Ramblings on having privacy in public spaces

Monday, October 1, 2007

This is a story about a father and his daughter

I Imagined a scenario where there is a strong conflict between to-watch and to-not-watch, and have attempted to solve the crisis.

A father loves his 18 year old daughter very much who is his only source of support, and his only reason to live. The daughter loves her father very much and would do anything for him. In this wonderful relationship comes a few storms once in awhile, as the family is threatened by some killers. The father begins to worry that he might lose his daughter.

One day in the paper he reads about this small tag that he can get injected into his daughter’s shoulder. Then every time the daughter passed by a mobile phone, it would transmit the information of her locations to the satellite and he would get to know where she is, through his mobile or on his email. He bought her a mobile phone, which would constantly tell him where she was and how she was, as it could analyze her voice. Then he took her to the hospital and said “Daughter, I know this is going to be a little painful, but I love you, and I can’t let anything happen to you. I am doing this for you” She smiled to her father and said” yes father, I know what you are doing. I promise never to break your heart”.

The next morning both, father and daughter’s lives changed dramatically. The father looks at his phone, and it maps out his daughter’s location. “What the wonders of technology can do to you! “ he muttered, as his daughter was safe in school now. With that he left for work to his room. From his home computer he attended virtual meetings, and discussed business plans with his colleagues. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the screen, a small map keeps pointing to his daughter’s position and her condition, as to whether she is stressed or upset.

Meanwhile the daughter is attending her classes, unaware that her father is still watching her from home. She decides to bunk a class with her friends and catch up on the latest Sharukh Khan movie. After the movie, daughter goes out to Mc donalds, and then instead of taking the school bus, is dropped at home by her friend.

When daughter meets father, he sits her down calmly and asks her why she bunked her class. Daughter is astounded, “Everyone does it once in awhile, and besides, the teacher was absent today”. Father looks at daughter sternly and says “No more bunking classes for you, now go to your room and work!”.

Daughter is freaked that her father knew about this and stares at her shoulder, where she knows the tag is placed. She wants to remove it, but cant. Then she realizes why her father did all this, because he was worried for her. But the technology gave him much more access than was necessary, so daughter looks at the mirror and decides to talk things out with her father.

“Father, I know you love me, but this is terrible, she says, I cant believe, that you would actually monitor me throughout my day. I am old enough to handle my life. If you want to make sure that I am okay and not kidnapped by some stray robber, which is probably a small chance, then I need to make sure that that’s all you know about me at that point of time. So instead of you being able to monitor me all the time, I am going to make a system in which we can communicate that I am ok and that you are ok. Father looks at her and smirks “Okay then, you give me a solution and I will see if it can work”.

The daughter spends weeks on her computer trying to understand the technology behind the tag, and the systems it involves. Whatever she thought of would have to be simple and allow her control over communication. And then an idea hit her head. She proposed it to the father. He looked at her and said, “Hmmm, okay, that seems like it will work”.

The next day they walk in to meet the tag-makers at their office and place their request. The tag-maker agrees, “Its quite simple, let me know if this system works for you guys” he said.

This is how the tag works. A tag is activated when the mobile reader sends it a signal,( until this, it cannot send out any signal). The tag uses the energy from the signal and sends another signal back to the reader. This action is so fast it almost doesn’t happen, like how we don’t see light traveling, but see it around us, because light travels so fast. What daughter proposed was that the tag would not activate on the energy of the mobile reader alone. It would need the energy of a human hand-touch. In other words, the circuit in the tag is incomplete until a hand touches it. This means that the mobile reader constantly keeps asking the tag to reply, but only when daughter touches the tag, will the tag be able to receive the reader signal and send a signal back. This way, daughter will tell her father where she is, when she wants to,( that is when she is kidnapped or when she is in trouble).

She may even communicate with her father through the number of signals she sends back. For instance, one signal (a tap on her shoulder) could mean “im ok”, two signals (two taps on her shoulder) could mean “I miss you, can you call me now?”, three signals (three taps on her shoulder) could mean “help!”. And at every signal, the father gets her location, her condition, on his mobile and email, which is sufficient information for him.

This way the father and daughter solve their arguments, and both are considerably happy in their lives. And in their experiment, they had created a new way of communication.

Moral of the story: In this story we see how people have come to an understanding in the way they use technology, by understanding what is important and what is not, without any compromises. Today we see offices wanting to tag their employee’s ID Cards in order to keep log of their entry to the office. But by employing RFID tags, they can obtain much more information about the employee’s work patterns. This is not only an invasion of privacy, but also a task that dehumanizes the employee into a laboratory rat. If the tag is made readable, only at the employee’s discretion, or when absolutely necessary, such as entering a highly restricted area, the employee has better privacy.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Rebellious Approach

Create an air of Information Misuse.
  • Increasing misuse of information may lead to the increased need of privacy measures. For this hackers will have to create a scenario where examples of information misuse are more than serious crimes that the measures of everyware offer. Various measures may then be made to protect information and further misuse.
Creating natural faraday shields.
  • How about wearing temporary braces on your teeth of body that can shield you from being read?

Creating a Magnetic Riot
  • Everyone purchases large magnets and jams all the readers and tags causing huge losses to the systems and companies. Magnets may henceforth become illegal in shops for personal use. But then most other devices use some form of magnetic energy, and rebels will always find a way to manufacture sufficient energy holes to warp all electronics for miles.
Clones to Clown
  • One could have multiple identities through clones, each with an aspect of the clone-maker. This way, one part of you could gain some privacy while another is out there in the public. This is possible under the circumstance that the world population drastically reduces and laws begin to permit clones to work. It is possible that highly industrialized nations may opt for cloning first because of the fact that they are experiencing a reduced workforce, and are constantly having to outsource their workload.

Where the user has some control

Be read only when you want to
  • The tag in the ID card is unreadable as it is cased in a foil material and shields and signals. When the ID card needs to be read, the person has to touch the ID card, this completes the circuit and the signal can thus be read by the reader. So data is transmitted only when the person wants to transmit data.

Tag remover fans

  • When you stand near a table fan, you can feel it blow away dust from your clothes. when you stand near your table fan it scans the entire boy for new tags, that might have caught on in a product you purchased it. With your permission it kills the tags, like throwing dust away.

A tag eraser
  • An eraser that deletes information from the tag, and restores the information back when you need to provide it to a reader.
Visualizing data reads
  • If a tag can be made to beep every-time it is read (rather than the reader), it makes the user aware of access to his information. If there is constant access, then it would cause a scream instead of a beep. This way we can visualize data reading from invisible sources. When technology affords, then we can have smell tags instead of audio tags, so the visualization is more subtle.


Here are some ideas that I've thought of that could maybe aid us in designing to be let alone in the days of everyware.

From a system point of view

Avoiding the Google-Yahoo! Scenario

  • Government may subsidize the use of RFID systems to companies that are small, to encourage them to offer better services and compete with larger companies.
  • This way, with healthy competition, people will always have a choice to choose rather than submit to whims and fancies of a handful of oligopolic organizations.
  • An ISO certification may be created that allows for following strict privacy measures. This keeps open the checklist for measuring privacy trade-offs and which can be modified and added to by experts over a period of time depending on context. People should be allowed to participate democratically in this as well.
Ensure Trust through smaller groups
  • We could create small panchayats, or clusters which understands its people. This way the individual is protected by outsider invasion into his or her privacy. And can still protect her or his individuality in the group. Smaller systems have smaller issues of privacy because a certain trust is ensured.

Creating a point-of-sale value

  • Privacy can be used as a tool to market a company. For instance "We dont tag and monitore our employees" or "Your information is safe with us", may be used as an advertising strategy to promise customers.

Reduce Crime Rates

One of the main reasons to increase pervasive technology is in the name of offering security, from crime, terrorism. This is a good way to convince any society to allow to be tracked.
If crime rates can be reduced through other means such as
  • "adoption is a good option"
  • Solving terrorism, not through war, but by using peaceful negotiations (being too Idealistic?)
  • By removing dependence on oil, which has been the reason for recent wars and provoked terrorism
  • Increased literacy, which encourages “reasoning”, through worldwide programs, and self-help groups
Use Feminism for Activism

  • Women in society tend to be more conscious to be private simply because of the hassles they face from anonymous strangers, and threats to their integrity. They also prove to be more proactive than men in the office environment. Which suggests that maybe we could target a female audience in someway and convince them to take this case further, in the form of protests, filing suits, spreading the word etc. If current issues can be solved, we might be able to create further consciousness with time as everyware begins to spread.

Will personal satellites solve the issue?

Well if we start looking at the database that stores data, we realize that it is the source of all our problems, because someone can access all our data, misuse data, use against or for satisfy vouyeuristic pleasures.

So I was wondering If we could all have private satellites, which stores all our data. The satellite is geo-stationary and it follows each individual who launched it. Then it serves us all sorts of personalized services, sends alerts to other satellites in case we get kidnapped, takes pictures of ourselves whenever we want, kind of like our shadow or imaginary angel. Would that solve privacy issues?

Of course, if all the billions of us could send a satellite up, we’d not see much of the sun or the sky. And we wouldn’t have any more energy left on our earth for our daily needs. Besides it would be way to expensive. And we could have satellites crashing into each other occasionally destroying with it all our memories, kind of like an Alzheimer’s disease. But its definitely an alternative we can think of when we are living a hundred years from today, and we face graver privacy issues.

Looking into Alternative Genres

Every system will have an opposing anti-thesis to create a certain balance in the system. For instance, how hackers keep a check on the software companies to maintain high security systems. Or how terrorists persuade a nation to monitor its people. Similarly, alternative genres of communication will keep a check on the system of everywares.

Ancient sciences such as telepathy, teleportation, ayurveda, yoga etc may become a way of life followed by a cult of people. It is possible, that a cult begins to re-create this lost way of life, to help them work out of the system. It is possible that we move towards a new way of life, in which an email is not sent via a chip injected into the brain using a network, but via a thought stream. This genre will keep a check on the system, as people begin to misuse these arts to achieve different tasks.

Treatments for Surveillophobia ?

When Albertine meunier made a video that displays the Google search history, (http://www.albertinemeunier.net/) I realized that it is very easy to understand the nature of a person just by browsing through his or her search history. The next day I found myself manipulating my Google searches in case someone would want to track me. I kept typing random clich├ęs (especially from top searches), so any database would read me as a normal, happy, safe person. It is possible that when we move into the days of everyware, there would remain people like me who drive themselves insane by trying to leave a low-profile trace on the database of information that we will collect.

Anxiety disorders about leaving information trails may stir up new fears amongst people. People may create dual personalities; one that leaves an ideal image in the database while the other real self remains hidden in the conscience. With the consciousness that a tag is collecting information about them, people may become more aware of what they say and do in public spaces. While some may easily adapt to this situation, others may feel violated and threatened.

The future of RFID

In a future where we have realized DNA decoding, nanotechnology etc, we wouldn’t probably use RFID the way its used today. As one walks through the door, the reader instead of reading the chip would read the unique DNA codes from your prints. That way, people wont have to worry about injecting an RFID tag into their body, there wont be issues of people foiling the system with faraday cages, or virus codes.
The way we use RFID and its absorption in our society will affect the way we use future technologies in our lives, long after RFID becomes an out-dated technology.

How global warming affects privacy

When a tsunami is about to hit, who cares about privacy?

Recently I got to watch the movie about global warming An Inconvenient Truth, where Al-Gore predicts that global warming will increase temperatures to unlivable conditions, hampering all our resources.

Would this cause us to re-look at electronic systems? At high temperatures, would we face more crashes, and thus need to re-look at how many computers we employ to prioritize its use? RFID tags barely use any energy. But in the days of everyware, would we face a situation where there is a large energy consumption by the reading and storing information of mega-trillions of tagged objects?

How energy shortage affects privacy

A shortage of energy resources could change the way we progress towards everyware days. If we shift to solar resources for instance, we might observe poor tag reading in extreme cold winters, or during rainy nights.

Or maybe simply tagging an individual directly would save on production costs and meet energy conservation needs?

If there is a huge energy shortage, would an energy provider choose to supply to a large database system, to keep the networks running, or would it rather supply energy for basic necessities like street lighting, home lighting and so on?

Blackouts might become a more common phenomenon, and people who were under the “Im being watched all the time” feeling might clamber to use blackouts for their privacy.

How people like Osama affect privacy

In recent times we have witnessed how terrorism has taken a toll on our privacy. The series of terrorist strikes have created nations running on fear. People will accept surveillance and monitoring for their own security.

How blogs will affect our privacy

With people becoming more open to having public profiles on the web through social networking websites, we will see how people are beginning to be more comfortable with public images. Reality television shows, people willingly documenting their personal lives on blogs have affected the way people understand privacy.

Even though voyeurism is on the rise, we need to understand that social networking has gotten people together and created a state of well-being amongst those who are connected, even if it may mean that people and their relationships are often trackable.

How Wikipedia will affect our privacy

Wikipedia is one of the successful products on the internet that has started a new wave of thinking in our world. People are becoming active in producing content for people. This new wave has been termed prosumerism by Alvin Toffler in his book the third Wave. Prosumerism refers to the state where the producer is the consumer.

If RFID use follows this wave, we will begin to see how people create their own uses of RFID and change their everyware products at home and outside, setting privacy zones and access restrictions. This way people will have more choice in protecting their privacy.

How corporates can affect privacy

As more activists make claims about privacy issues, we see markets implementing a siege on information collection and storage. Measures will be taken to contain people of privacy protection, anonymity provision, pay for privacy deals.

Service providers will claim that the whole deal of tagging is only to provide a service for the individual, and for no evil motto. Monitoring may also become more invisible to the public eye, to provide increasingly personal experiences to people.

In this scenario what we need to ensure is the fact that we keep the markets in healthy competition, and free from intervention from a government authority, or an event such as a terrorist attack.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Yeah ok..but why is privacy so important?

Why is privacy important
Why do we have to protect it
What happens if we didnt have privacy?
Isnt privacy about the right to be let alone?
Really which one of us wants to be alone?
We constantly need to share something with others.
So isnt it ok if we didnt have too much privacy?

In my opinion when I ask myself these questions, the only thing that I can think of, is yeah, so why are we wearing clothes. We didnt wear any way back then did we? Its probably a childish way of discussing a serious issue.

Privacy is affected by five factors

  • The time zone we live in the events that are occuring
(For instance, the purdah system was introduced in the Indian subcontinent, after Indians experienced a series of invasions from foreigners to protect their women)
  • The dominant communication medium
(Right now the freeflow of personal information on public arenas such as the internet has changed the way we all understand privacy)
  • The individual personality
(Introverts tend to have larger personal spaces and hence a greater need for privacy, and probably tend to be more paranoid about their information, these are the people, who probably surf the internet anonymously)
  • The influence of culture and religion
  • Power Relationship amongst people who share personal information

Okay now why is privacy important?

Because privacy is not just about the right to be alone. When you are alone, you can think for yourself, and make your choices, and have your free thoughts. When your privacy is being invaded, we are referrng to invading your space, and thus manipulating you.

The medium invading your privacy will slowly begin to manipulate your thoughts, by understanding how you think and work . This is what traditional advertising mediums have been doing. But the problem with invasion of privacy in a ubiquitous world, is the fact that the environment will understand you better and thus be able to manipulate you so silently, that you wouldnt even realise it.

Maybe the idea does seem farfetched. But the reason why I am raising concerns about privacy is because all this is possible in a not so very far future, with simple technologies like RFID, sensors, and ofcourse, unlimited, ubiquitous computing.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Explaining the futures and the privacy implications

In the total Government Control scenario we will observe a society with an absence of privacy under the pretext of public welfare, from growing crime rates, from terrorism, to grant privileges to families, and to make life easier for the public. What will go hidden is the number of corrective measures taken to arrive at this Utopian dream

In Transparent societies we well see how people with access to any information, become voyeuristic, and how emotions and feelings rather become data. Sousveillance will be the theme as people attempt to watch the watchers.

Market Imperialism is the most probable scenario that will occur with further globalization. Capitalist motives will become to convert people's lives into better, luxurious, efficient lives. With the rising consumer market and booming economy, this scenario will proceed. In this instance, we will see how a small activist group encourages privacy to become a point of sale act. Though glamorously marketed, it will have a placebo effect on people as they feel they still have their privacy.

Prosumerism is a concept that is becoming the norm with internet success such as Wikipedia, wherein the producer is rather the consumer. This balance strives to create more honest products for the society. If we can shift to a society of prosumers, we will see more proactive people, largely taking issues such as privacy into their hands, developing widgets and self sufficient systems to protect their privacy.

By Naturalism, I am referring to the fall back into ancient ways of life, by exploring mythological mediums of communication such as telepathy, ancient medicines and so on. This may be practiced by a small cult of people, or rather outcasts that chooses to stay off the technological grid.

Looking at alternate futures

We all know somehow deep inside that we are heading towards an Orwellian World. And while most industrialized countries locate their people through surveillance cameras, there are many town and villages in the world, where there is no access to even electricity. Maybe these places will preserve greater freedom of speech over time, if we do not categorize them as tribals and place them in human zoos under googleearth's supervision. The digital divide will provide a divide in cultural freedom. Maybe maybe not. But we can definetly think of some alternatives in the future.

What data about you does to you

  • Personal information becomes the puppeteer's strings

When personal data about you is available, inclusive of information such as what you are feeling, what affects your moods, how you like your coffee, while it may offer you personal services, will all allow someone to understand how to influence you, how to sell a product to you, when, and in what fashion. Well one can argue that any communication aims at manipulation. But here the communication can be so personal that it does not allow you to think for yourself, and rather thinks for you.

  • Prejudices
Remember the story of how a well-dressed guy didn't get into an elite restaurant cause he wore shabby shoes? Well if any information about you can be dropped at the hat, then automated systems may decide to not give you that second chance which you probably deserved.

  • Forgetting to Forget
Since all memories of past and present just become data, one realises that memories change. Its like how you actually don't remember your childhood, but you begin to reconstruct your childhood memories when you grow up as you hear stories from your parents, relatives, see pictures, videos etc. One of the most beautiful things about the human mind, is its ability to keep somethings forgotten for a time being.

  • What you get is what you see; what you don't see wont hurt
This applies to systems that collect information about you tacitly, without your knowledge. For instance, when you are discussing something personal you pause to hear if someone is around, or look around for a surveillance camera. If eavesdropping devices were made invisible to the human eye, we would all be less cautious, and less paranoid. But at the same time, we would become the fish in the fish bowl, that amuses another.

Privately Public or Publicly Private

Privately public means that even though you may be living your life privately, the way you want to, your information is publicized, like the case of a celebrity, about whom, every private information is publicized. But in the days of everyware, the issue rises in the fact that we are not strongly aware of the publicized information, because of the simple tacitity that communication between everyware objects will have, and are thus more vulnerable to perversion of technology. The lack of awareness is the road to the privately public future.

A general norm is to not stare at couples holding hands in public. This gives them privacy even in a public space. Publicly private means having a sense of privacy even in a public space. It is possible that in the days of everyware, we can still have our privacy because of the overload of information and its acceptance as the norm. And the fact that all our lives are connected to a database of retrievable memories need not pervade our private lives. Of course this remains as long as we forget who has access to our private information and who can misuse it to cause damage or manipulate us.

Bentham Vs Foucault and then Schneir

Jeremy Bentham famous for his conversations on “The greatest good for the greatest number”, described a Panopticon system of prison management, in which a single guard can watch over many prisoners while the guard remains unseen.

Michel Foucault argues that “visibility is a trap”. It is through this visibility, Foucault writes, that modern society exercises its controlling systems of power and knowledge. Increasing visibility leads to power, shown by the possibility for institutions to track individuals throughout their lives. Foucault suggests that a “carceral continuum” runs through modern society, from the maximum security prison, through secure accommodation, probation, social workers, police, and teachers, to our everyday working and domestic lives. All are connected by the (witting or unwitting) supervision (surveillance, application of norms of acceptable behaviour) of some humans by others. (Wikipedia)

How does one draw the line between securing the society from crimes, attacks, and making people still enjoy services? Bruce Schneir attempts to ask the same question. “Too many wrongly characterize the debate as security versus Privacy. The real choice is liberty Versus Control. And liberty requires security as well as privacy. “ Very well said. (Wired Magazine, The Eternal Value of Privacy).

Here we understand how privacy becomes a victim of power relations amongst the provider and the consumer.

The beginings

Once we have understood how RFID technology along with a host of other technologies can be used to make our world ubiquitously smarter, our whole perspective of the way we communicate changes. Your toothpaste would inform the supermarket that its getting over and apply for a new toothpaste. You could have a book that knows the last line you read, and immediately open to the page where you left. Your car would self start as soon as it sees you approaching. The future is not a science fiction dream, all these and much more is possible with technologies like RFID. The question is at what cost are we arriving at this kind of future. Yes, you will be leaving an information trail wherever you go. And you maybe tracked, followed, and observed for a reason or for no reason. This is a technology that in the background, within inventories, can create many cost saving benefits and increase efficiency. Or in special contexts, for instance, as payment at expensive beach clubs, or in the case of a threat to a particular individual, where tracking may have valid reasons.

The issue is about what happens when this technology comes to the foreground. Advertisers can use tags to screen personal and convincing advertorials at the naive consumer. Governments may want to issue cards to all its citizens, in the name of it being a welfare state concerned about giving its citizens privileges, a better quality of life, and better security.

What happens now, definitely is worth imagining. With increasing access to your information, with no past, present or future as life transits into a data collection process, the average person will begin to become a puppet in the hands of the information system. Many activists have been raising issues about protecting privacy, and why it is important for maintaining human freedom of speech and liberty. In reply to angry activism about privacy, Scott McNealy of Sun microsystems said “You have no privacy anyway, get over it”. Could we survive in a transparent world. Would people accept living a transparent life? Will governments and markets comply with this sort of transparency, or will they use it as a gimmick? Take the example of Hasan Elahi, (http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/15-06/ps_transparency ) a professor who in retaliation to being detained and searched at an airport, has begun documenting his life, by listing his geographic position, and images on his web-site. What if everyone agreed to live life publicly?

The RFID revolution is bound to change our way of life. What we need to discuss is how we can continue to preserve our individual privacy, or should we preserve it at all.