Tag Archives: Ethics

The future of communication

In recent years, I have become increasingly interested in the interface between humans and machines, and thus the world of cyborgs.  This was first formally articulated in my presentation entitled “How will the world communicate in 2113?” given at the Commonwealth Summer School held in Cumberland Lodge on 9th August 2013.  However, as part of the ITU’s ongoing discussion on ICTs in the future, associated with  the Leadership Summit on the Future currently being held during its Telecom World (#ituworld) event in Doha , I was asked to put together a prediction and a single slide summarising some of my thoughts on the future of communication.  So, to give this a little more visibility, I thought I would also post it here:

ITU futures

My actual short quotation was “The future is not so much about the Internet, but rather about the human-machine interface.  Cyborgs are already with us.  If we do not want humans to be mere appendages of machines, we must act now!””

I have to admit that I found the actual ITU session to be much less inspirational than I had expected/hoped it might be – there was very little new in what was discussed!  I was therefore actually rather sad that the presentation that I sent to the ITU for possible inclusion amongst its predictions was seen as being rather too provocative for inclusion!

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Prolegomena on Human Rights and Responsibilities

Waking early after yesterday’s flight to Port of Spain, and sitting above the Gulf of Paria, watching the swallows sweeping past my window, has given me time to reflect on something I have been meaning to write for ages.  I have long argued that both the notion of “Universal Human Rights”, and its acceptance as being a default position in much international discourse, has been hugely damaging for poor and marginalised peoples, and should be replaced by a Human Responsibilities agenda.  I first articulated elements of this argument in my 2010 paper on “ICTs, citizens, and the state: moral philosophy and development practices“, and also shared some thoughts on this at the Stockholm Internet Forum in 2013, but have never had the time to develop this into a more formal account (see also my pieces on balancing democracies and DFID’s approach to development aid).   Suffice it to say, that I still don’t have the time to do this in the detail it warrants, but I want to take the opportunity to share the outline of the argument here.  One day, I will craft the more formal account!

Lest I am misunderstood, I want to begin by highlighting three important caveats that underlie what follows:

  1. In my earlier accounts, I argued strongly that we should disband the notion of Human Rights altogether. I now accept that making such an absolute and dogmatic approach is too antagonistic because the notion of Human Rights is too heavily embedded in global thinking and policy making.  Hence, my present position suggests that the Human Rights agenda needs to be balanced by a Human Responsibilities Agenda.
  2. Most of those who advocate a “responsibilities” approach to these matters do so from a neo-liberal or broadly “right-wing” stance; I very much want to distance myself from such a position, and instead see my arguments as being profoundly radical.  Indeed, as I hope to show below, I see the Human Rights approach being one that largely reinforces the status quo, in the interests of those in power.
  3. I also want to be very clear that I am not in any way suggesting that we should not put in place some kind of mechanisms to prevent the almost unimaginable horrors that have been, and continue to be, committed all too often across the world by some people on others.  As I write, the ongoing massacres of Yazidis and Christians by the so-called Islamic State/Caliphate are an all too shocking reminder of the continual savagery, and what some would decry as evil, that can be found across the world today.  However, I do not think that a Human Rights agenda actually prevents such atrocities; if it did, would they still be promulgated?

The fundamental premise
The fundamental premise that I seek to illustrate through the arguments that follow is that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights has supported the legitimacy of a particular kind of social formation, often called capitalism, that has a tendency to lead to greater inequality in the world rather than substantially improving the lives of the poorest, most marginalised and most vulnerable.  I argue, that this must be balanced by a Human Responsibilities agenda that places at least as much emphasis on the responsibilities of states and of individuals to the least advantaged in our societies.  It is insufficient simply to say they have rights; we all have responsibilities to act.

Strands in the argument
The various strands of my argument need fully qualifying, referencing, and linking together more cogently, but more or less in chronological order they are as follows:

  1. The idea that humans have rights is a relatively recent one in human evolution.  There is much debate about the origins of ideas associated with human rights, but I suggest that it is actually very recent.  Far too often, advocates of human rights agendas seek to identify obscure elements of past legal texts as the precursors of modern thinking on the subject, as with elements of the Cyrus cylinder dating from the 6th century BC (see for example United for Human Rights).  However, it is very difficult to sustain such arguments, and many are based on ex post facto reasoning.  One of the most interesting things about the human rights agenda is that most of the world’s religions have little if anything to say actually about human rights. For humanists, who reject the project of religions, human rights can be interpreted as part of human emancipation from the darkness of religion. However, for those who hold to the beliefs of religions such as Christianity and Islam, although they are very much concerned with what being human really means, and they challenge many of the perceived evils of the societies in which they were formed, there is actually remarkably little if anything in them about the precise idea of humans having rights.  Magna Carta, the great charter agreed between the Barons and King John in England in 1215, is often seen as providing the initial framework for the modern concept of human rights through its inclusion of the clause that “No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right”.  It was in the 17th century, though, in the writing of Hobbes and Locke that a more formal concept of human rights can be seen as having evolved in the context of the emergent Enlightenment and social contract theory.  The essence of their argument was that in seeking to resolve their conflicting desires for peace and power, people cede some of their rights to the sovereign in return for protection.  This notion lies at the heart of social contract theory that was developed further in the 18th century by authors such as Rousseau, and reached political fruition in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.
  2. There is nothing universal about human rights. Point (1) above emphasises that the notion of human rights has evolved; it has not therefore been universally accepted throughout history.  A counter to this particular logic is, of course, the different logic that there has always been a universal, and it is only now becoming increasingly revealed and understood over time.  These two logics need resolution, but it is not only a matter of time and history.  Space and geography matter!  Different cultures have evolved different belief systems and ontologies, and there have been many contrasting arguments about universals.  Having long reflected on this, my overwhelming conclusion is that about the only widely accepted moral position is the Golden Rule of “do as you would be done by”.  I have always been challenged, for example, by the rights of cannibalism.  For a cannibal, it is her or his right to eat someone; for the person being eaten, it is clearly her or his right to remain alive. There are also clearly ongoing debates as to what should be included in human rights agendas, some of which are discussed further below, but the fact that there is little universal agreement across cultures on exactly what should be considered a human right is itself an illustration of the suggestion that there are few if any universals.
  3. Instead, human rights should be seen as a means through which a dominant ideology is imposed on others. To understand human rights, it is essential to understand where (the geography) and when (the history) of its emergence.  It is no coincidence that modern thinking on human rights emerged in 17th century Europe.  It did not emerge in Africa, Asia or the Americas.  It emerged hand in hand with the rise of individualism, in contrast with what was seen as the cloying hand of communal practices.  Enclosure provided the opportunity for individual profit from the land, instead of the traditional common and open field systems.  This was essential for the emergence of capitalism, vested fundamentally in private property rights, through which individuals could generate profit.  It was likewise no coincidence that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN in 1948 in the immediate aftermath of the 1939-45 war.  To be sure, it was in part a response to the horrors of the holocaust, but it must be asked, for example, why there was not the creation of a similar declaration after the very different kind of horror of the 1914-18 war?  It is also no coincidence that the drafting committee was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the US President.  Although its nine members did indeed include representatives from Chile, China, Lebanon and the USSR, the dominant voice was that of the capitalist “West”, represented by Australia, Canada, France, the UK and the USA.  The vast populations and cultures of Africa and South Asia were omitted and ignored.  The case I develop below is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has thus become a vehicle through which global capitalism has sought to impose a universal hegemony on what is seen as being right. It is, though, not actually in the interests of the poor and marginalised, but rather serves the interests of the rich and powerful.  To develop a new world order, we must therefore abandon the declaration, and replace it with an agenda that stresses the importance of communal traditions.  Interestingly, such traditions are often seen to be grounded in many African practices, that were all too clearly ignored by the drafting committee.
  4. SkullsThe human rights agenda has failed to save those who have suffered at the hands of violent people who have no belief in human rights.  It may be that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has indeed reduced the amount of horror and violence meted out in the world over the last 66 years.  Unfortunately, though, we have no means of measuring this; there are no counterfactuals.  We take it on trust.  However, it is very clear that unimaginable violence – from Rwanda to Syria and Iraq – has continued, regardless of the declaration.  Let us never forget the horror and violence that men and women commit against each other, but let us ask whether the human rights approach is indeed the most powerful vehicle we can have to challenge this.
  5. The human rights agenda has become devalued and all-inclusive. One of the prime drivers for the Universal Declaration was undoubtedly the experiences of Allied troops who discovered the atrocities committed by Axis powers during and at the end of the 1939-45 war.  This found expression in Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.  Yet, look at the hypocrisy even with the comment that “everyone has the right to life”: some states in Eleanor Roosevelt’s own country , the USA, still regularly take the lives of their citizens executed as the result of the passing of a death sentence, let alone taking the lives of innocent people killed elsewhere in the “war against terror”.  Even more important than this, though, is the point that far too many things that are much less important than “life” are now considered to be human rights.  Taken to the extreme, this has found expression in arguments that access to ICTs should be seen as a human right. Simplifying, this argument in essence is based on the logic that (1) education is a human right, (2) access to the Internet is crucial for education, and therefore (3) access to the internet is also a human right.  As I have argued elsewhere, it is arrant nonsense to argue in such a way, but to understand why this is happening one needs to understand the interests underlying such arguments, because they are indeed powerful.
  6. The interests underlying a human rights agenda.  Capitalism, especially as practised and promoted in the USA, is fundamentally driven by the need for people to be “free”.  It is this freedom as a right that lies at the heart of the human rights agenda.  It is not for nothing that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with the statement that “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (my emphasis).  In a Marxist interpretation, freedom is essential for two simple things that capitalism is reliant upon: the freedom of individuals to sell their labour power (the essential source through which profit is created for the capitalist), and the freedom of individuals to purchase products (the mechanism through which such profit is realised).  This was why it was so important for capitalism to overthrow “unfree” communism: so that a vast number of new labourers and consumers would be created, who were free to choose where and how they worked, and what they purchased.  Individual-ism had to replace communal-ism.  This was where the great con (even better and more subtle than that in The Sting) was played; it was largely done in the name of freedom.  To revert to the example of access to the Internet as being a human right, it can readily be seen that this argument is driven fundamentally by those who will benefit from the Internet being made available to everyone, be they corporations selling the technology, to educationalists eager to promote/sell their ideas through the Internet.  Yet how free are we?  Some may think they are free to search all human knowledge on the Internet, but in reality they are paying, and usually giving far more information away about themselves than actually they are gaining; that is the source of profit of the global search engine and social media corporations.  Are we not becoming mere appendages of the machines in front of which so many of us sit day in, day out, answering e-mails and losing our humanity?

Towards an alternative: communal solutions and a responsibilities approach
The forces of capitalism are indeed powerful, and even if they were not necessarily consciously embedded in the foundation of the Universal Declaration, they have since usurped it and now drive forward the human rights agenda primarily as a means through which they can generate further surplus profit at the expense of the poor and the marginalised.  Make something a human right, someone is then expected to provide it, and this then becomes a business opportunity.  The trouble is that actually all too often no-one provides it.

Masks[this was as far as I got in Trinidad; further reflections in the land of Serendib, and a most comfortable gentle flight home courtesy of Sri Lankan Airlines, enables me to continue]

Hence, I want to argue that at the very least we need to redress the balance by advocating for a human responsibilities agenda; deep down I would still prefer to have a responsibilites agenda replace the rights-based agenda, but as I note above too many people make too much money out of the rights agenda for this to be feasible in the short term.  Hence, I offer a compromise!

Elements in support of a radical responsibilities agenda go something like this:

  1. Human rights have failed; we need an alternative.  As noted in (4) above, the notion of human rights seems neither to have had a significant impact on improving the lives of the poorest of the poor, nor on those who suffer from states and people determined to mutilate and massacre them.  Over the last 20 years, the world has become more unequal, fuelled in part by the uses made of new Information and Communication Technologies; violence and hatred are rife, fuelled by individualistic human greed.  Human rights, despite all the claims made for it has simply not delivered.  I come close to thinking that all war and killing is a crime (despite arguments that claim that there is indeed something called a “Just War”), and that to define some incidents as being war crimes, whereas others are not is hugely problematic (but this enters a different, albeit fascinating discussion of war – perhaps the topic of a future blog post!).  The fundamental point here is that the fear of retribution by the international community has seem to have done nothing to limit the worst abuses conceivable by the minds of those dedicated to inflicting horror.  At least we must ask if there could just be an alternative.
  2. Shifting the emphasis to communal traditions.  As will be clear from the above, I see the root of much of the ‘problem’ of human rights as being its fundamental emphasis on the rights of individuals.  Do we as individuals really have rights?  What makes humans have rights, other than their claim that they do?  Might this not be false ideology based on the views of a rich and powerful minority?  In many cultures, the value of the community has traditionally been seen as being higher than that of the individual.  Indeed, the self sacrifice of many individuals to protect their communities, can be seen as reflecting the species survival, and thus essentially communal, nature of humanity.  In particular, although there is much dispute over it, traditions such as Ubuntu in eastern Africa, the Gacaca courts in Rwanda, and Indaba in Nguni cultures, all reflect an important African communal emphasis.  So too, I would argue, is the Christian tradition, drawing in part on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), but also the notion of Christ as a servant king (Luke 22), that places emphasis primarily on service.  Christ’s two fundamental requests (Mark 12) are that we should love God, and love others as ourselves.  There is nothing here about human rights, but rather an emphasis on our communal responsibilities. We have choices – to be individualistic and greedy, overly concerned with some presumed rights, or to serve others.  Indeed, in Hobbes’ and Locke’s original formulations, it was to try to resolve this conflict between greed and peace, that the notion of giving up certain assumed rights was born.  Perhaps if we placed greater emphasis on responsibilities, we might draw nearer to crafting a world which actually better helped achieve the objectives for which the human rights agenda has sought but failed to deliver.
  3. Responsibilities of states.  Simply to say that individuals have rights, and therefore that states have a duty to ensure that these rights are delivered on is not enough.  I assert that we must ensure that we embed in legislation the fundamental responsibilities of states to deliver certain things for their citizens, accepting that these might well differ between cultures and contexts.  The richness and diversity of humanity is one of our strengths, and we should not seek always to identify universals, which as I state above seem to me primarily to be ways through which the rich and powerful impose their view of the world on others.  The private sector’s unending pursuit of profit can never benefit the poorest and most marginalised; capitalism is built fundamentally on inequality.  Hence, the role of states is primarily to mediate these excesses, and ensure that the poor can also live at peace without fear for their lives and livelihoods (in line with 17th century social contract arguments).  It is only states that can achieve this. States therefore have fundamental responsibilities to their citizens, and if rulers fail to deliver on these they should be overthrown.
  4. And the responsibilities of individuals.  Not only are states made up of individuals, but it is as individuals that we communicate and interact with each other.  I can say to a person: “You have rights.  Jolly good.  The state will deliver on your rights. I need do nothing”.  Or, I can think, “I have a responsibility to that person.  I should therefore act in certain ways to them”.  Responsibility is about action; rights are about inaction.  The human rights agenda has been a way that we can be absolved of our responsibilities to each other.  I am seeking to reverse this so that we do indeed take action as individuals for each other.  It may only appear to be a subtle difference, but to me it requires an entirely different emphasis and way of thinking.  The responsibilities agenda means quite simply that states have responsibilities to their citizens, and as individuals we have responsibilities to each other.
  5. Who pays for human rights and responsibilities? I have long been challenged about the disconnect between human rights, and payment for delivery of those rights.  Many argue that “the right to education” is a human right, but that it is fine for this to be delivered by the private sector.  This seems to imply that someone might have a right to education, but that they would have to pay for it.  I find this logic unsatisfactory.  It is akin to saying you have a “right to life”, but you have to pay for it, which would seem to be a licence for highway robbers to take lives!  It seems to me that if you have to pay for a right it is not actually a right.  Poor people are highly likely to be disadvantaged, for example, in a society where health and education have to be paid for.  Again, this would seem to reinforce the arguments in (6) above, which suggest that some of the most powerful advocates of human rights are those who seek to exploit them for monetary gain.  This would certainly seem to be the case for those who want to make access to the Internet a human right!  If we replace such a logic, though, by one that says that states have responsibilities to ensure that all of their citizens have, for example, free housing, health and education, this would require societies to find ways to deliver on this, through mechanisms such as taxation.  Once again, the responsibilities agenda ia about the common good, rather than the individual greed and selfishness of the human rights agenda.

It is difficult to summarise complex arguments drawn from many sources in just a few lines, and this post is already overly long!  However, I would love to hear back from anyone who would like to point out the flaws in my outline argument, so that I can incorporate responses in my more formal, rigorous and detailed argument.  Who knows, it might evolve into one of my next books!

My  aim is to persuade people that we must balance any universal human rights agenda by a human responsibilities agenda.  This will require a radical rethink of all those reductionist arguments, especially by those in the UN system, that simply see human rights as the fundamental grounding for so much of their work.  I hope that, at the very least, my arguments here challenge such a supposition, and go some way to persuading others that the human rights agenda is part of a capitalist conspiracy that claims to make people free, but actually enslaves and dehumanises them.



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Trust, privacy and digital security

The pace with which the UK government is forcing through legislation to permit its security agencies legally to gather information about the use of digital technologies by people living in the UK raises ethical issues of the utmost importance. In the past, I have very much emphasised the significant concerns that citizens should have about the use of their ‘digital lives’ by both global corporations and governments. In so doing, I have sought to emphasise the interesting conjuncture of ideas surrounding the three concepts of trust, privacy and the law that lie at the heart of such discussions (for some early thoughts, see my 2010 paper on ICTs, citizens and states).

One of the most remarkable things about digital technologies, and particularly the extremely rapid expansion of social media, has been the ways that people have been willing to make so much information available for public view that was previously considered to be ‘private’. Why, for example, if people are providing so much of their information on-line for free should they have any concerns about whether or not governments make use of this? Social media companies have benefited hugely from the willingness of people to give for free without thinking too much about the consequences, and so too have those providing search engines and location based digital services.  So why should governments not likewise use this information?

In trying to unravel some of the complexities of these issues, it is useful to contrast two very different perspectives on what privacy actual is:

  • The dominant view would seem to follow Etzioni (2005) in accepting that privacy is in effect a good that can be weighed up against other goods. From this perspective, people are willing to give up some of their ‘privacy’ in return for various perceived benefits. Hence, people seem to be willing to let companies use information about their e-mail or search engine usage, in return for having a ‘free’ e-mail account or the ability to search the Internet for ‘free’ for some information that they want to find. Similarly, it can readily be argued that governments can, and indeed should, be permitted to pry into the lives of individuals in order to protect all citizens, especially if a justification, such as preventing potential ‘terrorist’ action can be provided.
  • An alternative type of definition of privacy, though, is offered by Friedman (2005) who instead sees privacy as a means through which we have power over our own lives. He emphasises the asymmetric power relationships between states and citizen. Few citizens, for example, possess their own tanks or fighter aircraft, and few have the digital analysis technologies that large corporations and governments possess. As he suggests, in referring to the state, ‘limiting its ability to protect us from bad things done to us by ourselves or by other people, may not be such a bad deal’.

In the past, I have very much supported Friedman’s arguments, and on balance still do. However, this is where notions of ‘trust’ become so important. From conversations in many different countries, I have come to the clear view that where people do not trust their governments, then they are much more willing for their digital lives to be known by companies, but where they do trust their governments then the reverse is the case. Governments have the power to do very bad things to their people, and digital technologies have the potential to offer them very large amounts of knowledge indeed in support of such actions.

The interesting observation to be made here is that it is actually the companies, be they ‘phone operators or social media corporations, that actually already collect this information on a regular basis, and indeed use it to generate their profits. Whilst there is much angst against governments for wanting to access some of this information, I am surprised at how little concern there actually is about the uses that companies already make of such information. Again, in part, this comes down to trust, but I think this is only in part. Companies seem to me to be much more circumspect in telling people actually what data they collect and how they use it. They leave the governments to take the flack in wanting to access such information!

The arguments currently being debated as the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill moves through the UK Parliament are ultimately derived from social contract theory. In essence, building on the ideas of Hobbes and Locke in the 17th century, the idea that citizens are willing to give up some of their rights to governments in return for protection of their remaining rights has become central to much of the way in which our governance systems work. Following Etzioni’s line of thought, citizens might therefore consider giving up some of their privacy in return for greater protection from other citizens (or ‘terrorists’) who for whatever reason wish to do them harm. It becomes incumbent for governments therefore to show that there is indeed a very considerable increase in the potential threat to citizens from ‘terrorism’, or indeed any other harmful effects, if they want to pry further into citizens’ privacy.

This is, in effect, what the UK government is seeking to do, without perhaps illustrating the full extent of the threat. As I learn more about these matters, and speaking with many people who I have come to trust over the last couple of years, I am becoming increasingly aware of just what the level of threat is, and I am much more persuaded by the arguments that some greater surveillance might indeed be necessary. However, the challenge for a government is that it is difficult for it to indicate just what these threats are because of the obvious security implications, and so citizens have to place a lot of emphasis on trusting their governments.

How can this be achieved? The most important thing in building trust on such matters is to have as full, open and transparent a debate as possible amongst relevant stakeholders. Rushing legislation through Parliament is therefore unwise, unless the level of threat is very severe indeed. I cannot judge this, but unfortunately recent failures of trust over such things as the UK’s support for the USA in the invasion of Iraq over ‘weapons of mass destruction’, make it very difficult for people to believe a UK government of any political colour on such matters.

MPs would therefore be wise if they are to pass this Bill to insist that immediately in its aftermath a wide-ranging and fully transparent consultation should take place, so that the issues are debated openly and constructively. This will take a considerable amount of time, but will ultimately be worth it, not only in rebuilding trust, but also in reaching a wise decision on how to balance privacy and security.

This does not, though,  resolve the concerns raised by Friedman, with whom my own allegiance really lies. The balance of power between states and their citizens is indeed unequal, and there must be mechanisms whereby governments and their servants can be held to account for their actions and misdemeanours. It is here where I believe the law is so important, and it seems to me that judges have a particularly crucial role to play in determining the appropriate balance. The separation of the judiciary from the executive is another important heritage of the British political system, and one that is shared to a greater or lesser extent in many Commonwealth countries. Whatever outcomes are agreed on in the consultation that I encourage, they must be enshrined in a very carefully constructed legal framework that can indeed insist on the severest of penalties for misuse of the powers that are being discussed in Parliament as I write.


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How will we communicate in 2113?

ScholarsAn invitation to speak on the theme of “How will we communicate in 2113?” at the third annual Commonwealth Residential School meeting at Cumberland Lodge provided an interesting opportunity (at least for me!) to explore some fascinating interests “at the edges” of communication and technology.

The outline of what I intended to say focused around the following themes:

  • Grounding prediction
  • Are there any certainties?
  • How do we communicate today, and why?
    • In whose interests?
  • Trends in communication and technology
  • Extending into the foreseeable future

In particular, I explored the implications of seven trends:

  • The observation that technology can be used for “good” or for “evil” – challenging the many instrumental views of technology in development that so often dominate thinking today
  • Making the case that technology is increasing inequality rather than reducing it – too few people really understand this, but to me it is critically important, and has very significant implications for the future
  • Those in power use technology to remain in power: both states and global corporations.  This is one of the key drivers for how ICTs will be designed and used in the future
  • The ways in which our understandings of privacy have been changed as a result of recent developments in ICTs, and the implications for the relationships between citizens, states, and global corporations
  • Cambridge telephone statueThe ICT sustainability crisis – not only in terms of the energy demands of ICTs, but much more importantly the ways through which corporations generate much of their profit through  making users buy new hardware and software on a regular basis
  • The implications for learning and literacy of next generation ICTs – we will no longer need to learn to read and write, we will be able to understand people speaking any language, and the changes to the brain caused by no longer needing to remember things.
  • The blurring of the human and the machine – and whether or not we want to become cyborgs (encouraging participants to see one of my favourite films – Blade Runner – and also to see the recently released Cloud Atlas!).

One of the fun things about the session was that for the first time I used Promethean’s ActivInspire to gauge participants’ thoughts on a range of issues around their current usage of ICTs.  This did not throw up any particularly novel views from the participants – although 25% felt that Edward Snowden was wrong in exposing the NSA’s mass surveillance programme, with 56%  agreeing that he was right to do so.

Ultimately, I found myself arguing that we have some very important ethical decisions that need to be made here and now with respect to our relationships with ICTs, because there are many forces at play that are seeking to make us increasingly intertwined, and unless we act very soon we may already be far too far down the path to turn back.

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iPhone software update 4.3.3: limits tracking cache

Good to see that Apple has now released a software update (iOS 4.3.3) that means that iPhones will no longer retain information about where they have been!

As Apple, states:

“This update contains changes to the iOS crowd-sourced location database cache including:

  • Reduces the size of the cache
  • No longer backs the cache up to iTunes
  • Deletes the cache entirely when Location Services is turned off”

In effect, this means that the amount of information kept on the ‘phone is limited to a week’s usage, and the location data are no longer backed up on users’ computers.

In response to criticisms over iPhone location data being stored on the ‘phones and backed up on users’ computers, Apple claimed that iPhones were not actually logging locations – “Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Calculating a phone’s location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes. iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available (such as indoors or in basements). These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple”.

Apple went on to say that the fact that up to a year’s data was stored was the result of a bug: “The reason the iPhone stores so much data is a bug we uncovered and plan to fix shortly (see Software Update section below). We don’t think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data”.  Further, their statement also emphasised that Apple believe that personal information security and privacy and important: “Yes, we strongly do. For example, iPhone was the first to ask users to give their permission for each and every app that wanted to use location. Apple will continue to be one of the leaders in strengthening personal information security and privacy”.

For further comment, see:

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Your iPhone is being tracked

I wonder how many iPhone users are aware that their movements are automatically being logged in a small, easily accessible application on their ‘phones?  Recent, important work by Alasdair Allen and Pete Warden has shown just how easy it would be for unscrupulous people to access this information.  It also raises worrying questions about why Apple has done this, and why they have not clearly informed users that this information is so readily available?

Allen and Warden have written a neat Open Source application that enables users to visualise this information – down to a very high level of detail in space-time – called iPhoneTracker.  Essentially, Apple stores this information on the ‘phone in terms of latitude, longitude and time stamp.  The database of locations is stored on the iPhone, but is also on any backups that might have been made when synced with iTunes.

As Apple and Warden comment with respect to why Apple has done this, “It’s unclear. One guess might be that they have new features in mind that require a history of your location, but that’s pure speculation. The fact that it’s transferred across devices when you restore or migrate is evidence the data-gathering isn’t accidental.”

They also point to the very serious moral and ethical issues that this raises: “The most immediate problem is that this data is stored in an easily-readable form on your machine. Any other program you run or user with access to your machine can look through it. The more fundamental problem is that Apple are collecting this information at all. Cell-phone providers collect similar data almost inevitably as part of their operations, but it’s kept behind their firewall. It normally requires a court order to gain access to it, whereas this is available to anyone who can get their hands on your phone or computer. By passively logging your location without your permission, Apple have made it possible for anyone from a jealous spouse to a private investigator to get a detailed picture of your movements”.

The screen grab from their visualiser shows where I have been using my iPhone in recent months. Perhaps colleagues who have been sceptical about why I have various different ‘phones and different SIM cards will now understand the reason!

We should all be immensely grateful to Alasdair Allen and Pete Warden for bringing this to our attention!

See also Jacqui Cheng’s recent article on this.


Filed under 'phones, Ethics, ICT4D

Google and privacy

I am often criticised for my concerns over Google’s ethical claims. Most people seem to like the apparently ‘free’ services that the company offers, and are not greatly concerned about the implications of sharing private information with a corporate giant that claims to do no evil.  I was therefore very pleased to see a report yesterday on the the BBC’s news site that Google is to be audited over privacy concerns relating to its social network Buzz.  Highlights of the article noted that:

  • “Google will be subjected to independent privacy audits for the next 20 years over charges that it “violated its own privacy promises”.  The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said that the search giant wrongly used information from Google Mail users last year to create its social network Buzz”
  • “When companies make privacy pledges, they need to honour them,” said Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC. “This is a tough settlement that ensures that Google will honour its commitments to consumers and build strong privacy protections into all of its operations.”
  • “Buzz’s launch in February 2010 came under heavy criticism from users. According to Google, the system was designed to bring together members’ personal and private lives. One widespread complaint was over a feature that allowed it to publicly list other Gmail contacts a user was most frequently in touch with. While this feature could be turned off, the default setting was to leave it on – potentially revealing a user’s contact with an ex-spouse, employer or similar.”
  • “The FTC said “deceptive tactics” were used to populate the network with personal data gained from use of Gmail, and that when users were given the change to opt-out of Buzz, they were still enrolled in some of its features”
  • “The FTC said Google violated its privacy policy which stated: “When you sign up for a particular service that requires registration, we ask you to provide personal information.”
  • “Reflecting on the latest settlement, Alma Whitten, Google’s director of privacy, product and engineering, said: “We’d like to apologize again for the mistakes we made with Buzz. “While today’s announcement thankfully put this incident behind us, we are 100 percent focused on ensuring that our new privacy procedures effectively protect the interests of all our users going forward.”

In another recent report from the BBC, it is also interesting to note that the US Department of Justice has approved a New York court ruling that blocked an agreement between Google and publishers over the publication of books online.  As the report noted, “An agreement between Google and publishers over the web firm’s publication of books online has been blocked by a US court. The web giant has scanned millions of books and made them available online via its eBooks platform. Google had negotiated the deal to settle a six-year-old class action suit claiming infringement of copyright. But the New York court said the deal would “simply go too far”, giving Google an unfair competitive advantage”.

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Filed under Ethics, ICT4D