Tag Archives: privacy

Best Buy to customer: Did you just walk down the street and turn left?

6 Oct


Companies that monitor our cell phone, tablet and computer use are growing more and more sophisticated.

Many of us are aware that we are tracked –stalked, actually – by algorithms when we use our cell phone. Our phones are capable of telling advertisers – and I guess the government – when we get up, when we go to bed, the places we visit, what we buy, what we search for, even what we are thinking and certainly what we are saying. Now, according to an article in today’s New York Times, statistical modeling is being used to connect our cell phone use with our table use and the use of our work and home computers.

PrivacyThese devices may have absolutely no connection to each other, but heavy monitoring of digital networks, coupled with some pretty fancy math, links them and us to advertisers.

So while at work you may use your desktop to search for a Paris hotel.  Later that night, on your cell phone, you could receive an ad for the InterContinental Paris Le Grand.

As I have said before in other posts, digital communications – the Internet, apps, etc. – represent wonderful technology but also serve as the biggest con since Ponzi. The con amounts to this: Give us everything we need to effectively and dramatically market you and we will tell you who won the 1976 World Series, the best way to make waffles and the number of Academy Awards won by Robert Di Niro.

This gross invasion of privacy is both offensive and frightening, at least for me.

Maybe not so much for the guy who needs a room in Paris.

Still, there are flaws in the process.

I recently went on-line in search of a digital SLR camera. I found what I wanted and bought it. Since then, my devices have been serving up ads for digital cameras. Made me feel for sorry for the retailers who paid good money to target likely customers. The algorithms are smart, but not smart enough to know that I am among the least likely of customers.

In a way, that was quite satisfying.

By Lanny Morgnanesi


The dreaded Star Chamber returns in 21st Century garb

7 Jul


Some people have been wishing me a happy birthday, but it is not my birthday. They were being kind and polite, but they were wrong.

They had been advised by a large, rich, influential corporation to send the greeting, and they did. Prior to this, the large, rich, influential corporation had asked me for my birth date and I gave the wrong one.

On purpose.

It was not to confuse friends. It was to confuse the large, rich, influential corporation and those who acquire its data. I sought to foul the digital path toward me.

I maintain a fantasy that if and when powerful forces decide to come get me, they will go somewhere else as a result of my deliberate misdirection.

In truth, my silly little protests are minor and of no consequence. They are done more for spite than protection.

I’m not afraid of the large, rich, influential corporation known as Facebook (although I probably should be). What I’m afraid of are the people who have easy access to its data and much more; mainly the United States government.

Without evoking too much laughter, one could say the U.S. government today is fairly benign when it comes to privacy violations.  In other words, don’t expect it to come get me or you any time soon. But governments evolve toward darkness rather than light, and ours is rapidly headed toward the shadows.

The progression starts with good intentions. Since the 9-11 attacks, and even before, Washington has worked hard to protect us from terrorists. It has done an exemplary job.

The problem comes as government experiences a gradual desensitization, thinking less and less of our constitutional rights, and an increased boldness, sense of mission and sense of self-importance. Those at the top come to feed on power, like a drug, and need higher doses. It’s a common pattern. Without suggesting in any way that our present government resembles the Third Reich – for it does not — that historical example is perhaps the most explanatory of this tendency toward the gradual erosion of rights.

The good citizen can become monster. It is wholly within our nature.

Well before the digital revolution, I read the novel “1984” by George Orwell. It induced the appropriate amount of fear, but also inspired the idea for a whimsical story. The story takes place in the setting of “1984,” when all actions are monitored by TV cameras. The main character is someone who watches what the cameras record. He does not like his job and does it poorly, leaving a large security breach. In order to break his boredom, he uses the TV cameras mainly to find women.

The story was never written, but it was to have ended with the realization that many people working as monitors were apolitical, lazy and uninterested in advancing the state’s cause. The reality was that people actually were much freer than they thought because no one really was watching them. An underground resistance group learns of this weakness (it is headed by a woman contacted by the main character) and exploits it to lead a successful revolution.

In the digital age, no one needs to spend endless hours watching TV monitors. With minimal human involvement, massive amounts of data are sucked up and quickly analyzed. If you are the type of person the government wants, or if you have done or said something it finds objectionable, a computer spits out your name and the government comes and gets you.

If you live in Pakistan it sends a drone.

How does all this happen in a constitutional republic like the U.S.?

Who approved it? Who rules on its legality?

Star ChamberIn 17th Century England there was the hated Star Chamber.  In 21st Century America we have the FISA. They are similar.

FISA stands for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The New York Times wrote about it today. Like the Star Chamber, it operates in secret.

Its origins were in approving case-by-case wiretapping orders. Now its 11 members serve as a parallel Supreme Court. The Times says it is “the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come.”

It let’s the NSA be the NSA.

Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor the government is desperately trying to get its hands on, last month leaked a classified order from the FISA permitting the collection of all phone-tracing data from Verizon business customers.

The Times quotes a source saying the court’s “still-secret decisions go far beyond any single surveillance order,” and that it is establishing a growing body of law.

Which leads back to my fake birthday.

If government spooks, acting in secret, insist on scooping up all data from emails, cell phone calls, Facebook posts, “likes,” Tweets, Instagram photos (software will recognize your face), and God knows what else, try to make it at least slightly less useful for them.

Try simple things at first. If you go to the supermarket and aren’t buying anything on sale, don’t give the Bonus Card to the cashier. If you download a new app, don’t let it track you, and don’t sign on using Facebook, which gives Facebook new data in addition to everything else it has. Be careful with “likes.” They paint a profile of you, as do your contacts if you let others have them (guilt by association is part of data analysis).

And please, don’t write email thinking it is private. Try putting the words “Nikon 3200” into an email. It is very possible that shortly after you will be served an ad by a camera store.

These small bits of advice won’t protect you. They are equivalent to a few hundred people in Tahrir Square. Those few hundred, however, can become a few thousand, then tens of thousand, then a million. Then an authoritarian government is brought down.

And that is why I may love you, but I won’t ever “like” you.

Be vigilant, and don’t give it all away.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A hideous Google pleads, “Don’t look at me!”

15 Jun

Google car

The world is filled with great ironies. Here is one of them.

Google, a company unrivaled at invading privacy, does not want to be watched while it works.

Here is the background.

This great innovator of search, which knows so much about what we do on the Internet, knows every word we write in our Gmails, provides the world with pictures of our homes and streets and shares everything it knows about us with the government and any marketer willing to pay, soon will visit the campus setting where I work.

In its desire to record everything there is to record, Google crews will photograph the thoroughfares within the campus and also enter buildings to map interior hallways.

The first they do with backpack-mounted multi-directional cameras; the second with GPS enabled smart phones.

Prior to the visit, an email was sent by my employer to all employees alerting them to the presence of Google crews and asking us to honor a request not to disturb them. That’s reasonable, but it went on to ask us not to photograph them, which is less reasonable, nor even to watch them, which is absurd.

Don’t watch, we were instructed.

Google may have a host of non-ironic reasons for this request, but they were not shared and I can’t think of even one.

It brought to mind those horror movies where monsters plead, “Look away! I’m hideous!”

With each passing day I realize that the Internet, with all its wonder and potential, with its ability to better lives, improve society and educate the masses, has degenerated into the world’s greatest con game. It provides us with the things we desire in exchange for our souls and the inner workings of our brains. Google does this so that it and many, many others can make money.

After receiving the email, I was at first tempted to protest the directive and watch.

But now I’ve decided to take the opposite approach. When this hideous thing enters campus, I’m going to – as requested — look away.

By Lanny Morgnanesi


The lives we lead are not our own: Why privacy is valued

14 Mar



Aton Chekhov, in one of his most famous stories, pauses from character development to discuss privacy.

The passage comes in “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” about a young woman and an older man having an adulterous affair that they have kept secret.

“The personal life of every individual,” he wrote, “is based on secrecy, and perhaps it is partly for that reason that civilized man is so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.”

That was written in 1899, long before the act of “liking” something would send data on your habits and behavior to thousands of marketers. The Internet has become a place where we share its wonders and benefits in exchange for our privacy. We do so either without complaint, or else unknowingly.

Chekhov didn’t have to worry about such things. Nevertheless, he studied the nature of the private life and believed “every man led his real, most interesting life under cover of secrecy as under cover of night,” and that everything in the open was false.

A person who, for career or avocation, looks closely at something will share this notion. For as they investigate one thing they invariably see other things not meant to be seen.  Investigate the assassination of President Kennedy and find that there is a cult in Texas wearing underwear made of aluminum foil. I made that up. Real examples would be stranger.

Last night I read the Chekhov passage on privacy. This morning in the newspaper I noticed stories about:

  • A “cannibal cop” convicted of conspiracy to abduct, roast and eat women.
  • An ex-principal charged with possessing child porn.
  • A bookkeeper who stole nearly $650,000 from her employer over several years.

This was just one section in one newspaper in one day.

I agree with the Russian writer that we don’t project much truth in our daily comportment, but it is a little frightening to think that people we consider normal  harbor great inner darkness. Perhaps it’s the complexity of our DNA and the innumerable variations of its structure that produce humans destined to act or think in so many different ways that there is no normal and that everything imaginable – and unimaginable – gets covered.

We are going to be learning a lot more about this, what with cameras everywhere now and odd folks freely indulging themselves on the never private Internet.

All of us are bound to long for the days when those phony exteriors Chekhov spoke of hid the harsh truth of our species.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Something I recently learned

20 Feb

Library of Congress 12

The Library of Congress, the keeper of everything, is in the process of archiving more than 170 billion tweets. Some of them may be yours.

The end of privacy

11 Feb


Digital technology brings the world to you and you to the world.

It tracks and records you, follows you around, knows where you have been, what you like, who your friends are. It can predict what you are likely to do.

There is a story circulating that a person with good credit was denied a mortgage because his friends in the digital world were un-creditworthy. You know, birds of a feather.

True? Don’t know. But certainly possible.

Now it seems people with information to protect are taking great steps to secure it when they go abroad. The New York Times this morning describes the precautions taken by a China expert at the Brookings Institute when he travels to that country. The account says such measures are now commonplace for government and business officials.

He leaves his cellphone and laptop at home and instead brings ‘loaner’ devices, which he erases before he leaves the United States and wipes clean the minute he returns. In China, he disables Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, never lets his phone out of his sight and, in meetings, not only turns off his phone but also removes the battery, for fear his microphone could be turned on remotely. He connects to the Internet only through an encrypted, password-protected channel, and copies and pastes his password from a USB thumb drive. He never types in a password directly, because, he said, “the Chinese are very good at installing key-logging software on your laptop.”

At home, the average person’s privacy is compromised for marketing purposes. Someone wants to sell you something. It’s not a pleasant idea, but most can live with it. If it ever becomes political and used as a repressive tool of government, we’ll have quite a lot to worry about over a simple game of Angry Birds.

Am I’m being naïve by saying “if it ever ….”?

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