Internet disease tracking using interactive maps or mash-ups seems to be be one of the more constructive uses of the surveillance potential that comes with the combination of easy-to-use digital mapping and online communications. Both Computer World and The Guardian tech blog reported a few days back how Google, following on from its use to track previous flu epidemics, is experimenting with tracking swine flue cases in Mexico.
However other web-crawler-based systems also exist for tracking the spread of disease (or indeed potentially almost anything) as The Guardian reported on Wednesday. Leading the way is HealthMap, which comes complete with Twitter feeds and suchlike.
As the latter report makes it clear however, this is not all just good news; there are many problems with the use of web-crawlers in providing ‘reliable’ data not least because the signal to noise ratio on the Internet is so high. The other problem is that although the might appear current or even ‘predictive’ by virtue of their speed and interactivity, they are of course actually always already in the past, as they are compilations of reports many of which may already be dated before they are uploaded to the ‘net. Better real-time reporting from individuals may be possible with mobile reports, but these could lack the filter of expert medical knowledge and may lead to the further degredation in the reliability of the data. Can you have both more reliability and speed / predictability with systems like this? That’s the big question…
(Thanks to Seda Gurses for pointing out the CW article to me!)
It is hard to say anything about Facebook that hasn’t been said elsewhere. Of course, the decision to reverse its attempt to change its terms, which would have made it nigh on impossible for members to remove material they had posted, is a good one. Effectively what it would have done is made Facebook the owner of all personal data posted on the site.
The campaign against it was of course organised through Facebook groups! That in itself should have been enough to persuade Facebook’s young owners of the power and passion generated by the system they had created. But I don’t think they really do understand it, or indeed very much about the implications of what they are doing at all. I mentioned their youth. Last time Facebook got into trouble, it was because of comments made by their ‘Marketing Director’ (age: 24) at Davos, which were (apparently erroneously) taken by the press to indicate that Facebook was going to sell personal data.
Now, I know that it’s not cool and probably won’t make me popular to knock youth at a time where youth is everything (despite the fact that the word is ageing) – Fast Company last month had snowboarder Shaun White as its cover star in a story full of fawning admiration about how rich he had become by telling big companies about the youth market. But at least White seems to have his head screwed on – maybe it’s a class thing? Facebook’s owners on the other hand need to grow up a bit. They need to learn a bit more about the value of some rather old-fashioned fundamental rights, particularly privacy, and strop treating the system they have created as the personal spare-time sophomore project as which it began. I think that they just didn’t appreciate how people would view their proposals.
There is a serious issue here. Privacy is something that you only start to truly truly understand as you get older. Partly this is because your mistakes and your secrets get more serious and more potentially damaging as you get older! But, as I have said before, most of those are nobody’s business but your own and no-one benefits from forced transparency – honesty and conscience are also profoundly personal matters. It has been argued that the ‘youthfulness’ of the Net has encouraged a general carelessness with privacy. I am not sure that is entirely true, as Facebook users have shown – they care. But it’s the careless and – let’s face it – privileged youth of many of these new entrepreneurs, the fast companies, which is more concerning. Most are not success stories from the wrong side of the tracks, who have learned ‘the hard way’.
The threat of legal action from EPIC, which was preparing to take them to the Federal Trade Commission might have concentrated minds in this regard. Maybe it was just the threat itself – EPIC have a strong record in these kinds of cases and have taken down Microsoft and Doubleclick. However I would like to think that the arrogance and energy of youth might be tempered with a bit more maturity and consideration in the future. If only, as I’ve said before, because Facebook is no longer a fresh young company in Web 2.0 terms and could easily be eclipsed by the next big thing. Perhaps they can hire someone more ‘real’ like Shaun White to tell them how privacy rights and user control of information would be like, totally rad, dude…
On a more serious note, EPIC put a lot of time and money into protecting privacy in the USA and they do a damn good job, and in cases like that of Facebook they are having a positive affect the world over, so give them some money!
the mixture of assumptions seems dangerous: a lack of genuine understanding combined with categorical friendship (analogous to categorical suspicion, the basis of profiling in policing) and technologies that unless actively adjusted all the time for all of those massive number of connections, allow you to be utterly exposed…
I’ve just seen that Google has launched its Latitude service, which allows you (once you register and add your phone number) to be tracked by all your ‘friends’, and correspondingly, for you so see your ‘friends’ – if they have signed up. I put the words friends in inverted commas with some sadness because the word seems to have become increasingly meaningless in the age of Facebook when accumulating ‘friends’ seems to have become a competitive sport. This is not entirely irrelevant to Latitude for reasons we will come to in a minute.
There are various questions about this.
A colleague comments that like many other tracking services, the way it is set up he assumed you could access the project if you just had access to someone else’s phone and a computer (or WAP/3G phone) at the same time. Perfect for a over-protective or suspicious parent, a suspicious, husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend – or anyone else for that matter.
The privacy policies are a mixture of Google’s standard (and already questionable) privacy statement and a new set of policies on ‘location privacy’, which state that:
“Google does not share an individual person’s location with third parties without explicit permission. Before someone can view your location, you must either send a location request by adding them as a friend or accept their location request and choose to share back your location.”
You can also change settings so that your location can be automatically tracked, manually selected, or hidden. If you are signed out of the service, you will not be on any map either. You can also change settings for specific friends, including hiding your location from them, share only the city you are in, or removing them from your Latitude list.
Now this all sounds very good, even fun – although it could be a recipe for all kinds of suspicions and jealousies – but it all depends on what the nature of ‘friendship’ means to the person using the service. Friendship no longer seems to require personal knowledge but simply matching categories. I was writing earlier about the loss of trust in South Korea, but the reformation of trust that occurs through social networking seems not to require the dense networks of interdependence in real life that traditional forms of social trust were built on. It doesn’t seem like a substitute, the mixture of assumptions seems dangerous: a lack of genuine understanding combined with categorical friendship (analogous to categorical suspicion, the basis of profiling in policing) and technologies that unless actively adjusted all the time for all of those massive number of connections, allow you to be utterly exposed, laid bare in time and space.
The most extreme examples of this personal surveillance are not in the relatively comfortable worlds that tech enthusiasts inhabit but firstly, in conflict zones – after all ‘I know where you live’ has always been one of the most terrifying and chilling expressions you can hear in such circumstances (see Nils Zurawski’s article on Northern Ireland in Surveillance & Society) and now it could be in real time; and secondly, in authoritarian, or even just paranoid countries. Here, real-time location data could be a goldmine for intelligence services, and it is not as if Google and Yahoo and others have bravely resisted the attempt of, for example, the Chinese government to suborn them to its illiberal requirements.
Now, perhaps this makes me sound very conservative. I’ve never joined a single social networking service – like, how Twentieth Century is that?! – but I am also sure that this service will be both used and abused in all kinds of ways, some that we expect and some that we don’t. It might be a tool for overprotective parents, for jealous lovers, for stalkers and even for killers; but it will also be a tool for new forms of creativity, deception, performance and play.
Or it could be just utterly pointless and no-one will bother using it at all.
(thanks to simon for the heads up. As it happens, Surveillance & Society currently has a call for papers out on ‘Performance, New Media and Surveillance’, to be edited by John McGrath and Bill Sweeney)
the primary limitation to any social networking tool being used for purposes that users don´t like is that the users can just walk
There´s been some discussion recently over surveillance on Facebook and in particular, the question of whether Facebook is planning to make the vast amounts of data it has for more targeted and intrusive marketing. Britain´s Daily Telegraph reported yesterday, based on an interview with Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s global markets director (and not coincidentally, sister of founder Mark Zuckerberg), that it was going to do this. It based its conclusion on the fact that Facebook was demonstrating new instant polling tools at the Davos World Economic Forum, Facebook´s development of so-called User Engagement Advertising, and the fact that unnamed ´marketing experts´ say that Facebook could be ´worth millions´to advertisers.
But, it turns out this is putting 2+2 together to make 5. Techcrunch was one of many tech blogs that questioned the Daily Telgraph´s story. They asked Facebook what was going on and were told that the WEF polls were nothing to do with Engagement Ads (which have been on Facebook for a while already) and that ´Facebook has, for many years, allowed the targeting of advertising in a non-personally identifiable way, based on profile attributes. Nothing has changed in our approach, and Facebook is committed, as always, to connecting users in a trusted environment.´
Now I don´t trust The Daily Telegraph, which has been declining in quality over the last few years and cutting experienced journalists in favour of using agency stories rewritten by trainees. But equally I don´t trust Facebook (or for that matter, any company run by rich kids whose only experience of the world is college, but that´s another story…). It is easy to imagine that they encourage such stories to test the waters. If the reaction was less worried, they might indeed decide to reveal themselves as a massive marketing scam, but the primary limitation to any social networking tool being used for purposes that users don´t like is that the users can just walk. Facebook appeared from nowhere to become a global player within a few years and it could disappear just as quickly when the next big thing arrives. The rise and fall of net-based companies is only going to get faster.
(Thanks to Sami Coll and Jason Nolan for bringing this to my attention)
There has been a serious global push for several years now by corporate content creators to hobble the Internet, and turn it into something more like television.
Time to catch up on a story that I missed this week. Boingboing reported the release of the UK government’s consultation document on Digital Britain. I had a eerie feeling of deja vu because the proposals are just like parts of Senator Azeredo’s bill that is halfway through the legislative process here in Brazil. Effectively it regards the Internet as some kind of untamed zone which must be brought under state control through a Rights Agency and ISPs acting increasingly as surveillance agents over the activities of their users, in this case particularly with regard to file-sharing.
The similarity is not surprising. There has been a serious global push for several years now by corporate content creators to hobble the Internet, and turn it into something more like television. The fact that the Digital Britain plan is filed under ‘broadcasting’ on the government’s website says quite a lot about the lack of tech savvy of state regulators in this area. What governments, in listening only to the corporate argument, don’t appear to realise is that we are actually collectively and autonomously coming up with better ways of ‘regulation’ of content through initiatives like Creative Commons and so on.
As in Brazil, where a serious netizen counter-plan is now emerging, with parliamentary support, there needs to be some serious organisation in Britain to present the alternatives to destroying the Internet and all is messy, unruly creativity. The Open Rights Group are trying to do this – let’s get behind them and make this more than just a few tech-savvy usual suspects.