mfioretti: privacy* + big data*

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  1. Since Islam instructs followers to pray 5x daily at specific times, I wondered if one could identify devout Muslim hacks solely from their trip data. For drivers that do pray regularly, there are surely difficulties finding a place to park, wash up and pray at the exact time, but in many cases banding near prayer times is quite clear. I plotted a few examples.
    Each image shows fares for one cabbie in 2013. Yellow=active fare (carrying passengers). A minute is 1 pixel wide; a day is 2 pixels tall. Blue stripes indicate the 5 daily prayer start times which vary with the sun’s position throughout the year.
    Tags: , , , , by M. Fioretti (2017-10-17)
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  2. Speaking as a statistician, it is quite easy to identify people in anonymous datasets. There are only so many 5'4" jews living in San Francisco with chronic back pain. Every bit of information we reveal about ourselves will be one more disease that we can track, and another life saved.

    If I want to know whether I will suffer a heart attack, I will have to release my data for public research. In the end, privacy will be an early death sentence.

    Already, health insurers are beginning to offer discounts for people who wear health trackers and let others analyze their personal movements. Many, if not most, consumers in the next generation will choose cash and a longer life in exchange for publicizing their most intimate details.

    What can we tell with basic health information, such as calories burned throughout the day? Pretty much everything.

    With a rudimentary step and calorie counter, I was able to distinguish whether I was having sex or at the gym, since the minute-by-minute calorie burn profile of sex is quite distinct (the image below from my health tracker shows lots of energy expended at the beginning and end, with few steps taken. Few activities besides sex have this distinct shape)
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  3. I have no illusions about what Facebook has figured out about me from my activity, pictures, likes, and posts. Friends have speculated about how algorithms might effectively predict hook-ups or dating patterns based on bursts of "Facebook stalking" activity (you know you are guilty of clicking through hundreds of tagged pictures of your latest crush). David Kilpatrick uncovered that Facebook "could determine with about 33 percent accuracy who a user was going to be in a relationship with a week from now." And based on extensive networks of gay friends, MIT's Gaydar claims to be able to out those who refrain from listing their sexual orientation on the network. When I first turned on Timeline, I discovered Facebook had correctly singled out that becoming friends with Nick was a significant event of 2007 (that's when we met and first started dating, and appropriately enough, part of why he joined Facebook).

    Since our engagement, there have been enough mentions of "engagement" and "wedding" in mine and my friends' comments littered throughout my profile to suggest to Facebook's keyword crawlers to deduce that we've got something big planned. The fact that he's tagged in my cover photo, we have numerous albums taken in remote locations where we're the only two people tagged, and that we both currently live in Chongqing, China, all should make it obvious to Facebook's relationship-weighing algorithms that we're pretty important to each other.

    friends 2007.png

    So shouldn't it also be obvious to Facebook that I "know him well" and he's "one of my best friends?" We wouldn't be tagged in so many pictures together (70) if it weren't true. And could there be any chance at all that "I don't know him" given these data points? Though Facebook isn't outright asking me if we're in a relationship, it sure sounds like that's what they are getting at. Moreover, why hasn't Facebook asked me the same question about someone like Jen Hudon? I share more mutual friends (121) and am tagged in almost as many photos (67) with Jen as I am with Nick, and her wall posts feature prominently in my Timeline. (Facebook might interpret these data points and suggest I choose her as one of my bridesmaids, which I have done). No, Facebook has us figured out: we went to High School together and she's "one of my best friends."

    Watson Hudon.png

    So why does Facebook care to know more about the nature of my relationship to Nick? The short answer is that Facebook wants to know as much as it can about my relationships, even though Facebook's current policy is not use information from user questions like this one for advertising.

    My response to the relationship question would act as an important input into the algorithms deciding what shows up in my feed. If I said Nick is "one of my best friends," Facebook might weight his posts more heavily than they already do. For example, my feed has recently been inundated with more posts about my cousins' wife's pregnancy now that I've confirmed him as a family member (though I hide it on my profile for security reasons).

    But what happens if I don't want these relationships to alter my feed? This is a "Filter Bubble" problem, where Facebook's personalization algorithm is opaque to us as users. I don't know what I'm missing, but I can tell that I'm seeing more of certain people as a result of declaring a certain kind of relationship to them. But there's no master switch board for us to tweak the dials on our social filters; if I'm seeing too many of a certain friend's posts, I have only the binary choice of turning them on or off, and I have to alter that detail on a person by person basis. Any other input into the algorithm requires a fair amount of proactive and clever gaming of the system (like declining family member requests to avoid filtration). And who wants to explain to Aunt Joan that's why you can't confirm she's your aunt?

    And if I did change my relationship status to engaged -- not just answer the question Facebook posed to me -- the company could then target ads based on that information. We've seen how pregnancies are a pivotal marketing opportunity for companies like Target. Marriage is another big life event where habits, loyalties, and purchasing behaviors change. And then there's the brief but highly lucrative wedding planning and purchasing period itself; it's a critical and fleeting moment that marketers are eager to pin down. It comes as no surprise that Facebook and its advertisers would want to know what stage of life I'm in right at this moment. They want to know if they could be making more money showing me engagement ring, registry, or mortgage advertisements. For the most part, that targeting is harmless, but it's gold to Facebook and advertisers to know that I've shifted demographic categories. I imagine that my literal value in terms of price per click might even go up as I enter into the "engaged" category.


    And even though the pairing of the carefully phrased question and advertising were coincidental, it's as if Facebook is saying, "I know you guys have been together for a while now, shouldn't you be thinking about getting engaged soon?" Hint hint, nudge nudge. And then it comes off as a sassy girlfriend shouting over martinis, "Girl, when's he gonna put a ring on it?" So Facebook isn't outright asking me if I'm engaged. But I find myself reading for subtext as I would an aunt's pointed but tactfully indirect question.
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  4. While Bethany Howell napped on the couch last week, her daughter Ashlynd, 6 years old, used her mother’s thumb to unlock her phone and open the Amazon app. “$250 later, she has shopped for all her Christmas presents on Amazon,” said Ms. Howell, of Little Rock, Ark.

    After Ashlynd’s parents received 13 order confirmations for Pokémon items, they initially thought they’d been hacked, then they figured Ashlynd had bought them unintentionally. “No, Mommy, I was shopping,” Ms. Howell said her daughter told her. “But don’t worry—everything that I ordered is coming straight to the house.” Ms. Howell added: ”She is really proud of herself."

    The Howells could return only four of the items. So Ms. Howell came up with a solution and told Ashlynd, “Well, Santa found out and that is what Santa is going to bring you for Christmas.”

    Zeke Tischler, a 30-year-old social-media professional from Northridge, Calif., had the same sort of gift problem outside of the Christmas season. Ads for engagement rings began popping up in his Facebook news feed after he searched for rings online last year.

    One evening, as his girlfriend was looking over his shoulder, an ad for opal engagement rings—her favorite gemstone—popped up on his Facebook news feed. Mr. Tischler said he tried to pass it off as a glitch.

    Several weeks later, however, when he got down on one knee and presented the opal engagement ring, his girlfriend presented her own ring for him. Online ads ”ruined one of the largest surprises in my life,” Mr. Tischler said. His fiancée, he added, “thinks it’s pretty hilarious.”
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    A crush of package deliveries undid Brenna Jennings. Her United Parcel Service Inc. driver showed up so often to her New Hampshire home that her 8-year-old daughter started pondering the imponderable. Ms. Jennings shut it down with an explanation: Amazon and UPS are Santa’s helpers.
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  5. FREQUENT visitors to the Hustler Club, a gentlemen’s entertainment venue in New York, could not have known that they would become part of a debate about anonymity in the era of “big data”. But when, for sport, a data scientist called Anthony Tockar mined a database of taxi-ride details to see what fell out of it, it became clear that, even though the data concerned included no direct identification of the customer, there were some intriguingly clustered drop-off points at private addresses for journeys that began at the club. Stir voter-registration records into the mix to identify who lives at those addresses (which Mr Tockar did not do) and you might end up creating some rather unhappy marriages.

    The anonymisation of a data record typically means the removal from it of personally identifiable information. Names, obviously. But also phone numbers, addresses and various intimate details like dates of birth. Such a record is then deemed safe for release to researchers, and even to the public, to make of it what they will. Many people volunteer information, for example to medical trials, on the understanding that this will happen.

    But the ability to compare databases threatens to make a mockery of such protections.
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  6. Quit fracking our lives to extract data that’s none of your business and that your machines misinterpret. — New Clues, #58

    That’s the blunt advice David Weinberger and I give to marketers who still make it hard to talk, sixteen years after many of them started failing to get what we meant by Markets are Conversations.

    In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

    Even if our own intelligence is not yet artificialized, what’s feeding it surely is.

    In The Filter Bubble, after explaining Google’s and Facebook’s very different approaches to personalized “experience” filtration, and the assumptions behind both, Eli Pariser says both companies approximations are based on “a bad theory of you,” and come up with “pretty poor representations of who we are, in part because there is no one set of data that describes who we are.” He says the ideal of perfect personalization dumps us into what animators, puppetry and robotics engineers call the uncanny valley: a “place where something is lifelike but not convincingly alive, and it gives people the creeps.”

    Sanity requires that we line up many different personalities behind a single first person pronoun: I, me, mine. And also behind multiple identifiers. In my own case, I am Doc to most of those who know me, David to various government agencies (and most of the entities that bill me for stuff), Dave to many (but not all) family members, @dsearls to Twitter, and no name at all to the rest of the world, wherein I remain, like most of us, anonymous (literally, nameless), because that too is a civic grace. (And if you doubt that, ask any person who has lost their anonymity through the Faustian bargain called celebrity.)

    Third, advertising needs to return to what it does best: straightforward brand messaging that is targeted at populations, and doesn’t get personal. For help with that, start reading
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  7. Aadhaar reflects and reproduces power imbalances and inequalities. Information asymmetries result in the data subject becoming a data object, to be manipulated, misrepresented and policed at will.

    Snowden: “Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

    Snowden’s demolition of the argument doesn’t mean our work here is done. There are many other tropes that my (now renamed) Society for the Rejection of Culturally Relativist Excuses could tackle. Those that insist Indians are not private. That privacy is a western liberal construct that has no place whatsoever in Indian culture. That acknowledging privacy interests will stall development. This makes it particularly hard to advance claims of privacy, autonomy and liberty in the context of large e-governance and identity projects like Aadhaar: they earn one the labels of elitist, anti-progress, Luddite, paranoid and, my personal favourite, privacy fascist.
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  8. So, in essence, we have given the designers of time and thought saving applications a grave responsibility. We have implicitly allowed them to choose for us what presumably will be in our best interests. I, for one, find the natural progression of that prospect extremely scary and amazingly it is all self-imposed!

    Google, Amazon and Facebook do this all the time by mining our data, targeting us with custom advertising and even creating profiles that in practice could rival ones that our intelligence agencies keep on criminals and terrorists.

    And here is the thing: We all are complicit in allowing this to happen. So next time when you turn on your GPS or phone, which by the way pin-points to within twenty feet of where you are at any time of the day or night, remember the power you are ceding to that vast network in the sky. Do the powers that operate that network really have our best interests in mind or will they one day decide to direct us all to drive off the proverbial cliff? I, for one, will be dusting off my old Rand McNally road maps
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  9. Instagram can use your camera and microphone to record audio and take pictures and video, without asking you first. Gmail can read and modify your phone contacts. Viber has your precise GPS location at all times. Facebook can read all your text messages.

    “These are permissions that the apps require you to grant them before they are installed,” says Vladan Joler, the data wrangler behind the visualisation and director of the Serbian non-profit SHARE Foundation, which campaigns for internet freedoms. “The purpose of this visual is to show, in a clear way, what smartphone users agree to when they click 'yes' on terms and conditions.”
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  10. Without adequate legislation and industry focus to preserve privacy and maintain the security and safety of the individual and the public generally, large-scale introduction of these vehicles could have severe implications. If these challenges can be resolved, however, the mainstream introduction of these vehicles could save hundreds of thousands of lives each year, while having countless other environmental and economic benefits.
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