Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Surveillance to everything

Alessandro Acquisti from Carnegie Mellon University recently prove the concept of (1) identifying anonymous users of flirt portals and (2) students passing a webcam via their publicly accessible Facebook profiles, and (3) even guess their social security number as an example of retrieving additional data about the from the web [1]2.He reasons from this experiment that social networks become the real ID's of users in the net. While users intentionally choose to be present on the web the consequences of linking published data with each cannot be anticipated. However, opt-in does not work either as we are usually in already or somebody put us in. He does not provide a solution but rather recommends "to reconsider our notions of privacy".
At least Moore's law helps to drive down technology costs and, as such, also democratizessurveillance technology (see also the DIY drones). Thus, we don't have to be afraid of one big brother but can rather benefit from a competition of ideas and implement our own.
Why should the surveillance cameras in the streets only be for the benefit of authorities, police, banks and corporations? As the cameras are there already today and I cannot avoid them anyway, wouldn't it be much more transparent if I could trace back my day in the city as seen by the cameras? There is also the example of Malte Spitz (German MP) who successfully claimed mobile phone logs about his mobile phone trace from his TelCo provider. There is a nice visualization and overlay with publicly available social networks data here. If this data would be just available for the user by default services could be build and data even shared.
As Google+ proposes to organize social relationships in circles, I could also authorize circles of acquaintances (perhaps even limited by time and location) to partly access my trace. Perhaps this helps me and my friends to run into each other more frequently [2].

By instrumenting even things with surveillance, could be visual but also combined with NFC/barcode/foursquare checkin/etc., my bike lock could tell me how many people touched it during the day, the light post could send an SMS to the guy who was kicking it, the umbrella I found in the train could tell its owner that I have it, the chair I sat on in the restaurant could ask how comfortable I found it...
As surveillance is on-going and increasing I'd propose to make it more transparent, accessible for others to build services, and acceptable through little benefits. Let our things turn the world into a better place. Finding the right balance between empowering people to control they data without overloading will be crucial (e.g. see Albrecht's blog about Google's circles).

[1] Alessandro Acquisti, Ralph Gross, Fred Stutzman: Faces of Facebook: Privacy in the Age of Augmented Reality. BlackHat Las Vegas, August 4, 2011
[2] Williamson, J., Robinson, S., Stewart, C., Murray-Smith, R., Jones, M., Brewster, S. (2010). Social Gravity: A Virtual Elastic Tether for Casual, Privacy-Preserving Pedestrian Rendezvous. Accepted, to appear in Proceedings of CHI 2010, Atlanta, April 2010.

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