Saturday, 5 March 2016

1984 has arrived, just a bit later than expected

Smartphones and 1984:  Are We There Yet?

Most people have heard of the book “1984”.  It is without doubt George Orwell’s best novel and remains one of the most powerful warnings ever issued against the dangers of a totalitarian society.
For those who need a reminder the book was written in 1949 and set in the author’s future.  In Orwell’s bleak vision the main thread of the story is the omnipresent government surveillance at all levels of society.  People are electronically watched 24 hours a day and “disappeared” if they step from the narrow party line. 

The authors name has even entered the English language as “Orwellian”, an adjective used to describe a totalitarian system in which an organisation or government relentlessly spies on people in an attempt to exercise complete control over their behaviour and thoughts.

What has a book written over 60 years ago got to do with smartphones?  Well maybe more than first appears.  A disturbing picture of the state of data surveillance and collection is emerging.

Apples Fight for your Data Security

Despite Apples posturing towards the FBI regarding the privacy of an individual’s data it seems they might not be as concerned about privacy as we are led to believe.  The respected security researcher Jonathon Zdziarski wrote a paper titled; Identifying Back Doors, Attack Points, and Surveillance Mechanisms in iOS Devices. The paper describes how; with or without Apple’s help, spying agencies such as NSA and other third parties, familiar with how iOS operates can use these vulnerabilities to extract data from an iPhone, or even install applications for malicious purposes without the user’s knowledge.

Currently iPhones collect and report back location data and web search data and have access to user information stored in the iCloud and iTunes

Apple can access you contacts even if you disable iCloud and iMessage.  Consumers say they want privacy, but do not typically alter actions to protect themselves. This is among key findings from a recent study commissioned by Trend Micro Incorporated (TYO: 4704; TSE: 4704). The global study conducted by Ponemon Institute, “Privacy and Security in a Connected Life: A Study of US, European and Japanese Consumers,” reveals a slight majority of consumers believe the benefits of the Internet of Things (IoT) outweigh privacy concerns. However, 75 percent feel they do not have any control over their personal information. In addition, the research compares consumers’ perceptions on privacy, their willingness to change behaviour and the perceived value of their personal information“

These comprehensive findings show that, while consumers seem to be concerned about privacy and security, they do not fully grasp the role they can play according to Raimund Genes, CTO, Trend Micro. “At the same time, the majority who identify themselves as ‘privacy sensitive’ will not change their behaviour or information sharing practices even if they experience a data breach. This could be attributed to a feeling of powerlessness or an overall lack of awareness. It’s clear that more attention is needed to protect privacy and security on a personal basis. Fortunately, there are resources available to help individuals learn how to protect themselves.” Unfortunately People need to educate themselves because neither governments nor corporations will benefit from users who can keep their information locked down.

So we should Just Use Android Smartphones.

Android is a mobile operating system developed, maintained and distributing by Google to anyone who wants it FOR FREE.  Think about it for a second.  Why would the biggest advertising company in the world, actually he world’s largest publicly traded company spend millions on a product and then give it away?  It’s simply because they can make more money from the collection of data from the estimated 1.4 Billion devices running its software.

Since its meteoric rise in the internet age, Google has reached technological capabilities that seem almost science-fiction. Their latest is a neural network with a “superhuman” ability to determine the location of almost any image.  The internet giant’s immense collection of personal data amounts to its own surveillance network that likely exceeds the best government spy program anywhere in the world. The data sweep is not only online; Google’s Street View cars were discovered collecting information from wi-fi hubs ranging from “people’s medical histories to their sexual preference to marital infidelity.”

Google has said that their collection of data, when used properly, advances the public well-being. This sounds uncomfortably familiar to the propaganda campaign of intelligence officials defending the NSA’s domestic spying program and other intrusions of privacy revealed by Edward Snowden.

The next logical stage in this journey towards 1984 is to track a user's health behaviour using so called smart watch or fitness bands.  These devices are being developed to collect clues of a much more comprehensive nature than just steps in the park. Your blood pressure, electrodermal activity, blood alcohol content and much more than can be already be collected by health-tracking gadgets currently on sale.  I sincerely hope that smartphone users are concerned about insurance corporations collecting this type of personal data because they really as they should be.  If we keep going down the road we are on then soon we will be required to wear "health" bands to get medical insurance.  

On Wednesday 09th March, the European Union is expected to drop the hammer on Google, charging the company with violating antitrust rules with its search dominance. It’s the tail end of a five-year investigation from the EU’s competition commission, and a prolonged regulatory headache for the search giant. It could be costly too: The EU is reportedly plotting a fine as large as $6.4 billion, roughly a tenth of Google’s annual revenue. The Financial Times first reported the news.  Needless to say whatever happens there will be an appeal.

What happens next?

It is up to each and every citizen to educate themselves and decide if they want to be a drone tracked by corporate algorithms or if they want to grow as individuals and make decisions based on learned reasoning rather than asking Google for an answer every time they stumble.  I am not confident that the former will happen.