Some Words on Privacy and Online Surveillance for People Who Don’t Much Care About It

Or: Internet privacy for the cynical


I have a friend in IT who laughed at me when he saw I had a bandaid plaster over my laptop webcam.

This is a standard security precaution that Mark Zuckerberg and ex-FBI chief James Comey practice (and Comey recommends you do too), but when I explained to my friend how vulnerable the humble webcam was to hackers and nosy government organisations, he said I was paranoid and besides “he has nothing to hide.”

And you might feel the same.

So let me attempt to explain to you why you should care, and what we can do about our crumbling sense of privacy.

Ex-CIA and NSA whistleblower and more or less poster-boy for digital privacy rights, Edward Snowden, addressed this simple nothing-to-hide argument by writing:

Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say. [1]

Put it this way; if you have nothing to hide, you won’t mind me standing on the street corner looking in your window with a pair of binoculars every night.

But that instinctively feels wrong, doesn’t it? We want the right to privacy in our own homes, so why not demand the same for our online activities, our daily movements, our personal likes, desires and our unique browsing habits?

We spend an incredible amount of time online. No longer is the real world and the online world compartmentalised. Slowly but very surely, digital rights have become part of our human rights.

By their very nature, digital rights are new so we don’t cherish them like we do with our other human rights. It also doesn’t help that unlike our traditional human rights, it’s hard to tell if our digital rights are being violated, as it’s much more subtle and insidious.

I know what you’re going to say: “I’m not online very much” or “I don’t really use the internet.” or “I don’t use webcams.” Then consider this: You’re still being monitored if, like two thirds of the UK, you own a smartphone. As Ofcom said back in 2015 “The UK is now a smartphone society.”

When you turn on your smartphone, one powerful multinational or another (mostly Apple, Google or Facebook, three of the biggest in the world) will be watching you, listening to you and monitoring your online and real world activity.

They will view and store (at least for a short time) information about who you contact and where you go, they will use this information to refine their products, increase their profits and will sell your data to third parties.

Your phone tracks your movements and stores that data against your account (or to put it more ominously, “your file”).

Google Maps for example, shows you where the traffic congestion is by seeing how many Android users are clustered together on a roadway, calculates how fast they’re moving and displays that on the map.

Don’t like that idea and you want to turn location tracking off in settings? It turns out that won’t stop Google collecting your location data, at least if you have an Android device.

And that’s just one fairly innocuous example. It’s been known for years that apps of all kinds take your location, contact information and other personal data without asking to use, sell or simply leave exposed in open databases online for anyone to access.

Worse is that the more advanced these devices become, the more sensors they contain (motion and temperature sensors for example) and therefore the more your movements and information can be stolen and exploited.

As The Conversation reported last year:

A computer science Masters student Tony Beltramelli at the IT University of Copenhagen has demonstrated that software running on a smartwatch could be used to record a user’s passwords and PINs. He managed this by using the smartwatch’s motion sensors and analysing the patterns of data from the sensors when tapping a keypad to enter a PIN. [2]

Whilst we can blindly hope and assume Google, Apple or Microsoft won’t store such information – or at least use it – the wider issue concerns the access unknown quantities have via third party apps. As The Conversation puts it:

“…it is quite possible that a seemingly legitimate app installed from the app store could be doing the spying. This is because access to the sensors is not seen as a security, or privacy risk. Data from the motion sensors is used for controlling aspects of the user interface and so it would be unreasonable to ask a user’s permission to access that data.”

A quick update a couple of months after this article was written: The Cambridge Analytica scandal that is currently engulfing Facebook has meant the mainstream media are digging around to see what information Zuckerberg’s empire has on you. The lastest news is that it has been proven that Facebook scraped call and text message data for years from Android phones. Even BBC news journalists are writing about this infringement.

Think you’re immune because you don’t use Android? Even though Apple build in encryption as standard and are seemingly more secure than Android (and Apple are more expensive devices meaning we are slowly creating a two tier system of privacy split by a wealth divide as this TED talk addresses) it’s important to realise that there are still myriad privacy risks when using Apple products. As the New York Times put it:

While Apple says it prohibits and rejects any app that collects or transmits users’ personal data without their permission, that has not stopped some of the most popular applications for the iPhone, iPad and iPod — like Yelp, Gowalla, Hipster and Foodspotting — from taking users’ contacts and transmitting it without their knowledge. [3]

Surprisingly, considering what we’ve just covered, this is in contrast to Google who force developers to ask for permission to access any personal data. It seems then, that there really isn’t any advantage to favouring one giant corporation over another when it comes to privacy.

Ok, so we can agree that smart phones spy. But what if you’re one of the very few (shrinking number of) people who don’t own a smartphone or you’re simply one of the (growing number of) people ok with trading your privacy for convienience?

Well you guessed it, privacy violations don’t stop at smartphones. Not by any means.

The burgeoning ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT – household objects that are connected to the internet one way or another) means this invasion of privacy occurs just as much as it would with a smartphone.

The television, ubiquitous in households across the land, can be hacked and used to record your conversations and even take photos. This might sound far fetched, but this is exactly what the CIA and MI5 did with the Samsung smart TVs as revealed by Wikileaks. In today’s digital wild west, it’s not just in Soviet Russia where television watches you.

And this spying expands beyond TVs to any smart product. Cars with onboard computers, washing machines that monitor your detergent use, run of the mill childrens’ toys or any other modern device that collects your data and activities in exchange for covienience, including the omni-present Amazon Echo and Google Home assistants.

These assistants always listen (and record after hearing ‘activation’ words). Currently, Amazon do not provide police with recordings from their Echo devices, using the First Amendment in America to withold this informaton. Yet as this article asks “Why is all that data just sitting in Amazon’s servers in the first place? The brief Amazon filed in the Arkansas court confirms that the company saves the recordings and transcripts of your dialogue with Alexa [Echo] on servers…”

The IoT opens up a plethora of new ways to be monitored and spied upon. It isn’t just your television that has been targeted. Leaked files show how UK government agencies held workshops with the CIA to find ways to ‘hack’ into many household devices as reported by the Daily Telegraph.

This endemic privacy problem is only growing in our increasingly connected technological world. If you manage to completely opt out of buying or living alongside smart products (good luck with that), lately even the privacy of your personal health records are under threat.

Deep Mind, an artificial intellience company owned by Google partnered with the NHS in 2017 to “process medical data of its 1.6m patients via a mobile app, a move that academics and privacy advocates describe as “pressing” and “worrying””.

The scheme is to use an app to alert healthcare professionals about patients’ needs, but it has raised great privacy concerns. Dr Julia Powles, who works on technology law and policy at Cambridge University, said:

Google is getting a free pass for swift and broad access into the NHS, on the back of unproven promises of efficiency and innovation.” [4]

This is your data going to a company that already knows a vast amount about you, especially if you use an Android device, or browse the web using Google Chrome; which is the majority of the population.

Admittedly, this is currently only a trial in one NHS Trust, but it is indicative of what lays beyond the floodgates. Even if technology gives with one hand, it ruthlessly takes away with the other, though we can’t often see it.

So if we can accept that governments and corporations overtly and covertly take and exploit our information, many of you may still say “So what?” It’s a free society. No one is going to lock you in prison because of an email or a Facebook profile. You get to live your life as normal, so who cares, right?

Well I’d argue there are two counter points here. The first is that yes, it’s a free society, but this aggressive and illegal monitoring is making it less free.

A free society is based on adhering to certain human rights that include the right to privacy and the right not to be tracked or monitored. Even those who may feel a bizarre sense of security that big brother is watching, remember that the vast majority of this spying isn’t your local, friendly counter terrorism unit ensuring you’re safe, it’s gargantuan multinationals exploiting the information they steal from you to help optimise their business models and to sell on to the highest bidder.

Yet alarmingly, all this is small fry compared to the second counter point which is that popular political movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy were co-ordinated through smartphones, emails, texts and other digital based communication that is constantly vulnerable.

If we don’t protect the rights of citizens online we open the doors for nefarious regimes to quash protests, bury injustice and hide chronic discontent before it can show itself to the international community.

Still don’t care as you think this won’t happen in a free democratic society like your own? Well it already has happened in the leading nation of the free world.

ACLU of California has obtained records showing that social media sites Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram provided user data access to Geofeedia, a developer of a social media monitoring product that we have seen marketed to law enforcement as a tool to monitor activists and protesters.[5]

The Guardian notes that “Geofeedia is a social media monitoring company that partners with law enforcement and has marketed its services as a tool to track Black Lives Matter activists.” At least least 13 police agencies in America have used or acquired Geofeedia data so far.

Significantly, this article notes that since the public humiliation of Facebook and Instagram being caught up in this scandal, they have stopped Geofeedia’s “developer level access” to their products, though equally significantly, other sites haven’t.

This is the tip of a very concerning iceberg. An iceberg that keeps growing and is only ever curtailed after being exposed. The right to peaceful protest and the right not to be monitored are pillars of a free society, but these pillars are constantly undermined at present, let alone in a near future when technology invades every element of our everyday lives.

George Orwell may have pictured a full surveillance dystopia, but he never would have guessed it would be the citizens who willingly give away their privacy for the sake of simple convenience.

This dystopia is nearer than we suspect. As this article notes: “Regardless of any measures taken to protect one’s identity online, privacy in the digital age has to be redefined. The old definitions no longer seem to apply, and this will only become more apparent in the future where the rest of the world will be connected as well.”

We should all be wary of present privacy violations, as they lead the way for future errosion of rights. As Or Edward Snowden put it “Privacy is the fountainhead of rights, from which other freedoms flow.”

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