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As stories of NSA spying and the threat to our privacy have rippled through the press again in the past week or so due to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden’s appearance at the Moment of Truth rally in Auckland. They have done much to raise the profile of government intrusion into our personal lives but as more and more data is collected by corporations, are we looking at an enemy closer to home?

A few days ago I attended BrightonSEO; a fantastic SEO conference that I have been to many times and was fortunate enough to speak at earlier in the year. One talk that really hit home with me was from Ian Miller who stepped away from digital marketing and looked into the advancements that Google is making through research, development and acquisition into the Semantic Web. I’ve long felt that Google’s advancements will come fast and thick but I’d not fully comprehended just how far they are now.

While fellow conference attendees and I returned home and took stock of the information we’d just absorbed; a clerk at the United States Patent office was priming his rubber stamp of approval for a new search patent from Mountain View.

Today, Google was granted a patent that outlines “A computer implemented method for using search queries related to television programs.”. This seems pretty benign but it really isn’t. Google’s new patent outlines a method to distinguish, through an extensive TV listing database cross referenced with a user’s location, what a searcher is watching at that very moment and adjust their search results accordingly.

tv-as-ranking-signal

Bill Slawski does a great job of disseminating what the patent actually means in the short-term but I can’t help but feel that this is the beginning of something much bigger; the start of our future without secrets.

A life without secrets

One of my favourite books of all time is the classic novel 1984 by George Orwell; if you haven’t read it I highly suggest you buy it now. The book explores a multitude of issues in a dystopian world where the government has total control over not only the public’s behaviour but also their thoughts due to their impetuous propaganda and constant surveillance. This is of course a far cry away from our current situation but one aspect of the novel became too vivid to ignore – that of the Telescreen.

Telescreen
The Telescreen is a device which operate as both televisions and security cameras used by the ruling Party to keep its subjects under constant surveillance, thus eliminating the chance of secret conspiracies.

Google released a new feature back in June 2013 that gave Google Now the ability to listen to TV programmes, identify them, and give more information about the episode you are watching. An element missing from the above patent but an improvement on its design I’m sure you’ll agree which begs the question; when/if this becomes integrated with Google search will Android devices become portable telescreens constantly listening to our day-to-day lives under the guise of an advanced “feature”?

Of course this is just one part of the puzzle but there are many more coming to the surface all the time. Most recently if you’re a Facebook user, you’ve probably noticed that the company is forcing users to download the Facebook Messenger app if they want to send and receive messages. Something which prompted Jonathan Zdziarski, a noted author and expert in iOS related digital forensics and security to look into the application and tweet “Messenger appears to have more spyware type code in it than I’ve seen in products intended specifically for enterprise surveillance,”

In an email to VICE’s Motherboard, Zdziarksi also told reporter Matthew Braga that Facebook logs “practically everything a user might do within the app.”
“[Facebook is] using some private APIs I didn’t even know were available inside the sandbox to be able to pull out your WiFi SSID (which could be used to snoop on which WiFi networks you’re connected to) and are even tapping the process list for various information on the device,” he wrote.

Herein lies the ever-increasing problem with our digital lives; a problem that we can’t put 100% at the door of Facebook, Google and other tech giants. Over the past few decades we have fuelled their success, offering up vast amounts of personal information to these services with little regard for how this information could potentially be used. I’ve written before about the level of personal data I have personally given up to Google’s search engine which has allowed them to “know” more about my personal life than some of my closest work colleagues. Unfortunately we are now at a critical mass where the amount of data freely available on us online has become dangerous.

A brilliant TED talk by Carnegie Mellon professor Alessandro Acquisti suggests we are making privacy tradeoffs as a result of the analysis of big data. Privacy-cracking techniques that until recently were not available broadly are now essentially open to anyone with an Internet connection. Facial recognition, for instance, has improved exponentially in recent years. He shows a project where he found he could take a photograph, match the face to publicly available information, and use the results to predict sensitive information such as a Social Security number. The most worrying part of his talk looks further ahead:

“Pushed to an extreme, you can imagine a future with strangers looking at you through Google Glass or their contact lens, and with seven or eight data points about you they could infer anything else about you,”

TG2013_057939_D41_8279

Marketers of the future will be able to scour your Facebook contacts, find your two best friends, and then blend their portraits to form a composite photograph. So next time you’re looking to buy something, the spokesperson will be an oddly familiar, friendly face, unrecognisable but subconsciously influential.

As Acquisti concludes “One of the defining fights of our time will be the fight for control over personal information” and it seems we are losing more and more ground by the day. One of my other favourite books of all time is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where technologies invented for freedom end up coercing citizens and it seems as though we are sprinting towards a similar fate. The game is on, in other words, whether we like it or not.

If you still wonder if this future without secrets is dangerous or if we should care? The simple answer: yes.

The more difficult question is can we realistically stop it?

Leave your thoughts...

  1. Hi Andrew,

    One of my first favorite books was the dystopian City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clark. I didn’t know that it was a rewrite of a book called Against the Fall of Night, and that both have remained equally as popular as each other. I’m going to have to order a copy.

    When I saw the title of this patent, before I had even started to read it, I opened a text file to paste its contents into, in anticipation of writing about it. I wanted to share it as quickly as possible because I wanted to see what others thought of it.

    The more I’ve thought about it, the less I’m bothered about it. Google and other search engines already collect a significant amount of personally identifiable information about us. Remember when researchers from AOL sent out query logs from their searches for other people to research, which lead to a class action law suit against them. I received an email with a link to the log files, and it told me that I was welcome to use it for research. I later received a subpoena duces tacem demanding that I turn over all correspondence I had received about the log files and all responses I had made.

    Fortunately, I was at a conference at the time that the first email came out, and I sent one back in response, with thanks and a mention that I wouldn’t have a chance to even look until after I had returned from the conference. By the time the conference had ended and I had return, those files were no longer available. When the subpoena came, I didn’t have much to respond to since I really never saw those log files.

    The patent is a little confusing in that it states that this method only works when a searcher is in close proximity of a television. Does that mean that they are listening in? I don’t think it does. I think that if Google was trying to identify the location of the searcher and they were near their TV, it would make it easier for Google to guess what TV show was being watched based upon profiles of TV shows and meta data available about them.

    There are caches of personally identifiable information about us that is public information because it’s difficult to get to, and most people don’t know about it. These are the Judgments records and the deeds records usually available to the public in their local county courthouses. The judgments records often have the social security numbers of the people whom the judgments are against written on them, so that the winners of the judgments can use those to try to collect with the help of the Sheriff. But it’s not information that should be shared with the public, even though it’s usually considered most places to be a public document.

    Our right to privacy comes with limits. Science Fiction writer David Brin has written on privacy, and has suggested that our best use of it is to be transparent, but also to enforce the same kind of transparency upon those who would govern us and try to use personally identifiable information about us, against us.

    • Hi Bill,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I guess the whole point of this post was to start this very discussion. Whilst your totally right about how Google would likely use this patent, I wanted people to think outside of the box a little with regards their personal data and privacy.

      We’re often much too ready to part with personal data in return for digital services and products which as Aquisiti points out can be costly in the wrong hands.

      I agree to a large degree that transparency is key to privacy concerns but that can only come through education. The future may lie with the proles after all… 🙂

    • Hi Bill,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I guess the whole point of this post was to start this very discussion. Whilst your totally right about how Google would likely use this patent, I wanted people to think outside of the box a little with regards their personal data and privacy.

      We’re often much too ready to part with personal data in return for digital services and products which as Aquisiti points out can be costly in the wrong hands.

      I agree to a large degree that transparency is key to privacy concerns but that can only come through education. The future may lie with the proles after all… 🙂