Category Archives: Ethics

UK government cancels identity cards

I have long emphasised the ethical issues associated with the introduction of identity cards, and so it is good to see that one of the first steps that the new UK government has taken is to cancel their introduction.  The Home Office’s Identity and Passport website now carries the following stark statement:

“The Government has stated in the Coalition Agreement that it will cancel Identity Cards and the National Identity Register. We will announce in due course how this will be achieved. Applications can continue to be made for ID cards but we would advise anyone thinking of applying to wait for further announcements.

Until Parliament agrees otherwise, identity cards remain valid and as such can still be used as an identity document and for travel within Europe. We will update you with further information as soon as we have it”.

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“Seen in Camden” – mobile CCTV

How many ways are there for states to keep an eye on their citizens?

Yesterday, while leaving Euston station, I discovered yet another – mobile close circuit television cameras!  As the photograph on the right shows, Camden Council now uses mobile CCTV cameras as part of its armory to detect wrongdoing – and have apparently been doing so since 2004!

As the Camden Council site comments, these cameras “will be used for surveillance in public areas across the borough.  Operated by specially trained Police officers and Camden Council staff, the mobile cameras will help combat crime and anti-social behaviour, as well as improving road safety. Images of incidents captured by the cameras will be taken back to Camden Council’s CCTV centre in Kentish Town to be processed and passed to the relevant authority.  Unit operators will be able to radio for extra Police help where necessary”.

Mind you, the two men in the car looked quite surprised when they saw me taking a photo of the car!

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Ash aftermath – Finnair and Vodafone charge exorbitant rates when trying to rebook flights

I’m sure that other people caught up in the air traffic chaos must be finding out now just how much their ‘phone bills have been charged when trying to rebook their flights!

I’m appalled to discover that it has cost me more than £600 in ‘phone charges – as a direct result of Finnair’s policies.  To rebook or try to rearrange flights, Finnair gave a number that people in Finland had to call – +358 600 140 140 .  What they did not say was that users were going to be charged even when their automatic statement that the lines were too busy and so could not even be answered was playing (in multiple languages)!  Yes, the Finnair site did say that there was a small charge per “answered call” – but not even getting in the queue to have a  human answer does not seem to me to count as an “answer”.  So, every time I placed a call and I could not even get into the queue, it cost me £5.50 – even for 6 seconds!  Then, when one passed that hurdle, and actually got into the queue to be answered, they kept charging.  Every time I waited to be able to book a flight home, the call was being charged. And they were so busy, that callers had to wait a very long time. Eventually, waiting for 39 minutes before being answered, and then having a 6 minute and 6 second call cost me £246.53.  At least I did get a flight home….

This is absolutely outrageous.  Vodafone, my ‘phone provider refuse to do anything about it, and likewise Finnair.  Let’s hope my insurers are feeling sympathetic. Under such unusual conditions, Finnair should have provided a freephone number, or at the very least have informed people that they were being charged even when waiting to receive a human answer.  But what else were passengers expected to do?  People who wanted to get rebooked onto another flight had to call that number.  This is unquestionably profiteering at the expense of stranded customers!  Guess I will therefore change my ‘phone supplier and never fly Finnair again.  What have other people been charged by their ‘phone providers and airlines?

…….

Now I am really angry – I wrote to Finnair about this, and this is the e-mail reply I have just received “We have had a lot of customer contacts in recent days, so we regret any delay in responding to your feedback. We will reply to you as soon as possible.The estimated answering time is 2-3 months. All the contacts will be handled in order of arrival. Thank you for your patience”.

Am definitely never flying Finnair again if I can possibly help it!!!!

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Go and ogle in Southampton and beyond…

Having just posted my last reflection on “Go, ogle”, I was in Southampton on Sunday and there it was – “Ogle Road”! This must be where the Google camera van/car/snowmobile/tricycles hang out when it’s dark and they cannot take the photos that their ‘masters’ want.

It did, though, also make me reflect further on the ethical issues surrounding Google’s Street View ‘technology’.  Much has already been written about this, but with the advent of Google’s 4th generation cameras that take near-HD quality images, and continuing debate in the EU about privacy issues associated with Street View,  for which we should all be grateful, it is worth once again highlighting some of the issues that this raises.

A recent report by Claudia Rach for Bloomberg Businessweek has some interesting comments from Michael Jones, Google’s chief technology advocate and founder of Google Earth:

  • “I think we would consider whether we want to drive through Europe again, because it would make the expense so draining”
  • “I think that privacy is more important than technology but for privacy people it is only about privacy but for us it is also about technology”

The first of these was partly in response to the suggestion that Google should only keep unblurred images for 6 months instead of a year.  Again, quoting from Rach’s report, Peter Fleischer, a Google lawyer in charge of privacy issues, said  “The need to retain the unblurred images is legitimate and justified — to ensure the quality and accuracy of our maps, to improve our ability to rectify mistakes in blurring, as well as to use the data we have collected to build better maps products for our users”.  This means that Google keep all this information unblurred on their servers – which, of course, means that Google and its relevant employees have access to it.  What happens when someone hacks into this information, or a government asks for it in connection with some important state ‘need’?

Jones’ second comment above is indeed surprising.  There is little evidence that Google has ever put privacy above technology.  Its technological prowess has been at the forefront of raising new ethical questions – one of which is indeed about privacy.

So, just to add to the debate, I thought I would come up with a list of ten interesting uses for Street View:

  • for car thieves wanting to plan where to steal particular brands of car to order – just look on people’s drives
  • for double glazing companies (or for that matter firms offering to redo your drive) to target individual houses that might be ripe for marketing – individualised targeted mailings
  • for revolutionaries (or what governments in capitalist countries call ‘terrorists’) to decide where best to plant explosive devices to cause maximum damage
  • for people wanting to reconstruct buildings on streets that have been destroyed by earthquakes (or other such disasters) – you can see how it looked a year ago
  • for burglars wanting to find the quickest getaway having robbed a property (see Phil Muncaster’s summary on v3.co.uk)
  • for recognising what your friends were doing when the Google car passed – yes, of course you can recognise people even with their faces blurred
  • for checking out those naked sunbathers
  • for finding exactly what that pub that your friends took you to last night looks like in the daylight when you can’t remember where it is
  • for checking out what the holiday villa you are thinking of booking really looks like
  • and as findaproperty says, “With the panoramic street level photographs you can get a feel for the property, its location and neighbourhood, before visiting it – which saves you a lot of time and means you don’t have to decided whether you want to view a property based solely on the description of the area as provided by the estate agents” – ah, isn’t that nice…

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Google tracking

Why have I never noticed before that Google is really “Go, Ogle” – meaning “Go, stare at impertinently”?

In this context, the following report by Andrew Orlowski in yesterday’s The Register makes interesting reading:

“Google’s roving Street View spycam may blur your face, but it’s got your number. The Street View service is under fire in Germany for scanning private WLAN networks, and recording users’ unique Mac (Media Access Control) addresses, as the car trundles along. Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Data Protection Peter Schaar says he’s “horrified” by the discovery. “I am appalled… I call upon Google to delete previously unlawfully collected personal data on the wireless network immediately and stop the rides for Street View,” according to German broadcaster ARD. Spooks have long desired the ability to cross reference the Mac address of a user’s connection with their real identity and virtual identity, such as their Gmail or Facebook account. Other companies have logged broadcasting WLAN networks and published the information. By contrast Google has not published the WLAN map, or Street View in Germany; Google hopes to launch the service by the end of the year. But Google’s uniquely cavalier approach to privacy, and its potential ability to cross reference the information raises additional concerns. Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently said internet users shouldn’t worry about privacy unless they have something to hide. And when there’s nowhere left to hide…?”.

I have cautioned elsewhere about the implications of Google’s approach to digital information, and the enormous power that this gives the company.  This is yet another example of the lack of transparency, and the secrecy underlying Google’s approach to accessing information about individuals. It may well not be illegal for Google to access Mac addresses – but if the above report is true it raises fundamental questions about Google’s approach to ethics.

I have for a long time refused to have a Gmail account – and try to ensure that they have as little of my data as possible.  Perhaps the time has come for us to launch a global campaign to boycott Google?  How much ogling can we all stand? The trouble is that their search engine is really quite good!

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Reflections on the effects of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption

The transport disruption caused by ash from the erupting Eyjafjallajökull volcano has had enormous impact across the world, not only for economic activity but also for individual human lives.  Having been ‘stuck’ in the North Karelian town of Joensuu in eastern Finland for the last week, I have been interested and surprised by the emotional impact that this has had on me:

  • I discovered that eastern Finland is really a long way from anywhere!  Joensuu is four-and-a-half hours by train north-east from Helsinki, and almost at the same latitude as the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland!
  • Finland itself is amazingly isolated, and very much like an island.  Almost everyone who wanted to leave during the cessation of flights had to get ferries – from Turku or Helsinki to Stockholm, or from Helsinki to Tallinn.  According to travel agents, many of these were fully booked, and so it was difficult to ‘escape’.  The prospects of the Finnair offer of a 34 hour bus journey to Berlin, with two nights and a day on board, were not particularly appealing – especially when other parts of Europe seemed to be opening up their air-space. Most people who left, and took onward trains through Sweden and Denmark, or across Europe from Berlin took three or four days to get back to England!  Being in ‘mainland Europe’ would have been so much easier – a train from Prague to Madrid would, for example, have been simplicity itself compared with leaving Finland!
  • The most disturbing feature of the disruption for me was the uncertainty!  I was surprised how much not knowing when it might be possible to leave affected me – and particularly my ability to concentrate on work.  Might it be worth taking the bus to Berlin – and then the subsequent problems associated with getting a train back to the UK?  Should I go to Turku and hope for the best? When might flights start again?  Should I try to get a train to Helsinki in case the flights from there are going to be a better bet than risking a flight from Joensuu to Helsinki first?
  • It can be really lonely…  Thanks to all those friends who kept in touch on Skype, Facebook and by e-mail!
  • But I also discovered the real value of open-handed friendship.  After I had stayed a couple of extra nights in a hotel, Erkki and Päivi welcomed me into their home, and this transformed things.  Their hospitality enabled me to get on with some work (despite my difficulties in concentrating on it), and provided an enormous warmth of personal support.  They have been absolutely amazing, and I hope one day to be able to return the favour.
  • A real lesson to be learnt from this is therefore that we should all be generously open and welcoming to ‘refugees’ – from wherever they come.  Whilst it is completely inappropriate for those of us caught up in the dislocation caused by the closure of air space to draw comparisons with the experiences of political refugees, I do think I have gained a whole lot more insight into some of the anguish that they must face.
  • One can spend an age trying to rearrange flights!  Many, many calls to Finnair were ‘answered’ with a message saying that their system was overloaded – even at 05.00 in the morning!  Eventually, it took almost an hour of waiting earlier in the week to reschedule my flights for tomorrow  – but who knows now even if that will be leaving!
  • It’s therefore crucially important to take advantage of every opportunity that such chaos can afford!  It was great to visit Koli, and also to spend time participating in academic discussions and teaching at the Computer Science Department at the University of Eastern Finland – thanks for the opportunity.
  • This disruption also, though, shows the huge value of modern ICTs – the ability to hold conference calls with people in many different parts of the world, to receive e-mails (although not necessarily my ability to answer them all), to speak with loved ones ‘dislocated’ elsewhere (providing their ‘phones are charged), to find out information about the latest delays, to give a conference presentation at a distance (not easy – but see #beyond2010) and to find communal means of resolving travel problems (such as stuckineurope.com)! When the fuel runs out for ‘traditional’ air transport, life might become very much more human!

Apologies to everyone whose e-mails I have not responded to, and for the meetings I have missed!  I should have been back in the UK on the 18th – and it is now the 23rd.  Finavia this morning at last announced that “Based on the current forecasts all airports in Finland have been opened for air traffic and operate normally”, although lots of flights in Finland today have still been cancelled!  Hopefully tomorrow will improve, and I will indeed return home.  I intend to take a few days off – just to smell the late spring flowers, to taste some fine wine and to relax!

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Google publishes details of requests from governments

Google has just published some fascinating data, and a map, showing the numbers of requests from government agencies around the world to remove content from its services, or to provide information about users of its services and products.

According to this, the highest numbers of requests for removals of data between July and December 2009 were from:

  • Brazil 291
  • Germany 188
  • India 142
  • USA 123

Similarly, the highest numbers of data requests were from:

  • Brazil 3663
  • United States 3580
  • United Kingdom 1166
  • India 1061

I was surprised by the high figures for Brazil, but as Google note “For Brazil and India, government requests for content removal are high relative to other countries in part because of the popularity of our social networking website, orkut. The majority of the Brazilian and Indian requests for removal of content from orkut relate to alleged impersonation or defamation”.  Likewise, in commenting on the high figures for Germany, Google comment that “A substantial number of the German removals resulted from court orders that relate to defamation in search results”.

Interesting observations indeed!  It is good to see Google becoming more transparent in such matters.

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Digital databases and political campaigning

Those addicted to the potential benefits of digital databases, identity cards and biometric passports, often berate me for my concerns about  the ethical implications of the introduction of such technologies (see for example, the comments of “James Bond” in response to my blog on the Indian census).

Today’s report in the Sunday Times that the ruling Labour party in Britain has sent personalised cards to cancer sufferers, warning them of the implications of a Conservative victory in the election on May 6th should serve as a salutary reminder.  This is how it was reported:

“LABOUR has become embroiled in a row about the use of personal data after sending cancer patients alarmist mailshots saying their lives could be at risk under a Conservative government. Cards addressed to sufferers by name warn that a Labour guarantee to see a cancer specialist within two weeks would be scrapped by the Tories. Labour claims the Conservatives would also do away with the right to be treated within 18 weeks. Cancer patients who received the personalised cards, sent with a message from a breast cancer survivor praising her treatment under Labour, said they were “disgusted and shocked”, and feared that the party may have had access to confidential health data. Labour sources deny that the party has used any confidential information. However, the sources admit that, in line with other political parties, it uses socio-demographic research that is commercially and publicly available. The postal campaign started last month before the general election was called. This is the first election in which parties have been able to use internet databases and digital printing to personalise their mailshots. Labour has sent out 250,000 “cancer” postcards, each addressed to an individual, asking: “Are the Tories a change you can afford?” Many of those receiving the cards have undergone cancer scans or treatment within the past five years.”

Of course there are real benefits of digital technologies, but we do need to reflect very carefully on who has access to personalised digital records, and on how such information is used.

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Indian biometric census – beware of the dangers!

India’s 15th census has just been launched (Times of India, newsy.com video), with the physical count of people due to take place from 9th-28th February 2011.  Over the next year, some 2.5 million census officials will be visiting households across the country, to begin the process of recording information about them.

What is unusual about this census, though, is that every person over the age of 15 will be photographed and will also have all of their fingers fingerprinted, so as to create a national biometric database, information from which will be used to issue identity cards.  The first 16-digit identity number will be issued starting in November 2010 by the Unique Identification Authority, a new state department.

The first person to be listed was President Pratibha Patil, who according to the BBC, “appealed to fellow Indians to follow her example ‘for the good of the nation’.  ‘Everyone must participate and make it successful’, she said in Delhi”.

The government expects this to bring real benefits.  As the Times commented in July 2009, “It is hoped that the ID scheme will close … bureaucratic black holes while also fighting corruption. It may also be put to more controversial ends, such as the identification of illegal immigrants and tackling terrorism. A computer chip in each card will contain personal data and proof of identity, such as fingerprint or iris scans. Criminal records and credit histories may also be included”.

This is deeply worrying, and as with other such schemes fundamentally changes the relationship between citizens and the state. Interestingly, the initiative is being headed up by Nandan Milekani, the co-founder and former CEO of Infosys, who according to the Times has said that “we have the opportunity to give every Indian citizen, for the first time, a unique identity. We can transform the country”. Does he not realise that every Indian citizen already has a unique, and very special identity – in themselves?

Just because it is possible to do this, does not mean it is right to do so.  Not only are there profound ethical concerns about states creating databases of the biometric data of citizens, but there are also real practical problems. The opportunities for identity theft on a massive scale are very real, and should not be underestimated.  More worryingly, though, is the point that this changes the balance of power between individuals and the state, very much in favour of the latter.  If governments change, and people lose trust in them – as often happens – imagine what such governments might do with biometric data on all their citizens.  Imagine if Hitler or Stalin had had access to the biometric identities of all of the people living in Germany and Russia?  Imagine if the USA gained access to biometric data of everyone in the world?

The real winners in the promulgation of such digital initiatives are the companies who promote, design and manage them!  It is no coincidence that it is the co-founder of Infosys who is now chairperson of the Unique Identification Authority of India! Mind you, another group of people who will benefit hugely from the introduction of such technology will be those who make fake fingerprints for sticking onto your fingers – or even the plastic surgeons who alter fingerprints, as in the case of the Chinese woman who entered Japan illegally after having had her fingerprints altered…

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‘Collective’ reflections on plagiarism and the production of knowledges

ICT4D BookParticipating today in a very interesting seminar organised by COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) at Woburn House in London, made me reflect on actually why plagiarism is becoming such a ‘problem’, and on ways in which we might create alternative ideas about this.

The first question I wish to raise is whether ‘scientific ideas’ or ‘individual careers’ matter most?  As a starting point, let me suggest that actually it should be the ideas that are of most importance.  Yet, we always tend to associate ideas with people – hence, we have Nobel prizewinners who are individuals. It is authors’ names that are on articles.

But following my logic, if it is the ideas that are of most importance, then perhaps plagiarism actually becomes less of a ‘problem’.  Plagiarism is generally seen as the passing off of someone else’s ideas as being one’s own.  So, if we do not attribute ideas to people, but let the ideas in a sense speak for themselves, and make them available for public scrutiny through for example the Web, then the ideas that are deemed to be of most importance might, in a sense, float to the top by popular choice.

This is particularly important right now.  In the UK (as in many other countries) governments fund universities – both directly and through research councils.  Governments, very literally, pay academics to produce knowledge.  So, a case could be made for this knowledge to be ‘published’ under the government’s or research council’s ‘name’.  Imagine a world where there were no author(s)’s names on published articles.  Journal articles would just be known by their titles and the funding source.  Would not this be more open and honest?

What does the individual author’s name matter – other than for their own personal careers?  In a world where knowledge has increasingly become a commodity, where individual academic careers depend largely on publication records, where departmental and institutional reputations and thus funding rest on publications and grants, it is of course essential that authors are named.  That is why plagiarism is so important an issue. But if we want to fragment this system, if we believe in knowledge as something so much more valuable than a commodity, if we wish to make this freely available – if we want to be a little less selfish about our own careers – then perhaps, there is some value in my proposal.

After all, as one of my former PhD students regularly reminds me, where do our ideas actually come from?  We can never cite all of the influences on our writing.  I am quite sure that the inspirational lectures that I listened to as an undergraduate in one of the best universities in the world have influenced my subsequent writing.  The beggars I met on the street in Bihar have also influenced my ideas.  I am ashamed that I do not always cite them as influences on my writing – although I do indeed try to mention them in my acknowledgements.  In a sense, almost all of our written work is indeed plagiarised…

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