Seeing how devices talk to each other

Your computer connects to your router, which connects to your modem. Your printer connects to your computer. The devices all send data and talk to each other. Nicole He and Eran Hilleli imagined these conversations in augmented reality:

The application would first detect all of the different devices connected to your network; this would include the more obvious ones like computers or phones, as well as other things, like TVs, speakers, game consoles, vacuums or washing machines. It would then locate their manufacturing data and use it to recast your devices as charming characters, spawning on nearby surfaces in augmented reality. Each character’s design would hint at the device it represents while remaining playful and open to interpretation (e.g. a character that resembles a TV portraying your TV).

The playful, cartoon-like devices contrast with the more creepy angle of a connected home.

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Seeing how devices talk to each other

Your computer connects to your router, which connects to your modem. Your printer connects to your computer. The devices all send data and talk to each other. Nicole He and Eran Hilleli imagined these conversations in augmented reality:

The application would first detect all of the different devices connected to your network; this would include the more obvious ones like computers or phones, as well as other things, like TVs, speakers, game consoles, vacuums or washing machines. It would then locate their manufacturing data and use it to recast your devices as charming characters, spawning on nearby surfaces in augmented reality. Each character’s design would hint at the device it represents while remaining playful and open to interpretation (e.g. a character that resembles a TV portraying your TV).

The playful, cartoon-like devices contrast with the more creepy angle of a connected home.

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A short film on giving up privacy, for better or worse

We know what you did during lockdown is a short fiction film by Financial Times that demonstrates the challenges of using data for good at the sacrifice of privacy and the complexity of individual lives. Worth the watch.

I immediately wanted to unplug every single internet-connected device in the house. But of course I did not.

See also the short film Sight from 2012, which imagines a world where everyone’s reality is augmented with data through digitized contact lenses.

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When you don’t own your face

For The New York Times, Kashmir Hill describes the implications of facial recognition becoming a thing that everyone just has:

Retail chains that get their hands on technology like this could try to use it to more effectively blacklist shoplifters, a use Rite Aid has already piloted (but abandoned). In recent years, surveillance companies casually rolled out automated license-plate readers that track cars’ locations, which are frequently used to solve crimes; such companies could easily add face reading as a feature. The advertising industry that tracks your every movement online would be able to do so in the real world: That scene from “Minority Report” in which Tom Cruise’s character flees through a shopping mall of targeted pop-up ads — “John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right about now!” — could be our future.

No thank you.

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Public agencies using facial recognition software without oversight

An anonymous source supplied BuzzFeed News with usage data from Clearview AI, the facial recognition service that was banned by many police departments nationwide. Many agencies still used and/or tried it:

The data, provided by a source who declined to be named for fear of retribution, has limitations. When asked about it in March of this year, Clearview AI did not confirm or dispute its authenticity. Some 335 public entities in the dataset confirmed to BuzzFeed News that their employees had tested or worked with the software, while 210 organizations denied any use. Most entities — 1,161 — did not respond to questions about whether they had used it.

Still, the data indicates that Clearview has broadly distributed its facial recognition software to federal agencies and police departments nationwide, offering the app to thousands of police officers and government employees, who at times used it without training or oversight. Often, agencies that acknowledged their employees had used the software confirmed it happened without the knowledge of their superiors, let alone the public they serve.

BuzzFeed News also made a searchable table so you can see if your local agencies are on the list.

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Tracking Capitol rioters through their mobile phone data

For NYT Opinion, Charlie Warzel and Stuart A. Thompson returned to the topic of location data logged by our mobile phones. This time though, they turned their attention to the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021:

The data we were given showed what some in the tech industry might call a God-view vantage of that dark day. It included about 100,000 location pings for thousands of smartphones, revealing around 130 devices inside the Capitol exactly when Trump supporters were storming the building. Times Opinion is only publishing the names of people who gave their permission to be quoted in this article.

As the animation plays out, you can clearly see the dots cluster around the rally area and then make their way to the Capitol building.

This surveillance stuff through consumer data (which companies can buy) seems way too easy.

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U.S. military buys location data from apps

Joseph Cox, reporting for Motherboard:

Some app developers Motherboard spoke to were not aware who their users’ location data ends up with, and even if a user examines an app’s privacy policy, they may not ultimately realize how many different industries, companies, or government agencies are buying some of their most sensitive data. U.S. law enforcement purchase of such information has raised questions about authorities buying their way to location data that may ordinarily require a warrant to access. But the USSOCOM contract and additional reporting is the first evidence that U.S. location data purchases have extended from law enforcement to military agencies.

Oh.

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Student surveillance and online proctoring

To combat cheating during online exams, many schools have utilized services that try to detect unusual behavior through webcam video. As with most automated surveillance systems, there are some issues. For The Washington Post, Drew Harwell looks into the social implications of student surveillance:

Fear of setting off the systems’ alarms has led students to contort themselves in unsettling ways. Students with dark skin have shined bright lights at their face, worrying the systems wouldn’t recognize them. Other students have resorted to throwing up in trash cans.

Some law students who took New York’s first online bar exam last month, a 90-minute test proctored by the company ExamSoft, said they had urinated in their chairs because they weren’t allowed to leave their computers, according to a survey by two New York state lawmakers pushing to change the rules for licensing new attorneys during the pandemic.

Oh.

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Blacklight, a tool to see how the websites you visit are tracking you

Companies are tracking what you do online. You know this. But it can be a challenge to know the extent, because the methods are hidden on purpose. So The Markup built Blacklight:

To investigate the pervasiveness of online tracking, The Markup spent 18 months building a one-of-a-kind free public tool that can be used to inspect websites for potential privacy violations in real time. Blacklight reveals the trackers loading on any site—including methods created to thwart privacy-protection tools or watch your every scroll and click.

We scanned more than 80,000 of the world’s most popular websites with Blacklight and found more than 5,000 were “fingerprinting” users, identifying them even if they block third-party cookies.

We also found more than 12,000 websites loaded scripts that watch and record all user interactions on a page—including scrolls and mouse movements. It’s called “session recording” and we found a higher prevalence of it than researchers had documented before.

Try it out here. Just enter a URL, and you’ll see a real-time count of the ad trackers, third-party cookies, cookie evaders, and keystroke recorders on any given site.

This is why I got rid of Google Analytics, social media widgets, and ad-serving snippets on FD years ago.

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Randomization to preserve anonymity

Adam Pearce and Ellen Jiang for Google’s PAIR, explain how granular data can lead to easy identification of individuals and how randomization can help:

Aggregate statistics about private information are valuable, but can be risky to collect. We want researchers to be able to study things like the connection between demographics and health outcomes without revealing our entire medical history to our neighbors. The coin flipping technique in this article, called randomized response, makes it possible to safely study private information.

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