Tag Archives: privacy

Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised

Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread.  It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]

This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised.  It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war.  Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]

The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA

http://hiram1555.com/2016/10/21/presidential-debates-indicate-end-of-us-empire-analyst/

Source: Hiram1555.com

I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv]  One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power.  Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power.  Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.

The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states.  Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi]  These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.

Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century.   President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise.   Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own).  China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]

Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality.  China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.

An ever more digital world

https://www.forbes.com/sites/columbiabusinessschool/2020/04/21/how-covid-19-will-accelerate-a-digital-therapeutics-revolution/

Source: Forbes.com

The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19.  Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x]  Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.

There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]

One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19.  While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved.  For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity.  Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]

There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest.  First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling.  This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]

Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.

Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.

https://www.wired.com/story/phones-track-spread-covid19-good-idea/

Source: Wired.com

A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance.  Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii]  However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]

One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them.  In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community.  However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.

Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics.  Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.

Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-herd-immunity-meaning-definition-what-vaccine-immune-covid-19-a9397871.html

Source: Independent.co.uk

Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world.  Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm.  Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future.  People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.

The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail.  The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition.  This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways.  Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx]  Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world.  Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.

There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently.  Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.

We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.

Increasing global inequalities

https://gulfnews.com/photos/news/indian-migrants-forced-to-walk-home-amid-covid-19-lockdown-1.1585394226024?slide=2

Source: Gulfnews.com

The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.

This is already all too visible.  Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi]  In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii]  In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv]  The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv]  People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi]  The list of immediate crises grows by the day.

More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed.  It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm.  Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present.   Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives.  Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives.  Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]

Looking positively to the future.

People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:

  • China is the global political economic power,
  • Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
  • Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
  • Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
  • There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.

In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer.  Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:

  • First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
  • This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
  • Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
  • Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised.  Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
  • Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
  • Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others.  It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.

I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice.  Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy  an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.


Notes:

[i] For current figures see https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ and https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6, although all data related with this coronavirus must be treated with great caution; see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/data-and-the-scandal-of-the-uks-covid-19-survival-rate/

[ii] Modi’s hasty coronavirus lockdown of India leaves many fearful for what comes next, https://time.com/5812394/india-coronavirus-lockdown-modi/

[iii] Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, might well be an exception with his $1 billion donation to support Covid-19 relief and other charities; see https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/7/21212766/jack-dorsey-coronavirus-covid-19-donate-relief-fund-square-twitter

[iv] See, for example, discussion in Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  I appreciate that such arguments infuriate many people living in the USA,

[v] See, for example, George Parker’s, We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, The Atlantic, June 2020 (preview) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/.

[vi] Based on figures from https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ on 15th April 2020.  For comparison, Spain had 39.74 reported deaths per 100,000, Italy 35.80, and the UK 18.96.

[vii] There are many commentaries on this, but The Wall Street Journal’s account on 9 February 2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-trade-war-reshaped-global-commerce-11581244201 is useful, as is the Pietersen Institute’s timeline https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-investment-policy-watch/trump-trade-war-china-date-guide.

[viii] For a good account of his use of language see Eren Orbey’s comment in The New Yorker, Trump’s “Chinese virus” and what’s at stake in the coronovirus’s name,  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name

[ix] China’s massive long-term strategic investments across the world, not least through its 一带一路 (Belt and Road) initiative, have placed it in an extremely strong position to reap the benefits of its revitalised economy from 2021 onwards (for a good summary of this initiative written in January 2020 see https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative)

[x] Kaplan, J., Frias, L. and McFall-Johnsen, M., A third of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown…, https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=DE&IR=T

[xi] This is despite conspiracy theorists arguing that those who were going to gain most from Covid-19 especially in the digital tech and pharmaceutical industry had been active in promoting global fear of the coronavirus, or worse still had actually engineered it for their advantage.  See, for example, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/technology/bill-gates-virus-conspiracy-theories.html, or Thomas Ricker, Bill Gates is now the leading target for Coronavirus falsehoods, says report, https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/17/21224728/bill-gates-coronavirus-lies-5g-covid-19 .

[xii] See, for example, Shah, H. and Kumar, K., Ten digital technologies helping humans in the fight against Covid-19, Frost and Sullivan, https://ww2.frost.com/frost-perspectives/ten-digital-technologies-helping-humans-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, Gergios Petropolous, Artificial interlligence in the fight against COVID-19, Bruegel, https://www.bruegel.org/2020/03/artificial-intelligence-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, or Beech, P., These new gadgets were designed to fight COVID-19, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-gadgets-innovation-technology/. It is also important to note that the notion of “fighting” the coronavirus is also deeply problematic.

[xiii] For my much more detailed analysis of these issues, see Tim Unwin (26 March 2020), collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response/

[xiv] For more on this see Tim Unwin (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and for a brief comment https://unwin.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/dehumanization-cyborgs-and-the-internet-of-things/.

[xv] Although, significantly, Chinese companies are also involved; see https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition

[xvi] For the work of the Gates Foundation and US pharmaceutical companies in fighting Covid-19 https://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Article/2020/03/27/Bill-Gates-big-pharma-collaborate-on-COVID-19-treatments

[xvii] There is a huge literature, both academic and policy related, on this, but see for example OCHCR (2014) Online mass-surveillance: “Protect right to privacy even when countering terrorism” – UN expert, https://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15200&LangID=E; Privacy International, Scrutinising the global counter-terrorism agenda, https://privacyinternational.org/campaigns/scrutinising-global-counter-terrorism-agenda; Simon Hale-Ross (2018) Digital Privacy, Terrorism and Law Enforcement: the UK’s Response to Terrorist Communication, London: Routledge; and Lomas, N. (2020) Mass surveillance for national security does conflict with EU privacy rights, court advisor suggests, TechCrunch, https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/15/mass-surveillance-for-national-security-does-conflict-with-eu-privacy-rights-court-advisor-suggests/.

[xviii] Kharpal, A. (26 March 2020) Use of surveillance to fight coronavirus raised c oncenrs about government power after pandemic ends, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-surveillance-used-by-governments-to-fight-pandemic-privacy-concerns.html; but see also more critical comments about the efficacy of such systems as by Vaughan, A. (17 April 2020) There are many reasons why Covid-19 contact-tracing apps may not work, NewScientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2241041-there-are-many-reasons-why-covid-19-contact-tracing-apps-may-not-work/

[xix] There are widely differing views as to the ethics of this.  See, for example, Article 19 (2 April 2020) Coronavirus: states use of digital surveillance technologies to fight pandemic must respect human rights, https://www.article19.org/resources/covid-19-states-use-of-digital-surveillance-technologies-to-fight-pandemic-must-respect-human-rights/ ; McDonald, S. (30 March 2020) The digital response to the outbreak of Covid-19, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/digital-response-outbreak-covid-19. See also useful piece by Arcila (2020) for ICT4Peace on “A human-centric framework to evaluate the risks raised by contact-tracing applications” https://mcusercontent.com/e58ea7be12fb998fa30bac7ac/files/07a9cd66-0689-44ff-8c4f-6251508e1e48/Beatriz_Botero_A_Human_Rights_Centric_Framework_to_Evaluate_the_Security_Risks_Raised_by_Contact_Tracing_Applications_FINAL_BUA_6.pdf.pdf

[xx] See, for example, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/the-environmental-impact-of-covid-19/ss-BB11JxGv?li=BBoPWjQ, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world, and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-co2-emissions/.

[xxi] See The Guardian (23 April 2020) ‘We’re in a prison’: Singapore’s million migrant workers suffer as Covid-19 surges back, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/singapore-million-migrant-workers-suffer-as-covid-19-surges-back

[xxii] Al Jazeera (6 April 2020) India: Coronavirus lockdown sees exodus from cities, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/india-coronavirus-lockdown-sees-exodus-cities-200406104405477.html.

[xxiii] Financial Times (13th April) China-Africa relations rocked by alleged racism over Covid-19, https://www.ft.com/content/48f199b0-9054-4ab6-aaad-a326163c9285

[xxiv] Global Citizen (22 April 2020) Covid-19 Lockdowns are sparking a hunger crisis in the UK, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/covid-19-food-poverty-rising-in-uk/

[xxv] Mahler, D.G., Lakner, C., Aguilar, R.A.C. and Wu, H. (20 April 2020) The impact of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: why Sub-Saharan Africa might be the region hardest hit, World Bank Blogs, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/impact-covid-19-coronavirus-global-poverty-why-sub-saharan-africa-might-be-region-hardest

[xxvi] Bridging the Gap (2020) The impact of Covid-19 on persons with disabilities, https://bridgingthegap-project.eu/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-people-with-disabilities/

[xxvii] Statista (Januarv 2020) https://www.statista.com/statistics/269329/penetration-rate-of-the-internet-by-region/

[xxviii] For a wider discussion of the negative environmental impacts of climate change see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/digital-technologies-and-climate-change/.

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On hacking drones…

DroneThe arrival of relatively cheap drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) that can be purchased and used by people other than the military and civilian “authorities” raises fundamental questions about privacy and security.  To be sure, there is good evidence of the positive role that drones can play, particularly in providing humanitarian assistance, and in delivering supplies to remote regions, but insufficient attention is paid to their darker side.  Increasingly, countries such as the UK are wisely seeking to control the use of drones near airports (see for example Civil Aviation Authority) and no fly zones are being created in sensitive areas (see noflydrones and the UK Air Navigation Order, CAP393).  However, much less attention is paid to the implications of the use of drones for photographing or tracking individuals without their knowledge or permission.  This is especially so when drones are used by those with malicious intent to monitor or photograph people’s activities in their homes or on their properties.  In particular their use by burglars to scope properties is becoming increasingly common, and of growing concern to the police (The Guardian, 3rd April 2017).

One fundamental question that requires resolution is why, if people are allowed to fly drones over someone’s property, that person is not permitted to “take down” the drones?  There seems to be a fundamental and unfair asymmetry here.

Broadly speaking there are three main ways through which drones can be taken down:

  • by shooting them out of the sky with small missiles or guns;
  • by catching them using larger, more powerful drones with nets; or
  • by hacking their control software.

The first of these is problematic for most people, is probably illegal (except when used by the military and police), and could cause collateral injury to others.  The second is undoubtedly feasible, and examples such as Delft Dynamic’s Dronecatcher, and the Tokyo police’s use of nets to catch suspicious looking drones, are becoming increasingly widespread.  One of the best defences against unwanted drones is simply to use a more powerful drone fitted with a net to take them down.

Many drones, though, are susceptible to relatively simple hacking that takes advantage of insecurities in the wireless connections between users and their drones.  The following articles present interesting advice for those wishing to hack drones and retain their privacy in the face of increasing drone surveillance:

Do please suggest additional resources of interest to those seeking to hack drones.

For those interested in the frightening potential for drones to be used as autonomous devices in warfare, this video produced to encourage the banning of autonomous lethal weapons is an absolute “must watch”.  Much of this technology is already in existence, and being used to target and kill people who are deemed by the killer (currently most frequently a powerful state) to be undesirable.  It is not difficult to envisage their widespread use, not only in warfare, in the future.  All those responsible for developing such technologies have a responsibility to ensure that they are only used for good applications.

A more recent update, focusing mainly on “weapons” that can be fired to bring down drones with nets was published by the BBC in October 2018.

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Filed under Drones, Hacking, ICT4D

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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Google admits it is in breach of UK data privacy

The BBC has reported that “Google has admitted that it had not deleted users’ personal data gathered during surveys for its Street View service. The data should have been wiped almost 18 months ago as part of a deal signed by the firm in November 2010. Google has been told to give the data to the UK’s Information Commissioner (ICO) for forensic analysis”.

When it was originally reported that Google had obtained private data from unsecured wireless networks whilst it was gaining images and spatial data for Street View, the company said it was a mistake and agreed to delete the data by the end of 2010.  However, Google has now contacted the UK’s Information Commissioner to say that not all of these data have been destroyed, asking what it should do with it.

As the BBC continued to report “Possessing data that should have been deleted ‘appears to breach’ the undertaking Google signed in November 2010, said the ICO in a statement. ‘The ICO is clear that this information should never have been collected in the first place and the company’s failure to secure its deletion as promised is cause for concern,’ it added”.

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Google and Facebook: privacy and security

I have long been critical of Google, but two thing have recently begun to make me begin to think again.  First, they have developed an amazing App – Google Translate!  Whilst the translations are by no means perfect, the idea behind the App is brilliant.  At its best, you can speak the phrase that you want translated, and the App will then give you a translation in more than 60 different languages, all as text and some as a sound file.  Using such software, someone can speak a phrase in Indonesian and then the App will translate it so that someone else can hear the phrase in Portuguese or Russian or Czech.  This is really beginning to use the potential of mobile technologies to help people from many different backgrounds communicate with each other.

However, this is not the main purpose of this note.  Anyone who uses Google software cannot but be aware of the changes to Google’s privacy policy that are due to come into force on 1st March.  This is the important thing – Google, for a change, appears to be trying to be much more open than ever before in explaining the reasons why it is adopting new privacy policies.  As they say, “We’re getting rid of over 60 different privacy policies across Google and replacing them with one that’s a lot shorter and easier to read. Our new policy covers multiple products and features, reflecting our desire to create one beautifully simple and intuitive experience across Google”. In clarifying the reasons for this, Google claims that it will make it easier to work across Google, it will be tailored for users, it will be easier to share and collaborate, that its fundamental principle of protecting user privacy has not changed, and that it helps users understand how Google uses their data.

Google has five core privacy principles:

  1. “Use information to provide our users with valuable products and services.
  2. Develop products that reflect strong privacy standards and practices.
  3. Make the collection of personal information transparent.
  4. Give users meaningful choices to protect their privacy.
  5. Be a responsible steward of the information that we hold”.

However, are these principles really as sound as they at first sight appear?  Google’s profits have been built around the fundamental notion that it encourages consumers to give information to the company that is of considerable value to Google  in exchange for ‘free’ services, such as the world’s best search engine, e-mails and document sharing.

An alternative perspective is offered by those who see this as a deliberate move to combine information about individuals from across the platforms that it now owns, and use this to generate even greater profits.  As the BBC has commented, “Critics have hit out at Google’s decision to merge personal data from YouTube, Gmail, search, social network Google+ and dozens of other services”.  As the BBC report goes on to note, “Data is a hugely valuable commodity as firms seek ways of making money from users’ web habits with ever more targeted adverts”.

It is not only Google, though, that is combining aspects of its various services, and the information it gleans from them.  As the competition between Google and Facebook hots up, Facebook is also combining the different data it holds about people.  Again, as the BBC comments “Facebook is also moving to merge people’s data, with tweaks to how user information is displayed. Its new feature, Timeline, shares users’ past history on the site in a more readable way. While it does not expose any more information that was previously available on its traditional profile page it does makes it easier to view older posts. Currently the system is voluntary, but Facebook is making it compulsory”.

The forthcoming IPO (initial public offering) of Facebook provides an interesting opportunity to reflect on the balance of power between the top valued companies that have built their businesses on the technologies of the Internet, and an apparently endless desire by people to find out about each other and share information about themselves.  A recent report by Keith Woolcock in Time Business captures this well: “The upcoming IPO of Facebook, the flak surrounding Twitter’s decision to censor some tweets, and Google’s weaker-than-expected 4th-quarter earnings all point to one of the big events of our times: The crazy, chaotic, idealistic days of the Internet are ending. Once, the Prairies were open and shared by everyone. Then the farmers arrived and fenced them in. The same is happening to the Internet: Apple, Amazon and Facebook are putting up fences — and Google is increasingly being left outside. The old Internet on which Google has thrived is still there, of course, but like the wilderness it is shrinking. Often these days, we sign up for Facebook or Amazon’s private version of the Internet. At other times, we use a smartphone and download an App instead of using Google search. Investors are already placing their bets on who the winners of the new Internet will be: Over the past five years Amazon’s shares, despite their recent fall, have risen 370%. Apple’s are up 438%. Google’s, meanwhile, have merely risen by 17% in all that time.  It is still the early days of this long-term trend, but my hunch is that this gap in performance will widen over the coming year — and that Google’s long slow decline has already begun”.

Perhaps I should start feeling sorry for Google after all.  At least I began this blog by encouraging people to start using their great translation App!  Ultimately, though, we should all reflect a bit deeper on what it is we are giving away for free when we sign up for a service that is free for us to use.  We should all also be much more careful about just how much information about ourselves we make available publicly – just in case one day we regret the profit that others have made out of it!

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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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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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Digital Britain

The UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (I still think this is a crazy mixture, but…)  published its final report on Digital Britain on 16th June 2009.  It claims that “The Digital Britain Report is the Government’s strategic vision for ensuring that the UK is at the leading edge of the global digital economy. It is an example of industrial activism in a crucial growth sector. The report contains actions and recommendations to ensure first rate digital and communications infrastructure to promote and protect talent and innovation in our creative industries, to modernize TV and radio frameworks, and support local news, and it introduces policies to maximize the social and economic benefits from digital technologies”.

The key measures it recommends are:

  • A three-year National Plan to improve Digital Participation
  • Universal Access to today’s broadband services by 2012
  • Next Generation fund for investment in tomorrow’s broadband services
  • Digital radio upgrade by the end of 2015
  • mobile spectrum liberalisation, enhancing 3G coverage and accelerating Next Generation mobile services
  • robust legal and regulatory framework to combat Digital Piracy
  • support for public service content partnerships
  • a revised digital remit for Channel 4
  • consultation on funding options for national, regional and local news

One of the most interesting statements in the executive summary is that “For individuals a quiet revolution has delivered seamless connectivity almost everywhere. That revolution ranges from personal pocket libraries of music, audiovisual content and increasingly electronic literature on a scale inconceivable ten years ago; inexpensive broadband which allows efficient and family-friendly working patterns in the knowledge sector of the economy – and broadband at increasing speeds – the next generation of which, already available to nearly half Britain’s homes, allows us to send or receive 200 mp3 music files in five minutes, an entire Star Wars DVD in 3 minutes and the total digitised works of Charles Dickens in less than 10 minutes. It has given us access to a wide range of social networks, allowing us to share experiences and swap and create content. The digital revolution has also led to a huge expansion in the creation and availability of professional content. Today, the typical British consumer spends nearly half of their waking hours engaged in one form or another with the products and services of the communications sector”.  The report goes on to assert that “The UK is already a digitally enabled and to a significant degree digitally dependent economy and society. The Digital Britain Report aims to be a guide-path for how Britain can sustain its position as a leading digital economy and society”.

To my mind, the report is overly up-beat.  It fails satisfactorily to address the real challenges associated with a digital Britain, and especially:

  • it focuses primarily on the technological and economic dimensions – and not enough on the social, cultural and political issues raised by these
  • there is nothing overtly on the ethical and moral issues raised by this particular vision of a ‘digital Britain’ (‘ethics’ and ‘moral’ are words that are not even mentioned in the report)
  • although trying to grapple with some of the issues surrounding unequal access, its solutions are unlikely to have a significant impact on the lives of Britain’s poorest people and communities – the concept of a ‘digital divide’ is only mentioned three times, and there is no mention of words such as ‘inequalities’ or ‘inequality’; ‘equity’ is only mentioned twice.  The market cannot provide effective solutions for the most marginalised – and it should be the role of government to intervene to ensure that as many people as possible can benefit from the potential that such technologies can offer
  • insufficient attention is paid to the negative effects of the digital economy – in terms of the ways in which it reinforces power relationships, and enables ever greater ‘control’ and manipulation of the majority by the few.  The anarchic potential of the Internet is also insufficiently explored – and is treated negatively in the only place where it is addressed (“Most consumers, except the minority of the anarchic or those who believe in ‘freedom to’ without its counterbalancing ‘freedom from’, who believe in unsupported rights without countervailing duties, would prefer to behave lawfully if they can do so practically and with a sense of equity” p.110).  “Web 2.0” is likewise only mentioned once!
  • as I have argued elsewhere, one of the implications of Britain sustaining “its position as a leading digital economy and society” is that this will necessarily mean that it will relatively disadvantage those in poorer countries of the world.  Given my own interest in trying to ensure that poor people and marginalised communities can also truly benefit from digital communities, I am concerned by the complete lack of attention that this report pays to issues of ‘development’ – Africa is not mentioned at all, and ‘developing countries’ are only mentioned once to exemplify the impact of mobile ‘phones therein!  I wonder what colleagues in the UK’s Department for International Development have to say about this – another excellent example of lack of joined up government!

The UK government needs to understand that ICTs are about much more than simply the technology and the economy – if we are truly to use them to make the world a better place, we must emphasise the social, political and cultural aspects of their use much more than does this report on Digital Britain.

For other commentary in the UK press see:

  • James Ashton in the Times: A blurred vision for Digital Britain
  • Matthew Horsman in the Daily Telegraph: Only a sketchy road map of Digital Britain
  • BBC News: Digital Britain countdown begins

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UK Government announces that it has no plans to create a central database for storing communications data

The UK’s Home Office has recently announced that it no longer has any plans to create a centralised database to store all communciations data.  In its consultation paper presented to Parliament in April 2009, and entitled “Protecting the Public in a Changing Communications Environment“, the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith commented that “this consultation explicitly rules out the option of setting up a single store of information for use in relation to communications data”.  This is excellent news for all those concerned that the government was indeed considering establishing such a centralised database of all digital communication (see my comments in February about this). The consultation paper is a very important document, and lays out clearly the various options facing a government eager to get the balance right between privacy and security.

The consultation paper asserts that “The Government has no plans for a centralised database for storing all communications data.  An approach of this kind would require communications service providers to collect all the data required by the public authorities, and not only the data required for their business needs.  All of this communications data would then be passed to, retained in, and retrieved from, a single data store.  This could be the most effective technical solution to the challenges we face and would go furthest towards maintaining the current capability; but the Government recognises the privacy implications of a single store of communications data and does not, therefore, intend to pursue this approach”.

With reference to third party data, two approaches are identified as possible ways forward:

  • “The responsibility for collecting and retaining this additional third party data would fall on those communications providers such as the fixed line, mobile and WiFi operators, who own the network infrastructure”
  • “A further step would be for the communications service providers to process the third party communications data and match it with their own business data where it has elements in common; this would make easier the interpretation of that data if and when it were to be accessed by the public authorities”.

In the light of this, the government intends to legislate “to ensure that all data that public authorities might need, including third party data, is collected and retained by communication service providers; and that the retained data is further processed by communications service providers enabling specific requests by public authorities to be processed quickly and comprehensively”.

The government is particularly eager to receive responses on four main questions:

  • Q1  On the basis of this evidence and subject to current safeguards and oversight arrangements, do you agree that communications data is vital for law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies and emergency services in tackling serious crime, preventing terrorism and protecting the public? Found on page 22
  • Q2  Is it right for Government to maintain this capability by responding to the new communications environment? Found on page 22
  • Q3  Do you support the Government’s approach to maintaining our capabilities?  Which of the solutions should it adopt? Found on page 30
  • Q4   Do you believe that the safeguards outlined are sufficient for communications data in the future? Found on page 30

As the consultation paper concludes, “The challenge is to find a model which strikes the right balance between maximising public protection and the ability of the law enforcement and other authorities to do their jobs  to prevent and detect crime and protect the public, and minimising the intrusion into our private lives”.

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ContactPoint – the UK State is creating a database of all children

Along with many other parents across the UK, I have recently received a letter from one of my children’s schools informing me that legislation has just been passed “requiring Local Authorities to set up and run a nationwide database, known as ContactPoint, which will contain basic details about every child and young person under the age of 18 who is ordinarily resident in England”.

Why should this legislation have been passed?  Why is it compulsory?  Why should everyone have to be registered? In effect, as young people grow older, this database will eventually record information about everyone “normally resident” in the UK. It will provide yet another means through which the State collects private information about individuals, thereby enabling it to impose greater control over its citizens.

The ContactPoint website claims that ” ContactPoint will be the quick way for a practitioner to find out who else is working with the same child or young person, making it easier to deliver more coordinated support. ContactPoint is an online directory, available to authorised staff who need it to do their jobs, enabling the delivery of coordinated support for children and young people. It is also a vital tool to help safeguard children, helping to ensure that the right agencies are involved at the right time and children do not slip through the net”.

But does this require details on EVERY child in the UK to be recorded on a central database?  The passing of this legislation on 26th January gives rise to very great concern:

  1. Why should every child need to be registered?  Why does the state need to gain information about the name, address, date of birth, and contact details of all parents to be registered centrally?
  2. Given the inability of  the UK government to keep such data secure in the past, there are high risks that this personal information will become accessible to a wide range of people in the future.  Children will therefore be put at risk.
  3. There is no evidence that such a database will make any difference to early interventions when  children really do need the State to intervene to protect them
  4. Who really benefits from this?  Is it not the companies who have persuaded the Government to introduce such very expensive digital systems?
  5. What gives the State any right at all to collect such individual private information.

We must resist this ever great control by the state over its citizens – just because digital technologies enable us to do this, does not mean it is right.

Tim

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