Category Archives: privacy

Social media ‘travel mode’

Maciej Cegłowski argues that given phones are somehow subject to the same invasive access as suitcases, social media developers should develop a ‘travel mode’ that severely limits access and data when activated:

Both Facebook and Google make lofty claims about user safety, but they’ve done little to show they take the darkening political climate around the world seriously. A ‘trip mode’ would be a chance for them to demonstrate their commitment to user safety beyond press releases and anodyne letters of support.

Not sure that it would really help though - he suggests it would be irrevocable once set (to thwart border agents just asking you to turn it back on), but that would seem to create a whole other set of problems (what if you have to cancel your trip at late notice with travel mode already set).

John Gruber is right, we should be fighting the entire premise:

“Travel mode” would be better than nothing, but no technical solution is a substitution for proper civil liberties. Our phones and devices should be protected against unwarranted search and seizure, period.

It will be fascinating to see what impact the election has had on US tourism at the end of all this. A planned exploration of some US National Parks is definitely off the agenda for me now, and I’m sure for many others.

Phone security at border checks

A flurry of articles recently about how secure your phone is at border checks, particularly in the US (for obvious reasons).

First a US born NASA scientist was detained returning home and told to unlock his phone - which he eventually did, not being sure what his rights were.

Turns out no-one is really sure what rights you have - specifically whether you are obliged to unlock a locked device.

One thing we can say is you have far less options to say ‘no’ if you’re non-native to the country you are entering.

It’s staggering to think that courts and laws now allow a border agent to demand you unlock a personal device, without any warrant or proof of suspicion, and that all the data on that device is fair game for them to copy and do with what they will. How did we get here?

Accordingly, here’s a very thorough guide to securing your data at border crossings. Some of it seems over the top - mailing yourself a SIM - but given the slow regression in privacy rights it’s probably all exactly right.

Metadata access denied

Ex-Sydney Morning Herald journalist Ben Grubb has had a long running legal battle with Australian telecommunications company Telstra over access to his own metadata. The Australian ‘security’ laws decree that all ISPs must retain two years of ‘metadata’ - a very poorly defined and broad concept - for ‘national security’ reasons.

Grubb set about trying to find out exactly what was in that cache of data, and has been through several court cases to establish what he is allowed to access.

Unfortunately he has been stopped at the last hurdle, with the Australian Federal Court ruling that he cannot in fact have access to his own data. Whilst the ruling seems to have been made on points-of-law rather than blanket ‘citizens can’t access their data’ grounds, it’s still incredibly disappointing.

When a local council or debt agency can collect the data but the person generating it can’t, it certainly breaks any trust we can have that the data will be protected. Especially concerning now the fears that the data may end up being used for totally non-security related issues appear to be coming true.

‘Money laundering for bias’

Maciej Cegłowski, easily one of the best writers and thinkers on privacy, on the problems with big data:

Instead of relying on algorithms, which we can be accused of manipulating for our benefit, we have turned to machine learning, an ingenious way of disclaiming responsibility for anything. Machine learning is like money laundering for bias. It’s a clean, mathematical apparatus that gives the status quo the aura of logical inevitability. The numbers don’t lie.

His six proposals to restore sanity sound exactly right.

Popping the web advertising bubble

Following on from his entertaining Website Obesity talk, Pinboard maestro Maciej Cegłowski delves a little deeper into the possibility of a web advertising implosion:

The problem is not that these companies will fail (may they all die in agony), but that the survivors will take desperate measures to stay alive as the failure spiral tightens.

These companies have been collecting and trafficking in our most personal data for many years. It’s going to get ugly.

Moral cryptography

Phillip Rogaway, professor of computer science at the University of California, interviewed in The Atlantic about the failure of the cryptographic community to address moral implications of universal surveillance:

Waddell: What led you to understand the political implications of your own work?

Rogaway: I myself had been thinking increasingly in these terms when the Snowden revelations came out. Those revelations made me confront more directly our failings as a community to have done anything effectual about stemming this transition of the Internet to this amazing tool for surveilling entire populations.

The Internet Six Years Later

Poetic account by Hossein Derakhshan of trying to adapt to a social media dominated Internet after spending 6 years in an Iranian jail. The consolidation of content onto Facebook, Twitter, et al worries him:

But the scariest outcome of the centralization of information in the age of social networks is something else: It is making us all much less powerful in relation to governments and corporations.

Being watched is something we all eventually have to get used to and live with and, sadly, it has nothing to do with the country of our residence. Ironically enough, states that cooperate with Facebook and Twitter know much more about their citizens than those, like Iran, where the state has a tight grip on the Internet but does not have legal access to social media companies.

His major concern is the decline of independent blogging and writing, as content networks lock up—and lock out—the Internet at large:

But apps like Instagram are blind — or almost blind. Their gaze goes nowhere except inwards, reluctant to transfer any of their vast powers to others, leading them into quiet deaths. The consequence is that web pages outside social media are dying.

See also The Internet Sucks Reading List by Jonathan Poritsky over at The Candler Blog for a collection of similar sentiments.