er­al­ly unfavourable aim, except in extreme cir­cum­stances — and has the occa­sion­al out-of-place digres­sion (not sure how the robot­ic hair­dress­ing machine fits into the new dig­i­tal age), but is over­all much more inter­est­ing than not.

One thing that’s obvi­ous, how­ev­er, is that it was writ­ten before the NSA/GCHQ leaks, as gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance isn’t men­tioned as some­thing that we in the West would do. In fact there’s a sec­tion on the dif­fer­ence between author­i­tar­i­an regimes and democ­ra­cies, in which it says:

[Author­i­tar­i­an] regimes will com­pro­mise devices before they are sold, giv­ing them access to what every­body says, types and shares in pub­lic and in pri­vate.

Which, if the allegations/rumours/conspiracies about the Intel back­door and Apple SSL hole (for exam­ple) turn out to be true and based on cre­at­ing secu­ri­ty flaws rather than exploit­ing them, would put the US very much in the author­i­tar­i­an camp.

Privacy, permission, and opting out

Ear­li­er today I got an update noti­fi­ca­tion for the Face­book app for Android, and to install the update I had to agree to some new per­mis­sions:BcFRREcIAAA9tvW.jpg_large

The thing is, I don’t agree to those new per­mis­sions. So I tweet­ed this:

Looks like this new update to Face­book for Android means it’s time to unin­stall the app.

It seemed to hit a pop­u­lar nerve and got retweet­ed a hand­ful of times, but then I start­ed to get peo­ple telling me I was in error or hav­ing a knee-jerk reac­tion. Twitter’s 140 char­ac­ters are great for short bites but some­what lack­ing in con­text, so I thought I’d (hasti­ly) put togeth­er this expla­na­tion.

I don’t believe that my per­son­al data should be a con­di­tion for installing an app. I believe that when an app or ser­vice wants my data, it’s enter­ing into an exchange with me. For me to be hap­py with the exchange, I need a sat­is­fac­to­ry answer to these three ques­tions:

  1. For what pur­pose do you want my data?
  2. What do I get in return?
  3. How can I get my data delet­ed if I change my mind?

In my opin­ion, Facebook’s expla­na­tions aren’t sat­is­fac­to­ry. In the case of SMS per­mis­sions, they give the exam­ple of using SMS con­fir­ma­tion codes for autho­ri­sa­tion. This is a rea­son­able exam­ple, but the word­ing is clear that it is only an exam­ple of what they require the per­mis­sion for.

That caus­es what is, to me, an unac­cept­able ambi­gu­i­ty: a per­mis­sion may be grant­ed for a use I deem rea­son­able now, but once grant­ed it doesn’t have to be request­ed again for a rea­son which I may find unrea­son­able.

Per­haps it doesn’t mean that, and maybe I’m being para­noid, or unchar­i­ta­ble, or think­ing the worst, but to be hon­est, I’m a very light Face­book user and I don’t need the has­sle of work­ing out whether that’s the case or not.

So I don’t agree with the lat­est per­mis­sion requests, and as they’re not option­al requests I took the only course of action open to me and unin­stalled the app. I’m not think­ing about ter­mi­nat­ing my Face­book account, I can avoid the per­mis­sions issue by using the mobile web­site instead, so I will.

If Android had an option­al per­mis­sions mod­el, or if there were def­i­nite guar­an­tees from Face­book about what these per­mis­sions were required for, this would have all passed with­out inci­dent.

There are, of course, much big­ger con­ver­sa­tions being held about per­son­al data and pri­va­cy, but it’s almost Christ­mas and I should stop writ­ing this.

OK, Computer

Ever since Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion I’ve har­boured a dream of hav­ing a com­put­er like the one on The Enter­prise; one that uses nat­ur­al lan­guage pars­ing to under­stand your ques­tion, can give you the answer to almost any­thing, and can reply to you audi­bly. Of course, today this is no longer a dream; with Siri, Google Now* and var­i­ous sim­i­lar inter­net-enabled appli­ca­tions the sci-fi dream is only the press of a but­ton away.

But there’s one impor­tant aspect of the Star Trek com­put­er that every­one seems less keen on: the voice com­mand acti­va­tion. The TV show com­put­er is acti­vat­ed with a pre­fix: “Com­put­er: …”. Now we have prod­ucts like Google Glass, Motoro­la X, and Xbox One Kinect which promise the same func­tion­al­i­ty (“OK Glass: …”; “OK Google Now: …”; “Xbox on: …”), and the pub­lic reac­tion has tend­ed towards doubt, fear or down­right rejec­tion. Peo­ple I know who are oth­er­wise ful­ly-fledged technophiles have expressed wor­ries about the always-on lis­ten­er ser­vice.

It’s inter­est­ing that this reac­tion has per­sist­ed even though rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the com­pa­nies involved have tak­en great pains to empha­sise your pri­va­cy. In the case of the Motoro­la X there is a chip ded­i­cat­ed to only lis­ten­ing for your voice speak­ing the exact phrase “OK Google Now”, and the Xbox One Kinect behaves sim­i­lar­ly, and in nei­ther case is any data sent — or even, as far as I know, a net­work con­nec­tion required. But that’s not been enough to reas­sure some peo­ple.

This reac­tion seems per­haps under­stand­able, except that we car­ry around with us all day a device ful­ly capa­ble of lis­ten­ing to us and trans­mit­ting our words to unknown par­ties, and at home and work use oth­er devices equal­ly capa­ble of doing the same.

Could this fear be down to tim­ing? This news came at the same time as we heard about the full extent of NSA (or GCHQ here in the UK) spy­ing, so it wouldn’t be unrea­son­able to think that pri­va­cy was fore­most in people’s minds.

Is it per­haps a gen­er­al dis­trust about what big com­pa­nies are doing with your data? Google in par­tic­u­lar have been fight­ing many pri­va­cy cas­es in courts across the globe, and a $15 bil­lion law­suit against Face­book for cook­ie track­ing is still ongo­ing (I think).

Or are peo­ple blanch­ing just because this for­malised voice acti­va­tion now makes it explic­it that we can be lis­tened to?

I was gen­uine­ly going to make a ‘final fron­tier’ joke to end this piece, but luck­i­ly I thought bet­ter of it.

* So per­va­sive is the image of the Star Trek com­put­er that it’s claimed that Google’s ‘obses­sion’ is to build their ser­vices in its image.

Living in the future

There’s a good inter­view with the writer War­ren Ellis in the Paris Review. In it he talks about many things, not least the future of cities:

When I have my pes­simistic head on, I think that every­one can see the future of cities com­ing down the road, and the peo­ple who will be able to afford to live in the secured arcol­o­gy-like com­mu­ni­ties are just as afraid of it as the peo­ple who’ll be out­side, wan­der­ing around in fail­ing infra­struc­ture and won­der­ing exact­ly when the social con­tract dis­solved.

I’m a huge admir­er of Ellis for the way he thinks; like Rus­sell Davies, who I esteem equal­ly, he has a way of con­sid­er­ing things that don’t seem at all obvi­ous until he says them.  One of the most inspir­ing pas­sages I’ve read in many years came from Ellis’ keynote address to the Improv­ing Real­i­ty con­fer­ence:

Under­stand that our present time is the fur­thest thing from banal­i­ty. Real­i­ty as we know it is explod­ing with nov­el­ty every day. Not all of it’s good. It’s a strange and not entire­ly com­fort­able time to be alive. But I want you to feel the future as present in the room. I want you to under­stand, before you start the day here, that the invis­i­ble thing in the room is the felt pres­ence of liv­ing in future time, not in the years behind us.

Those sen­tences came to mind today as I remem­bered this: we live in a world where I can speak out loud to a com­put­er and tell it I want to go to a spec­i­fied des­ti­na­tion, and my house can detect when I’m leav­ing and send a dri­ver­less car around to pick me up and take me there, and lock itself up secure­ly after I’ve left.

All of this tech­nol­o­gy exists; it’s just not joined up yet. It’s the stuff of sci­ence fic­tion, yet because it came piece­meal we tend to treat it as fair­ly unex­cep­tion­al. But some­times I remem­ber that we’re liv­ing in an amaz­ing future, and it ren­ders me momen­tar­i­ly awestruck.