The glorious organ of the American thinking classes, the New York Times, has looked up from its recreational sudoku workout to notice that all is not well in digit-land. It’s brief and to the point, and worth reading.
This is spookily timed. Or perhaps not. The trigger for the recent ripple of soul-searching appears to be the Doorbells That See All. And once you take a sober look at what they see, what they do with that data and where it could end up, it’s very hard to ignore the broader landscape, a world where close personal and mass surveillance has multiplied, either by stealth or with our willing complicity.
I won’t go through the whole subject again but instead will point you at my earlier post on the same topic.
There are few easy answers here.
Each of us generates a torrent of data wherever we go. Modern life quickly falls apart if we cut off the flow. Much of it has developed naturally and pragmatically in order to support more efficient flows of capital, labour, ideas and products.
On their own, these data stores present a detailed picture of your activities. To this we can add public infrastructures, with their extensive data storage and surveillance capability that can track where you are and who you are with.
And then there are the frills, the digital goodies that have burrowed their way into our lives and homes and offer umpteen ways to make life easier, more fun, more secure.
Try living without your apps, digital assistants, search engines and social media for a day, and you’ll quickly grasp the scale of the issue. These gadgets and frills know you better than you know yourself.
So, panic probably isn’t the most useful response. What is more useful is an appreciation of the role of civil society in a free state, and the importance of liberal democratic institutions and the checks and balances they should provide.
Shrill imprecations to go out and vote are just the beginning. Bothersome it might be, but greater civil involvement might be what’s needed to ensure your freedoms are respected, and proper boundaries observed.
There’s a quote that’s often pulled out in contexts like this. I’ll use a version attributed to Uncle Joe Stalin, though others are available.
“I consider it completely unimportant who … will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how.”
Joseph Jughashvili, aka Stalin
I find it as hard as anyone to engage effectively with the trade-off between personal convenience and loss of privacy. I’m loaded down with gadgets and smart home whatnots. I don’t have much faith in corporations to respect personal boundaries. Even a firm like Apple, which to its credit has made many statements about the value it accords to customer privacy, is only as good as its own security.
I also rely on elected officials to listen to their electorates, and not the lobbyists.
It’s a defining challenge for the new century, taking place in a world where we are all sleepwalking.
After a few weeks spent scratching around the dark web for second hand parts, I finally reached critical mass for a project to build my own electric guitar.
This was a not a project in the style of Brian May, who carved his own guitar body and made all the parts, including the electronics, himself. The result of that garden shed activity became a distinctive part of Queen’s sound, as the tone from that instrument was unique.
In my case I’ve kept to the marked footpath, gathering the correct parts to put together an early 2000s Fender Telecaster. The only deviation from the plan is the pickups. Here I’ve gone high-tech by guitar standards, opting for an active pair made by EMG. They were available in red too, which I thought would be a nice touch.
As I bumbled along I took some photos to record the progression from jumble of parts to the finished article.
I was more than a little daunted at the outset, but shouldn’t have been. The process itself is pretty straightforward. The bit that bothered me more than any other was the need to drill holes in a pristine, metallic red guitar body in order to secure the pick guard. This task lay in the distance. There were several steps to follow first.
On the way I had to prepare my existing Telecaster for sale, with very mixed feelings. The Baja Telecaster is a classic, with (in my view) sublimely melodic pickups and first-rate production quality. It’s a beauty, and wonderful to play. But my first in, first out policy had forced my hand and I couldn’t justify keeping two guitars of the same type. It’s gone now, to a significantly better guitarist than I am, which is some consolation.
The first step was rather enjoyable. If you’re a gardener you might recognise the roll of copper tape as a pesticide-free slug and snail repellent. The usefulness of the metal in combating squidgy animals is actually debatable but this is a post about guitars, not slugs.
The copper tape in this case is effective, but as a electrical shield against radio frequency (RF) interference rather than slugs. The idea here is that the metal-shielded control cavities in the guitar prevent the ingress of RF, which ends up amplified as clearly audible unwanted noise. Yuk.
My injured younger daughter thoughtfully decided to keep me company, albeit in a passive iPad-hypnotised capacity. She was entertained by my contortions as I twisted and shaped the sticky (and sharp) copper tape to fit the spaces neatly.
Once I was up and running the instrument began to take shape. The red pickups were chosen for the same reason that prompted me to line the guitar body with copper shielding: RF interference.
Our home is phenomenally noisy, from an electrical perspective. There are several wifi routers, a couple of dozen Philips Hue lights, two smart home hubs, a clutch of mobile phones and another 30+ wired and wireless network devices.
The icing on the cake is the powerline networking. If you’ve not come across this before, this is technology that injects a network signal into the mains wiring in a household. Powerline adapters plugged in around the house pick up the signal and pass it to wifi routers to get internet access to every corner of the household.
This should be unobtrusive but isn’t. I can hear it through the hifi, and through the amps. It’s irritating but since internet access is required to make a house function these days, it’s not going away.
So, my answer to the RF problem was these fetching red pickups, made in California by EMG. They’re ‘active’ pickups, which means a battery concealed inside the guitar powers a small amplifier that boosts the signal before it leaves the guitar. This powerful signal is far less susceptible to RF interference than the puny current generated by the usual passive pickups and thus gives a clear, strong tone.
These pickups incorporated the latest version of EMG’s amplifier circuit and I was looking forward to hearing them.
Alongside the high-tech pickups was more mundane wiring, and components like the jack socket that required nimble, flexible fingers. I got there in the end.
The neck is a fine piece of work. After a lot of searching I found what I was looking for – a used maple and dark rosewood neck with only minor wear to the stainless steel frets.
The neck was sent from Italy – to the wrong address. The delivery agent in Italy had run a search on the first line of our address and picked the first postcode that appeared. As the first line of my address is not unique the postcode was for a flat in Westminster, a few minutes’ walk from Baker Street station.
I’d quite like a W1 address again – I lived a couple of minutes from Baker Street station when I moved to London for my first proper job at the professional services behemoth KPMG. Spookily, the upscale recipient of the guitar part lived around the corner from my old flat.
After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing (the seller’s nerves were strained by the experience: as he told me, ‘I’m a musician, not a tradesman!’) the neck finally arrived.
The finished product looked very good, apart from the battery issue. Try as I might, I just couldn’t fit it inside the body. I decided to stop where I was, congratulate myself on getting that far, and pay a visit to my local – 22 minutes away! – branch of guitarguitar, a wonderful cave of beautiful musical artistry.
Naturally, I was very reluctant to make the journey. Ha, as if!
My limping injured daughter went with me as the new red guitar was expertly set up. It was lots of fun. She told me that she would like a Gibson SG (as played by – well, everyone) as her next guitar.
Next guitar? I’m not sure I’m setting a good example. 😳
I was amused to read this article on the c|net website, on the perils of allowing home gadgets and other lifestyle products to recognise your face.
Doorbells were the thing that got their dander up, and the ability of the new breed of video products to apply facial recognition to the heads that they see and, to borrow a phrase from the article, ‘keep tabs’ on whoever enters, occupies and leaves your crib.
Why a doorbell should have prompted this sudden attack of the heebie-jeebies is unclear. The sad truth is that we were seduced by technology of this kind long, long ago, back when we might have been able to do something about it. But the horse is long gone, and shutting the stable door now will have little effect.
c|net does a little better at conveying the discomfiting bigger picture in their video piece:-
The report revealed that an estimated £2.2 billion was spent each year in the UK on surveillance camera technology. Recent surveys have put the number of CCTV cameras in the UK at between 4 and 6 million. For a country with longstanding democratic traditions we sure give China, that upstanding bastion of civil rights, a run for their money when it comes to mass surveillance.
Did you know, for example, that Transport for London (TfL) – which coordinates the capital’s enormous public transport network – oversees a network of 20 thousand cameras? TfL routinely shares data from its camera network with the Metropolitan Police.
Next up is traffic management. Police up and down the UK have their own network of cameras to monitor the UK road network. Their Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras scan 25 to 40 million car number plates across UK roads everyday. This has created, in the words of the report, “one of the largest non-military databases in the UK”, holding “up to 20 billion ‘read’ records”.
About one year ago Mr Porter gave a speech at a conference on automatic number plate recognition (ANPR). Yes I know – it must have been a gripping, viscerally exciting event. He touched upon a system in China.
… Let me tell you about a programmed use of AFR (automatic face recognition) in China called ‘Sharp Eyes’ as an insight as to where the use of intrusive surveillance technologies can lead. …
This is a capability developing in China which connects security cameras with AFR that scans roads, shopping malls and transport hubs. It can connect to private and compound cameras and buildings and integrate then into one nationwide surveillance platform. This capability is backed up with a police cloud scooping up information of citizens, be it criminal, medical, commercial, socio-demographic upheaval and political unrest. Indeed the police commander … said, “ With AFR we can recognise strangers, analyse their entry and exit points, see who spends the night [here] and how many times’.
Tony Porter, UK Surveillance Camera Commissioner
Tony P went on to acknowledge that many high street retailers – and most major fashion retailers – already use facial recognition in their stores.
I had to wonder why Tony used the word ‘intrusive’ to apply to China, when the UK has probably been the most aggressive western democracy after the USA in its expansion of mass surveillance technology.
By now you’ll have guessed the punchline. You are owned within moments of leaving your home in the morning and tracked across dozens, even hundreds, of cameras throughout your day, until you reach your front door.
And the fun has only just started.
Take a look at what you carry around both inside and outside the house. It will likely include a smartphone, and possibly also a tablet and perhaps a smart watch or fitness tracker.
The phone glued to your hand could well take ‘live photos’ that add a snippet of video – including audio – before and after the moment you take your snaps. But in order to deliver this feature the camera and microphone must be ready to go at all times. In practice this means your phone is always recording a buffer of audio and video. The camera sees all; the microphone hears everything.
If that weren’t enough, your phone – by default – provides the carrier with an audit trail of which cellular base stations it’s attached to. This was baked into the infrastructure even before phones got smart. But your phone is now much cleverer and offers you the option of tagging your snaps and video with fairly precise geographic coordinates. And, since live photos are a pretty neat feature that you leave turned on, the GPS is always tracking you.
This scenario can probably be repeated for your iPad or tablet. Your smart watch might not be so sophisticated but is still probably tracking your position, elevation, speed and heartrate in real time, all the time.
This pattern of willing disclosure continues in the home, where millions now have a home assistant, whether from Amazon, Google or Apple. The ability to shout insults at your digital companion and laugh at the responses comes at a price: that wee puck at your elbow in the kitchen is always listening, permanently connected to a remote server that monitors what you say.
All this surveillance – and the list above isn’t exhaustive – would have a Cold War spy exploding with delight, yet much of it is voluntary, ushered into our lives with grateful thanks.
How beguiling these convenient features are. I use many of them myself. But a nagging concern accompanies their use: this treasure trove of metadata is just begging to be abused.
Ah, you might say, but that’s the beauty of living in an advanced democratic state. We’ve got checks and balances, no?
Yes. And no. The trouble with having such an irresistible range of eavesdropping options is that they are, well, irresistible. Our Atlantic cousins, usually fond of trumpeting their constitutional safeguards, have learned this for themselves. Successive leaks from whistleblowers in the USA have revealed the extent of the electronic surveillance of phones and email traffic carried out by the National Security Agency.
More recently, our American friends’ fondness for data-rich imagery and interactive assistants has become too conspicuous for the spooks to ignore. Another leak has suggested that the CIA has a range of hacking tools to access phones, cars, and TVs. Here’s the Washington Post‘s take.
It doesn’t help that sniffing digital traffic is so damned scalable. If one box allows you to monitor 1,000 people, but the next box up spies on 100,000 at marginal additional cost, then what the hell, buy the big box! Buy ten! And if the souped-up surveillance system catches some innocent bystanders in its drag net, there’s no harm done. A proportion of them will end up committing some crime further down the line anyway, so it’s as well to catch the thoughtcrimes early before they hatch into nefarious deeds.
It’s easy to see how the logic supporting mass surveillance might evolve. It’s just so darned simple to scale up, and few law enforcement bodies would turn up their noses at the offer of a digital panopticon.
Where the US intelligence agencies lead, its major global partners follow, and I would think it’s a pretty safe bet that our own UK agencies are engaging, or have engaged, in one or more of the activities alleged in the States. Though Brits would tend not to admit it, the UK is probably more opaque than the USA in terms of due process, but some details do trickle out. In 2016, for example, it was claimed that GCHQ (the UK equivalent of the NSA) might have engineered a backdoor in technology designed to encrypt Internet voice traffic.
The UK government’s authority to access phone and email data has been challenged successfully in court, but I’m too jaundiced, through long exposure to the news cycle, to be convinced that the judiciary, biased as it is towards identikit middle-class establishment types, can be relied upon to defend the rest of us steadfastly.
After all, this is the same judiciary that can hear the case of an international lawyer who subjected an Air India crew and passengers to a prolonged, obnoxious and threatening drunken rant, and still have the cheek to describe her as being of ‘impeccable character’. She got six months but will likely serve a fraction of that. I somehow suspect that someone engaged in a lowlier profession wouldn’t receive the same compliment, or so brief a sentence.
Welcome to the machine
Back in 1994 I became the proud owner of one of the first handsets sold for the UK’s digital Orange network (you can insert a minute’s pause here to replicate my jaw-drop, and brief rumination, at how long ago that was). It was a Nokia ‘dumbphone’. Its hottest features were the absolutely incredible SMS texting function (I had to pay 8p per message, I think) and the maddeningly addictive ‘Snake’ game, reproduced in monochrome 8-bit blocks on the tiny screen. (Once adjusted for expectation inflation, ‘maddeningly addictive’ becomes ‘utter crap’.)
In many ways this presaged the beginning of the end for our traditional notions of privacy. Email was on the rise; the Internet was gaining speed thanks to the advent of the Web. Laptop computers were becoming a standard business issue. Data modems were getting faster, and cheaper. Rudimentary ‘digital assistants’ were just around the corner. All digital, and all imbued, almost as a by-product, with the ability to produce a rich seam of metadigital treasure: an audit trail of who sent what, to whom, when and where.