Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Spies are everywhere. (And I do mean everywhere.)

Boston’s Dolt of the Month Award for November has to go to the creep who “found” an iPhone on a T-platform and walked away with it it.

Well, finders keepers and all that, but this particular iPhone had just flown out of the hand of a young woman who had either fallen or jumped in front of an incoming train and lost her life.

On the surveillance video taken in the T-station – which I hadn’t rally been aware existed, but oh, why not – the dolt-winner is shown covering the iPhone with his foot; putting his hand over his mouth and feigning wide-eyed shock that someone had just fallen/jumped in front of a train; looking around to see if anyone is watching him; and blithely picking the phone up and walking out of the station.

There may not have been any human watching him. Most sentient beings in this situation would have, quite understandably, been focused elsewhere. But there was a camera trained his way, so by the next day, everyone in Boston who watches TV or reads any news, off or online, saw this guy in action.

He turned himself in, and has been charged with larceny.

What Dolt (and Nasty Creep in General) of the Month was apparently not aware of is that spies, in the form of video surveillance, are nearly ubiquitous in public places.

I’m not feeling 100% great about this. Sure it does help catch criminals and, I’m sure, on occasion even deter them. And once you’re out of the house, I guess you don’t have any reasonable expectation of privacy – and never did have. Still, the idea of über surveillance is chilling. Among other things, I don’t want some marketing facial recognition software analyzing what aisles I linger in, what products I hover over, in CVS, and bombarding me with toothpaste and blister-bandage ads.

Just as well I’m in a not-so-desirable demographic, marketing-wise.

I also don’t like the idea that someone could be listening in on my phone calls.

Not that there’s anyone who wants to hear me yack away with one of my sisters – Homeland Security doesn’t care that I finally got elbow patches put on that fabulous sweater I bought 25 years ago – so I don’t think I have much to worry about. 

And I also don’t care if big data is analyzing traffic.

As long as they get a warrant or judge approval or whatever it is they need if there’s a bad actor they want to listen in on. Or read the e-mails of.

There’s no stopping technology, but we really Spydo have to be thoughtful and careful about where all the possibilities could take us. A “benevolent” government might only spy on the bad guys. A not-so-benevolent government might decide to cast a cold eye on atheists. (Or Christians. Or Jews. Or Muslims. Or vegans.)

But the spy game could be getting closer to home than the T-platform, the aisles of CVS, or your wireless operator.

As I was reminded by a recent piece pointed out to me by my brother-in-law Rick. On Acting Man -  which has as its main blogger someone who goes by the name Pater Tenebrarum; those of us who had the privilege and pleasure of taking 4 years of Latin will get that this translates into Father of Darkness – there is a post devoted to an article “that discusses the transformation of household gadgets into spying devices.”

Sorry about all the nesting blog begats, but both the blog post and the core article are worth reading. Here’s a lengthy excerpt from the article, which is by Michael Price:

I just bought a new TV. The old one had a good run, but after the volume got stuck on 63, I decided it was time to replace it. I am now the owner of a new “smart” TV, which promises to deliver streaming multimedia content, games, apps, social media, and Internet browsing. Oh, and TV too. The only problem is that I’m now afraid to use it. You would be too — if you read through the 46-page privacy policy.

The amount of data this thing collects is staggering. It logs where, when, how, and for how long you use the TV. It sets tracking cookies and beacons designed to detect “when you have viewed particular content or a particular email message.” It records “the apps you use, the websites you visit, and how you interact with content.” It ignores “do-not-track” requests as a considered matter of policy.

It also has a built-in camera — with facial recognition. The purpose is to provide “gesture control” for the TV and enable you to log in to a personalized account using your face. On the upside, the images are saved on the TV instead of uploaded to a corporate server. On the downside, the Internet connection makes the whole TV vulnerable to hackers who have demonstrated the ability to take complete control of the machine.

More troubling is the microphone. The TV boasts a “voice recognition” feature that allows viewers to control the screen with voice commands. But the service comes with a rather ominous warning: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party.” Got that? Don’t say personal or sensitive stuff in front of the TV. You may not be watching, but the telescreen is listening. (Source: Brennan Center for Justice.)

I don’t even like the fact that there’s a camera built into my laptop. I participate in a lot of online meetings, many of them for a client that sells collaboration software. Some participants like being on camera. Not me. I don’t mind if they look at my static picture, but I generally have a Post-it note over the seeing eye, just in case I accidentally activate it.

Not that anything bad’s going to happen at these online meetings, or if I’m Skyping with someone, but I just don’t plain like the idea that someone could have gained remote control of my laptop and start spying on me in my PJ’s, and/or capturing all my keystrokes. After all, last year I had to get remote support on some app or other, and the support rep went to my PC to see what was happening. Supposedly all traces of the visit were eradicated when the session ended, but do I 100% trust that this was the case?

And, no, I don’t live in complete paranoia about this. But there is a general creepiness factor – not to mention a particular invasiveness factor – associated with having all these too smart, smarty-pants devices in our houses.

Sure, it would be convenient if I could jack my smart thermostat up remotely, so it would be comfy-toasting or cucumber cool on my arrival when I’ve been away for a few days. But I refused to activate that part of the device. If I need remote diagnostics done, I’ll activate. Until then, if I have to wait a few minutes for the heat or AC to kick in, so be it.

I’m about to purchase a suite of new appliances. Do I really want or need a smart refrigerator? A smart oven? A smart dishwasher? All collecting data on what’s in the fridge or what’s on the stove and relaying it back to “headquarters”?

Do I want some marketer gauging my reaction to an ad running on House Hunters International or a Red Sox game?  Or like the fact that “they” will be listening in when I shout at the TV over some election result or another?

Like there’s not enough to worry about. Now I have to make sure that there’s duct tape over every spy-cam, and figure out how to disable all the voice-recognition gear that might be hidden in a processor in my microwave.

Swell. Just well.

As us atheists say, God, if there is a God, help us.

And you know who I really feel badly for? The kids who are coming of age thinking (or not thinking) that all this lack of privacy stuff is normal, and worth the benefit (hah!) of getting personalized marketing.

As us atheists say, God, if there is a God, help them.

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