Friday, February 28, 2020

Widespread Electronic Surveillance in America – III

We now know that tracking and identifying people, both by determining their positions through their cellphones and recognizing their faces, is not only consistently possible but is almost as accurate as by getting their DNA.  How can public policy and individual choices combine to minimize the destructive privacy loss it is causing?

This is not an easy situation to negotiate.  Some problems include the disadvantages of passing laws which do not prevent force, fraud, or coercion, the right of people to opt for what they want, and impeding generally beneficial law enforcement information access.  Yet we cannot do nothing.  
Accordingly, I recommend the following.

First, as with the highly successful National Do Not Call Registry, provide the right for people to opt out from having their phones tracked and their faces compared with others.  The effort can be structured in much the same way as this facility, which has cut back, maybe by a factor of ten, what would otherwise be daily junk-phone-call bombardment, with easy online signup, long open opt-in times, and enough of a grace period to allow organizations receiving facial and location data to incorporate their own screening systems.

Second, extend the same restrictions to cellphone tower data that we have on landline telephone wiretapping, for private as well as governmental users. 

Third, ban sharing of any location data collected by smartphone apps.  If they need it to function themselves, such as for reporting the weather, they can use it without passing it along.

Fourth, hold a national referendum on where the border should be between data acceptable for collection by law enforcement agencies and that which should be private, and implement laws and restrictions accordingly.  The results of that countrywide, not state-by-state, vote will direct us toward how we deal with facial recognition.

Fifth, publicize the need for people to make informed choices about their cellphones, mobile applications, and opt-ins.  Susceptibility to manipulation can be controlled as much as the exploitation itself, and the power of tracking technology is no excuse for Americans to act like sheep.
If these changes were implemented the marketplace would respond.  With their income sources from sharing data removed, apps might need to charge nominal amounts.  Others could pay users for facial identification, if that remained legal.  A sales point for telephone companies using improved technology could be to make their devices personally unidentifiable. 

None of these changes would be radical or would measurably hurt our lives.  They would merely end, as put in the January 26th New York Times special-section-ending editorial, “the incongruity between the robust legal regime around legacy methods of privacy invasion and the paucity of regulation around more comprehensive and intrusive modern technologies.” 

The worst abuse possibilities of tracking information have not yet materialized – but, as we have seen in this series, neither the laws nor the technology’s current state can prevent them.  That is why we need action as quickly as possible.  I hope that the facts about surveillance are spread widely, and that our legislators start discussions soon.  If not, we may end up all living thoroughly public lives.  That is not what we want.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Widespread Electronic Surveillance in America – II

We saw last week new and often hyper-accurate ways that people can be tracked.  What is happening with companies providing this technology, the laws, and our government’s involvement?

In “Facebook to Pay $550 Million to Settle Facial Recognition Suit,” by Natasha Singer and Mike Isaac in the January 29th New York Times, we learned how that gigantic data-collecting company ran afoul of a law in just one state, Illinois, “by harvesting facial data for Tag Suggestions from the photos of millions of users in the state without their permission and without telling them how long the data would be kept.”  You have used that facility if you have posted pictures there and wanted to assign names, usually of your friends, to faces in them; I had thought, naively perhaps, that those were only the ones already on my own page.  Although this law was passed in 2008, there still aren’t many like it elsewhere.  The next day, “Facebook’s facial-recognition settlement amount breaks record” (Fox Business) showed in effect that this is almost certainly the first of many huge judgments.

In “The Government Uses ‘Near Perfect Surveillance’ Data on Americans,” in the February 7th New York Times, we found out that not all this work is in the private sector.  Apparently, “immigration and border enforcement” can also involve tracking “the movements of millions of cellphones in America.”  The situation discussed last week of smartphone apps making it routine for users to provide such information, thereby “consenting to future uses that they could never predict” with data “opaque and largely unregulated,” means federal authorities can use information with impunity, though a 2018 Supreme Court ruling may eventually be found to prevent that.  Otherwise, per this piece, “it is inconceivable that tactics turned against undocumented immigrants won’t eventually be turned to the enforcement of other laws.” 

Over twenty years ago I learned about an American company with $2 billion in annual sales which I and most others had never heard of, its mission to make McDonald’s French fries.  The surveillance industry has spawned many such hidden concerns.  One was reported on by Kashmir Hill in an article, also in the Times, “The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It,” published January 18th and updated February 10th.  The firm is Clearview AI, which uses its three-billion-image database to identify people in submitted photos.  Laws have nothing to say about that practice, as Clearview AI’s pictures were publicly available, taken from Facebook and “millions of other websites.” 

This company’s practice apparently works quite well, able to overcome, in some cases, hats and glasses.  It has also had spectacular successes with law enforcement, particularly with the Indiana State Police who, after “experimenting with Clearview,” determined a perpetrator who “did not have a driver’s license and hadn’t been arrested as an adult, so he wasn’t in government databases,” almost immediately after a shooting, thanks to “a bystander” who “recorded the crime on a phone.”  Clifton, New Jersey authorities, during a free Clearview trial, identified “shoplifters, an Apple Store thief, and a good Samaritan who had punched out a man threatening people with a knife,” and elsewhere had found the names of “a person who was accused of sexually abusing a child whose face appeared in the mirror of someone’s else (sic) gym photo; the person behind a string of mailbox thefts in Atlanta; a John Doe found dead on an Alabama sidewalk; and suspects in multiple identity-fraud cases at banks.”

Aside from seeming like law enforcement’s new best friend, abuse of this technology is only a step away.  It would be easy to determine when people are away from their homes, which may or may not have security systems.  It can identify people joining radical political gatherings, going to places known for selling illegal drugs, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, walking into brothels legal or illegal, presumably patronizing gay bars, or even turning up at unusual places of worship.  You can brainstorm more. 

That leaves us with next week’s issue – how should we deal with modern surveillance?

Friday, February 14, 2020

Widespread Electronic Surveillance in America – I

Do you know you are being tracked?

If you carry a smartphone, you are probably at least vaguely aware of that.  But do you understand the extent?  How about the number of times each day your location is determined and recorded?  Do you know how far back in time this data is stored?  Do you realize how wide-open are the laws on using such information? 

The discouragingly negative answers to these questions and many more were recently published over two January days in The New York Times.  First was a guest opinion piece released on the 24th, “You Are Now Remotely Controlled” by Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
Per Zuboff, facility for the current situation started in 1997 when a group of “tech industry executives” persuaded the Federal Trade Commission not to regulate Internet data use and collection.  Since then, most Americans have consented to carry devices which, through not only connections with towers which allow them to work but applications they install, monitor their locations.  The largest computer-related services companies, specifically Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook, all collect or use customer location data, the former more than the latter.

The key area of questions on location data accumulation centers around its detrimentality.  Is it harmful now?  If not, will the harm happen later?  What is the difference between using and abusing this information?  A fourth question, on whether it is truly only aggregated and not individually identifiable, was answered comprehensively in the articles to follow. 

Zuboff tied in her title with a scary quote from a “scientist,” that “we are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”  Preliminary tests, including getting people to visit the likes of McDonald’s and Starbucks, and targeting online advertising based on their targets’ assessed moods, started years ago.  She saw a problem of “epistemic inequality,” or “unequal access to learning imposed by private commercial mechanisms of information capture, production, analysis and sales,” which is “best exemplified in the fast-growing abyss between what we know and what is known about us.” 

Two days later the Times published a 12-page special section titled “One Nation, Tracked.”  It contained seven articles, four with maps showing actual smartphone location readouts, and ended with an editorial.  The first, “12 Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy,” showed how data from one device could easily indicate the owner’s home and workplace, along with places they had visited, ranging from pedestrian, such as local grocery stores, to deeply private, for example a drug rehab center.  One set of maps here showed hundreds of pings from one phone, of which “connecting” them “reveals a diary of a person’s life.” 

The second piece, “How to Track the President,” indicated how easy it was to identify Donald Trump’s smartphone and showed exactly where and when he was one day, the same available for Secret Service agents.  Third, “Freaked Out?  Steps to Protect Your Phone” offered ideas, but none would stop surveillance through tower connections.  Fourth, “Eyes on the Capital,” mostly a large map of that area, showed how much information was available on people in the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, F.B.I. Headquarters, and elsewhere.  Even the C.I.A., which apparently blocked smartphone connections within its main building, had plenty of identifiable ones in its parking lot. 

From there, “How Your Phone Betrays Democracy” described the problems of being able to electronically identify protestors.  “Smartphones Are Spies.  Here’s Whom They Report To” presented how applications, such as weather and mapping programs and even games, collect location data and report it to their owners, who have little compunction about collecting it, as “simply by downloading an app and agreeing to the terms of service, you’re potentially exposing your sensitive information to dozens of other technology companies, ad networks, data brokers, and aggregators.”  One of them, a weather monitor, “sent the phone’s precise location… about 20 times while it was open during an eight-minute walk.”  The seventh article, “Where Even The Children Are Being Tracked” could have referred to everywhere, as such surveillance does not distinguish by age.
The back-page wrap-up, “Total Surveillance Is Not What America Signed Up For,” summarized the findings above and concluded that we “deserve the freedom to choose a life without surveillance.”  That won’t be easy.

Next week, I look at what some companies involved with location data collection are doing, what the laws are like now, and what has already happened on the legal front.  I will also cover some views on possible, and impossible, solutions.  Two weeks from today I will address the best courses of action. 

Friday, February 7, 2020

January Employment Data: 225,000 New Jobs, Some Improvements, But AJSN Latent Demand Now 16.25 Million

I read a projection of 164,000 net new nonfarm positions for this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, and thought that might be high.  It wasn’t.

That came in at 225,000.  Along with it the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or directly connected to the job market, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, each gained a substantial 0.2% to reach 61.2% and 63.4%.  Average private nonfarm payroll wages, including an adjustment, jumped 12 cents per hour to $28.44, about double the inflation rate. 

After those results, though, the good news ended.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment edged up from 3.5% to 3.6%, and the unadjusted figure, though mostly showing the difference between Decembers and Januarys, rose 0.6% from 3.4% to 4.0%.  The total number of unemployed, adjusted, gained 100,000 to 5.9 million, and the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or laboring less than full-time but wanting that, was also up 100,000, reaching 4.2 million.  The total of those unemployed for 27 weeks or longer stayed at 1.2 million.   

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the statistic showing how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy to get, jumped over 1.2 million as follows:

Three-fourths of this difference came from higher official unemployment, followed by 176,000 from those wanting work but not looking for it for the past year, 78,000 from those institutionalized, in the armed services, or off the grid, and 66,000 from people reporting discouragement.  Compared with a year ago, though, the AJSN declined 857,000, with about two-thirds due to lower official joblessness and a 184,000 improvement from those not looking for a year or more.  The share of the AJSN coming from unemployment was 36.0%, three percent higher than in December.

Where are we now?  Overall, there wasn’t much of a change this time.  The good results listed first above, though, should carry the day.  An increase in jobs that much more than the rising population absorbs is nothing to take for granted now, and labor force participation and employment-population results were up more than a nominal amount.  The employment rate increase and the AJSN rise, the latter when taken in monthly context, do not indicate any problems.  Accordingly, the step the turtle took was small, but it was real and it was forward.