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Oct 2, 2012

Forget government data retention, Google has you wired

Mandatory data retention proposals have libertarians in a flap. But what Google and a bunch of other companies are doing via Wi-Fi is much worse.


If the mandatory data retention proposals currently being urged by Australia’s protectors of freedom and democracy aren’t scary enough, take a squiz at how the private sector is already tracking your every move. Literally.

The smartphone boom has brought with it a boom in location-based services, providing information that’s automatically tailored to where you are right now. Weather and traffic conditions, or the closest available bank ATM or Greek restaurant or dry cleaner or easy man-s-x.

Providing these extremely satisfying services means reporting your location to everyone involved, with obvious privacy implications. But the creation and operation of the location services themselves — they’re the means by which your smartphone knows where it is — raise their own questions.

While most smartphones have a GPS receiver for satellite-based positioning, it’s power-hungry and often turned off. But you can get something that’s close enough for most purposes, accurate to a few metres, using Wi-Fi. The smartphone keeps track of which Wi-Fi hot spots it can see, and that’s compared with a previously constructed map of Wi-Fi points.

Google Maps has the best-known such service. As its Street View cars drove every street taking photographs, it also noted the location and identifiers of the Wi-Fi networks it encountered — both the so-called SSID us humans use to identify the wireless networks we want to join, and the unique MAC address that individually identifies each Wi-Fi device.

In 2010 it was revealed that Google had also recorded snippets of Wi-Fi data traffic — the actual private communication — “to see if the data could be used in Google’s other products and services”. One obvious example would be to identify the computers or people using that network, so location-based services could be provided to them as well.

Google subsequently claimed that recording the communications was an accident and software developed as an experiment had ended up in operational systems. It also claimed it was an accident when it failed to delete all of this data for the UK following an order by the Information Commissioner’s Office, even when it certified that they had.

Google isn’t the only provider of such a Wi-Fi-based positioning system (WPS). Less well-known companies Skyhook and Navizon already drive the streets compiling their hotspot maps — in the case of Navizon by crowdsourcing the data from end users’ smartphones. Both already have coverage in Australia’s capitals and regional centres.

When Google’s Wi-Fi recording was first discovered, communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy launched a 10-minute tirade in Senate estimates. “Google takes the view that they can do anything they want,” he said. “It is possible that this has been the largest privacy breach in history across Western democracies.”

So how does Conroy feel about Skyhook and Navizon’s mapping work, even without any recording of the communication itself? “My office has been in contact with the Privacy Commissioner and the ACMA asking whether such activity would breach Australia’s privacy provisions if it occurred in Australia,” he told Crikey.

A WPS service can obviously log your physical location, but so can the provider of every app using that service. And so can the provider of any advertising included in the app. So can the provider of the smartphone, as shown earlier this year when the media discovered that Apple logs the location of every iPhone.

Now “compiling a database”, even a “secret” one, isn’t evil in and of itself, despite the rhetoric of the tinfoil hat brigade. (Example: this article putting the word “databases” in scare quotes.) We all compile databases, everything from our personal address books to our business’ customer account records. Any privacy problems arise when the data is used, potentially in conjunction with other data, not in it mere compilation.

But the number and scale of databases being compiled in this age of “big data” have destroyed the assumptions our privacy laws are based on: the notion that all that matters personally identifiable information (PII) like our name, date of birth, address, phone number and email address.

Computer scientists Arvind Narayanan and Vitaly Shmatikov, of the University if Texas at Austin, have shown that everything and anything can be PII if you have enough of it. After all, there’s only so many mid-30s females in postcode 2043 (filled out an opinion survey) who drive a Mazda (looked for a service centre online), play tennis (searched for tennis shoes) and took a holiday in Vietnam (posted photos to Flikr).

And the more you know about someone, the more you can understand them, predict their moves or even influence them.

As just one example, consider that a team from the University of Birmingham figured out how to predict where you’ll be in 24 hours within 20 metres using only your smartphone’s location records and those of the contacts in its address book.

It all makes the government’s plans look positively benign.



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16 thoughts on “Forget government data retention, Google has you wired

  1. Harper Colin

    Well, there you go.

    Last week an article on Iran which tried to convince crik*y readers that the Iranian government is the centre-piece of the Axis of Evil and this week an article ( no name to it ) is trying to convince us that the proposed govt data retention scheme is something we all should “forget”.

    Thanks crik*y, for giving us the option of choice on the lesser of the evils. We are all much safer now.

  2. Come On Carlton

    @Harper Colin

    Are you blind or something Harper? The author of the article was Stilgherrian. And a good article indeed. Reminding us about the Google intrusion is nothing light-weight.

  3. Edward James

    Our legislators are not even playing catch up with the speed and growth of technology and corporations interest in the idea that knowledge is power. Edward James

  4. Oscar Jones

    I have railed against Google for years now and feel like a lone voice.
    Google is a profit making corporation with decidedly dodgy morals as revealed by the $500M fine imposed upon them last year by US Justice for breaching drug advertising laws. They are currently being investigated under US Anti-Trust laws.

    Malcolm Turnbull says there is something dodgy how Google made $50M in profits in Australia yet paid a fraction in tax. They base themselves in tax havens but demand the world adhere to US laws (so-called ‘Freedom Of Speech’).

    Yet tech writers and legal writers (Fairfax) wring their hands when a European country hauls a Google exec into court when their laws are breached. Until the MSM stops worshipping Google and their ilk, nothing will change.

  5. Oscar Jones

    Edward James : our laws are inadequate as the recent trolling incidents have indicated and how Facebook are so stubborn about removing the appalling pages about the recent Melbourne murder that could de-rail a trial.
    Our politicians seem beholden to the power of the net and normally sensible legal writers actually claim that our laws on defamation and so on, should be changed to accommodate private business.In other words b**ger the citizen, let’s make it easy for Google to operate.

  6. Serenatopia

    Google misusing information to better sell us stuff is one thing…our Governments misusing information to implicate us in crimes we didn’t commit is a different thing altogether…

  7. Edward James

    @ Oscar Jones Posted Tuesday, 2 October 2012 at 6:01 pm Every time I publish a paid announcement in one of our local Central Coast papers and there have been around forty. I am literally betting my house. Understanding as I do the truth is not always a defense against a defamation action. Not being a politician I do not have the protection afforded them by cowards castle, when I identify local politicians by name as liars in print. What I do understand is I was naive to believe all I needed to do was expose abuse of power and systemic corruption in the court of public opinion and the rest would fall into place. I now understand full and well rusted on party supporters are a lot like the parents of problem children, they just refuse to accept the problems. Edward James

  8. zut alors

    Avoid the trap, don’t use smartphones. We’ve become addicted to IT and fallen for the dubious claims that our lives are better for it.

  9. Stilgherrian

    @Harper Colin: You seem to be unfamiliar with the colloquialism “forget X, look at Y”, which does not mean literally to forget X?

    Maybe have a read of some of the other things I’ve written about government data retention and you’ll see that any claim that I’m a supporter of it is very, very silly indeed.

    @Serenatopia: But don’t forget that being able to “better sell is stuff” can include selling products that are less healthy but more profitable, or political ideas that are less savoury but more beneficial to the promoter and so on — all based an a more sophisticated understanding of our psychology than we ourselves possess.

    The idea that this is just about not showing BWM adverts to people who don’t drive is way, way understating the capability.

  10. Edward James

    While I am not that good at spelling and grammar Stilgherrian. I have noticed you have written four paragraphs. The last two appears to have an error! “better sell is stuff” the word quoted is “us” the reference to “BWM” is the sort of proof reading error which often embarrasses me because I am just hopeless / lazy most of the time. Edward James

  11. Edward James

    Ha ha {;-) I do it all the time. Cheers Edward James

  12. supermundane

    Recently I posted a comment regarding the predictive capabilities of these evolving surveillance systems under the recent Crikey article about Trapwire. A few years ago I’d written some thoughts and projections and I’m surprised and shocked at how rapidly my projections are coming to fruition.

    Serenatopia, you have to realise that the division between government and corporate is blurred and that the likes of Google are increasingly becoming the new global power structures, supplanting the nation-state.

    Here’s some of what I’d written. I think it matches closely with what Stiglerrian is describing here:

    “In building up an aggregate account of your movements through facial recognition technology, tracking banking transactions, phone GPS tracking, monitoring mobile and online activity, and with systems beginning to ‘understand’ content and context, in the not-too-distant future such a system, independent of human input, will be capable of creating a fairly comprehensive picture of ‘you’; at least what comes to be believed to be ‘you’ (claims to non-intentionality and deterministic framing will be considered irrelevant regardless of what people, including myself ‘feel’).

    By creating such a profile based on your virtual and physical movements, it’s only a small step to predicting your future movements, activities and intentions and the sheer-scale and sophistication of these interconnected profiles and extrapolated predictions will necessitate the system’s operation without any real human-input or oversight. Such a system will make deterministic decisions of potentially narrow, probable intent but a belief in the totalistic nature of the system will necessarily escalate ‘probable’ to ‘indisputable’ and ‘all-encompassing’.

    …Given the deterministic predictions of such a system, a profiling which flags future or ‘latent’ criminal behaviour from an individual might necessarily be regarded as sufficient grounds to act against that individual. And again, given the totalistic nature of the determinations and predictions from such a system – a system beyond human fathoming; the belief that given enough information the system can predict behaviour accurately it will inevitably be regarded as acceptable to prevent any ‘inevitable’ acts even if those accused are unaware of the intent in themselves.

    Our state will be governed by automatic systems monitoring and predicting our behaviour yet incapable of the kind of human discretion and emotionally-based judgement we’re capable of. And it’s not a stretch to realise that such a system might read illegal intent into all kinds of behaviour or that the fields of formerly acceptable behaviours becomes ever more proscribed as the system become more sophisticated in profiling and predicting probable outcomes.

    How does one collectively rise up to bring such a system down when it reaches for ‘total knowledge and awareness’? The imperative of the system will be to acquire ever more information and improved tools for acquiring and screening information. Those that live largely outside, consciously or unconsciously, will be compelled to live within it for its predictive capabilities to be ever more accurate.

    We are already experiencing a crisis in democratic governance in the western world due to the fact that the democratic process, operating as it needs to, on a relatively slow-human time scale is incapable of keeping abreast of a largely automated and algorithmically-based global financial system. The speed and scale at which trading algorithms operate make it practically impossible for effective and fully democratic decision-making and for democratic institutions to apply direct and effective countervailing oversight to their activities and to the systems. The democratic gestalt no longer holds.

    What we’re witnessing here with facial recognition and the convergence of information trawling in order to build a predictive map is fundamentally the same process being applied to the financial system and accordingly the consequence will be a lack of democratic accountability and oversight equal to that of the automated financial markets. The machines will increasingly make the decisions independently of us.

    And consider for a moment too, the implications of this ‘predictive map’; these potentially millions upon millions of interlinked profiles, tallied into aggregate trends and predictions being fed (or onsold?) back into the markets. Fed the information the fractional-reserve banking algorithms will respond to the aggregate data and to the predictions in order to better maximise leverage and profit. Inevitably too, in an effort to manipulate the predictive trends the fractional-reserve banking algorithms or their human-enablers will seek to influence the predictions and guide outcomes through the media, through manipulating search-trends, the chatbot postings and through all manipulative means of cultivating ‘hot topics’ of discussion in the public arena. Populations under surveillance will be manipulated to maximise profit ever more efficiently than they are already.

    We’re witnessing a steady and inexorable convergence of the state and the corporation already, accelerated by technologies beyond our control. Such a civilisation would no longer be ours.”

  13. supermundane

    Seranotopia, you’re evidently under the misconception about the function of the state and the role of private property. The state exists through enforce claims to private ownership through latest and at times explicit force. The state is the creature of the elites who engage in ever more encroachments on the commons, privatising it for rent-extraction. If we were to see that not all claims to property are equal, that property in of itself isn’t a fundamental and inalienable human right but largely an act of theft and that the state and the thieves are one and the same, we would understand that really there is no distinction between the state and the likes of Google.

  14. supermundane

    Global capital is content to leave the nation-state in place to the extent that it serves to enforce property rights and provides populations with the comforting illusion that they are in charge through participating in the national political process. Capitalism has passed through a number of evolutionary phases since the first enclosure of the commons with each phase resulting in a further erosion of the commons. The physical commons is now largely enclosed and thanks to all of us collectively buying into the myth that we’re equal participants, that property rather than being a negation of natural rights is the basis for enforcing positive rights, and that all property however acquired is moral the accumulation of property tends into fewer and fewer hands, which in turn undermines the influence of the ‘commonwealth’ in placing limits on the beneficiaries of the system.

    The most recent manifestation of capitalism is consciousness capitalism – that is private appropriation of human consciousness as a “nonmaterial asset.” which entails enclosing or framing human consciousness, that is human experience and effectively renting it back to us. Intellectual property rights- a mechanism for creating artiificial scarcity is but one mechanism for achieving this. The surveillance state serves to both enforce property rights and to aggregate common and shared human experience as private property, to be owned, framed and onsold. This is why the state and a global corporation like Google on the cutting edge of consciousness capitalism cannot be disentangled. Not until we renounce the claims to a normative moral framwork underpinning claims to private property (I make Proudhon’s distinction here between the owning the direct efforts of our labour and those who rent-seek, claim surplus labour and enclose what is naturally commons and pre-existing) will be ever free ourselves of the mechanisms the claimants to property use to enforce their claims.

  15. supermundane

    My first comment is stuck in moderation purgatory and directly addresses the article.


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