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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 21 June 2019, 4:00 pm

Get lost

Does anyone here remember the outrage over the introduction of a national identity card? It was quite the palaver with everything from politicians shouting about how good it would be for everyone to be on a database to cries about the Book of Revelations and "the number of the beast" and what not and eventually the whole thing died a death.

It was so long ago now that Google doesn't pick up the story and my investigative journalist skills have failed to pull up even a useful summary of the debate.

One element that I recall is talk of "where will this all end" and the slippery slope to tracking devices for all citizens and the Orwellian implications contained within.

Naturally this was before cellphones really took of and we all voluntarily signed up for a location tracking device so it should come as no surprise that now the government is indeed going to track our every movement, albeit for a slightly different reason.

First things first - cellphones need to know where they are so they can deliver the call or text or data session to you. It's no mystery, no secret squirrel madness, it's how cellphones work.

Remember the old days of 3G and the noise that would come out of the car speakers when you put your cellphone too close to them? That "dit dit dit dit" noise was the phone connecting to the nearest tower to tell it "I'm here, I'm here" in case the tower needed to route a call to you.

The phones are much less likely to make that noise today but they still check in with towers and in doing so they still broadcast your location. They can be quite accurate as well. In remote locations you're probably only attached to one site at a time - so somewhere in  a 90km radius for example, but in the city with many competing cellsites you're likely to connect to four or five and that means your position (well, your phone's position) can be triangulated down to a few metres.

There are pluses and minuses to this. Pluses include being sent your text messages and whatnot accurately and in a timely fashion. It's also useful if you have some kind of emergency and call for help - your phone can share your location even if you're incapacitated. Likewise, the new Civil Defence emergency alerting service will alert only those people in the tsunami danger zone (for instance) and not terrify dear old things in other parts of the country.

But it also means you are actually being tracked at all times. Normally only the mobile phone company's system can see you (take it from me, there is no giant screen with everyone's locations being displayed on a map in real time, OK?) but when required it can report back in some detail to the authorities (but only when the correct court order is issued, right guys?).

So it's a trade-off between utility and potential loss of anonymity or privacy.

All this came to a head this week when Statistics New Zealand revealed it will be using cellphone location data to help it plot population movements and density so it can better advise governments (both central and local) of where to build more infrastructure.

Cue howls of outrage.

Phone companies have been doing this for years of course. They anonymise data and share it with advertisers. The StatsNZ pilot programme will take a snapshot every hour and won't have any ability to tell who each of those little dots on their maps is, and has already been vetted by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner who has no concerns about the process being used or the degree of privacy afforded.

But fast forward 20 years and I suspect we'll all be sharing all our data all the time in exchange for some kind of services or digital currency much in the way we do with loyalty schemes and our spending patterns today.

Or dead from radiation poisoning if the good people of the Coromandel are to be believed.

RNZ - Stats NZ, phone companies to track people's movements

StatsNZ - Privacy impact assessment for population density

Stuff - Data speed put ahead of health, say neighbours of a new cell tower in a Coromandel township


Tracking Phones.jpg


Move fast, break things

Speaking of privacy and all things toxic, it's been a while since we had a look at Facebook. To recount, the social media giant refused to do anything meaningful after the Christchurch terror attacks to ensure that any future abuse of the Facebook Live streaming service wouldn't happen again. The company was also invited to explain itself and front up to the Paris meeting of senior government types who wanted to address some of these issues but sent its PR man along instead of anyone with any power.

And now Facebook wants to launch a digital currency so we can all be even more beholden to the tech giant than we already are.

To prove what good guys they are, Facebook will (out of the goodness of its own heart) set up a not-for-profit foundation to oversee the currency (to be called Libra) and will spend around a billion dollars developing the platform on which it will all run. It's already signed up PayPal, MasterCard and Visa to be payment partners and is working with the likes of Uber and Vodafone as retailers who will cheerfully accept Librans as a form of payment in the future.

Obviously, this should not be allowed to proceed.

Any company with Facebook's level of inability to manage its customers' personal data should not be allowed anywhere near their financial information let alone their actual finances and the whole thing is clearly designed to give Facebook (and by extension its controlling shareholder Mark Zuckerberg) even more power to walk away from both revenue and tax concerns and also government-level oversight of his operation.

The US senate is already looking at reviewing the company's plans and various other bodies around the world from central banks to regulators will also be taking a close look. But I suspect Facebook thinks it will be able to move faster than these entities and also will be able to break more things - in this instance, the international financial markets.

Techblog - Facebook launches own cryptocurrency

Stuff - Facebook's Sandberg says Libra coin is a 'long way from launch'

Stuff - Facebook plans to create its own globe-spanning currency - the Libra


Informed consent required

Kiwis want more control over their data, says a new survey commissioned by Digital Identity New Zealand, an organisation set up to champion the question of digital privacy in the modern age.

The survey found 85% of Kiwis said there was a lack of transparency around how their data was shared, while 73% said they'd made a change to their online behaviour as a result of privacy concerns.

I'm one of those - I've installed a password manager and uninstalled Facebook. I now have a raft of Chrome plug-ins that block Facebook trackers that would otherwise report back as I move about the internet and I've written roughly a million words on how we need to have better laws to govern all of this.

Fortunately, DINZ is putting together a Digital Identity conference to look into just this.

More details below.

It's high time we started to take digital privacy seriously and understood more about the value of our information and what it is these companies do with it. The Privacy Commissioner should have more powers and the ability to enforce decisions, but sadly our politicians felt there was no need to really get stuck in and so our laws are languishing somewhat. High time we reviewed that I think.

Digital Identity - Nine out of 10 Kiwis want more control of their digital identity

Digital Identity - Identity Conference 2019 - identity as taonga: now and in the future


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