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Redefining National Security

Tomorrow is the first of the presidential debates for this election cycle. If tradition holds, one of the major topics that will be addressed over all these events is the concept of “national security”. And most, if not all, the questions related to that phrase will center around the military, Russia, terrorism, and other topics that involve ships, bombs, and the other stuff of war.

However, that thinking is far too narrow for the world in which we currently live. We need to expand the definition of “national security”.

It’s Not About Safety

homeland security

Lots of discussion in my feeds last week about school surveillance. Most of it was concerning a New York Times article about a small district near Niagara Falls that recently switched on a facial recognition system in it’s eight schools.

While they are one of the first K12 districts in the US to adopt this technology, the writer notes that similar systems are already being used in many public spaces like airports and sports arenas. In addition, more than 600 “law enforcement agencies” have adopted facial recognition software from a company called Clearview AI in just the past year.

All in the name of “security” and public safety, of course.

The Problem Is Greater Than Facebook

Following up on the previous post, a few more random thoughts related to the current Facebook data security mess.

First, the problem with the collection and use of personal data extends far beyond Facebook. Google, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp1, SnapChat, and many other social media companies all offer services you don’t pay for.

All make money through selling you, their “members”, to advertisers. All have long, legally detailed terms of service, which you agreed to (even if you didn’t read it), that allow them to use your contributions and data in pretty much any way they want. Which brings up copyright issues that are a whole ‘nother rant.

But it’s not just social media collecting your data. Plenty of companies that charge for products and services – Apple, Samsung, Amazon, your phone and cable companies, your supermarket, gas station, and big box stores (remember your loyalty card?) – collect valuable data on your buying habits. And pretty much anything else they can find. Information they can use to make even more profits.

It will be interesting to see whether Europe’s new data security laws, which take affect in May, will impact the behavior of Facebook and the others. One major goal of the legislation is to give users more control over their data, including the ability to have some of it deleted. Facebook and other data-driven companies, on the other hand, are dependent on users willingly giving over their information and not caring what happens next. 

Over here in the US, despite calls for investigation and pending lawsuits, our current laws probably don’t cover this situation. It’s also very unclear what new regulations on Facebook and other social media companies would look like, considering the long tradition of free speech rights in this country. Plus, if actual data breaches of the past are any indication, there isn’t a lot of political will to do anything related to consumer protection.

I’ve seen many calls on Twitter and elsewhere to delete your Facebook accounts. That’ll show them. Except it probably won’t since the people who actually follow through is a very, very small fraction of their overall membership. Plus, Facebook will still have your data and has the infrastructure in place to continue following you around the web.

On top of everything else, Facebook makes it very difficult to actually delete an account. Bill Fitzgerald, my go-to guy for understanding data security and privacy issues, has some recommendations for people who want to try. If you’d rather continue using Facebook, check out Wired’s guide to the complicated world of their privacy and security settings.

Finally, when Mark Zuckerberg’s name comes up in the news, does anyone else picture Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network? Considering Zuck’s shall we say “relaxed” attitude towards the privacy of his customers, I’m beginning to think the portrayal of him in that film wasn’t all that far from real life. Maybe he needs to hire Eisenberg to front him and get Aaron Sorkin to write the script. Certainly would be more entertaining.


Cartoon is by the wonderful Randall Munroe, posted at his site xkcd and used under a Creative Commons license. Check out his book What If? in which he answers absurd hypothetical questions with real science.

1. Instagram and WhatsApp are both owned by Facebook.

The Store is Tracking You

Screen Shot 2018 01 23 at 8 30 25 PM

Irony is not dead.

This week Amazon, the 800-pound gorilla of online merchants, opened an actual physical store. From the pictures, it looks like what Whole Foods (which Amazon bought last year) might have come up with if they were designing a Wawa.

However, the unique part of Amazon Go is that there are no checkout lines, cash registers, or cashiers, and the tech press went wild.

On arrival, you launch the Go app, which comes out today for iPhones and Android phones and connects to your Amazon account. It displays a 2D code that you scan at one of several glass security gates. The code identifies you to the store and opens the gate. (You can also check in other people—a spouse, a kid, a friend—whose purchases will be added to your tab.) Once you’re in, AI algorithms start to track you and everything you pick up and keep. You can bag your items as you go if you so choose, and need interact with an employee only if you’re buying alcohol, in which case an associate standing in the liquor area will check your ID.

The article talks about the store using a lot of AI, although I’m not sure this system is all that smart (yet). Really it’s only a couple of steps beyond how I already shop.

At the supermarket I go to most often, I pick up a hand-held device after scanning a loyalty card. As I select the items I want, I scan the bar code and stick it in my bag. At check out, I scan a code on the device, wave my Apple Pay at the register, and leave. Amazon engineers take that semi-manual process and incorporate the scanner into the building itself.

This is only one store, in downtown Seattle, and it’s not clear where Amazon plans to take this concept. But it’s not hard to predict where this general technology is going.

Between the general lust for data by corporations and governments, and the paranoia-fueled push for more “security”, this kind of tracking system will become more powerful. And likely be spread far and wide.

Watch for AI-powered cameras and sensors at your local mall, airport, convention center, wherever lots of people come and go. At your school?

Ok, that’s enough ranting on this topic for now. I have to go work on my sensor-blocking tin foil hat. :)


Tweet by @typesfast, posted January 22.

 

Sunday Short Takes

A few interesting reads and listens from last week.

The New York Times Magazine’s education edition included a long, very interesting look at education in Michigan where they gambled on charter schools and “Its Children Lost”. It’s a story of lax regulation and oversight, coupled with a concerted effort to privatize public schools, led by the current federal Secretary of Education.

Two podcast episodes that explain in clear language why a do-nothing Congress can actually harm people. Planet Money has three examples our legislators risking the American economy by failing to pass a budget and risking the good credit of the country by playing chicken with the debt ceiling. The third segment addresses immigration and DACA, as does a short edition of DecodeDC, in which they fact check Jeff Sessions. Spoiler: he’s mostly wrong.

In-between watching continuous coverage of Hurricane Irma, read about the men and women who fly aircraft into the middle of those storms to gather crucial information for scientists and forecasters. We often take all this for granted but collecting that data is tricky, dangerous, and very necessary work.

Related to that, the BBC programme (British spelling :-) More or Less explains why the phrase “one in 500 year storm”, used so frequently during the coverage of Hurricane Harvey, has very little meaning. By the way, More or Less does a very good job of explaining those kind of statistical measures used by the media, in a short and very interesting weekly podcast.

With all the stories about data security this week, Motherboard explains why you should never post pictures of your airline tickets or even house keys on social media. Their warning should also extend to any documents that include numbers or barcodes that contain identifying information. If you teach, you may want to explain this to your students as well.

Finally, National Geographic offered a couple of interesting pieces this week, complete with great images, of course. One is a photographic essay of abandoned, decayed resorts in Pennsylvania and New York, side-by-side with post cards of the same scenes. Very creepy. The other profiles a small city in China (where a population of 1.2 million is “small”) that produces “60 percent of the worlds cheap consumable goods”.

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