IMAGE: Maksym Yemelyanov — 123RF

Some thoughts on cyber-surveillance

The news this week is filled with stories related to cyber-surveillance: efforts to control what we do online (and offline in some cases); about monitoring systems aimed at improving the way advertisements reach us, as well as preventing terrorism and keeping an eye on all kinds of activists.

Let’s start with an item about something we’ve discussed recently:

Now, Apple is working with US researchers on a project that would allow users of its ResearchKit to get DNA analysis that could be combined with readings of data obtained from their iPhones or Apple Watches. At first glance it seems unsettling, a first step toward some kind of Gattaca dystopia whereby companies know all about our genetics and use the information for sinister purposes. But it’s not: on the one hand we need to remember Tim Cook’s statements regarding Apple’s commitment to privacy, which has seen it stand up to the US government by refusing to provide encryption keys. The medical research field has already established its credentials when it comes to respecting people’s privacy. What’s more, most people using ResearchKit will be prepared to put up with small inconveniences so as to be part of something that could eventually make a contribution to saving lives. Look at it from any angle, but this is something that although it might sound intrusive, is very much an opt-in that provides participants with every guarantee.

Next item: Facebook and IBM are teaming up to offer personalized advertisements by combining greater computing power and machines that learn from our behavior and surfing habits to try to increase the number of times we click on the advertisements that appear before us. Once again, it sounds intrusive, and has certainly divided opinions: some people see it as an advantage by putting stuff in front of them that they are likely to be interested in; while others feel they are being sucked into a Big Brother scenario. Facebook knows who you are, what you like, what pages you look at, where you are, etc. Okay, fine. But eventually, you stop using Facebook, or you use an adblocker. Once again, the supposed danger here can easily be avoided.

Third: Android apps that secretly connect you to user tracking and ad sites. In other words, the old adage that “if you don’t pay for the service you’re not the client, you’re the product. All these apps, so useful, all for free… the people who created them must love working for free, right? These are created with the sole intention of tricking us, they are hidden, we don’t even know what they’re up to. Once again, it seems a cause for concern. Blocking ads on a smartphone is possible, but tricky, so the solution is simply to not use the app in question. In other words, we can still say no.

But when it comes to government surveillance, saying no is tougher: China is further tightening its already restrictive internet controls. If you live in China and want to publish content on the internet, there’s not really much getting round this one. What’s more, you run the risk of having your site closed down if you are seen to be trying to get round the rules; you might even end up spending time in jail. That said, intrusive surveillance can be found in the so-called free world: a decade ago the NSA created the technology allowing it to make an automatic recording of telephone conversations that can turned into searchable text to be filed away and then dug up based on speech recognition, allowing the US authorities to monitor thousands of conversations. We have also learned this week that a US appeal court has ruled that unauthorized eavesdropping of cellphones by the courts can be accepted as evidence: that’s right, when you say something on your cellphone, you have no expectation of privacy anymore. The US Justice Department has also revealed the methods used to monitor cellphones using Stingray type devices (which can capture data from telephones within a certain radius, and which has been abused in the past), or even from aircraft in flight.

Are we coming to terms with a world in which private companies want to use our most personal data, including our DNA, while at the same time our governments are coming up with ever-more ingenious ways to keep tabs on us? But surely cyber-surveillance and the loss of privacy are not part of some conspiracy. Something very sinister is happening when surveillance and monitoring are no longer driven by science, but first by greed, and then by the supposed needs of our governments, and over which we no longer have any control.

For example, this week we learned that the French government has announced sweeping surveillance measures more in line with those used by the United States or China than the relatively respectful EU legislation. French lawmakers overwhelmingly approved legislation allowing for any kind of communication to be monitored, using any technology and method, and pretty much without the need for any kind of judicial supervision. The authorities are blaming the attacks in Paris in January, as well as the supposed threat posed by ISIS. You can choose to believe that or not, but the simple truth is this: a significant part of Europe has now gone over to the other side, and those of us living here can no longer pretend we don’t know what is going on. In short, they’re here.

(En español, aquí)

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