Posts Tagged ‘privacy’
There are some really big advantages to e-books. You can carry one device with a couple of thousand books around with you, all of it together weighing no more than a single pocket book. Even better, those thousands of books don’t get dog ears. Usually, I am an early adopter of new technology. And yet, I somehow still seem to have trouble making the leap in this case.
I have fundamental concerns with the current ways in which e-books are traded. The terms under which most e-books are sold are worrying. “sold” is probably the wrong word; the terms of the license that is sold to most books is ridiculous. You don’t really own the book, you get the right to consume a copy – but that right comes with a long list of ifs and buts. You can’t lend e-books to friends (or can only lend them a limited number of times). Publishers can retract the license, effectively removing it from your device after it has already been “sold” to you (in an amazing fit of irony, Amazon accidentally did this with e-book copies of 1984). Manufacturers of readers are given permission to phone home and track your reading habits.
But most of all, I really like my books the way they are. Old books and new books both have their own distinct smell. Without having to touch buttons I can see how far along I am. I like that I can feel the backs of paperbacks twist and crack under the pressure of my fingers as I work my way through a novel. I like being able to browse books in (the unfortunately decreasing number of) quality book stores, rather than in ad-filled electronic stores on small screens. I like that paperbacks are a commodity that I can easily lose or give away.
Rargh. In the continuing erosion of privacy on the internet, Google now wants me to use my fullname for my Youtube account. This isn’t the first service for which this is an issue. And don’t tell me it’s about preventing abuse; it’s just as much about linking data. There are perfectly good and valid reasons for using pseudonyms.
Fortunately we can – for the moment – still enjoy Youtube somewhat anonymously. My current favourite:[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYxX2YKGdvM]
Excellent interview with Eben Moglen about the problems of centralization on the internet – probably the best explanation I’ve seen – and various other topics, including WikiLeaks and copyright reform.
The age we live in is the first with an overabundance of data. It’s had a tremendous influence on our daily lives.
Cheap electronics and digital processing have made it possible to gather and organize all data imaginable. All online stores, and most regular ones have easy access to their transactions in digital form. Video cameras keep an eye on dangerous corners and other interesting or boring views. The integrated GPS, GSM and Wi-Fi in phones is used to pinpoint the location of its user. (Radio)telescopes capture vast amounts of images. And, of course, web browsers and web servers are aware of the web pages we visit.
In addition, the extremely low cost of digital storage, compared to the technology available to previous generations, has made it possible to record this information and keep most of it around for a long time. At least for as long as it could possibly be useful.
Gathering digital information usually is not hard, nor expensive. There is often barely any effort involved at all, because the data is already generated or digitized as part of some other process – it just needs to be stored. Storing large amounts of data is not trivial, but also not unreasonably hard. This is also one of the reasons why most internet giants are reluctant to throw away data; it can come in handy later, but once it’s gone it’s completely gone or at least hard to regain.
The real challenge is in organizing and accessing the information in a useful and simple manner. This is a hard problem. Not only does the information need to be available, it needs to be available in a structured manner. Having millions of petabytes of raw data at your disposal isn’t very useful without knowing where to look or how to interpret what you find. Likewise, it isn’t possible to iterate over all available data for every single query. If you’ve used the web in its early days you will remember that search engines only provided a very simple subtext match over all pages everywhere and returned results in no particular (useful) order. They were some help in navigating your way through the web, but there was still a skill set (and a lot of patience) required to actually finding what you were looking for. This challenge – making all information everywhere available in a usable manner, and fast – seems to be what Google is all about.
Having all of this data available, and the ability to access it in a meaningful way, is absolutely awesome. It’s an information engineers’ wet dream. It helps eliminate information asymmetry. It’s what allows my phone to know where I am without having GPS enabled (it uses the location of the nearby WiFi access points instead). It’s what makes it possible for me to find the full details and contents of any book in mere seconds. It’s what makes it possible for last.fm to predict the concerts I’m interested in in my direct vicinity.
It’s also pretty fucking scary, considering the effect omni-accessible information has on our privacy.
Perhaps the current use of the centrally available data by the state is reasonable, but there is little or no monitoring of how this data is used. The mere availability enables easy widespread abuse by any (future) totalitarian state.
For the last 5 years I have consciously had the “track search requests” feature in Google enabled when I was logged in. I use my Google account for all search requests except for those I don’t want tracked. Apart from some interesting statistics on the search terms I have most often used during the last 5 years (my own name is among them – yes, I’m that vain), Google’s ad profile is very interesting. From my searches, it has correctly deduced most of my various hobbies and other interests, down to specific music styles. It still lacks a few, but those it did find are all correct.
Interestingly, the data (roughly 27k requests) over the last 6 years also does a very good job of showing my circadian rhythm when graphed: