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Posts Tagged ‘privacy’


Google And Microsoft Have Made A Pact To Protect Surveillance Capitalism

May 11, 2016

Two bitter rivals have agreed to drop mutual antitrust cases across the globe. Why? To fend off the greater regulatory threat of democratic oversight. Microsoft and Google, two of the world’s greatest monopolies, have been bitter rivals for nearly 20 years. But suddenly, in late April, they announced a startling accord. The companies have withdrawn all regulatory complaints against one another, globally. Rather than fighting their battles in public courts and commissions, they have agreed to privately negotiate.
This is a gentleman’s agreement. The specifics are secret, but the message on both sides is that the deal reflects a change in management philosophy. Microsoft’s new chief, Satya Nadella, is eager to push the vision of a dynamic, collaborative Microsoft, partnering with everyone from Apple to Salesforce.
The most dramatic of these partners is Google, a company that has long been considered Microsoft’s great arch-rival.
The wind started to change in September, just after Sundar Pichai became Google’s chief executive, when the two companies agreed to stop feuding over patents – a first step toward the current agreement. The common corporate line is that the companies want to compete on products, not court cases.
But this public relations gambit masks two far more interesting tales. One is about Microsoft and its desperate chase for relevance. The other is about Google, money and power. Both are part of a broader, deeply worrying narrative – a story about how tech companies are busy redrawing the lines around our lives, and facing little resistance in doing so.
Nobody ever wants to start a legal fight. Fractious, painful and wasteful, they divert huge resources, often for little productive gain. But this in itself fails to explain Microsoft’s decision to drop pending regulatory complaints against Google in Europe, Brazil and Argentina, as well as to cease funding and participating in lobby groups that it has backed for eight years, such as FairSearch.org and ICOMP, the Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace. So what does explain it?
It could be seen as a pragmatic move. Microsoft’s profits still exceed Google’s, but the ratio has been in decline for a decade. Meanwhile, since 2012, Apple has outstripped both companies combined (even if recent figures suggest this momentum might be slowing). A suite of regulatory enquiries into Google’s alleged abuses of its monopoly will continue even in Microsoft’s absence – both in places where Microsoft has filed complaints (Europe, Brazil, Argentina) and in others where it hasn’t, such as India.
With Microsoft’s withdrawal, it is clear that the remaining complainants in these fights – generally small, niche internet businesses – are legitimate critics in their own right. But then again, it takes serious coordination and resources to sustain and succeed in antitrust fights. Winning, especially in a broad and generally impactful manner, is a much taller order without a deep-pocketed supporter such as Microsoft.
But there’s another possible, rather more cunning, motive. Microsoft today is facing a very different business ecosystem to the one it dominated in the 1990s. It needs to adapt. And it appears to want to do so by positioning itself at the heart of what Satya Nadella describes as “systems of intelligence”.
Explaining this concept at Hannover Messe 2016, Nadella defined systems of intelligence as cloud-enabled digital feedback loops. They rely on the continuous flow of data from people, places and things, connected to a web of activity. And they promise unprecedented power to reason, predict and gain insight.
This is unbridled Big Data utopianism. And it is a vision that brings Microsoft squarely into Google territory. So maybe Microsoft is pulling out of regulatory battles because it doesn’t want to shoot itself in the foot. For emeritus Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, this gets to the core of the Google-Microsoft deal.
Zuboff is a leading critic of what she calls “surveillance capitalism”, the monetization of free behavioral data acquired through surveillance and sold on to entities with an interest in your future behavior. As she explained to the Guardian: “Google discovered surveillance capitalism. Microsoft has been late to this game, but it has now waded in. Viewed in this way, its agreement with Google is predictable and rational.”
And here the most sinister upshot of Microsoft’s decision to stop needling Google with legal disputes becomes clear. “A key theme I write about is that surveillance capitalism has thrived in lawless space,” says Zuboff. “Regulations and laws are its enemy. Democratic oversight is a threat. Lawlessness is so vital to the surveillance capitalism project,” she continues, “that Google and Microsoft’s shared interest in freedom from regulation outweighs any narrower competitive interests they might have or once thought they had. They can’t insist to the public that they must remain unregulated, while trying to impose regulations on one another.”
What does all this mean for the cases pending against Google? For Maurice Stucke and Allen Grunes, American antitrust experts and co-authors of a comprehensive new book examining the deep and reaching implications of platform and data monopolies, Zuboff’s warning of a lawless alliance among tech giants such as Microsoft and Google only accentuates the demand for rigorous, intellectually led regulatory action. And when it comes to Google, the case for action is in their view clear.
“The one thing that any antitrust regime absolutely has to do, if it is to be effective, is to stand up to the most powerful companies of the time,” explains Grunes. “Take that away and antitrust ceases to be meaningful.
“The antitrust authorities in the US and EU did that in the case of Microsoft. It required brains, resources and relentless pursuit and commitment.”
Yet only the Europeans, he argues, seem to have the intellectual leadership to be doing it in the case of Google. “The failure of the FTC to take meaningful action against Google is without question one of the great failures of all time.”
Microsoft and Google’s new deal to stop fighting each other is an interesting, strategic corporate move. But it is a move accompanied by a much stronger, deeper play: to collect and capitalize data – including data about us, our behaviors, and our interactions. The challenge for regulators and citizens is complex but essential – and has only just begun.

By Julia Powels


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February 8, 2016

By AppleInsider Staff
Monday, February 08, 2016, 07:22 am PT (10:22 am ET)

When it comes to the privacy and security of user data, the Apple Watch and its accompanying software ecosystem are the most well-designed products in the wearable marketplace, a new study shows.
Bluetooth privacy protections — or lack thereof — were central the study’s findings. Of the eight devices tested, Apple’s wearable was the only one which regularly altered the MAC address broadcast by its Bluetooth radio.

Randomization of the MAC address on Bluetooth Low Energy products is accomplished by a BLE feature known as “LE Privacy.” This is important, because unpaired Bluetooth products are designed to send “advertising” packets at regular intervals for discovery — that’s how your iPhone knows that there’s a nearby Apple Watch available for pairing.

Without this feature, researchers at Canadian privacy non-profit Open Effect and the University of Toronto note that it’s relatively trivial to track the movements of individual users when their fitness bands are not actively paired with a device.
Fitbit blamed the “fragmented Android ecosystem” for the lack of LE Privacy support.
Contacted by the researchers about the fault, Fitbit noted that compatibility issues within the “fragmented Android ecosystem” prevent them from adding LE Privacy, despite hardware support in their products. Through corporate parent Intel, Basis noted that using the Peak while not paired to a smartphone was an edge case and did not commit to a fix.

None of the other companies in the test — Garmin, Jawbone, Mio, Withings, or Xiaomi — came back with “notable responses.”

In addition to the Bluetooth issues, several companion software packages were found to be insecure. The researchers were variously able to intercept and read fitness data or write false data to disk.

The Garmin Connect app does not use HTTPs for connections, allowing a man-in-the-middle attack to read and write data. A similar attack was possible against Withings’s Health Mate app on Android, while Jawbone’s Up could allow users to send arbitrary fitness data to the cloud, an issue with potentially severe consequences:

“These findings concerning fitness tracker data integrity could call into question several real-world uses of fitness data,” the researchers wrote. “Fitness tracking data has been introduced as evidence in court cases…meaning that at least some attorneys are relying upon generated fitness data as a possibly objective indicator of a person’s activities at a given point in time. For Jawbone and Withings we created fraudulent fitness data which indicated that a passive measuring device, the fitness device, recorded a person taking steps at a specific time when no such steps occurred.”

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It’s Data Privacy Day. Do you know where your data is?

January 28, 2016

You already know companies track your behavior in Web browsers and mobile apps, and soon they’ll monitor you through your smart refrigerator and fitness band.

Yep, you’re a walking, talking data source.

Despite the nagging sense that your information is constantly collected, few people know exactly what gets scooped up or what happens to it.

Harvard’s Data Privacy Lab and software maker ForgeRock are among the groups and companies hoping to change that. Today, on Data Privacy Day, which is devoted to your right to control your data, they seek to point a way out of a seemingly sinister forest.

Could there be a sunny spot where we’re not forced to choose between sacrificing our info or going without a desirable service? Yes, but apparently it will take a lot of effort to get there.

Data Privacy Lab director Latanya Sweeney said that right now the average person has no idea just how much personal data is bought and sold. That particularly applies to health care data, which gets anonymized — supposedly — and sold to a network that remains obscure.

“The purpose is kind of mysterious,” said Sweeney, who is a former chief technology officer for the Federal Trade Commission.

Sweeney and her research team want to reveal who is sharing your info. Their project, “All the Places Personal Data Goes,” aims to illustrate the path your personal info takes from one place to another. On Tuesday, the Knight Foundation awarded the project $440,000 to expand its efforts.

This means Sweeney’s group will continue using public-records requests and other methods to gather information on data buyers and sellers and make it available to journalists and others. The project will also soon host a data-visualization competition to bring the issue to life.

The Data Privacy Lab has already proved that some “anonymous” health care data can actually be pieced together to identify patients. In 2013, the lab published an unsettling discovery, which drew on hospital discharge records collected by Washington state that detailed everything from a patient’s age and gender to diagnoses and treatments.

Sweeney’s team then found news stories about car accidents and other emergencies and used them to put names to the records. After the team released its findings, Washington state changed its anonymization process.

That’s the effect Sweeney hopes to have on a larger scale: shine a light on data and promote changes to protect privacy. Though the project started with health care, it has since expanded to cover data from mobile phones.

“What we really want to be able to do is cover the full waterfront,” Sweeney said.

Power to the people

Eve Maler, ForgeRock’s vice president of innovation and emerging technology, said companies can decide to take the lead and actually help customers decide how their information gets shared.

In the 1990s, Maler co-invented XML, a popular coding system that lets software and online services exchange data automatically. Now she’s pushing another system, one that lets Internet users control their personal data.

Called User-Managed Access (UMA), the protocol forms a backbone that programmers can build on to give us more choice when we use services. After helping develop the protocol, Maler joined ForgeRock to create a UMA-based product that companies can use in everyday services.

On Wednesday, San Francisco-based ForgeRock launched that product, Identity Platform. Philips, for one, is using it in health care products to help patients share health data with doctors and others on a limited and revocable basis.

ForgeRock has also worked with New Zealand’s government to test a system that lets citizens safely choose to share with caregivers digitized records that help them obtain benefits.

The most important part of ForgeRock’s system, Maler said, is the ability to opt in to, rather than out of, sharing data. If you want to send workout information from your smartwatch, for example, you should be able to hit a button that says “share,” rather than wonder to whom your watch is relaying your health stats.

Other companies are also looking at using the UMA protocol to create tools for letting people decide what and when to share.

Of course, companies will continue mining and selling our personal data. Market researcher IDC predicts the Big Data industry, which collects all kinds of info including yours, will be worth $48.6 billion by 2019. But Maler said some companies actually want to give customers choice. There is some evidence to support this. Google, for instance, has introduced more-customizable privacy options for apps on phones that run its widespread Android operating system.

A sunny land where people control their own data? Sweeney, Maler and others have made that their cause. Too often, people must either accept that devices, services and apps are collecting data or just not use them.

“They’re over a barrel,” Maler said, “and that’s not right.

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State Lawmakers Create Coalition To Overhaul Digital Privacy Laws

January 21, 2016

State lawmakers and the District of Columbia have put together a group of bills pushing for legislation to protect our digital privacy. The coalition of 16 states and D.C. say surveillance technology and a lack of regulation has given Big Brother too much power when it comes to monitoring online information.

“A bipartisan consensus on privacy rights is emerging, and now the states are taking collective action where Congress has been largely asleep at the switch,” ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero wrote in a blog post about the move to truncate monitoring of online activity. “This movement is about seizing control over our lives. Everyone should be empowered to decide who has access to their personal information.”

It should come as no surprise that privacy advocates such as Edward Snowden are also in favor of an overhaul to digital privacy laws.

The majority of Americans are in favor of a change to laws allowing law enforcement to obtain online communications such as emails and images hosted in the cloud. However, the Email Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), passed in 1986, says the government can use digital materials older than 180 days. Now many lawmakers say times have changed and we need reform that reflects the current digital era.
Each newly introduced bill varies by state. Six states want to limit information gathered about students; three states want to limit “stingrays” or devices imitating cell towers and tracking a user’s location; and eight states would like to keep social media information out of the hands of hiring managers.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which coordinated the bipartisan initiative, outlined the most pressing concerns:

Personal data privacy
Cell phone location tracking
License plate readers
Employee data tracking
Various forms of student data tracking such as cell phones, laptops, and school-owned devices, as well as social media activities
The participating states include Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, and D.C. Any change in the law in these states would affect 100 million Americans.

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Parents say middle school’s anti-bullying program violated kids’ privacy

January 20, 2016

Parents of students at a Pittsburgh-area middle school were considering legal action over an anti-bullying program they say crossed the line, local news stations reported Tuesday.
During the Jan. 15 workshop, kids at West Allegheny Middle School reportedly were “grouped” based on how they answered questions about their personal lives. They were asked to identify whether they faced learning disabilities, if other people had called them “fat,” or if relatives had spent time in prison, among other questions, according to KDKA.

School board president Debbie Mirich responded, “We do stand behind the intentions of our workshop and we look forward [to] continuing our work with parents to address this very serious issue of bullying and the unintentional acts that continue to marginalize different groups of students.”

She added that the school board was not involved in running the program, but that students were never forced to answer questions.

Still, some parents argued that the workshop may have made bullying easier. “I would never expect a middle school to ask 13-year-old kids if your parents have ever been in jail, if they’re same sex, if they’re having financial issues,” Marie-Noelle Briggs told WPXI.

Parents said they were considering a class-action lawsuit but did not elaborate, KDKA adds.

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