Recommended Posts on Power, Culture, and Privacy

Lots of talk about privacy lately. Much of it has been spurred by the completely unsurprising revelations about NSA spying. But we were primed for that by the discussion surrounding Facebook Home and Om Malik’s widely noted reaction (“Why Facebook Home Bothers Me“) back in April.

Server room in CERN (Switzerland)

Server room in CERN (Switzerland) (© Florian Hirzinger)

Over the past day, I’ve read two standout posts that I’d really recommend. At the New Yorker, Jill Lepore has an engaging piece entitled Privacy in an Age of Publicity on the history of our modern notions of privacy. She connects a number of disparate points, including the shift in our meaning of “mystery,” early ideas about publicity from Jeremy Bentham (of the oft-discussed “panopticon” ), the development of the notion of a domestic sphere of life, and the legally foundational 1890 article on privacy by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. By the end of the article, it made a whole lot of sense why people just aren’t that bothered by the NSA’s practices. As she put it:

There is no longer a public self, even a rhetorical one. There are only lots of people protecting their privacy, while watching themselves, and one another, refracted, endlessly, through a prism of absurd design.

That’s the cultural side of things. But there’s also the power side of things. Dave Winer takes up that side (“The Quiet War In Tech“) noting:

In th[e] war [of information], the governments have more in common than they have differences. …What they want is to keep order, I really believe that. The order that keeps the rich rich, and more or less ignores the challenges we all face in keeping our species alive on this planet. I understand the sentiment. …If you were President of the United States, and you saw a certain probability of [tech collapse] happening, you’d re-up on the side of preserving order. …And in that context, it’s not surprising that our, the people’s, information access systems are really weak compared to the ones the governments have.

By now it should be obvious that the big tech companies are not our friends. They’re more like the government than they are like you and me. Maybe not their fault, maybe they didn’t see it coming, but I doubt they’d deny that they’re there now.

Winer goes on to spin out some important implications for programmers and tech users, so it is worth a read.

Great insights.

A Different Kind of Cord Cutting

I don’t tend to think of myself as a tech dependent guy. I’m probably fooling myself, of course. I use my computer and iPad a ton. I watch television and listen to digital music.  But the big thing for me is that I don’t have a smartphone. What I have may not even rank as a feature phone: a $14.99 special on a pay-as-you go plan. There’s not much to check on it, so I tend not to pull it out. So I’m not addicted, right?

But last week my email was acting up, probably because of distributed denial of service attack on Spamhaus.  That reminded me really quickly of how much I need email, especially for communication with students.

But it could be worse. As David Meyer wrote on March 28 at Gigaom:

According to the Associated Press, on Wednesday the Egyptian Navy detained three scuba divers in a dinghy near Alexandria, who were “cutting the undersea cable” of local telco Telecom Egypt. This was confirmed on the Navy’s Facebook page. Egyptian news agency MENA identified the affected cable as SMW4: the same one whose cutting caused an internet slowdown in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia…

Incidentally, the SMW4 cable more properly known as South East Asia–Middle East–Western Europe 4 or SEA-ME-WE 4 was also involved in a very serious outage five years ago, which cut the capacity of the main Europe-Middle East connection by 75 percent. This one appears to have been less drastic.

So, we are literally hanging by a thread. A thick thread, but a thread nonetheless.

On the upside, both the digital and analog hacking incidents have passed and systems seem to be back to normal.

Maybe I should just stick to my feature phone.

(For more coverage, check out Om Malik’s piece as well.)

Criminals Are Always One Step Ahead of Security: Tax-spoofing

Most thinking about security of online financial transactions focuses on security of the connection to the financial institution and the institution’s ability to police its systems from unauthorized access. But spoofing—gaining access to a site by masquerading as an authorized user—financial institutions doesn’t necessarily entail getting into your preexisting data.

Lizette Alvarez at the NYTimes had an usettiling piece this weekend (With Personal Data in Hand, Thieves File Early and Often) about a new and frighteningly creative strategy being used by identity thieves.

(more…)

Users Aren’t Always the Best Judges of Risk

As is the case with lots of categories of news, little in the mainstream tech journalism follows the really important stories. More often, coverage focuses on new product announcements and sensationalism. One important topic, however, does appear frequently in mainstream tech news, namely privacy. There is broad awareness that our new digital lifestyle brings with it a host of potential problems in keeping ourselves at our information secure. Poor management of privacy and information use by some of the industry’s biggest players (like Google), recent congressional debates on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) and Facebook’s impending IPO have kept these issues in the limelight.

But, of course, there will always be people who push back against prevailing winds.  Reflecting on some Talks that he recently attended, Steve Wildstrom suggests that the over-arching angle in the effort to deal (updated) with privacy is misplaced.

(more…)

%d bloggers like this: