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Privacy and emails November 19, 2012

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed

The General Petraeus affair has brought new attention to an established issue, that is, privacy of emails. Petraeus was brought low when the FBI accessed an anonymous Gmail account that Petraeus had used to conduct an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. As many commentators have pointed out, it seems odd or ironic that the head of the CIA resorted to a simple (and not very secure) ruse to conduct secret business.


(Rahuldeshmukh101/Wikimedia commons)

In any event, the ease with which the FBI obtained access to Petraeus’s emails underlines the lack of privacy that people with such accounts enjoy, according to critics:

The fact that police can get that information with a subpoena — just a letter, usually without approval of a judge — is deeply disturbing to civil libertarians like Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for privacy issues at the ACLU.

The position of the ACLU is that such information should require a warrant, just as if the police were intending to search your house. Needless to say, the police do not take the same view of the matter:

But Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, says Americans should understand how much more work that would create. “The difference is, an investigative subpoena is a one- or two-pager, and a search warrant is a book report,” Burns says.

All those extra warrants, he says, would make life “incredibly difficult” for police.

This issue of the security of someone’s email illustrates a common trade-off: Enjoying security means being able to conduct your affairs without enduring the scrutiny of the state. As then-Canadian-Minister-of-Justice (and later Prime Minister) Pierre Trudeau once said, “There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” However, privacy also means being able to hide misdeeds from the public, even when the public has a stake in the outcome. (What if Petraeus’s mistress had been a foreign agent?) The issue becomes one of how to balance these competing and legitimate interests in a way that is fair to all concerned.

Although I am sure that it would be small comfort to Petraeus, it is worth noting that his arch-adversaries have similar difficulties. According to ABC News, the Taliban has had problems keeping its email list secret:

In a Dilbert-esque faux pax, a Taliban spokesperson sent out a routine email last week with one notable difference.He publicly CC’d the names of everyone on his mailing list.

The names were disclosed in an email by Qari Yousuf Ahmedi, an official Taliban spokesperson, on Saturday. The email was a press release he received from the account of Zabihullah Mujahid, another Taliban spokesperson. Ahmedi then forwarded Mujahid’s email to the full Taliban mailing list, but rather than using the BCC function, or blind carbon copy which keeps email addresses private, Ahmedi made the addresses public.

The email list consists mostly of journalists, who would be the natural recipients of a press release. However, it also includes a number of Afghan legislators, academics, and activists, whose loyalties are now, no doubt, under review.

Stewart Brand once said that, “information wants to be free.” The tendency of information to escape confinement on the Internet is notorious, as these examples demonstrate. If you are determined to communicate in secret on the ‘net, then you should look at these hints from the New York Times. Good luck!

Open government August 4, 2011

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

Dan Tapscott praises BC’s DataBC program in which the BC government will make available to the public a variety of datasets for citizens to mash up.

B.C. is making close to 2,500 data sets available, such as birth rates, provincial obstacles to fish passage, old-growth management areas, carbon emissions statistics and information on schools. This information is searchable and available for anyone to use. The goal is to help citizens and businesses make informed decisions, conduct research, analyze statistics and develop applications.

I certainly agree that this idea is a good one and would like to see it adopted by other governments in the country. (BC also has a winning carbon tax. What are they doing right that the rest of the nation is not?)

Tapscott goes so far as to call this development an example of a new paradigm in government:

In the past, governments collected tax dollars from citizens. Government employees inside the boundaries of government created services that were delivered back to the citizens. This exchange of tax dollars for services will continue, but, courtesy of the Internet, there’s an expanded model of government whereby government acts as a platform.

This claim is a little over the top: The government has always been tasked as a “platform”, providing information and services to the public as a means of fostering public discourse and private enterprise. What is different is the scope of access to this information. In the past, obtaining such information meant reading through wordy bureaucratic reports or petitioning ministry offices. Having it readily accessible, and searchable, through your computer is new, as is the greater availability of computers and the ‘net itself.

As Tapscott says, we can expect many good and interesting results from this measure. As ever, though, greater accessibility and searchability is not an unmixed blessing.

As noted by Wired, open government can have its drawbacks. Consider the case of the website that collects and displays Florida mugshots. When you are arrested in Florida, your mugshot is almost immediately made publicly available on government websites in accordance with the State’s broad sunshine laws. Rob Wiggen has created a website that trawls this government info and posts people’s shots and rap sheets on the Web. Of course, his website,, is indexed by Google, meaning that anyone arrested in Florida will soon find their mugshot coming up at the top of any Google search of their name. Rather than suffer the embarrassment and possible negative employment repercussions of this situation, some people pay exorbitant amounts to third party sites to get their information removed. Sounds a lot like extortion.

So, total access to government data may not be an unalloyed good. In that case, we have to consider what data should perhaps be held back or aggregated, or when some personal embarrassment is a price we should be willing to pay for the greater good of society.

Government accountability and IT July 21, 2011

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed

Can the government be made more accountable by consolidation of it’s IT infrastructure? “Yes,” argues Deborah Moores of the Globe and Mail. One of the obstacles to obtaining government data (assuming there are legitimate grounds for distributing it) is the very fact that governments often have multiple computing platforms. Those platforms may be incompatible or simply poorly connected, so that it is difficult to assemble relevant information when needed. So, a plausible solution would be to impose a single computing setup within the government.

parliament Ottawa
(Image courtesy of Sub619 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Given the record of government IT projects, as revealed in several IEEE blogs, for example, this suggestion should be greeted with some scepticism. It is not that government computer installations should not be more efficient, it is that the complexity and cost of the task is so often underestimated.

Furthermore, efficient IT systems do not necessarily translate into greater transparency. The Chinese government has a pretty good system, which has not made it any more accountable. There is no deterministic relationship between IT and freedom of information, in spite of the early optimism among Internet developers that “information wants to be free“. Instead, transparency is a result of an administrative culture, the habits (and laws, of course) through which information is dispensed by those in office.

Instead, I would suggest that we seek a mandate from the government to be more transparent. Although the Harper government campaigned in the past on a platform of transparency, their record has been one of obscurantism and unaccountability, as Moore notes. If transparency is to be realized, let us aim for that goal directly, instead of hoping that it will follow as a side-benefit of an IT project.

Candid smartphone January 27, 2011

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

First, it was Candid Microphone, a radio show in which Allen Funt took a microphone into the world to record the funny things said by ordinary people. Then, there was Candid Camera, in which Funt did something similar with a TV camera. It was amusing for the audience to see and hear the odd or embarrassing things that their fellow-citizens said and did.

cellphone camera

(Image courtesy of Editor at Large via Wikimedia Commons.)

Today, as you know, we have YouTube, which allows anyone to upload videos of people doing noteworthy things. The latest such “viral” video involves a woman falling into a shopping mall fountain while texting. “It’s funny ’cause it’s not me”, as Homer Simpson once said.

This video was apparently captured by the security guards from a security camera in the mall. Nothing new there: Mall cops have been putting together tapes of amusing and naughty shoppers’ activities since CC cameras were introduced. Well, if your job were to watch parked cars all day, you would crave some stimulation too.

Of course, it’s different when the shoe is on the other foot. Mike Masnick of TechDirt has recently drawn our attention to people who use their smartphone cameras to film authorities (mis)handling their complaints. Here are a few recent examples:

Thanks Mike!

In each of these cases, the people filming video seem to have been well within their rights to do so. Furthermore, the transparency that ubiquitous filming brings with it can promote a social good, that is, it can pressure authorities to follow the rules instead of acting arbitrarily (in the end). Of course, recording people’s behavior, and making a show of doing so, also turns up the social “temperature”. That is, it may make people defensive or angry where they would not otherwise be so.

So, incidents like these raise an interesting question (among others): Are we prepared for the emotional consequences of radical transparency in public places? Will we simply adjust, as Mark Zuckerberg suggests, to the new world in which transparency, not privacy, is the default setting of our lives? Or are we simply ill-equipped to deal with a world in which anything we do may be subject to the review of numberless people whom we do not know and who do not know us?

The Panaudicon November 22, 2010

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

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham is well known for his suggested design for a prison, namely the Panopticon. The design called for a circular array of prison cells wrapped around a central watch tower. The cells would be arranged so that the prisoners could be seen at all times, both by the guards in the central tower, and by the other prisoners. The tower, however, would be equipped with one-way mirrors so that the guards could see the prisoners but not the other way around. The principle of the design was that the radical transparencies of the prisoners’ lives would enable the guards (or other prisoners) to see and deal appropriately with every transgression of the rules. The prisoners would learn the essentials of good behaviour and the futility of bad behaviour and so would be rehabilitated for their eventual return to society.


(Image courtesy of Majorly via Wikimedia Commons.)

The Panopticon calls for a trade-off: the total loss of privacy through ubiquitous surveillance in exchange for the prevention of wrongdoing. Although Bentham’s proposal has had some, limited influence on prison design, some commentators have worried that we are in the process of constructing a surveillance society, that is, a ubiquitous surveillance system for the entire public realm, fashioned from CCTV, cell phone cameras, airport scanners, aerial drones, and the like. In short, we may be in the process of setting up a Panopticon in which everyone in public are the prisoners, and all the prisoners are also the jailers. The question is: Is this trade-off a good one or a Faustian bargain?

Well, Bentham neglected one issue in his design, namely the role of sound. Transparency might enable prison guards to catch beatings or thefts but one-way mirrors might filter our other sorts of socially unacceptable behaviour such as uttering threats or singing copyrighted songs like “Happy birthday.” However, we need not pass over the matter in silence today, especially when there exists a ubiquitous array of sensitive microphones in available in public. Most cell phones have the ability to record conversions occurring over them, or can simply be used as audio recorders. Thus, it is a simple matter to record your conversations or ambient sounds and share them over the ‘net. At a more organized level, ShotSpotter system comprises a network of microphones that relays information to a central program employed by some police forces in order to sort out gunshots from other noises. If only such a system could be re-purposed to report suspicious sounds of all kinds to a central database.


(Image courtesy of Ousk via Wikimedia Commons.)

Done! A British company called Audio Analytic has developed software that can take sounds as input and pick out the ones that contain aggressive speech:

“A lot of incidents just can’t be picked up by video only systems,” said Chris Mitchell, Audio Analytic’s boss, on BBC World Service’s Digital Planet.

“For example in a hospital where somebody, or a nurse, is being threatened early hours in the morning – that’s a very difficult thing for CCTV guards who monitor hundreds of channels worth of video signals on 20 screens or so to pick up.”

“Our system picks out the most salient characteristics. These are things related to pitch, tone, intonation.”

Of course, not all aggressive vocalizations are actionable. The article mentions that, in testing, the software identified as aggressive a man who got mad at a coffee machine because it “ate” his money. Such instances are known as “false positives”, events that the system classifies as hits (here, unacceptable verbal aggression) that are actually misses (here, inoffensive or unactionable vocalizations). The false positive rate, Mitchell comments, is quite low with this system.

Of course, it would be easy for any system to have a low false positive rate in this situation: merely classify almost all sounds as inoffensive. If your system hardly ever classifies any sound as aggressive, it will not likely classify innocent sounds as aggressive.

What about false negatives, that is, sounds that are offensive but are judged innocent by the software? The article contains no comments on the matter, nor does any other article that I have come across. An important design issue for the software is to balance off the interests of people who are harmed by false positives, in this case, people who are deemed aggressive but are not (e.g., just repeating something they heard on YouTube) and the the interests of those people who are harmed by false negatives (e.g., nurses in a hospital whose patients become verbally abusive but are not identified as such). I would suggest that a public discussion of the abilities of software such as this one is in order, to ensure that such trade-offs are made appropriately.

Of course, this point brings us back to the Panopticon. By adding the ability to collect, aggregate, and analyze sounds occurring in public, we now have the ability to achieve total auditory transparency. Let’s call it the “Panaudicon”! As in a hospital or prison setting, this ability brings with it the problem of dealing with the errors such a system will inevitably make, both false positive and false negative. Balancing the frequency of these errors will be a test of our sense of fairness in the public deployment of technology.

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