Tag Archives: Ethics

Watching the watchers watching…

In recent months I seem to have posted several photos of ongoing surveillance, generally by people acting on behalf of the state.  Perhaps I should start a collection of these!  So, here is another one (Camden CCTV again) patrolling the streets near Euston.  I wonder how much footage they take and what they do with the images.

This is what Camden Council’s website has to say on this under the heading of “enforcement”: “We have responsibility for the enforcement of the borough’s parking and moving traffic regulations and this is carried out by Civil Enforcement Officers (CEOs) (formerly known as Parking Attendants) and through the use of CCTV. The scheme is part of the Association of London Government’s (ALG), the Mayor of London and London Borough of Camden’s commitment to the travelling public to keep London moving and ease congestion.”

What an amazing upgrade, Parking Attendants can now be confused with Chief Executive Officers!

Camden’s more detailed account goes on to say that this is done:
  • “to stop traffic congestion
  • alienate inconsiderate motorists
  • free up the bus lane to combat delays for commuters
  • to allow the free flow of traffic
  • improve journey times for bus users”

Am I the only one who finds words such as “enforcement”, “alienate” and “combat” just  a tiny bit worrying?  So, let’s keep watching the watchers…

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UK government set to re-examine Google’s infringements of privacy

Great to see the announcement reported by the BBC that Britain’s privacy watchdog is to re-examine the personal information that Google has gathered from private wi-fi networks.

As the BBC article commented, “The Information Commissioner’s Office had investigated a sample earlier this year after it was revealed that Google had collected personal data during its Street View project. At the time, it said no “significant” personal details were collected. But Google has since admitted that e-mails and passwords were copied. … Google’s admission of more detailed data has prompted further action by the ICO. “We will be making enquires to see whether this information relates to the data inadvertently captured in the UK, before deciding on the necessary course of action, including a consideration of the need to use our enforcement powers,” a spokesman said.‬ Google’s director of privacy Alma Whitten said the company would work with the ICO to answer its “further questions and concerns”.”

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Many popular Android apps share location and unique identifiers with advertisers

A recent report on the BBC website notes a study by researchers from Intel Labs, Penn State and Duke University which shows that “Some of the most popular apps written for Google’s Android phones do not tell users what is done with data they gather… . Half of 30 applications studied share location information and unique identifiers with advertisers”. Two-thirds of these popular third-party apps showed suspicious handling of personal data.

Information from the ‘phones was sent to advertisers without the users being told that data was being shared with them.  As the BBC report goes on to note,  “Some apps gathered and despatched location information even when an application was not running and some sent updates every 30 seconds.”

Whilst users should always be wary of downloading any apps that they do not necessarily trust, this seems to be yet another example of Google not being the fully trustworthy company that it would like people to believe it is.  It would be a relatively simple matter to ensure that all users are automatically warned about this when software is downloaded. As the researchers conclude, “Android’s coarse-grained access control provides insufficient protection against third-party applications seeking to collect sensitive data”.

This is definitely a powerful reason why Android ‘phones should be avoided, and once again raises serious concerns about Google’s lack of ethical probity.

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UK Government switches off child database

I have previously raised concerns about the creation of the national ContactPoint database of all children that was put in place in 2009. I’m therefore delighted to note that this is to be shut down.

The BBC  reports that the “£235m government database containing the records of England’s 11 million children has been switched off. … Within two months of the switch-off all the data collected for the system is to be destroyed, although the information will still remain in the social services, education and health departments it had been gathered from. But there have been concerns that there is nothing collating key information centrally in one place. The system, which has been running since January last year, was always controversial and was set to cost a further £41m a year. After successive delays, it was rolled out to only 15,000 users, out of the initial target of 330,000. The system was used by doctors, social workers, schools, charities and other individuals involved in the protection of children. Many said it was useful in tracking children and discovering the truth about the way they are cared for. …  But civil liberties groups criticised it as intrusive and disproportionate.”

While it is of course crucial that we find ways to try to ensure that all those seeking to support “children at risk” can share information efficiently, the creation of a national database of information about all children raised huge ethical issues.  Whilst it seems that the reason for the closure of ContactPoint was largely on cost grounds, it is good to see that this represents at least a small step back from the excessive use of ICTs by the UK state to maintain databases of information so that it can more effectively monitor and control the country’s population.

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ICTs and Special Educational Needs in Ghana

Godfred Bonnah Nkansah and I are delighted that our paper on the contribution of ICTs to the delivery of special educational needs in Ghana has just been published in Information Technology for Development, 16(3), 2010, 191-211. The paper not only provides rich empirical evidence of the usage and potential of ICTs in the special educational needs sector in Ghana, but also argues strongly that much more attention should be paid to the positive benefits that ICTs can bring to the lives of people with disabilities across Africa.

Abstract
This paper explores three main issues in the context of Ghana: constraints on the delivery of effective special educational needs (SEN); the range of information and communication technologies (ICT)-based needs identified by teachers, pupils and organizations involved in the delivery of SEN; and existing practices in the use of ICTs in SEN in the country. It concludes that people with disabilities continue to be highly marginalized, both in terms of policy and practice. Those involved in delivering SEN nevertheless recognize that ICTs can indeed contribute significantly to the learning processes of people with disabilities. Governments across Africa must take positive action to ensure that such experience with ICTs can be used to enable those with SEN to achieve their their full potential, whether in special schools or included within mainstream education.

For media comments on this research see:

  • The Commonwealth Secretariat News

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Who’s watching who at LHR?

The extent of state surveillance in the UK increases apace. Imagine my surprise when I saw this police car with a surveillance camera on the roof when I was recently passing through London Heathrow!

Perhaps we should all start taking photographs of those who are taking photographs of us while we are going about our day-to-day business!

What happens to all the photographs that the police take of us?  Imagine what would happen if we all asked for copies of such photographs under Freedom of Information legislation! Just because it is possible for the state to photograph its citizens and store this information does not mean that it is right for the state to do so.

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In defence of Godstone

Today’s announcement that “Lawyers representing 28 victims of last year’s E. coli outbreak at Godstone farm in Surrey are preparing to demand “substantial” damages in a group legal action” raises complex and interesting issues. Of course it is extremely sad that so many people suffered, and are still suffering, from the outbreak of E. coli traced to the farm in September 2009.  However, Godstone farm has provided an important source of education and enjoyment for thousands of people over many years.  It does not make huge profits, and it is difficult to imagine how the owners could afford to pay substantial damages.

I have extremely fond memories of taking my children to Godstone farm on many occasions more than a decade ago.  What struck me particularly was just how much the owners advertised the importance of people washing their hands.  Indeed, I find it difficult to believe that anyone could have visited the farm then without being aware of the risks that were involved.  Godstone provided many more notices and offered more taps for people to use than did most other farms that we visited.

There is always a risk that people can pick up infections and illnesses from animals.  Parents of young children have responsibilities for their care in all sorts of situations – including the need to wash their hands carefully when they have been in contact with animals.  Likewise, farms have a duty to inform the public as soon as they are aware that their animals definitely carry disease.

I guess that the only real winners in this case will be the lawyers!

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The subsequent independent report published on 15th June  was widely reported as being critical of both the Health Protection Agency and the farm:

  • “A “substantial” number of E.coli cases could have been prevented if health chiefs had responded quickly to an outbreak at a petting farm, a damning report said today. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) missed a key opportunity to take action which would have restricted the size of the outbreak at Godstone Farm, near Redhill, Surrey, last year” (The Independent)
  • St George’s University of London press release about the findings of Professor George Griffin who led the investigation

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Google admits that its Street View cars collected WiFi information

The Guardian newspaper reported yesterday that “Google has been accidentally gathering extracts of personal web activity from domestic wifi networks through the Street View cars it has used since 2007”.

Can anyone really believe that Google did this by accident? The ‘discovery’ was made because Germany’s data protection authority demanded an audit of Google’s data. As the Guardian report continued “As well as systematically photographing streets and gathering 3D images of cities and towns around the world, Google’s Street View cars are fitted with antennas that scan local wifi networks and use the data for its location services”.

This is a clear invasion of privacy, and is absolutely typical of Google’s cavalier attitude towards the ways in which ICTs have transformed our approaches to what can be deemed ‘public’ and ‘private’ information.

Google’s blog on the 14th May, included a statement by Alan Eustace, Senior VP, Engineering & Research who commented that “Nine days ago the data protection authority (DPA) in Hamburg, Germany asked to audit the WiFi data that our Street View cars collect for use in location-based products like Google Maps for mobile, which enables people to find local restaurants or get directions. His request prompted us to re-examine everything we have been collecting, and during our review we discovered that a statement made in a blog post on April 27 was incorrect. In that blog post, and in a technical note sent to data protection authorities the same day, we said that while Google did collect publicly broadcast SSID information (the WiFi network name) and MAC addresses (the unique number given to a device like a WiFi router) using Street View cars, we did not collect payload data (information sent over the network). But it’s now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) WiFi networks, even though we never used that data in any Google products”.

Google went on to say that this was quite simply a mistake: “So how did this happen? Quite simply, it was a mistake. In 2006 an engineer working on an experimental WiFi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast WiFi data. A year later, when our mobile team started a project to collect basic WiFi network data like SSID information and MAC addresses using Google’s Street View cars, they included that code in their software—although the project leaders did not want, and had no intention of using, payload data”.

The point is that mistakes do happen; no digital system is entirely secure.  This is one of the reasons why they should not be collecting such data in the first place!  If they make mistakes such as this, how can anyone believe them when they say that they are not using the data?  They use all other data that they collect, such as information from searches on Google, and the e-mails people send using Google mail!

Eustace concluded by saying what Google would do about this incident: “Maintaining people’s trust is crucial to everything we do, and in this case we fell short. So we will be:

  • Asking a third party to review the software at issue, how it worked and what data it gathered, as well as to confirm that we deleted the data appropriately; and
  • Internally reviewing our procedures to ensure that our controls are sufficiently robust to address these kinds of problems in the future…

The engineering team at Google works hard to earn your trust—and we are acutely aware that we failed badly here. We are profoundly sorry for this error and are determined to learn all the lessons we can from our mistake”.

Google have not had my trust for a very long time.  Yes, they have a great search engine – but they should stick to that, and stop “ogling” at us in other ways!

It is also a timely reminder for those who do not protect their WiFi networks, that they should indeed do so with robust passwords!

Other reports on this announcement include:

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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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