Privacy

The Circle Book Review

Book Review
The Circle
By Dave Eggers
491 pages. Alfred A. Knopf/McSweeney’s Books. $27.95

Review by Allen Earle

I have a Facebook account. I’ve looked at it occasionally, posted practically nothing on it, and from time to time look at a picture posted by an acquaintance, or something “interesting” shared by a connection. I have never tweeted. (At my age, it takes more characters for me to say “hello” than Twitter permits me.) Needless to add that like many people of my generation (and yes, I’m a Boomer), I don’t “follow” anyone or anything.

Dave Egger’s novel The Circle describes a world that I’m just now really beginning to see and understand – but not like very much. It’s a very odd thing to find oneself in a setting that appears both very true-to-life, and at the same time utterly dystopian. And frankly, it’s just as hard to figure out whether Eggers’ intended world is one or the other.

“The Circle” of the title is the name of a company which seems to be an amalgam of Apple, Google, Microsoft, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and who knows what else. (Perhaps LinkedIn is too focused to have merited inclusion?) And The Circle is huge – over a billion customers and growing, each and every one with a single identity (“TruYou”). And each and every user can access everything in digital space to which The Circle has access.

The newest employee in this vast organization is Mae, who from the get-go thinks, “My God, [i]t’s heaven.” Mae starts as a kind of help-desk intern, answering clients’ questions and resolving their issues, always striving for service ratings measuring within a point or two of 100 (out of 100), and providing feedback on everything (“smile,” “frown” or “meh”). Her frenzied participation in everything begins making her increasingly popular and followed by The Circle clientelle. As we progress through Mae’s career in The Circle, we learn more and more about the leaders of this behemoth – the “Gang of 40” – and their focus (as befitting an organization controlling 90% of all data searches on earth) on increasing information available to everyone on the planet, to making everything – individuals, corporations, governments – transparently available to all.

And here is where the dystopian view creeps in. If, as the company’s motto affirms, “All that happens must be known,” then what happens to privacy? Who is the “private person” when everything in their life (with the exception of brief bathroom breaks) is under the possible scrutiny of all the other subscribers of The Circle?

And Mae certainly finds this out! Mae’s performance isn’t always perfect, but her willingness to open up publically about “what went wrong” leads to Mae herself helping to devise some of The Circle’s more important (and Orwellian) maxims: “Secrets are lies,” “Sharing is caring” and “Privacy is theft.” Mae sees, through her own experiences, much of the downside of this constant, but seems unable to acknowledge what she really ought to see. Rather, after one serious infraction against the “everything that happens must be known” rule (she takes a secret kayak trip off-camera), she commits to The Circle to “going transparent;” to making her life totally visible to all the membership of The Circle, except for brief bathroom breaks. (Yes, this leads to a little toilet humour – and sex.)

The reader wonders, as we move along, whether Mae will eventually realize the dangers of what’s going on and help free the world of it due to her immense popularity, or if she will commit the world to a 1984-like “Big Brotherhood.” I’ll avoid the spoiler, here.

A few days ago, the physicist Steven Hawking, commenting on the Artificial Intelligence that has speeded up the translation of his thoughts to vocalization, opined that there may well come a time when technology is so advanced – when AI can create its own advanced versions of itself while humans are condemned to wait upon the tediously slow process of evolution – that humanity might be rendered superfluous.

Are our technologies, and our increasing dependence and reliance upon (and perhaps even addiction to) them, leading us to a place where we cease to be humans capable of behaving like humans? Is the human mind capable of living sanely in a world in which that mind has no private place of its own? Those seem to me to be some of the questions that Eggers is asking, although I’m not sure he’s answered them. In a few plodding sections of the novel, Mae’s family and ex-boyfriend, the tedious Mercer, provide us with rather trite set speeches that say, “no.”

What frightened this reader most, though, was the simple recognition that in many ways, almost everything described in The Circleis happening today – or will happen very, very soon. But perhaps I ought to keep my thoughts on that eventuality private?


 allen

Allen Earle is a long-time IT techie, developer and manager, who presently takes good care of all of P4Digital’s contractors in the field, as well as keeping a sharp eye on our production stats. An insatiable reader, who also enjoys writing, he is P4Digital’s authority on all things Shakespeare.

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It knows your face!

I remember going to see Minority Report when I was in high school. The movie was lacklustre, but one thing stuck out in my mind – the custom advertisements that reacted to Tom Cruise’s eyes.

Tom Cruise in Minority Report

For those of you who don’t remember or skipped the movie, the premise was this: advertisements (or billboards in this case) would scan Tom Cruise’s eyes as he walked by to identify him. After identification, these ads would give custom recommendations to our hero based on his data and previous purchases.

Futurist real time data at its finest.

However, headlines in recent weeks have been covering stories that seem like they could have be ripped straight from this dis-utopian world.

Real time data and facial recognition are no longer science fiction- they have become science fact.

What is it?

An individual’s face can be as unique as a fingerprint. It might even be more reliable, as a face won’t smudge or streak on surfaces.

Every face has numerous, unique features. There are the surface identifiers, like scars or skin tone, but there are also deeper, structural landmarks. These include:

  • Distance between the eyes
  • Width of the nose
  • Depth of the eye sockets
  • The shape of the cheekbones
  • The length of the jaw line

Most of us can recognize our friends and family by a quick glance at their faces. It happens so quickly most of us don’t even think about it. (Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but for the sake of length we’re going to skip them for now).

What Facial Recognition technology does is try to give that ability to a computer or algorithm.

Beginnings

As with most innovations we discuss on this blog, this isn’t a new idea.

It began in the mid 1960s. Scientists began to work on using computers to recognize human faces. Since those first tentative steps, the technology has come a long way.

Until recently, facial recognition software used a 2D image database to identify individuals.

Image courtesy of BBC.co.uk

For this to work, the subject needed to be looking directly at the camera. There could be little variance in light or facial expression between the database image, and the one that was being identified.

Obviously, very few pictures met this strict criteria, so facial recognition failed more often than it succeeded.

But technology never truly remains stagnant, and that’s doubly so in the digital revolution.

Facial recognition technology just made the leap from 2D to 3D. New software uses a 3D model, which allows for much looser criteria when comparing photos.

Image courtesy of Smithsonian.com

3D software uses the distinctive features of a face – the eyes, nose, and bone structure – to identify the subject.

Instead of relying on lighting or expression, this new technology relies on the structure of the face itself. It makes the software more reliable and less fallible.

Robocop?

Although these police divisions are not being led by Tom Cruise, law enforcement agencies the world over are using this technology to their advantage.

FBI

Take the FBI for example. They have just finished developing the Next Generation Identification System.

This system is now fully operational and is being used.

The FBI announced two services last fall that completed the system.

  • Rap Back allows officials to receive “ongoing status notifications” about reported criminal history of people “in positions of trust, such as schoolteachers.”
  • Interstate Photo System. This is the big one. This is a facial-recognition program that allows law-enforcement to cross-reference photographic images with criminal databases in real time.

In short, the Interstate Photo System lets the FBI use facial recognition.

Privacy groups don’t like The Next Generation Identification system for obvious reasons. They have repeated time and time again that this system ignores privacy laws.

They claim the lack of oversight raises serious civil liberty and privacy concerns.

Also, This system is largely untested. A report from 2010 found that the Interstate Photo System could potentially fail one in every five times it was used. That could lead to a lot of false positives. As it stands, that is a rate of failure higher than traditional fingerprinting – smudges and all.

Dubai

Dubai is another example of facial recognition being used by law enforcement. That Dubai is using this highly experimental technology should come as so surprise – this is a culture where the police use top of the line sports cars to keep up with the rich population.

Reports indicate  they have moved one step closer to achieving real time facial recognition by adding it to Google Glass.

Did I mention that the Dubai police department will get to use Google Glass? I hope they don’t have to buy their own uniforms!

glass1

According to a Dubai Police representative,  this software allows police to identify criminals’ faces and alert the detective through the glasses.

This initiative will be rolled out in two phases.

  • In the first phase, the technology will be used to fight traffic violations and any other vehicular offences.
  • In the second phase, the police Detectives will get a chance to use the wearables in their day to day crime solving business.

The New York City police department is also testing this. They began using Google Glass at the beginning of 2014, but have not yet posted the results of their tests.

Science fiction or  science fact?

This technology has far reaching implications as well. It is becoming present in many different companies – not just law enforcement. Check out some of the ways that this technology is being used by businesses right now!

Mastercard

Mastercard claims it has completed a “successful” facial recognition payments trial.

Mastercard tested a beta mobile app on over 140 000 transactions. These tests involved Mastercard employees from around the world using both iOS and Android devices.

 

Barcelona

Every laugh at the Teatrenu comedy club in Barcelona will cost you 0.30 euros, with a price cap of 24 euros.

Stand-up idea: A comedy club in Barcelona is betting you can't, and it is even basing its ticket prices on how often comedians can make its audience laugh

That’s right! Facial recognotion is being used to charger per laugh at this comedy club. The software is installed on the back of the seat in front of the customer.

The project was developed to combat falling audience numbers.

Partnering with advertising agency The Cyranos McCann, the experiment was a reaction to increased government taxes on theatre tickets, which in turn led to drops in audience numbers.

The results of the experiment have so far proved positive with ticket prices up by 6 euros, according to the theatre.

The system was so successful, it is now being copied in other theatres around Spain.

A number of people have tried, and reportedly failed, to sit through a comedy show without laughing in an attempt to get a free ticket.

Sincerely, Anonymous

It can sometimes feel like the Digital World begins and ends with Privacy. Whether it is Google and its controversial ‘right to be forgotten’, or sites like Facebook experimenting on their users without consent, what we do on the internet and who gets to see it are huge issues that are being hotly debated the world over. Which is why the ability to remain anonymous has become the holy grail of Internet commerce. A slew of new Apps and updates of existing ones are boasting new and improved ways for its users to remain anonymous.

WHY IS ANONYMITY IMPORTANT ONLINE?

Do you want everyone to know everything about you? Yes, you may want a potential employer to see you handing out food at a soup kitchen, but what about that shot of you doing body shots at the bar last week?

Anonymity is necessary and important to everyone  who doesn’t want their entire life revealed with a simple Google search of their name. Picture a data broker out there logging everything you have ever said or shown interest in. Imagine that they then sell that information to the highest bidder, whether it be an advertiser, a corporation or a person.

On the other side of the spectrum, some people will only publish or say certain things if they can be guaranteed they won’t be prosecuted for it later. Remaining anonymous is a simple way to do that.

The ability to be anonymous has given items of amazing cultural importance to our society. Works by Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Zoe Margolis and others were all published under assumed names. For those Science Fiction geeks out there, how many fantastic female authors would have been ignored and never published in the 1960s if they weren’t able to use pseudonyms.

The first amendment to the US constitution recognises its importance and grants substantial protection to anonymous speech. Anonymity is important to everyone to some degree. In the tremors of the digital revolution, it can be a difficult thing to come by. Below are some examples of the anonymous features and apps that have recently come onto the market.

LEAK

Want to say whatever you want but don’t want to get caught?  The new service Leak may let you do it, all while keeping your identity a secret. The truth can hurt after all, and no one wants to be the bearer of bad news. Leak is a web service that lets you send anonymous emails to people. All you have to do is put in a recipients’ email, choose the type of relationship you have with that person and send off your message. Leaks are only seen by one person and are not broadcast publicaly – unless of course the person who received them wants to share it on their own social networking site. The Leak service is still pretty basic; you can’t send attachments or files. It does have a newsletter though, where users can receive the best Leaks of the week in their in-boxes.

WHISPER

Whisper is an anonymous social network. It’s done in the style of the PostSecret books of a few years ago. Instead of mailing in their secrets and the postcards being published in a book, Whisper does everything digitally. It allows people to express themselves anonymously. People type their secret on an image of their choice (as long as it follows regulations) and email the file in. It is then posted on the Whisper website.

With Whisper, you can anonymously share your thoughts and emotions with the world, and form lasting and meaningful relationships in a community built around trust and honesty. If you have ever had something too intimate to share on traditional social networks, simply share it on Whisper! —Whisper

Everything on Whisper is completely anonymous. They do not collect any personal information from users. The only search feature on the site is for topics, and not user profiles.

AirBNB

AirBNB is getting on the band wagon as well. It  has just announced a feature that will make all emails between hosts and renters anonymous.

In the past, after a booking was arranged, the the private email addresses of the landlord and the renter would be revealed to allow them to communicate directly. This direct communication  is necessary to arrange details like  parking and how to check in between the two parties. Usually however, after this single short term booking, users will likely never have any reason to communicate again. A lot of people were uncomfortable exchanging personal contact details with strangers. Now AirBnB will create temporary unique email addresses for each user in the conversation and forward these messages behind the scenes to the each user’s private email addresses. From the user’s point of view, nothing will change except that they won’t be able to see the counterpart’s personal email address.

We did this because some scammers like to get your personal email address and use it as part of their schemes. Anonymous email addresses will help us protect our community’s personal information from people who seek to abuse our system. Our existing security procedures help minimize the risk of these types of abuses, but we take your security seriously and we believe this new measure can do more to help fight fraud, scams, or phishing—AirBNB

FACEBOOK

Longtime King of the social Media scene, Facebook is touting new anonymous features as well. Back at F8 in April, Facebook’s annual developers conference, they announced a new feature that will allow users to log into Apps anonymously. What that means is that you can can check out an app you’re not sure you want to sign up for without sharing your personal information. This extends to other sites and Apps that are connected to Facebook as well.

So how many times would you want to sign in to an application, but you don’t necessarily want to share a lot of information with that app, but if you can do it anonymously, we think that can unlock of lot of different interactions and experiences that people want to have–Zuckerberg

Does Consent apply to Facebook?

Facebook has violated your privacy. Well, okay – that’s nothing new. Facebook and its on again off again relationship with your personal details is a rocky road that always seems to be just on this side not okay. That is not news. This – this is something different. And this, is HUGE. 

Facebooks Covert experiment

Unless you’ve spent the last few days under a rock (or under a beer and a Barbecue, as it was the Canada day long weekend over the last few days) you’ve probably heard about Facebooks Emotional Manipulation Study. That’s right! What has been long suspected is now proven beyond a shadow of a doubt – Facebook is manipulating your emotions! It’s all thanks to this man – Adam Kramer.

Adam Kramer – image from Facebook.com

He’s a data scientist over at Facebook. He ran an experiment back in 2012 on 689,003 Facebook users. His goal? To find out if and how emotions can spread throughout social networks. The exact terminology they used was ‘Emotional Contagion.’ The study lasted for a week and was a collaboration with two researchers from Cornell University and the University of California respectively. How did they conduct this study? Well, some of the participants received happy and cheerful items in their newsfeeds, and some received depressing and grim posts exclusively. And yes, it turns out that moods are contagious and can be spread through social media. In other words – people have empathy and that can be spread through social media. From the abstract:

When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks. This work also suggests that … the observation of others’ positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people.

Scientifically speaking, the study is unique in some ways and pretty ordinary in others. The sample size of nearly 700 000 people is truly huge – possibly the largest in the history of psychology. The results are interesting in that they show that very small changes in the emotional state of our environment can effect how we feel and act on our social networks. On the other hand, the effects in the study are tiny, among the smallest significant results ever published. Here is the disturbing part though – Facebook didn’t ask for permission before conducting this study! In fact, the only reason anyone knows about it is because Cornell and their cohorts published their findings in a journal last week!

unlikeFacebook added ‘Research’ to User Agreement 4 Months after study

When this study was published, people were rightfully angry to find out that a social media site was, essentially manipulating users emotions for science without asking them first! A lot of critics were saying that Facebook should have made sure to acquire informed consent before conducting a study like this. Facebook responded by saying that they had permission – from it’s Data Use Policy: The researchers took advantage of the fine print in Facebook’s data use policy to conduct this scientific experiment without informed consent. Even though the academic researchers worked with Facebook when designing the study, it appears that they only obtained ethical approval after the data collection was finished. Since the data was already collected, the ethics committee that granted approval seems to have awarded it an “approval lite”. It seems like the Facebook researchers exploited an ethical loophole. More disturbing, there is no age filter set on the study, so it could very well have included users younger than 18.

Informed consent is a core principle of human research ethics, established in the aftermath of the second world war. In important cases where the question is deemed vital and consent isn’t possible (or would prevent a fair test), it can be legally bypassed. But this is rare, and it is doubtful whether the Facebook study would qualify for such an exemption.

Here’s the kicker though – it wasn’t until four months after the study, in May 2012 that Facebook made changes to its data use policy. That’s when it introduced that line about how it might use your information for research.

Fallout

Facebook is facing more than just user backlash following news that the social network was intentionally manipulating user emotions during a 2012 experiment. Social Media Question The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is a data regulator in the United Kingdom. They announced on Wednesday that they are investigating whether or not Facebook violated data collection laws. At this point, the ICO is unsure whether or not Facebook actually broke any laws. However, since Facebook’s European headquarters is based in Dublin, the agency plans to contact Ireland’s data protection group about the matter, according to the Financial Times.

The IOC can “force organizations to change their policies and levy fines of up to 500,000 British pounds [about $857,000],” the FT wrote.

Financially, that fine won’t really hurt Facebook. Afterall, it brought in $2.5 billion in revenue last quarter. Instead, any type of monetary fine would be symbolic.

“It’s clear that people were upset by this study and we take responsibility for it. We want to do better in the future and are improving our process based on this feedback,” a Facebook spokesperson wrote in a statement given to Mashable. “The study was done with appropriate protections for people’s information and we are happy to answer any questions regulators may have.”

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebooks COO issued an apology on Wednesday. She admitted that Facebook ‘Communicated Really Badly’ about its experiment on users. Despite all this fallout, Privacy experts in the U.S. are saying that it is unlikely that Facebook broke any laws.

An official complaint has been filed to the US Federal trade commission as well. The complaint was filed by digital rights group the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (Epic). Facebook said it has no comment to make about the complaint. Epic wants Facebook to pay damages and to hand over the algorithm underlying the work.

Privacy in the Digital Age

We all value our privacy. Whether it’s enjoying a quiet place to think, or just wanting to keep your personal items private. Diaries have locks, safes have keys and some people even hide possessions in mattresses and under loose floorboards.

The truth is we all have secrets, and people have become pretty adept and hiding them over the centuries.

So logically, uncovering those hidden secrets can be a pretty lucrative profession.

Today’s post is going to address some of the major privacy issues that have been cropping up in the media ever since Heartbleed bled out the Internet. Hopefully, it will make you a little more aware of how public our secrets really are.

CONVERSNITCH LAMP

When is a lamp not a lamp? When it’s a hidden microphone that is wirelessly recording and tweeting everything you say.

Photo by Kyle McDonald

Photo by Kyle McDonald

Conversnitch is a wireless recorder that resembles a lamp or a light bulb. Built for less than $100, it listens in and records nearby conversations. These aren’t even stored in the lamp itself; instead they are instantly livetweeted to Twitter. As long as there is Wi-Fi, this data can be sent in real time. Once something is recorded and shared, there is no way to take it back.

You can actually check out Conversnitches Twitter feeds HERE 

Conversntich is built using very simple parts that anyone can get. They include:

  • A Raspberry Pi Miniature computer
  • LED light source
  • Plastic Flower Pot

The creators, Kyle McDonald and Brian House, say they created Conversnitch not to earn money, but to raise questions about the nature of public and private spaces in an era when anything can be broadcast by ubiquitous, internet-connected listening devices.

MICROSOFT CAUGHT SNOOPING

 

eyes

Think you’re emails are secure? Think again! A court case back in March in the United States revealed that Microsoft exercises the right to access any content on its email, chat areas, forums and other communication facilities.

This all came to light when lines of code from the Windows 8 operating system were leaked in 2012. Microsoft set out to find the source of the leak, and they admitted to searching through inboxes to do so.

This is especially ironic considering that Microsoft has attacked its rival Google for going through its own customer emails to deliver ads.

How can they do this? Well, we all agree to it when we check the ‘I Agree’ box in those lovely terms and services agreements. Anyone who signs up for a Hotmail or Outlook account gives the company permission to access all information on its ‘communication services,’ which includes email, chat rooms, forums and other services.

LETS TAKE A TEST

Last year, US security contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the government is snooping on Internet accounts. To test this theory, Cyber-security company High-Tech Bridge set out to test the confidentiality of 50 of the biggest internet companies. They did this by using their systems to send a unique web address in private messages. They then waited to see what companies would click on the website.

FAIL

During the 10 day operation, SIX of the companies had opened the link that was only sent in a private message.

Among those six were:

  • Google
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Discussion forum Formspring

We found they were clicking on links that should be known only to the sender and the recipient. If the links are being opened, we cannot be sure that the contents of messages are not also being read –High-Tech Bridge chief executive Llia Kolochenko

 

AOL ZOMBIE ACCOUNTS

Back in April American On-line turned into a Zombie! Well, sort of – but the ramifications were just as dire.

zombie

AoL lost ‘a significant number’ of email addresses, passwords, contact lists and postal addresses to hackers.

They didn’t release the exact numbers, but from their description of the incident the total number could be in the tens of millions. Hackers are bringing these long dead AoL accounts back to life and using them for Spoofing.

Email-spoofing-is-the

These accounts are being used to send both viruses and spam to everyone on their contact lists. That old “NSYNCYFAN” email account could very well be coming back to haunt you and everyone you care about.

INTERNET EXPLORER POSSESSED

ghost

This one has thankfully been fixed by now, but last month there was a virus that may very well have dealt the death blow to the Internet Explorer browser.

If you were using Internet Explorer and clicked on the wrong link, a hacker could hijack your computer remotely

This is how it worked: Hackers set up a website that installed malware when you visited it. If you made the mistake of visiting this website while using the Internet explorer program, that malware would seep into your computer and give a stranger total control. The worst thing? The user might not even notice.

That’s where the real danger lies. Anyone in control of your computer can spy on everything you do. If it’s a PC at work, hackers can reach into anything an employee has access to. If it’s a personal computer, bank codes and Paypal accounts could be up for grabs.

Thankfully a week or so later a patch was released that repaired this problem.

DROPBOX SPRUNG A LEAK

dropbox

Dropbox has fallen victim to an exploit that allows privately shared files to be read by anyone.

Dropbox-is-a-home-for

 

Dropbox is a cloud-storage provider. It allows users to share links to the documents they have stored on the Dropbox server.

The problem lies in the security of those stored documents. But sending those links out, third parties whom you didn’t intend to see it can access them as well.

The technical details about how this is happening are complicated, but what it comes down to is this: people are accidently entering the intended recipient information into an incorrect box. By doing this, the file is not just shared with who you want it to be, but search providers and ad networks as well.

Dropbox says it’s working to fix the problem by disabling any previously shared links that might be vulnerable to leakage.

RESET THE NET

With all of these leaks and concerns, it should come as no surprise that there is now a counter movement occuring.

A group of nearly two-dozen tech companies and civil liberties groups are launching a new fight against mass internet surveillance, hoping to battle the NSA in much the same way campaigners pushed back on bad piracy legislation in 2012.

 

If Reset the Net passes, it will certainly be interesting to see how Privacy laws and securities are effected.