Archive for the ‘privacy’ Category

more privacy

March 24, 2012

The CBC’s morning program Fresh Air hosted Rhonda McEwen today talking about privacy.

Many privacy experts – as well intentioned as they are – might do well to look at history.

When the automobile emerged, it was viewed as a horseless carriage.

Today, the automobile industry – let alone the global economy based on fossil fuels – has become literally and practically ‘too big to fail’ (despite the enormous risks such an economy presents).

Society created from this horseless carriage, a world, an economy, an entire (arguably unsustainable) civilsation.

We must avoid the myopic view that data is a commodity…one that is only there to satisfy the purposes of commercial enterprise and profit.

That, like the horseless carriage, might at best be a drop in a universe of possibilities.

Indeed, the idea that privacy is an individual responsibility, an important and valuable commodity that governments should protect, control and regulate, even serves to support the market model of society, the corporatisation and commodification of the planet.

Imagine what this world would look like had the early pioneers been constrained by regulations and religious ideological values that prohibited the use of the automobile for anything but what a horse and carriage provided.

Privacy, just like horsepower in the days of horses, will need to be completely redefined and reimagined.

If we maintain our current archaic perceptions of privacy and its use, we may never realise the possibilities.


Stratfor Hacked – What’s the message?

December 26, 2011

In the world of hactivism, it seems one of the loudest messages was just sent. Stratfor data was apparently hacked. The message sent, although probably not what Occupiers, social activists, Arab uprising participants or UK rioters might necessarily celebrate, may be pleasing to them nonetheless.

The message seems clear – no one is immune. Privacy needs to be strengthened.

But that’s what the mainstream media would have the majority of people believe.

The more subtle message is that privacy – it’s very definition – needs to be re-examined.

All too often we hear the privacy commissioners, watchdogs and experts warning ‘consumers’ to be careful with their data – guard your security passwords, enable your security features, build security into your defaults. With the same messages for those who work in the world of data.

While that might be sound advice, it also works well to substantiate the status quo, where the wealthy have the means to protect themselves and protect their data from being compromised. They can hire the best (like Stratfor) for intelligence information. They can hire the best security and data control (oops, I mean ‘management’) companies. They can chase after and prosecute (someone) when their systems are compromised.

However, the average Joe or Jane sixpack can’t. Even if they could, the courts may soon be overwhelmed with too many cases dealing with privacy compromises.

This hacktivism demonstrates that even the best are not immune to having their data compromised. So can enhanced privacy be the answer? Not only is it proving increasingly challenging, it may also be obstructing progress.

The more profound message is that the ideas/values we might hold (such as privacy) need to be re-examined, re-considered, re-thought and re-worked. 21st century realities couldn’t be sending a louder message.

But by fixating on the symptom – privacy – the result is twofold: 1) the average person remains in a compromising position, subject to the limited (in comparison to the potential of ICTs) laws and courts to protect them or overstep their privacy in doing so; and 2) the concept of individualism (and other values that support the global status quo – individual rights, property rights, ownership, meritocracy, competition and proprietary rights, for example) – is being strengthened and substantiated.

Privacy, historically defined, is simply another agent used to maintain the wealth of the wealthy and the power of the powerful through the top-down management of society.

It’s more than privacy and Robin Hoods. The real message is deeper and more substantial: it demonstrates that the rigid hierarchies that control the world are beginning to snap under the relentless distributive empowering nature of ICTs.

In a world where profit can be made, and competition demands privacy to conceal inequalities, we might just need to re-consider our goals and values as a global society, and the roles of privacy in achieving, or obstructing, those goals.

Where ICTs can radically redefine sustainability and equality through entirely transformed governance and management regimes, historical ideas of privacy only stand in the way in the same ways our constructed ideologies of competition, individualism, capitalist free markets and others impede progress.

This hactivism isn’t really about privacy; it’s about antiquated ideologies being tossed around grasping for purchase in the eddies of an emerging 21st century societal transformation.

British Roits, ICTs and Neoliberalism – A Cure Worse than the Cause… or Disaster Capitalism?

August 10, 2011

Developments in the London riots of summer 2011 are increasingly shifting towards the uncomfortable, confrontational and divisive as authorities increasingly call for and pursue a stronger police presence, draw on technology to identify rioters, and utilise digital communications as weapons to discourage rioters. In short, these riots are igniting a new wave of structural divisions – class warfare through emerging technology. But there might just be more to it.

The actions of authorities are shifting the state towards an Orwellian police state, one in which vigilante justice is justified (if you’re on the right side of the corporate media empire), and one where ‘big brother’ is ever so desperately trying to maintain rigid control of a population that such rigid controls are dividing in the first place.

One might say that social media is helping fuel the flames of these riots. One might even point the finger at social media and ICTs in their roles to provide both bad with the good. But that’s really not the issue here.

Authorities are using technology – in increasingly desperate attempts – to produce tighter control over the actions of people (albeit unnecessarily violent, irresponsible and destructive in this case). While this is discussed in the book in terms of how technology is used to generate social conformity, such a perspective might only offer a brief glimpse of a more important phenomenon: inequality.

Technology is being used widely around the world to tumble existing relations of social power and very unequal wealth distribution. It’s also being used to control society, and affect the decisions and actions people make. Billions of people (including some involved in the unrest in Britain) are using technology in the former role; governments and other decision makers largely continue to use technology in the latter role.

When it comes to inequality, as Christian Fuchs notes, are those rioting the only at fault group?

Unequal societies simply are not sustainable. This is why chapter 7 – Pathological Tendencies: The Health Link – was included in the book. Unequal societies harm everyone, while those at the bottom suffer most. Unequal societies encourage the Joneses to get ahead, or each individual to get ahead of the Joneses. They will disintegrate… they will rebel… they will use the tools and options at their disposal to seek equality and fairness just as those in power will use the (typically far more substantive) tools and options at their disposal to maintain the illusion of fairness and equality.

Yet ICTs enable a more distributed, non-hierarchical, cooperative, sharing world. “Protestors”, “rioters”, “dissenters”, “trouble-makers”, what ever you call them, they’re using these new technologies to galvanize – not define – a new world. One which is equal, egalitarian and sustainable. One which is fluid, dynamic, and void of leadership in the prevailing sense. Welcome to the new world. This is sustainability in the making. Have we reached a tipping point – that all critical point of inflection?

Our leaders, on the other hand, are using the same new tools along with many of the old tools to maintain the past – the rigid, inflexible, hierarchical control structures of power and wealth. Why do the authorities entrench the competitive structurally hierarchical ideologies? Moreover, why does this happen precisely when the opportunity to do away with class divisions, social inequities, unsustainable consumerism and economic growth, and ideologies supported by neoliberal policies is so loudly presented?

That’s not too dissimilar from promoting competition through cooperation. It does, however, have a bursting sense of urgency.

And that might just be the answer. There is a sense of urgency – for the wealthy and powerful elite – with financial foundations crumbling, social media distributing democracies, and ecological and health crises spiraling out of control, to try and maintain the prevailing control hierarchies, the conventional illusions, the sense that all we need do is make minor adjustments to the torque of events, while confronted by social transformations that remain unrecognised by the masses yet threatening to the elite.

But try telling that to those affected in their own communities, the politicians, or the rioters.

The Smart Grid – perhaps not so healthy an idea…

July 31, 2011

…but the devil is in the details.

The Smart Grid has been described as an:

“automated, widely distributed energy delivery network…characterized by a two-way flow of electricity and information [that] will be capable of monitoring everything from power plants to customer preferences to individual appliances. It incorporates into the grid the benefits of distributed computing and communications to deliver real-time information and enable the near-instantaneous balance of supply and demand at the device level.”

There are many different ways to interpret and develop a smart grid.

This interesting article provides an important view. Mostly, it talks about the potential direct health risks from the electromagnetic fields generated by smart meters and, more generally, wireless connectivity. It also suggests possible political corruption linked to the development of smart grid activities in the United States, and raises the thorny issues of privacy and security derived from wireless connectivity and smart – or remote – control of appliances and equipment.

Very important issues indeed. It was brought to my attention by one of the authors of Cancer: 101 Solutions – a very insightful and practical guide on how we can all reduce our exposures to cancer risks in our environment.

This is a great article, but we must be cautious of the deflection it generates (akin to what Dennis Raphael terms ‘random medical gobbledygook’ when health information that fixates on the individual causes of health risks ignore the underlying social settings – social health determinants – responsible for that diseased state). As I write in Computing Or Way to Paradise? in the chapter on health (page 149):

“It should be apparent that we have not discussed in this chapter the direct health effects of ICTs. Although there is a growing body of evidence indicating health impacts from ICTs as a result of ergonomic, chemical, electromagnetic and other possible causes (including the risks derived from the inattentiveness to surrounding environments during their use), this approach diverts attention toward the individual. The assumption is that if you limit or avoid use of or exposure to a specific product, your chances of contracting certain diseased states is reduced.”

The problems outlined in the above article do just that while stumbling around the social determinants of health with privacy and political issues. While the potential for direct health impacts are not necessarily trivial, they pale in comparison to the social and cultural implications from the ‘smart grid.’

A perfect example is as the authors cite: “those who stand to make enormous profits.”

I find this problem all too common. In fact, the previous blog posts here and here about the adoption of ICTs for collaboration illustrates how our default mode tends to promote business as usual (BAU) when adopting ICTs, despite their enormous potential for so much more. BAU is fundamentally antithetical to what the theories developed in ‘Computing Our Way to Paradise‘ suggest.

The book draws extensively on the example of the smart grid and uses this as an underlying theme throughout. Repeatedly it is shown how technological determinism and BAU (growth, competition, individualism, hierarchical control, etc.) continues unabated, even amongst those who promote the novelty of ICTs. This approach is also very evident in the renewable energy and green economy sectors.

The points on privacy and security in that same above article are, however, somewhat more misguided. The expectation that smart appliances will ‘be controlled’ by us and the utility companies ignores the self-regulatory nature of the ‘SMART’ grid. But that does raise some thorny issues about privacy, suggesting, not greater risks, but instead a redefinition of privacy, which that article would have benefited greatly from by exploring further. That said, you certainly won’t hear any talk of re-defining privacy from federal privacy commissioners or any other privacy watchdogs however.

As for the vampire loads the article discusses, no proponents have provided information about this, although I suspect, like tobacco companies, many have thought about the undesirable consequences from use of these technologies. However, there have been a couple studies to consider the energy demands of such smart technologies. Some good background can be found here and here. The average benchmark identified is an increase of 30% in household electrical demand for the smart home.

The article also discusses the potential for political corruption and the ‘control’ of smart grid technologies, and the respective safety, privacy and security issues. But as I illustrate in this post, control will not originate from hierarchical governance structures.

Which, demonstrates why the egalitarian re-distribution of wealth and power is so essential, and how it might already be happening, and why we need to re-define privacy.

Indeed, this will undoubtedly generate a ‘boost’ to ensure the social determinants of health are inherently included in social and economic development in the future. From the authors of The Spirit Level:

“Action on climate change is hampered by the view that reducing carbon emissions will involve a sacrifice in living standards. But Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett, and Roberto De Vogli argue that greater equality will not only help achieve sustainability but also enhance the real quality of life”

A competitive, market-based, growth-obsessed, global society controlled by hierarchical governance and power structures and unimaginable wealth disparities simply cannot be equitable or egalitarian. Moreover, it harms our health and well-being. Why would, at this pivotal moment in history, we want to model an emerging smart grid on such an approach?

So, unless, it seems, we change our ways, and the way we interpret, apply, and adapt ICTs, we’re headed on a crash collision with ecological and social realities. So long as society believes we can grow our way out of this problem using the same hierarchical control structures, and competitive ideologies that continue to polarize and fragment societies around the globe – and only address the individual health impacts – our consumption footprints will continue to exceed the planets capacity to deal with them, and the social and political wealth disparities will disintegrate social cohesion. And therein lies the real health impacts.

In other words, the smart grid needs to reflect the distributive nature of renewable energy technologies (both production and consumption) and ICTs, and it requires control abilities that supersede hierarchical control and management structures. Neither of which are predominantly present to date in the development of the smart grid.

living post-privacy

June 29, 2011

CBCs SPARK did a story about Christian Heller who is placing his entire life online to emphasise the idea that the concepts of privacy are changing.

In that story, a privacy advocate warned that most (Canadians) still want to maintain their privacy. Apparently, we remain concerned about the potential risks of privacy breaches.

It’s difficult to get someone to understand something when their job depends on them not understanding it (Upton Sinclair).

For a privacy advocate to suggest that Christians’ choice was extreme is entirely predictable.

Nothing extreme about it. The shift has begun. Changing your underwear behind closed doors is private. Your financial information, medical data, or drivers licence, where you visit and what you do on the Internet is not, and probably should not be private.

The free sharing of information may be essential for a distributive, egalitarian world that develops through cooperation. Say goodbye to the values of competition, ownership, and control hierarchies, among others, and their supporting institutions.

Hey, we were also concerned about the abolition of slavery, women voting and inter-racial schools prior to the antiquated values and institutions that supported those positions being discredited.

At some point the inherent contradictions between A) our desires for more information and it’s natural flows with B) our prevailing globally rigid control structures will become too obvious to ignore.

In the meantime, our globally-collective cognitive dissonance remains in overload.

Ecological Intelligence

May 25, 2010

I just reviewed Daniel Goleman’s book on Ecological Intelligence for a forthcoming issue of Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy.

At first I thought the book was getting into a mundane treatise of Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).

Nothing could be further from the truth.

You’ll have to read the book to understand, but it’s remarkably similar in it’s fundamental arguments to Computing Our Way to Paradise?

I mention this at this time because it deals with, without explicitly stating or discussing it, privacy issues.

My previous post is a call for the abolishment – or perhaps a better term would be the re-definition and transformation of our concepts of privacy – and the institutions that promote it.

The problem with Goleman’s book is that LCA will undoubtedly usher in tighter controls on corporate information – the good will be published and available; the bad will be hidden and discredited.

If Goleman’s insights (and those I discuss in Computing?) are to be realised, all that information – whether private, personal, corporate, or proprietary – will need to be made available and meshed with the emerging grid. Otherwise, it’s use would be too cumbersome, and it’s benefits impossible to fully realise.

That raises fundamental questions about social concepts and constructs of privacy. Which raises a fundamental question: before we start screaming for more privacy, wouldn’t it be prudent to discuss what that means and what options exist?


May 24, 2010

Facebook is now under scrutiny for it’s lax privacy adjustments on their website. Australia has reprimanded Google for it’s street views’ invasion of privacy. Privacy commissioners around the world are up in arms chasing after new and emerging privacy risks for individuals, companies and governments. Even scientists are constantly attacked by hackers seeking to discredit or undermine their research.

What’s happening?

Here’s my somewhat different take, related to my earlier posts on this matter.

First, privacy invasions are treated as an individual problem. While there are certainly social implications, the onus and risks are emphasized as individual. Check your settings, maintain vigilance, report compromises, etc. Businesses and government agencies maintain entire departments committed to maintaining and enhancing security, updating systems to take advantage of latest developments in technologies and software, employing investigators and auditors to ensure safe operation of systems, and even adopting policies and communications to hide security breaches from the public, competitors or regulatory agencies when they do occur.

Indeed, the deep pockets employed by corporations and governments fuels much of the pull of technology; compelling the individual user to maintain pace with new developments, upgrading skills, software and hardware at accelerating rates. Certainly there are enormous environment (and social) implications of these actions, but might we be going at this from the wrong angle?

Setting aside the environmental implications of these activities for the moment, perhaps we need to consider the social consequences of privacy – both maintaining and eliminating privacy.

A large part of ICTs specifically aim to make information available to anyone anywhere. How can we do this if so much of it is shielded under the heading of private?

That’s like a corporation hiding behind the veil of proprietary information. That’s just plain silly. Corporate information is accessible to it’s competitors through various mechanisms, and competitors have the resources to access it. Consumers can’t and even if they had it, consumers couldn’t do anything damaging with it. I know this is a very general statement, and it’s implied to be such. Keep reading.

The problem is, damage only occurs when there’s a profit motive. Corporate or personal information can be sold or otherwise employed to gain an economic advantage. What if that economic advantage didn’t exist? Would people be concerned about their private or corporate or government information constituting tiny flickers of data in enormous pools of information?

Conversely, those tiny flickers would all add up to tremendously powerful insights, sort of like comparing a bunch of charts and tables scattered around a room or on different computer programs as compared to a GIS map. If we don’t have general access to that information, we can’t generate the applications, software and technologies to use it for social and ecological benefits. Sure we also can’t use it for harmful purposes either, but would those intentions even exist without the pre-existing (profit) incentives? You remember, the emphasis on the individual, artificially created destructive competition, and any number of other controversial values our global social structure is predicated upon?

But without access to that information, we also can’t create the self-evolving living organic structure ICTs can – and many argue should – support.

Do we need a re-definition of privacy, and a transformation of our concepts of privacy – the uses to which we put information? At present, much information is used to grow the economy and protect the individual from the parasitic entities generated by economic growth. Perhaps it’s the objective and process to achieve a new objective that needs clarity, instead of new tools to protect some amorphous definition of privacy.

We’re trying to devise a stronger anchor to protect us from the turbulent global eddies of information. Instead, we need a good paddle and life jacket, and the wisdom to know when to portage to enjoy the journey.

And the privacy juggernaut continues

April 27, 2010

But this time, for real.

Despite the China/Google debacle and the well-intentioned concerns of privacy commissioners, the ability for tracking by cell phones, iPhones, RFIDs and all other manner of mobile communication devices, is really a profit driven activity that helps fuel economic growth. Private corporations, for example, need to understand our behaviour and activities in order to market and advertise more effectively.

Where I live in Northern Ontario, frequent encounters with wildlife have become a concern. Bears in particular are often witnessed within urban areas. Residents are alarmed and calling for action to reduce bear populations. In reality, many urban bears are there because people don’t know how to interact with nature, leave garbage food stuffs around that attract bears, adorn their properties with tasty apple trees, and, to make matters worse, mine the hillsides, cut down the forests and pollute the ecosystems bears would prefer to inhabit.

From the bears perspective, humans are the nuisance.

From a different perspective, problems can become opportunities. Should the profit incentive be challenged when it comes to the issue of privacy? ICTs can be so much more to help humanity achieve sustainability, but if we stall in the wrong frame of reference, we’ll continue to make the same mistakes.

Einstein eloquently stated it this way: insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I wonder if he knew any bears?

more privacy concerns?

April 27, 2010

Or the wave of the future: China?

The plans by China (outlined in this news article) suggests, at first blush, something Orwellian.

But is it?

My previous post considering the consequences of the privacy commissioners’ concerns over Google suggested there actually is a need for a profit-free incentive to gather, compile, utilise and assess data and information. Could this move by China feed into this process?

In one way, yes; in another, perhaps not.

Obviously there’s widespread concern about the uses to which Chinese officials will put such information.

But that’s the obvious. We mustn’t overlook the subtle effect of this action either.

That more subtle effect might be to lead the planet to a more holistic use and more sustainable application of globally integrated ICT data, motivated by cultural protections – as a metaphor for sustainability – rather than profit.

Okay, so cultural protections might not be exactly what one would envision, but this article explains how even the most noble intentions under a global cultural ideology can encounter resistance when confronted by cultural differences (or ignoring ecological features for that matter). That should not be an argument for more global cultural homogeneity. On the contrary, we need greater diversity, and free access to all available information will drive that diversity. While smothered by privacy and profit concerns, that access will remain limited. Think globally, and act locally, with local actors.

Google scolded by privacy watchdogs

April 26, 2010

Does Google intend to subsume individual privacy with global access? Is this undesirable? Has anyone considered the benefits of such an action?

Here’s what the International Association of Privacy Professionals believe. Their letter to Google can be accessed from here.

In short, the IAPP insist Google must place privacy front and centre when releasing new technologies and applications.

Is this the best approach?

As the Internet and communications technologies integrate and merge – which may be occurring at a far faster rate than anyone appreciates – all activity on the network will or could become thoroughly integrated. But will privacy concerns stall that process, and is this a good thing?

Without prudent privacy protections, there will simply be no such thing as privacy, especially when it comes to anything digital.

Conversely, what sort of world might we envision if no privacy protections existed? Could that be a more sustainable world?

As I discuss in the book, we already have a globally emergent growth entity. That neglects the enormous amounts of data and information that has yet to be integrated into the network – from tweets and facebook pages to health records and energy consumption data from the largest corporations and countries right down to the individual home owner.

Once all this data becomes readily available, fluid and digital, it could all feed into the living evolving network we now call ICTs. As this happens, actions and thoughts will be merged and become instantaneous. This, or at least it’s optimum relaisations, cannot occur while privacy concerns conceal essential inputs. So we had better hope the institutions privacy concerns originate from are consistent with global ecological realities and social needs. Sadly, they are not. At the moment, most structures are not (sustainable), and this presents a very serious and imminent risk to future civilisation (and, it appears, privacy).

What is being fought at this juncture in time is a battle over privacy which may stand in the way of the foundation of a new civilisation – the networked world. As noble as privacy professionals appear (by seeking to protect individual privacy), their calls and actions may be missing the point and fueling a shift away from a sustainable planet.

The point may not be to ensure privacy of all data, but to instead ensure all data is used appropriately to enhance the quality of life and ensure ecological sustainability moving into the future.

Clearly, new business models will be needed to function in this future networked world, and as beneficial as the moves by Google today are (despite their potential real threat to personal privacy), Google, like all future businesses, will need to operate under a new business model for this networked world to function. This has yet to be realised by any business, let alone Google.

Until global society recognises and begins this transformation, privacy threats will remain, and privacy watchdogs must maintain vigilance to ensure personal information is not compromised.