Google giveth, and Google taketh + privacy in the US

The EFF: ‘Google Removes Vital Privacy Feature From Android, Claiming Its Release Was Accidental’

That feature I lauded?  Removed in 4.4.2.  We’ll still need to wait and see what comes of it, but keep in mind where most of Google’s revenue comes from.

Interesting argument: Why is Google the only player whose location privacy is lacking?  Even Windows Phone can disable location access after the fact, and iOS has had this ability for quite some time.  This is something that Android has always been behind on, but no one’s really called them out on it.

The ACLU has a concept about how location data could be used.  It is an interesting concept, especially seeing as how the US Fifth Circuit and Six Circuit have ruled that you do not need a warrant to use cellular location data. Money quotes from the Fifth Circuit ruling:

Their use of their phones, moreover, is entirely voluntary . . . . The Government does not require a member of the public to own or carry a phone.  As the days of monopoly phone companies are past, the Government does not require him to obtain his cell phone service from a particular service provider that keeps historical cell site records for its subscribers, either. And it does not require him to make a call, let alone to make a call at a specific location.

The Government disputes the assertion that cell phone users do not voluntarily convey location information. It contends that the users know that they convey information about their location to their service providers when they make a call and that they voluntarily continue to make such calls.

I do give kudos to Judge Dennis for dissenting and bringing up the interesting link between e911 and location awareness.  To be compliant with FCC regulations, the location of a user in an emergency must be determined within 50 to 300 meters, with the more precise requirements being 50 meters for 67 percent of calls and 150 meters for 95 percent of calls.

In the end, it comes down to the end users working together and demanding for better.  In the Play Store or any app store for that matter, give poor reviews to invasive applications who request access to things they don’t need, and push your OS manufacturer to show that privacy of the utmost importance.  Push for your cellular carriers to respect your privacy, and push legislators for change.  We need to change the stance from an implied expectation of privacy to a concrete form.

Some of you may remember this song from the Geico commercial, but I think it’s a good fit.


Privacy and the technologic age

In this day and age, privacy is a commodity to bought, traded, and sold.  Whether it’s the government tracking what you do or advertisers (who can also give that information to governments), someone knows more about you than you would think or like.

The US government has been tracking individuals worldwide with a program called Co-Traveler which is designed to track your location, and when you turn your phone on and off.  The last part is more interesting, as it opens up doorways to knowing who someone is without asking the phone company exactly who that is.

Let’s use myself as an example.  I currently use a prepaid carrier in the UK, and I’ve never had to hand over any information about myself.  Let’s assume for the moment that I used cash at the Heathrow airport for the SIM card as the vending machines allow that.  If I always pay in cash (which I happen to do out of convenience), any government might not have any idea of who I am in regards to my phone number.  Sure, they could check the security camera footage and try to match it to a database for visas, but that’s too complicated for what they could do.

If I know that a phone was turned off at an airport and turned back on at another airport, I could determine in theory which flight that person was on.  I could then get the flight manifest to determine which individuals were on that flight.  Let’s say the government doesn’t know a single person on the flight’s identity.  A best case scenario (or worst depending on your perspective) Boeing 747-400 can only hold 345 passengers, which immediately narrows down the number of people my phone could be.  An Airbus 318-100, on the other hand, can only seat thirty-two individuals and makes things far more trivial.  And with the longer I stay at the other location, the more distinct my phone number will be in terms of identifying an individual.

Let me explain.  The odds of the same person being on the exact same flight back are not unlikely at all, as I’ve seen some people both ways before.  However, the longer I stay, the more likely it is for the remaining individuals to have already returned or traveled to another destination (same with an extremely quick turnaround).  It would be entirely possible for one trip (one flight out and one flight back) to identify who I am in regards to my cell phone without having to determine who I am with the carrier.  This doesn’t even factor in the process of elimination that can be done along the way with identifying the other individuals on the flight.

Although it would take more effort, it could still be done without the other airport’s assistance (i.e. only Heathrow as an example), as long as it could be determined where I was on the runway and which aircraft was at the same location.  The most trustworthy information would when the aircraft landed and if the individual turned the phone off after the plane had pushed from the gate.

In private hands, a free application on Android called Brightest Flashlight was recording their user’s locations and passing on their location to advertisers even if you opted out.  Android finally brought in some location controls with 4.3, but it has the potential to break the application if it doesn’t have the proper permissions or even be an option to users of certain devices.  I myself am currently stuck at 4.2 because the company has not ordained an upgrade to my phone, so I cannot take advantage of it.  I truly appreciate iOS’s controls for information, as the application cannot carte-blanche decide it needs to know everything and break itself when it doesn’t get it.

In times of silliness, I like to imagine a sort of privacy stock market with different people’s information being traded on the open market.  There would be shares of myself and my information being clamored over, people shouting indiscriminately and the futures of information being bet on.  “We think he will make a large purchase soon that will allow us to track him even better than we can now, and are forecasting a 20% increase in information year-over-year.”  I can only imagine what dividends would be, perhaps a random fact that is useful or my current weight.

The phrase is that when something is free, you are the product and we are far too quick to give ourselves away.  After all, if it’s not tangible, it’s an endless commodity, right?  With the advent of technology that can tell us where we are whenever we like, we have to remember the other side of the coin: it can tell someone else where you are wherever you like.  Whether it’s someone targeting you for ads or a foreign or local government learning all of your secrets, we must be wary not to give up the essence of what makes us who we are: individuality and privacy.  It is most difficult for someone to misuse information they don’t have.

So, I’m going to be a Glasshole.

Have you ever wanted to strap a camera to your face and creep out passers-by while simultaneously distancing yourself from the people you care about?  I know I have.  So, I got the opportunity to purchase Google Glass and I went for it.  I’ll be getting it somewhat soon, and I’ll post my thoughts about it.

For now, do I think it’s the way of the future?  It’s an interesting question in itself.  The whole point of lock screen notifications is to determine information at a glance, and what could be easier than glancing up instead of pulling a phone out?  Why look at your wrist for a smartwatch when the information is already in front of you?

I really don’t think that this is the way of the future, unless it can be developed into something less ostracizing.  Regardless of whether it’s on or off, the person whom you would be having the conversation with would feel that you might not be paying attention.  Sure, the light from the display is visible from the other side so you know if it’s on or not. But, that doesn’t eliminate the sheer potential anticipation of some new tidbit of information, some delectable piece of information to feed our ever-growing need to be constantly entertained.  Did I see it flash?  Is it still on?  Maybe I missed something on the display, I should check.

There’s a really impressive video below which shows the potential down the line which I highly recommend.  We have the need to be constantly entertained, constantly looking at something.  Entire train rides and flights spent with people staring at their phones, tablets, and computers.  Google Glass blurs that line even further by constantly putting that information always within eyesight, always ever-present.  There’s technology, and then there’s technology designed with not only ergonomics but societal impacts.  Until Google Glass or some other device can address that in a manner that brings people closer together, I don’t think it can succeed.