WWW: Wild Wild West
Benjamin Franklin 1755
The above quote is often used but less often understood as for such a simple statement a lot is said by the words that is directly relevant to the world in 2014. A prevalent assumption exists that the world is changing and that this change is faster than at any previous point in history. For the purpose of this blog entry no challenge will be presented to the above assumption other than to highlight that the introduction of the telegram provided a significant technological leap in information communication and the industrial revolution in general involved significant transformation to the understanding of how tasks were undertaken in the world. We haven't even touched on some of the specific technological advancements, such as the crossbow, machine gun, dreadnought or airplane. But as we are told the world is changing at a fast pace and its unprecedented. It seems as though the motivation for such statements is to condition us, as citizens, to accept that change is going on and that we have to adapt and change with the times and as this is all happening so quickly don't be surprised if there are a few teething problems along the way.
The significant problem that arises is the knowledge and understanding of the significant majority of the populous (I would guesstimated 99.9% of the global population) is insufficient to comprehend how these changes will affect their traditional understanding of their own lives and right to privacy. The situation is further compounded as without this knowledge then the ability to provide oversight is minimal.
Consider the two following big questions for information security:
- Where does jurisdiction lie in the internet? Is it with where a company decides to have its HQ, where it does the bulk of its business, anywhere it conducts business, where its servers are stored or as the United States would like, with the United States?
(See the recent article from Independent on the Google case in the UK High Court for more information.)
- Is the internet neutral and should we strive towards Net Neutrality? You search for some information, Google (most probably) decides via an algorithm what answers it will display for you. Therefore, you don't actually get a response to your search query but rather a Google approves response to your search query. Consider the offline parallel you go into the library and ask the librarian what information they have on 'subject X'. The librarian has political leanings or maybe some pressure to promote a publishers books as they help fund the library so the results and information provided to you are not a true reflection of the information available but rather what is institutionally acceptable to the provider. Does it actually matter if the internet is not neutral?
(Forbes recently had a good review of both of the above situations utilising Verizon v. FCC as a case study, which is worthy of further reading.)
At present even if an individual is sufficiently aware and motivated to attempt to provide oversight then they have no guarantee of receiving a response that is devoid of influence or that a ready made excuse for inaction is not present in terms of its not our jurisdiction argument.
Now that your brains are ticking over with some of the potential problems consider the following two scenarios and how you would approach them.
1) You live in Dundee and are considering your position on Scottish Independence. How would you go about forming your opinion?
2) You live in Dundee and are considering your position on how Google collects and uses data. How would you go about forming your opinion?
Is it possible that if you utilised an internet search engine to provide your with information that you thought was relevant then the results could be skewed in a certain direction?
For example, Google has decided that an independent Scotland would enable it to establish an operations centre which would have significant tax advantages. Would the search algorithm be tweaked to provide pro independence results more favourably than unionist ones? Such levels of control happen in large parts of the world, in fact it could be argued that the Western 'free use model' is in the minority.
China is a long standing friend of controlling what its populous can or can't view on the internet. Iran, Libya, Syria and others have restricted access to the internet and specific sites in recent years. Is that far fetched to believe that private companies, with responsibilities to shareholders and profit margins, do not have the potential to act in a similar self-interested manner?
Google has been used as a euphemism for the majority of this article as it is the significant player in data collection. It also uses the information it collects via Google Now by taking the data garnished from your search history and suggesting nearby options based on your searches, much like the way cookies are used to help provide targeted advertising, such as Facebook starts displaying trainer advertisements just after you search for a new pair of trainers.
During this process information that is personal to the individual is taken and used by a corporation for their benefit (sales or advertising revenue). Does this differ from a traditional shopping environment? Well only the most attentive salesperson, or perhaps one working solely on commission as opposed to a minimum wage zombie, is likely to attempt to try and lead you away from one particular selection to another brand that the store is trying to push at the moment. Actual when you think about it like this how much of the advice and feedback we receive offline could actually be considered neutral? Therefore, are we making unfair demands of the online world for neutrality, or is it that the populous at the whole is yet to make the conceptual leap that the information being provided is done so at a cost. The cost being the impartiality of the advice and the questionable targeted advertising (a modern equivalent to subliminal?) techniques being employed. Furthermore, are we as citizens happy with this level of our personal data usage, or would we like more or less?
Consider a further example, Google graduates from scanning your search history for potentially profitable information about yourself and begins to mine the contents of your 'private communications' (chat or message/email). Is this any different to utilising your search history, your information and your data for profit? People object more to the later but is it really any different to the former? Or are our expectations of privacy too high? A recent article in The Guardian examines the issue in depth and is well worth a look.
The world is changing. As a citizen it is our responsibility to ensure that the future of our liberty is safeguarded and that we do not sleepwalk into an oppressed world. The quest for control is inherent in the state system and countries are increasingly restricting the freedom of the internet. It is imperative that we do not give up liberty as the quest for increased security on the internet gains further traction in the coming decade.