Oct 222016
 

Of course, to skeptics who lament the absence of privacy practices that put consumers in control of their own information, there is no surprise in the the following: Google Has Quietly Dropped Ban on Personally Identifiable Web Tracking (link to ProPublica). There was just too much money to be made not to join web tracking data with Google user profiles.

User profiles like in Google Apps for Education, for example. This would mean all Maryland students, faculty and staff who use our campus-supplied, Google-implemented mail and services are not only coloring in profiles for Google to use in commercial ventures – Google does that already – but these profiles will be joined with all our web activities (on and off campus.) All as a condition of being affiliated with University of Maryland.

Can you opt out? Maybe, but at some point employees will be opting out of getting official information from their employer and students will be opting out of getting traffic from their instructors. At least this is how it looks from here.

UM leadership puts our personal information into a stream of commerce in order to obtain its technology infrastructure. Once again Wallace Loh writes checks that we must cash.

 Posted by at 4:36 pm on October 22, 2016
Jun 102016
 

We should be so lucky that it is only the government making unfathomable decisions about us based on data they harvest without explanation for how it is used, as you might draw from today’s Washington Post article Creepy startup will help landlords, employers and online dates strip-mine intimate data from your Facebook page. (Also as linked from Slashdot, which tipped us off first.)

As a condition of doing business, the prospective clients, tenants or customers of participating firms must turn over all social media access to the startup which will profile and analyze the applicant in order to delivery a “more accurate” picture of the applicant’s ability to pay bills. (And probably a lot more.) We’ve seen this before, where social media data can contribute to one’s credit rating, so the present development just takes it to new heights … err, depths.

This is an unregulated area, with greatest impact on people who probably have the least ability to push back against inappropriate intrusions. But once businesses get you to dance to their tune, it is difficult to see where things stop, as tenants in Utah found recently (Apartment in US asks tenants to ‘like’ Facebook page or face action).

 Posted by at 7:31 am on June 10, 2016
Apr 052016
 

Telling travelers about to be screened whether to go left or right is an important job. It keeps people from getting in line in a way that would let them avoid more detailed screening. That’s why TSA bought $1.4 million of systems to do that. The product that costs 25 cents per installation – a quarter that screeners would flip – obviously won’t do. We need the cyber security version.

 Posted by at 10:14 am on April 5, 2016
Feb 022016
 

Students and alumni at UC Berkeley have filed a lawsuit against Google for its practices of data mining and profiling their email traffic through Google’s “Apps for Education” services which it promotes widely – including on this campus. The suit claims this is a violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Google appears to confirm the practice but asserts that while profiles are created for everyone who uses these tools, it does not target individuals for advertising based directly on the user’s information. However the company has so far been silent on how it uses these data for its other purposes, and presumably at some point will need to argue that those uses, while profitable and exploitative, are technically not a violation.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, so for users who obtain services at no direct charge from Google, it is not clear what they think is the business value to Google if not to train fairly elaborate models to recognize someone having exactly the individual’s features, and then sell use of that model to companies or government officials who want people identified. Those uses are surely good for Google, corporations and officials, but for consumers, not so much.

Google’s practices have been the open elephant in a room that few involved have an interest in acknowledging. School officials in particular have strong motivation to pay for their digital infrastructure out of their students’ liberty and pockets, and interests of those students be damned. (At UM, the message is also employee interests be damned, as we convert faculty and staff services to Google over the course of this year.)

What brings the present case forward is an assertion by the students that an earlier Google representation (that they would stop direct advertising based on the student data) was an admission that the were violating the Act in contrast to promises made at the time. Those promises are not unlike those made to students on this campus when we directed all traffic through Google servers.

 Posted by at 8:39 am on February 2, 2016
Jan 102016
 

The Washington Post reports on the cutting edge software police are starting to use for identifying people who are possible threats. One example of its use involved flagging someone as a threat based on a 911 call, so officers could call in a heavier response. It is all based on searching police records and social media.

Anyone who thinks the social media part is searched in real time once a name or address turns up in a query will be sadly mistaken. An immense amount of static information is compiled and added to continuously so it will be available at a moment’s notice – like in a 911 call.

One of the several dangers of course is that they get it wrong, and your innocent actions become misinterpreted, with potentially deadly consequences. Oops. But can you control this? No. As with so many “homeland security” systems these days, police cloak the actual computation in commercial operations, where the algorithms, data sources and records are not subject to public information requests or challenge. It will only be a matter of time until the equivalent of a ‘Google Bomb’ is dropped on someone through social media, after which the next interaction with police could involve trying to persuade a tactical team you are not a threat … while zip tied face down on your living room carpet.

 Posted by at 9:52 pm on January 10, 2016
Oct 282015
 

While the practice is not widely acknowledged, recent reports shed some light on the immense scope of telephone company use of information about you. Especially with mobile devices, usage data paints a sharp and clear picture of you, and this in turn is readily monetized.

How very generous of you to share your shopping, location and personal network information with these data wholesalers for free, since they use these data to take even more value from you later.

 Posted by at 7:57 am on October 28, 2015
Sep 252015
 

Spoiler alert: the answer is “poorly”.

Government regulations continue to expand and options available to consumers corresponding diminish, as called out in the linked article. Bureaucrats make choices about what is ‘best’ for consumers but these often fly in the face of choices that rational consumers would make in their own interests; officials’ track record is one of promoting decisions which are best for them … not consumers.

 Posted by at 9:36 am on September 25, 2015