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Feeling private? Read on! April 16, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , add a comment

I do not need to spell out how networked sensors are compromising privacy. However, some days bring more compromises than others. Here are three interesting stories on this theme that I came across today:

  1. IEEE Spectrum reports on the FBI’s plan to construct a biometric database of 52 million faces. The FBI would like to have the database so that it can generate a pool of suspects for a given crime based on facial photographs and other data. Interestingly, the database is to include not only people convicted of crimes but basically anyone for whom the Bureau has a photo. If you submit a photo for a background check or a job application, for example, your mug could end up in the pool.
  2. NPR reports on a nifty move by Apple in its latest iOS update: The company has enabled its iBeacon service to track you without your knowledge. iBeacon is supposed to allow stores to track customers in their premises by keeping track of their iPhones. However, it previously worked only when customers were using the store’s marketing app. Now, apps can “deputize” iOS to continue tracking customers even when they shut down the marketing apps. Marketers are elated, privacy advocates are not:

    “Most users if you asked them would assume that if the app wasn’t on, it wasn’t being used,” [Gerritt] Cobarr says. He says finding out a closed app can still track the phone’s location “would surprise most people and perhaps unnerve them.”

    In short, once you launch a store app, it tracks continues to track you by default. Those defaults are powerful things!

  3. Fastcompany draws our attention to a Google Glass app called “Watch your privacy” that shows Glass users whether or not they are under surveillance. See the video below. Besides revealing other sources of surveillance, the app also reveals its users as sources of surveillance:

    When using the app, Glass users automatically upload their own GPS coordinates. This tags every other Watch Your Privacy user in your field of view, but tags you, as a fellow Google Glass/camera wearer, in the process.

    The watcher has become the watched, and vice versa!

Smile! You will look better on camera, plus it screws up face recognition software.

Efficient solar panels April 15, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

The Atlantic Cities has a nice, short piece on the development of organic photovoltaics for solar panels. As the name implies, organic photovoltaic (OPV) technology involves not silicon but organic semiconductors. This technology has a couple of advantages over the conventional kind.

First, OPVs can be printed onto surfaces with a special apparatus, like a coating. This feature could greatly increase the convenience and flexibility of installation.

Second, OPVs can harvest light that arrives from a variety of angles. Conventional solar cells work best when light arrives from directly overhead, and somewhat poorly otherwise. That is why conventional panels are sometimes mounted on motorized platforms, so that they can track the sun as it travels overhead.

By contrast, OPVs can generate electricity from diffuse light, e.g., light available on a cloudy day. This feature is obviously an advantage in cloudy locations, and might also reduce the need for motorized platforms.

One of the difficulties facing developers of OPVs is that they achieve low efficiency ratings. Efficiency ratings for solar panels are calculated for how much power the panel generates under ideal conditions, that is, when sunlight is coming from directly overhead. Conventional solar panels, which are optimized for this condition, get much better ratings than do OPVs. The rating belies the fact that, under the cloudy conditions for which they are designed, OPVs would perform significantly better.

The rating system thus makes OPVs look like worse performers than they are, which tends to deter investors and consumers. Researchers are developing a ratings system that would better characterize the performance of OPV technology.

Efficiency is often the ultimate goal of technological designers. That is, they desire to make their gear efficient, and much of what we call innovation is work meant to increase efficiency. However, as this example illustrates, what constitutes efficiency depends on context, that is, the overall aims or needs of a program of development. To put the matter another way, progress can be achieved through increases in efficiency, but only when the sort of efficiency at issue is appropriate or worthwhile on other grounds.

Police not fond of surveillance? April 11, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

Bruce Schneier points out this article in Ars Technica about the LAPD. The Los Angeles Police Commission is investigating a spate of recording antennas missing from police cruisers.


officer

(Shay Sowden/Wikimedia commons)

The antennas in question are part of a system that records audio feed of officers’ activities from microphones worn on their belts. Each microphone transmits a signal to a cruiser using an antenna mounted there. If the antenna is missing, then the function of the system is compromised.

In all likelihood, the antennas have gone missing because police have removed them. Perhaps that is because they do not like being under surveillance. One possible reason for this dislike is that the police have something to hide. As Schneier puts it:

Surveillance of power is one of the most important ways to ensure that power does not abuse its status. But, of course, power does not like to be watched.

Another possibility is that the police find constant surveillance stressful and enervating, as suggested by Neil Richards, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis:

… it shows that the police, just like all of us, react viscerally to being watched all the time. Pervasive surveillance of this sort makes us jittery and distracted; it’s stressful as we all need times and places—even during the work day—when we can be alone and be ourselves!”

Richards also notes that the officers may be afraid that their actions will be misconstrued by their superiors or by the public. Recordings, especially taken out of context, can paint innocent actions in an unfavourable light.

I am reminded of the resistance that many police departments put up when officials wanted police officers to deposit their DNA in forensic databases. Many departments balked, citing concerns over privacy and civil liberties. In spite of the oft-heard argument that if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear, I think that many police officers are afraid that the measure could result in false accusations. That is understandable: Since police officers regularly attend crime scenes, their DNA would likely be present there and thus get caught up in forensic investigation.

This is not to say that measures should not be taken to hold police accountable for their actions. Instead, those measures should be designed to be fair and to been seen as in the best interests of both the public and the police. That seems not to be the case with the LAPD right now.

Drone news network April 10, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

And now, the drone news. (Sounds better if read by Siri.)


drone

(Thomas Kretzer/Wikimedia commons)

According to The Guardian, the government of Alaska has banned hunting with drones. Apparently, aerial drones have already been used by hunters in the state to fly over the canopy to spot unwary moose:

The seven members of the Alaska Board of Game unanimously voted to ban hunters from using unmanned aircraft to spot prey. They fear that live camera feeds relayed to the ground will enable hunters to peer over trees and other obstacles and give them an even larger unfair advantage.

Unfair advantage? I have to agree with Stephen Colbert, who asked:

Since when is hunting about fairness? If it was fair, we would meet the moose in the middle of a field, flip a coin, and the winner gets the gun. So, lift this ban, Alaska, and allow Americans to fulfill the dream of every outdoorsman: bagging a majestic, 12-point buck from the comfort of his own toilet.

If only Sarah Palin were still in charge!

News of the ban on drone-assisted hunting comes close on the heels of the news that Deer Trail, Colorado, has decided against issuing licenses to citizens for shooting down drones in their civic airspace. The town considered the measure in order to show disapproval of the prospect that governments might employ drones to spy on citizens. Of course, the government does not need drones when it has access to your Facebook and Gmail accounts. In addition, the government, in the form of the FAA, expressed its disapproval of the idea:

Even if the ordinance had been approved, the Federal Aviation Administration has made it clear that the legality of drone hunting remains murky at best. “The FAA is responsible for all civil airspace, including that above cities and towns,” an FAA spokesperson told TIME in a statement. “The agency is working to ensure the safe integration of unmanned aircraft. A [drone] hit by gunfire could crash, causing damage to persons or property on the ground, or it could collide with other objects in the air. Shooting at an unmanned aircraft could result in criminal or civil liability, just as would firing at a manned airplane.”

As it turns out, however, drones do not require human assistance to crash. FastCompany reports on a number of drone crashes that have occurred recently. For example, one crashed into the head of a triathelete during a competition:

Raija Ogden, the triathlete participating in the Endure Batavia Triathlon in Western Australia, told Australian broadcasters ABC that she was struck by the drone, a remotely controlled small aircraft equipped with a video camera, when the operator lost control while filming the event. “Basically we should all just thank our lucky stars that there [were] no injuries to a child or nobody’s eye got taken out,” Ogden said.

In another case, a drone “plowed into spectators during a Virginia bull run”. In the latter case, the pilot said that the drone’s batteries simply ran out.

Who would be at fault in such a case? Interestingly, a lawyer suggests an analogy with keeping a wild animal:

Gerald C. Sterns, a California-based aviation and personal injury lawyer, says that common law offered the best precedents. “My analogy and best estimate would be a common law and a judge would find if you bang someone in the head, [such as with] a non-domesticated animal who caused damage to another,” Sterns said. “The owner claimed he wasn’t negligent, the animal got out. The judge said it didn’t matter. If you keep a wild animal you do so at your peril. A judge might view drones causing damage as no different than the non-domesticated animal causing damage.”

Here is my suggestion: Allow hunters to track and attack animals with aerial drones. Allow suspicious residents to shoot at drones. To be fair, however, allow the drones to return fire. They are autonomous, or so I have heard, and so deserve to look after themselves.

Health insurance and bad genes April 9, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed

The New York Times has a good item about a dilemma facing many Americans when it comes to genetic testing. On the one hand, there is much interest amongst people in having their DNA sequenced. As the price for this service drops, the possibility of gratifying this interest grows. On the other hand, some genetic information may have adverse consequences for people receiving such a service.

In particular, if a genetic test shows that a person has an elevated risk of some illness, e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, then that information could raise the person’s insurance rates, perhaps beyond their ability to pay. In the US, this problem applies especially to life, long-term-care and disability insurance, which are not protected by the Genetic Information Nondisclosure Act.

As a result of this dilemma, many Americans who suspect, perhaps for genealogical reasons, they are at risk of such diseases are unwilling to have the tests done, or to participate in genetic research programs which could reveal the same information.

The problem illustrates a trade-off in the structure of the insurance industry and the social goals that it serves. Insurance exists as a business in order to provide people access to medical treatments that they cannot afford. Instead, they pay affordable premiums to an insurer. In order to price the insurance appropriately, the insurer needs to know the risks that people face.

However, this knowledge presents challenges. First, it compromises the privacy that people ordinarily might enjoy regarding their health status. Second, it will price insurance out of reach of some people.

As a remedy, regulators often enforce privacy restrictions on insurers so that people susceptible to certain illnesses can pool their risk together. In that way, everyone in a pool can, in principle, be covered for a risk that none of them could afford to meet as individuals. The trick for regulators is to protect people’s privacy while, at the same time, allowing insurers enough information to stay in business.

The article points out how developments in technology continue to challenge any regulatory compromise. First, as already noted, the decreasing cost of DNA sequencing means that there is more genetic information available. What does it mean, and what should be treated as confidential?

Second, the advent of Electronic Health Records means that whatever information is in a person’s file can get around more easily. Should people have the right to screen parts of their records from insurers (or others)? How could such a right be supported?

In Canada, the Uniform Insurance Act does not protect genetic privacy. Insurance providers do not require genetic tests but do require disclosure of any tests undertaken by individuals, e.g., for genealogical or employment reasons. Failure to do so can result in nullification of insurance, even if a person falls ill or dies for an unrelated reason.

Of course, Canadians are covered under a health insurance scheme run by their provincial governments. However, the scheme does not cover life, long-term disability or critical care, so Canadians are in a situation similar to that of Americans.

Bill S-218, the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act died on the order paper at the end of the 41st session of Parliament in September 2013. It is not clear when the bill might be re-introduced.

Ontario bill 127, an “An Act to amend the Human Rights Code with respect to genetic characteristics” has passed its first reading in November 2013. With a possible spring election on the way, this bill too may well die on the order paper.

So, although a healthy debate on genetic privacy and insurance are due in Canada, we may not see legislation anytime soon. In the meantime, Canadians must deal with the same dilemma as Americans face with respect to insurance and their genetic privacy.

Is the microwave oven obsolete? April 8, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Quartz has a good article entitled “The slow death of the microwave”. The article explores reasons for the observation that microwave oven sales in the US have been declining since about 2004.


microwave oven

(Christian Rasmussen/Wikimedia commons)

Microwave ovens have been a phenomenal success. Presently, the article reports, about 90% of US households have one. Also, microwave oven design continues to improve, as the units become more efficient and last longer. These facts may help to explain the sales slump: Fewer people have a reason to replace their existing unit.

The article also points out that cooking trends may be working against the technology. Consumers are showing more preference for “fresh” foods, as opposed to “nuked” foods. This trend may explain why toaster oven sales continue to climb since toaster ovens cook rather than merely reheat, at least in the perception of many.

Also a factor may be the plateau of interest in microwave popcorn, the cuisine that helped to propel the microwave into the hearts of Americans:

Growth in sales of microwavable popcorn are also slowing, while sales of ready-to-eat popcorn are growing at an over 11% clip. Why microwave junk food when you can get it pre-popped? Americans are at once too patient and too lazy to use their microwaves these days.

Wow, that’s lazy!

On some accounts of obsolescence, a design becomes obsolete when another design of similar function but greater utility comes along. The article suggests that the toaster oven may be fulfilling this role. Yet, it is not clear that toaster ovens are technically superior to microwaves. Instead, they work in a way that is more compatible with growing trends in cuisine. If so, then the obsolescence (if that is the right term) of the microwave is a social phenomenon rather than a technical one.

Bro-culture in technology April 7, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed

The New York Times has a very interesting piece on some recent examples of “bro culture” and treatment of women in technology, especially the IT field. IT, along with other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, is well-known for it predominantly male composition. One manifestation of this dominance is the so-called bro culture, that is, a sort of puerile or even misogynist attitude that men in the field sometimes display.

I will not try to review the whole piece, but here is how it starts:

Elissa Shevinsky can pinpoint the moment when she felt that she no longer belonged.

She was at a friend’s house last Sept. 8, watching the live stream of the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon on her laptop and iPhone. Entrepreneurs were showing off their products, and two young Australian men, David Boulton and Jethro Batts, stood behind the podium to give their presentation. “Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits,” Mr. Boulton began, as photographs of women’s chests on a cellphone flashed on the screen behind him.

After some banter, Mr. Batts concluded, “This is the breast hack ever.”

It is astonishing to think that such a statement could be considered appropriate for a technology professional, all the more so in a public forum.

The fact that such notions are not out of the ordinary in technology workplaces or other gatherings certainly helps to explain the paucity of women in the sector. Beside the (false) stereotype that women are not good at technology, and the fact that institutions tend to steer women into other careers, such overt sexism has to be a deterrent. And a huge disappointment.

As Scott has pointed out, the paucity of women in STEM is an embarrassing problem, and one without a simple solution. However, the issue posed by bro culture is, in a way, straightforward:

“We see these stories, ‘Why aren’t there more women in computer science and engineering?’ and there’s all these complicated answers like, ‘School advisers don’t have them take math and physics,’ and it’s probably true,” said Lauren Weinstein, a man who has spent his four-decade career in tech working mostly with other men, and is currently a consultant for Google.

“But I think there’s probably a simpler reason,” he said, “which is these guys are just jerks, and women know it.”

So, just stop being a jerk. Is that an app for that?

Bicycle elevator April 4, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

The Atlantic Cities has an interesting notice about a “bicycle lift” in Trondheim, Norway. It might more accurately be called a “cyclist lift” because its purpose is to convey people and their bicycles up a steep hill. Behold!

CycloCable, makers of the device, are said to be interested in selling it to other cities. Notoriously hilly American cities, such as San Francisco and Pittsburgh, are on the list of potential customers.

The design seems like a simple and effective way of extending a bicycle network along routes that would otherwise discourage bicycle traffic. Some people may worry about how the metal plate will affect the soles of their right shoes, but I imagine that many cyclists at the bottom of a steep hill would be happy for the boost.

GM ignition switch recall April 3, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : Uncategorized , comments closed

General Motors CEO Mary Barra sat in front of a US Congressional Committee April 1st trying to explain why the company took so long to remedy a faulty ignition switch. In February, GM issued a recall of about 2.6 million vehicles, mostly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions, due to an ignition switch problem that could lead to engines turning off, thus disabling steering, air bags, and other systems.


cobalt

(Chevy Cobalt; courtesy of Ryanandlenny/Wikimedia commons)

It seems that the switches were not up to specifications. A spring within the switch could not generate enough force to keep the engine circuit closed, allowing the engine to cut out sometimes when the cars went over bumps, for example.

So far, 13 fatalities are blamed on the fault.

Documents provided to the committee suggest that the problem was known 10 years ago. Also, company engineers had proposed solutions to the problem in 2005. However, GM did not deem any of the solutions worthwhile:

Particularly damning was an internal GM memo dating from 2005, examining problems with the Cobalt ignition switches but opting against a recall.

“Tooling costs and piece price was too high and none of the solutions present a suitable business case,” the memo read in part.

The ignition switch is a $0.57 part.

This remark recalls to mind the notorious Ford Pinto case, in which Ford justified its decision not to re-engineer a dangerous gas tank design because it was not worthwhile on a cost-benefit basis.

Cost-benefit analysis is a great tool but must be used with its limitations in mind. One such limitation is the assumption that risk is to be distributed in a population impersonally, that is, without regard to who gets what share, or compared to whom. In the Ford Pinto case, and seemingly also in the GM ignition switch case, some drivers are being asked to bear a greater share of risk than other drivers in similar cars of other makes. That seems unfair, particularly where the difference in cost is a few cents per vehicle.

To put the matter in another way, drivers of the Cobalt might well wonder why they are taking a greater risk of injury or death than are drivers of comparable cars like Toyota Camrys or Honda Civics. Comparable cars should entail comparable risks.

Cities blocks and sustainability April 1, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV 201, STV202 , comments closed

FastCompany posted a commentary on a recent study of main-street block lengths in diverse modern cities. The study by Sergio Porta et al. (2014) of the University of Strathclyde takes a look at the average lengths of city blocks along main roads across a variety of city types. The upshot, put briefly, supports the observational rule that block lengths in traditional urban areas tend not to exceed 400 meters, whereas block lengths in modern, planned urban areas tend to be much longer.

A box plot of the results can be viewed here.

The study used Google Earth maps of various cities in order to identify main streets and estimate block lengths. This technique is one of those that you could try out at home!

The contrast between planned and not-planned urban areas is remarkable. The block lengths in cities designed under Garden City, Radiant City, and New Urbanism regimes are all around 800m to 1km. (Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood was included as an example of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City regime.) The authors note that such long blocks clearly reflect the influence of the automobile on urban planning, since such distances lend themselves much more to cars than to other forms of personal transportation.

The work suggests that urban planners who are serious about promoting forms of personal mobility other than personal cars may want to revisit this aspect of the scale of their designs. With an increasingly urbanized population, giving people an alternative to cars comprises an important aspect of sustainability.

Although the authors do not say so, getting planners to shorten the length of arterial blocks is likely to be a hard sell. Many planned urban areas are inhabited by middle class residents who like their cars and appreciate the calmness afforded by long, winding roads and cul-de-sacs. Selling them on busy, pedestrian-friendly city blocks may go somewhat against the grain.

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