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.
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.
Shape wars! Combat goes geometric in Afghanistan, as polygons collide over an air field, overseen by Johnny. Thankfully, while people run for cover we’re assured that the operators of the airfield won’t be out of pocket, which might not their top priority.
Meanwhile, the prez is living it up in the ‘province of the rich’.
Oh, auto-translate, with this balls you are really spoiling us.
Those fine folks at WordPress have unveiled a new project to help propel thrusting news organisations into a brave new world of well, meagre budgets, lower headcount and minuscule margins.
More seriously, though, the NewsPack initiative sounds like A Good Thing. WordPress clearly seems to think so, judging by the news release.
The need for a cheap but polished publishing platform is urgent, as anyone who has witnessed the decline of regional and local news coverage will recognise. WordPress buffs the issue to a satin sheen, to avoid sending its readers into an emotional tailspin:-
With many local news organizations struggling to find sustainable models for journalism, we’re seeing a need for an inexpensive platform that provides the technology and support that lets news organizations build their businesses and focus on what they do best — providing critical reporting for their communities.
From the WordPress.com blog
Amusingly, the ‘click here for more’ link on this page takes you to another blog page in a different snazzy format, which clicks through to… the original blog page. And so on.
And on, and on.
I think they’ve hit upon something here. It’s the future of cheap news: infinite content, a bit of user interaction and two pages of copy!
All we need now is a fluffy press release from our PR chums at Phill, Space & Leggatt, and copy – paste – boom!
I must away now. Daughter #1 has been on gruel all week, and I’ve promised her a visit to her Caledonian uncle, Ronald McDonald. He’ll spoil her with his usual gifts of salt, fat, sugar and gristle.
Ah, the news outlets in the UK have been chuckling to themselves this morning, thanks to this little gift from the white-coated community. I’m hoping that there might be some defensible rationale behind the research by Cambridge and German academics that yielded this nugget. Hoping, because what’s outlined in The Independent appears to have been – polite mode off now – a waste of time.
The smallish city of Cambridge has honoured us with a stream of outstanding innovation, invention and discovery over the decades centuries, and an armful of Nobel prizes. Along the way,together with other notable centres of academic excellence, it has shaped out understanding of the perils that surround us, from air pollution and food additives to smoking and drinking.
I think the public understanding of science has advanced enough that none of us would seriously dispute the notion that excessive alcohol, whatever the format, can seriously ruin our day. There’s also enough wreckage in society to have hammered home the point that once a big night out becomes every night out, entire lives are derailed by this bacchanalia.
So why on earth were the intellects of a team of highly qualified researchers, and the associated budget, devoted to researching this guff? This is a bar-room talking point at best, and the outcome of the exercise was bleeding obvious before the project even started. In case you’re still in suspense, the conclusion was that, well, alcohol is alcohol is alcohol. If you drink too much it’s bad for you. Who cares what colour or flavour it is?
Now, I’ll provide a bit of background here and confess that I’m a recovering newsoholic. I absorbed too much of it for a period of 15 years as a journalist staffer with a Major International Broadcaster, and still do enjoy a little news tipple every now and again. I get that it’s a newsroom chuckle. I probably would have felt duty-bound to get it on the shows I put together.
But freed from the staffer’s yoke, I bridle at the churnalistic aspect to this story. ‘Churnalism’, if you’re wondering, was coined (I think) by the rather talented journalist Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News. Briefly, this is the newsroom practice of swallowing wholesale, and publishing with few changes, the spin pumped out by PR agencies.
Now, newsrooms aren’t the places they once were. The professionals in them are generally expected to do more – often much more – for less, while suffering wave after wave of job cuts and trimmed budgets. In such an environment the cannily scripted news release is often seen as manna from heaven, as quick-turnaround clickbait.
I have to say that there’s a whiff of churnalism to The Independent’s story embedded at the top of this post. Can you smell it? In fairness to the Indy, they aren’t alone: the story has been everywhere in Brit-land today.
As I said, I would likely have fallen in line and covered this myself. The newsroom I worked in was subject to exactly the same privations and pressures I mentioned above. This sort of thing – ready-made fluff landing in your lap – happened 2-3 times every week.
Somewhere in a PR agency a copywriter (possibly a former journalist, now lost to The Dark Side) is laughing at the ease of today’s news coup. Turning academic research into news copy is not always easy. But today was a good day for them. I’m not sure it was so auspicious for the research scientists, who come out of this looking a little frivolous and lightweight. If there ever was a credible driver for the research, it appears to have been jettisoned to ‘sex up’ the press release. And while most people will consume the story without a second thought, I personally feel it’s symptomatic of a broader negative trend in the news industry. Some news outlets will subject this story to more rigorous scrutiny – but most will not.
Eek. That rascal Mr Tusk has been at it again, sticking his Twitter stick into the hornet’s nest of fate.
I can’t say I’ve been slavishly following developments here at mostly.social HQ, but I’ll hazard a guess that Donald (Tusk, not Trump) has triggered an outpouring of bile and indignation with his cheeky tweet. But once the hyperventilating has ceased, a rational type on either side of the Brexit chasm must surely concede that, actually, Donnie T (Tusk, not Trump) has a point, the wily blighter.
We’ve lived this alternate reality, this fact-starved wasteland, for two and a half years, and the best HMG has come up with seems destined to leave this sceptred isle a poorer and weaker place, its prestige and influence destroyed by a combination of repeated falsehoods, ethically dubious voter targeting and even foreign meddling. And then Trump happened, inheriting tactics, tricks and the same foreign meddling to pull off a shocker of his own.
I’m lying down as I write this, which is probably a good thing.
I would have thought we’ve scraped right through the bottom of the barrel and are well on the way to the South Pacific. This:-
It’s worth noting that Dunkirk was not a gallant victory, but a heroic failure: thousands struggled and many died to effect the retreat of an army without suffering a massacre or imprisonment. Winston Churchill told parliament that it was a ‘colossal military disaster’.
This was followed by a few years of grinding siege and shortages as Britain struggled on alone.
Needless to say, this traumatised millions in Britain. A classic radio comedy series of long ago, ‘Round the Horne‘, once sent up the rose-tinted films that appeared post-war to romanticise the experience, creating a pastiche drama titled ‘Wasn’t It Great When They Were Dropping Bombs On Us And We Were All Half-starving‘.
If I’m offered a toss-up between a ‘Dunkirk option’ and stability and relative prosperity, I know which one I’d choose.
There’s a jolly decent chap on Medium called Umair Haque.
Since June last year he’s been holding forth, largely on the evils of predatory capitalism and focused in the main on the US. It can be a little hard going at times but let’s face it, our American cousins provide fertile ground for analysis.
Occasionally he’s touched on my own big beef: how in the UK the postwar social contract of better education, healthcare for all and state pensions is increasingly something we can see but cannot grasp, becoming more of a mirage with each year that passes. More on that some other time.
This entry isn’t about that, but instead deals with the slow motion car crash that is Brexit. I know, just a few posts in and there I go, spoiling the fun for everyone. But it’s hard not to mention it, not when we stand, at thirty seconds to midnight, on the cliff edge, scratching our heads and wondering if reason is ever going to make an appearance.
It’s easy to live in a past that never was, or a future where anything is possible. Dealing with a cold uncomfortable present is something else, and sadly anyone with the courage to confront it appears to have been abducted by aliens.
I think I should let Umair pick up from here. It’s worth the read.
On Twitter, over email, from friends, from people who recognize me at the cafe and stop me to say hi — I get one question these days. It goes like this: what happened to Britain?