Surveillance and privacy

Discussion of issues related to liberty and privacy, and especially how they are affected by and interrelated with data management and analytic technologies. Related subjects include:

Petabyte-scale data management
Privacy, censorship, and freedom (in The Monash Report)

October 11, 2015

Notes on privacy and surveillance, October 11, 2015

1. European Union data sovereignty laws have long had a “Safe Harbour” rule stating it was OK to ship data to the US. Per the case Maximilian Schrems v Data Protection Commissioner, this rule is now held to be invalid. Angst has ensued, and rightly so.

The core technical issues are roughly:

Facebook’s estimate of billions of dollars in added costs is not easy to refute.

My next set of technical thoughts starts: Read more

July 20, 2015

SaaS and traditional software from the same vendor?

It is extremely difficult to succeed with SaaS (Software as a Service) and packaged software in the same company. There were a few vendors who seemed to pull it off in the 1970s and 1980s, generally industry-specific application suite vendors. But it’s hard to think of more recent examples — unless you have more confidence than I do in what behemoth software vendors say about their SaaS/”cloud” businesses.

Despite the cautionary evidence, I’m going to argue that SaaS and software can and often should be combined. The “should” part is pretty obvious, with reasons that start:

But the “how” of combining SaaS and traditional software is harder. Let’s review why.  Read more

June 14, 2015

“Chilling effects” revisited

In which I observe that Tim Cook and the EFF, while thankfully on the right track, haven’t gone nearly far enough.

Traditionally, the term “chilling effect” referred specifically to inhibitions on what in the US are regarded as First Amendment rights — the freedoms of speech, the press, and in some cases public assembly. Similarly, when the term “chilling effect” is used in a surveillance/privacy context, it usually refers to the fear that what you write or post online can later be held against you. This concern has been expressed by, among others, Tim Cook of Apple, Laura Poitras, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and several research studies have supported the point.

But that’s only part of the story. As I wrote in July, 2013,

… with the new data collection and analytic technologies, pretty much ANY action could have legal or financial consequences. And so, unless something is done, “big data” privacy-invading technologies can have a chilling effect on almost anything you want to do in life.

The reason, in simplest terms, is that your interests could be held against you. For example, models can estimate your future health, your propensity for risky hobbies, or your likelihood of changing your residence, career, or spouse. Any of these insights could be useful to employers or financial services firms, and not in a way that redounds to your benefit. And if you think enterprises (or governments) would never go that far, please consider an argument from the sequel to my first “chilling effects” post: Read more

May 26, 2015

IT-centric notes on the future of health care

It’s difficult to project the rate of IT change in health care, because:

Timing aside, it is clear that health care change will be drastic. The IT part of that starts with vastly comprehensive electronic health records, which will be accessible (in part or whole as the case may be) by patients, care givers, care payers and researchers alike. I expect elements of such records to include:

These vastly greater amounts of data cited above will allow for greatly changed analytics.
Read more

February 1, 2015

Information technology for personal safety

There are numerous ways that technology, now or in the future, can significantly improve personal safety. Three of the biggest areas of application are or will be:

Implications will be dramatic for numerous industries and government activities, including but not limited to law enforcement, automotive manufacturing, infrastructure/construction, health care and insurance. Further, these technologies create a near-certainty that individuals’ movements and status will be electronically monitored in fine detail. Hence their development and eventual deployment constitutes a ticking clock toward a deadline for society deciding what to do about personal privacy.

Theoretically, humans aren’t the only potential kind of tyrants. Science fiction author Jack Williamson postulated a depressing nanny-technology in With Folded Hands, the idea for which was later borrowed by the humorous Star Trek episode I, Mudd.

Of these three areas, crime prevention is the furthest along; in particular, sidewalk cameras, license plate cameras and internet snooping are widely deployed around the world. So let’s consider the other two.

Vehicle accident prevention

Read more

December 31, 2014

Notes on machine-generated data, year-end 2014

Most IT innovation these days is focused on machine-generated data (sometimes just called “machine data”), rather than human-generated. So as I find myself in the mood for another survey post, I can’t think of any better idea for a unifying theme.

1. There are many kinds of machine-generated data. Important categories include:

That’s far from a complete list, but if you think about those categories you’ll probably capture most of the issues surrounding other kinds of machine-generated data as well.

2. Technology for better information and analysis is also technology for privacy intrusion. Public awareness of privacy issues is focused in a few areas, mainly: Read more

September 15, 2014

Misconceptions about privacy and surveillance

Everybody is confused about privacy and surveillance. So I’m renewing my efforts to consciousness-raise within the tech community. For if we don’t figure out and explain the issues clearly enough, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in Hades our lawmakers will get it right without us.

How bad is the confusion? Well, even Edward Snowden is getting it wrong. A Wired interview with Snowden says:

“If somebody’s really watching me, they’ve got a team of guys whose job is just to hack me,” he says. “I don’t think they’ve geolocated me, but they almost certainly monitor who I’m talking to online. Even if they don’t know what you’re saying, because it’s encrypted, they can still get a lot from who you’re talking to and when you’re talking to them.”

That is surely correct. But the same article also says:

“We have the means and we have the technology to end mass surveillance without any legislative action at all, without any policy changes.” The answer, he says, is robust encryption. “By basically adopting changes like making encryption a universal standard—where all communications are encrypted by default—we can end mass surveillance not just in the United States but around the world.”

That is false, for a myriad of reasons, and indeed is contradicted by the first excerpt I cited.

What privacy/surveillance commentators evidently keep forgetting is:

So closing down a few vectors of privacy attack doesn’t solve the underlying problem at all.

Worst of all, commentators forget that the correct metric for danger is not just harmful information use, but chilling effects on the exercise of ordinary liberties. But in the interest of space, I won’t reiterate that argument in this post.

Perhaps I can refresh your memory why each of those bulleted claims is correct. Major categories of privacy-destroying information (raw or derived) include:

Read more

February 23, 2014

Confusion about metadata

A couple of points that arise frequently in conversation, but that I don’t seem to have made clearly online.

“Metadata” is generally defined as “data about data”. That’s basically correct, but it’s easy to forget how many different kinds of metadata there are. My list of metadata kinds starts with:

What’s worse, the past year’s most famous example of “metadata”, telephone call metadata, is misnamed. This so-called metadata, much loved by the NSA (National Security Agency), is just data, e.g. in the format of a CDR (Call Detail Record). Calling it metadata implies that it describes other data — the actual contents of the phone calls — that the NSA strenuously asserts don’t actually exist.

And finally, the first bullet point above has a counter-intuitive consequence — all common terminology notwithstanding, relational data is less structured than document data. Reasons include:

Related links

February 1, 2014

More on public policy

Occasionally I take my public policy experience out for some exercise. Last week I wrote about privacy and network neutrality. In this post I’ll survey a few more subjects.

1. Censorship worries me, a lot. A classic example is Vietnam, which basically has outlawed online political discussion.

And such laws can have teeth. It’s hard to conceal your internet usage from an inquisitive government.

2. Software and software related patents are back in the news. Google, which said it was paying $5.5 billion or so for a bunch of Motorola patents, turns out to really have paid $7 billion or more. Twitter and IBM did a patent deal as well. Big numbers, and good for certain shareholders. But this all benefits the wider world — how?

As I wrote 3 1/2 years ago:

The purpose of legal intellectual property protections, simply put, is to help make it a good decision to create something.

Why does “securing … exclusive Right[s]” to the creators of things that are patented, copyrighted, or trademarked help make it a good decision for them to create stuff? Because it averts competition from copiers, thus making the creator a monopolist in what s/he has created, allowing her to at least somewhat value-price her creation.

I.e., the core point of intellectual property rights is to prevent copying-based competition. By way of contrast, any other kind of intellectual property “right” should be viewed with great suspicion.

That Constitutionally-based principle makes as much sense to me now as it did then. By way of contrast, “Let’s give more intellectual property rights to big corporations to protect middle-managers’ jobs” is — well, it’s an argument I view with great suspicion.

But I find it extremely hard to think of a technology industry example in which development was stimulated by the possibility of patent protection. Yes, the situation may be different in pharmaceuticals, or for gadgeteering home inventors, but I can think of no case in which technology has been better, or faster to come to market, because of the possibility of a patent-law monopoly. So if software and business-method patents were abolished entirely – even the ones that I think could be realistically adjudicatedI’d be pleased.

3. In November, 2008 I offered IT policy suggestions for the incoming Obama Administration, especially:  Read more

January 27, 2014

The report of Obama’s Snowden-response commission

In response to the uproar created by the Edward Snowden revelations, the White House commissioned five dignitaries to produce a 300-page report, released last December 12. (Official name: Report and Recommendations of The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.) I read or skimmed a large minority of it, and I found enough substance to be worthy of a blog post.

Many of the report’s details fall in the buckets of bureaucratic administrivia,* internal information security, or general pabulum. But the commission started with four general principles that I think have great merit. Read more

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