Tech bits: Hidden trackers, awesome Goliath projects and the Pale Blue Dot

Posted on December 23, 2014

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Surveillance has been one of the big stories this  year but do not assume it is only big government in action, corporates who covet personal data are just as intrusive. Companies who want to couple themselves to us by using personal details to market to us individually are big data snatchers too.

In an excellent BBC Future piece, journalist Chris Baraniuk talks to security expert Bruce Schneier about personal security and how every time people use computers they are tracked, traced and recorded. In the opening paragraphs Schneier says he finds it hard to believe that people still say ‘if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear’.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden

“I ask them their salary and they won’t tell me. I ask them about their sexual fantasy world and they won’t tell me. The whole ‘I have nothing to hide’ thing is stupid, that’s a dumb comment,” says Schneier. Day to day behaviour is monitored in ways most do not even realise.

Baraniuk equates Schneier’s comments with the words of Laura Poitras, director of the documentary ‘Citizen Four’ on Edward Snowden: “Every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type, and packet you route, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.”

Corporate trackers
Kindle readers track how fast you read, Google plans to track eye responses to ads on Google Glass and sell that data back to advertisers, and the ubiquitous mobile app can build up a picture not just of our location, but the context of our environment. One app called CarSafe learns its user’s driving habits by interpreting data from the front and rear cameras on a phone. Essentially mobile users routinely skip terms and conditions and allow apps access to far more private information than they realise.

Mobile network mast

Mobile network mast

Twin Towers
One of the most surprising aspects of Baraniuk’s piece is Schneier’s revelation that phone towers in any neighbourhood may not have been set up by mobile providers. Domestic and foreign governments build and use them to track who is walking by and what they are doing. Secrecy surrounding these masts makes it hard to work out what they are used for.

“The British government will not even acknowledge that they use them. We know they do, but they won’t even acknowledge that,” says Schneier. In the US there is an admission about their use but the FBI does not reveal details. Washington DC alone has between 80 and 100 masts outside of US government control and no details on who owns and runs them.

“If the government said you have to have a tracking device, for certain you would rebel,” says Schneier. “But the government doesn’t have to say that because you do it willingly and they just get a copy of the data.”

Read the full article here for Schneier’s conclusions on digital rights and the choice between security and surveillance.

Goliath Builds
Balancing that level of intrusion can be tough. Web technologies, apps and augmented reality have so much to offer. Of course the maxim that ‘if you’re not paying for it then you’re the product’ is usually true (see Facebook and other social media channels), but in the case of Google Glass you pay a massive premium for the product and yet as an ‘Explorer’ you are still the product. Not that I am down on Google Glass or any new technology per se, we should simply expect developers to be more open about how and what data is gathered, used and resold, and to give us options to opt out.

Now though I’m going to lionise Google, whose products are rarely less than innovative. Diygenius.com has a nice piece on 12 lesser known projects that are practical, revealing, fun and artful.

Google Trends Visualizer shows search trends in real time and can be altered by region. Download the screensaver to get trends on tap – potentially a nice tool for journalists if you can get past the distracting way it updates constantly.

Google Trends Visualizer

Solve For X looks at ‘moonshot’ technologies – radical thinking on global problems that will only be solved by thinking outside the box.

Ingress is an augmented reality game for iOS and Android that allows you to discover interesting facts about the places they live – an urban game for smartphone users.

The Google Art Project has hi-res photos of more than 400 of the world’s great artworks from museums and galleries around the world. For more see the diygenius.com article here.

Symbols and LSD
Signs and symbols play a huge part in human culture – flags, emblems, warnings, technical knowledge – so it was great to find this excellent online resource symbols.com. One of the symbols that fascinates me is the Swastika. Even though people most often associate the Swastika with the Nazis and war in Europe it is actually a holy symbol that dates back to the Indus Valley civilisation of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, active more than 5,000 years ago. Symbols.com gives a revealing overview of the Swastika and its symbolisation in Hinduism as the embodiment of the creator god Brahma.

Swastikas and their re-appropriation in the ‘Gentle Swastika’ movement is one of the subjects covered in a short film I made about tattoos (below). Canadian artist Man Woman made it his life’s work to reclaim the symbol and this great Vice article covers the Gentle Swastika movement in more depth.

While I’m on matters Vice and symbol-related there is another superb interview with Mark McCloud who collects acid tabs – paper squares impregnated with the hallucinogenic LSD and embossed with a printed design (often funny, artistic, religious or poking fun at mainstream culture). McCloud believes in the power of LSD to open minds and is a thoughtful collector and interview subject.

Voyager 1's Pale Blue Dot

Voyager 1’s Pale Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot
Now, a departure, literally. The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph taken of the Earth from the Voyager One space probe as it left our solar system, from a distance of about 3.7 billion miles. Our planet appears as a tiny blue dot in a shaft of light, small and insignificant in the great nothing. American author and astronomer Carl Sagan specifically requested for the cameras to be turned around and the picture to be taken before Earth became a dim memory in Voyager’s epic journey.

Carl Sagan’s view: “From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

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