Tracing the Network, Tracing the NSA

NSA EagleIn many ways, I can credit the NSA along with the excellent reporting of Nate Anderson for why I’m so interested in surveillance technologies. In particular, when the story broke in 2005 that the NSA was likely engaged in massive wiretaps of domestic and international data traffic I was drawn to the power and capacity for the ‘net to be used for truly broad-based surveillance efforts. This interest was heightened when Nate published the first of a set of articles on deep packet inspection (DPI) for Ars Technica. Without these two key moments, along perhaps with some interesting reporting on copyright, I’d probably still be thinking through the conditions of ontological psychology through a Heideggerian or Hegellian lens.

Given that I am engaged in research into surveillance technologies, and have the absolute pleasure to be associated with truly excellent scholars, activists, advocates, collaborators, and friends who share similar research interests, I wanted to take a moment to ask you, my readers, to help us map data traffic. As you may be aware, the NSA is reputed to have installed systems in various networking hubs that lets them examine massive amounts of data traffic. It’s not entirely known how they inspect this traffic, or the algorithms that are used to parse the fire hose of data they must be inundated by, but researchers at the University of Toronto have a decent idea of what ‘carrier hotels’, or major Internet exchange/collocation points, have likely been compromised by NSA surveillance instruments.

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Privacy Norms in the Bio-Digital World

pixelatedworldThe Western world is pervaded by digital information, to the point where we might argue that most Western citizens operate in a bio-digital field that is constituted by the conditions of life and life’s (now intrinsic) relationships to digital code. While historically (if 30 years or so can withstand the definitional intonations of ‘historically) such notions of code would dominantly pertain to government databanks and massive corporate uses of code and data, with the advent of the ‘social web’ and ease of mashups we are forced to engage with questions of how information, code, and privacy norms and regulations pertain to individual’s usage of data sources. While in some instances we see penalties being handed down to individuals that publicly release sensitive information (such as Sweden’s Bodil Lindqvist, who was fined for posting personal data about fellow church parishioners without consent), what is the penalty when public information is situated outside of its original format and mashed-up with other data sources? What happens when we correlate data to ‘map’ it?

Let’s get into some ‘concrete’ examples to engage with this matter. First, I want to point to geo-locating trace route data, the information that identifies the origin of website visitors’ data traffic, to start thinking about mashups and privacy infringements. Second, I’ll briefly point to some of the challenges arising with the meta-coding of the world using Augmented Reality (AR) technologies. The overall aim is not to ‘resolve’ any privacy questions, but to try and reflect on differences between ‘specificity’ of geolocation technology, the implications of specificity, and potential need to establish a new set of privacy norms given the bio-digital fields that we find ourself immersed in.

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Rendering CCTV (Somewhat) More Transparent

CCTV meets consumerismIn a conversation with Prof. Andrew Clement this summer we got talking about the ever-increasing deployment of CCTV cameras throughout Canada. The conversation was, at least in part, motivated by the massive number of cameras that are being deployed throughout Vancouver with the leadup to the 2010 Olympic games; these cameras were one of the key focuses of the 10th Annual Security and Privacy Conference, where the BC Privacy Commissioner said that he might resign if the surveillance infrastructure is not taken down following the games.

I don’t want to delve into what, in particular, Prof. Clement is thinking of doing surrounding CCTV given that I don’t think he’s publicly announced his intentions. What I will do, however, is outline my own two-pronged approach to rendering CCTV a little more transparent. At the onset, I’ll note that:

  1. My method will rely on technology (augmented reality) that is presently only in the hands of a small minority of the population;
  2. My method is meant to be more and more useful as the years continue (and as the technology becomes increasingly accessible to consumers).

The broad goal is the following: develop a set of norms and processes to categorize different CCTV installations. Having accomplished this task, a framework would be developed for an augmented reality program (here’s a great blog on AR) that could ‘label’ where CCTV installations are and ‘grade’ them based on the already established norms and processes.

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Google Dashboard – Does It Need Another Name?

TheWrongGoogleDashI like to pretend that I’m somewhat web savvy, and that I can generally guess where links on large websites will take me. This apparently isn’t the case with Blogger – I have a Blogger account to occasionally comment on blogs in the Google blogsphere, but despise the service enough that I don’t use the service. I do, however, have an interest in Google’s newly released Dashboard that is intended to show users what Google knows about them, and how their privacy settings are configured.

Given that I don’t use Blogger much, I was amazed and pleased to see that there was a link to the Dashboard in the upper-right hand corner of a Blogger page that I was reading when I logged in. Was this really the moment where Google made it easy for end-users to identify their privacy settings?

Alas, no. If I were a regular Blogger user I probably would have known better. What I was sent to when I clicked ‘Dashboard’ was my user dashboard for the blogger service itself. This seems to be a branding issue; I had (foolishly!) assumed that various Google environments that serve very different purposes would be labeled differently. In naming multiple things ‘dashboard’ it obfuscates access to a genuinely helpful service that Google is now providing. (I’ll note that a search for ‘Google Dashboard’ also calls up the App Status Dashboard, and that Google Apps also has a ‘Dashboard’ tab!)

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Thinking About a ‘Privacy Commons’

unclesamsurveillanceIn some privacy circles there is a vision of creating a simple method of decoding privacy policies. As it stands, privacy policies ‘exist’ in a nebulous domain of legalese. Few people read these policies, and fewer still understand what they do (and do not) say. The same has traditionally been true of many copyright agreements. To assuage this issue surrounding copyright, the creative commons were created. Privacy groups are hoping to take some of the lessons from the creative commons and apply it to privacy policies.

I need to stress that this is a ‘thinking’ piece – I’ve been bothered by some of the models and diagrams used to express the ‘privacy commons’ because I think that while they’re great academic pieces, they’re nigh useless for the public at large. When I use the term ‘public at large’ and ‘useless’ what I am driving at is this: the creative commons is so good because it put together a VERY simple system that lets people quickly understand what copyright is being asserted over particular works. A privacy commons will live (or, very possibly, die) on its ease of access and use.

So, let’s think about use-value of any mode of description. The key issue with many commons approaches is that they are trying to do way too much all at once. Is there necessarily a need for a uniform commons statement, or is privacy sufficiently complicated that we adopt a medical privacy commons, a banking privacy commons, a social networking privacy commons, and so forth? Perhaps, instead of cutting the privacy cake so granularly (i.e. by market segment) we should try to boil down key principles and then offer real-language explanations for each principle’s application in particular business environments instead. This division of the commons is a topic that researchers appreciate and struggle with.

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