Smartphones: Surveillance Facilitated?

May 22, 2020

A recent study published in the Journal of Marketing suggests we tend to reveal more about ourselves when we communicate through our smartphones than when we are on our desktops. The research was performed at the University of Pennsylvania by Shiri Melumad and Robert Meyer. Scienmag explores the tendency in, “Why Smartphones Are Digital Truth Serum.” We learn:

“For example, Tweets and reviews composed on smartphones are more likely to be written from the perspective of the first person, to disclose negative emotions, and to discuss the writer’s private family and personal friends. Likewise, when consumers receive an online ad that requests personal information (such as phone number and income), they are more likely to provide it when the request is received on their smartphone compared to their desktop or laptop computer.”

But why would we do this? For one thing, users seem to be subconsciously affected by the challenges inherent in using a smaller device:

“[The smaller size] makes viewing and creating content generally more difficult compared with desktop computers. Because of this difficulty, when writing or responding on a smartphone, a person tends to narrowly focus on completing the task and become less cognizant of external factors that would normally inhibit self-disclosure, such as concerns about what others would do with the information.”

Then there is the fact that most of us keep our phones on our person or near us constantly—they have become a modern comfort item (or “adult pacifiers,” as Melumad puts it). The article explains:

“The downstream effect of those feelings shows itself when people are more willing to disclose feelings to a close friend compared to a stranger or open up to a therapist in a comfortable rather than uncomfortable setting. As Meyer says, ‘Similarly, when writing on our phones, we tend to feel that we are in a comfortable “safe zone.” As a consequence, we are more willing to open up about ourselves.’”

The researchers analyzed thousands of social media posts and online reviews, responses to web ads, and controlled laboratory studies using both natural-language processing and human analysts. They also examined responses to nearly 20,000 “call to action” web ads that asked users for private info—such ads deployed on smartphones were consistently more successful at raking in personal data than those aimed at PCs. So consumers beware—do not give in to the tendency get too chummy with those on the other end of your phone just because you are comfortable with the phone itself.

Cynthia Murrell, May 22, 2020

Survey Says, Make the Content Go Away, Please

May 19, 2020

TechRadar states the obvious—“Want to Remove Information About Yourself Online? You’re Not Alone.” The write-up cites a recent Kaspersky survey of over 15,000 respondents. It confirms people are finally taking notice that their personal data has been making its way across the Web. The findings show a high percentage of Internet users have tried to erase personal information online, and for good reason, but many have met with little success. Writer Mike Moore reports:

“Four in five people (82 percent) surveyed in a major study by Kaspersky said they had tried to remove private information which had been publicly available, either from websites or social media channels, recently. However a third (37 percent) of those surveyed had no idea of how to remove details about themselves online. … [The survey] found that over a third (34 percent) of consumers have faced incidents where their private information was accessed by someone who did not have their consent. Of these incidents, over a quarter (29 percent) resulted in financial losses and emotional distress, and more than a third (35 percent) saw someone able to gain access to personal devices without permission. This rises to 39 percent among those aged between 25 and 34, despite younger internet users often being expected to have higher levels of technological literacy. Overall, one in five people say they are concerned about the personal data that organizations are collecting about them and their loved ones.”

The standard recommendation to protect privacy in the first place has been to use a VPN, but even that may be inadequate. A study performed by TechRadar Pro found that nearly half of all VPN services are based in countries that are part of the Fourteen Eyes international surveillance alliance. Looking for alternatives? Moore shares this link to a TechRadar article on what they say are the most secure VPN providers.

Cynthia Murrell, May 19, 2020

Work from Home: Trust but Use Monitoring Software

May 19, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic keeps offices closed and employees continue to work from home, bosses want to be sure their subordinates are working. According to the Washington Post, bosses are “replicating the office” using webcams, microphones, and surveillance software says the article, “Managers Turn To Surveillance Software, Always-On Webcams To Ensure Employees Are (Really) Working From Home.”

Harking back to the chatrooms of yesteryear, employees log into digital work spaces with customizable avatars and chatroom cubicles with instructions to keep webcams and microphones on all day. The idea of the digital workspace designed by Pragli will encourage spontaneous conversation. Some quickly adapt to the technology change, others have difficulty.

While some companies do not replicate the office with programs, they are using other tools such as always on webcams, check-ins, and mandatory digital meetings. There is the concern that companies are being invasive:

“Company leaders say the systems are built to boost productivity and make the quiet isolation of remote work more chipper, connected and fun. But some workers said all of this new corporate surveillance has further blurred the lines between their work and personal lives, amping up their stress and exhaustion at a time when few feel they have the standing to push back.”

Since the COVID-19 forced the American workforce into quarantine, companies want to confirm their workers’ productivity and report on how they are spending their business hours. There has also been an increase in the amount of time Americans spend working each day.

InterGuard is a software that can be hidden on computers and creates a log of everything a worker did during the day. The software records everything a worker does as frequently as every five seconds. It ranks the apps and Web sites as “productive” and “unproductive,” then tallies a “productivity score.”

Many employees do not like the surveillance software and cite that the need to confirm they are actually working disrupts their work flow. Pragli, on the other hand, says the replication of human interaction brings employees closer and allows them to connect more frequently.

A new meaning for the phrase “trust but verify.”

Whitney Grace, May 19, 2020

Sensors and Surveillance: A Marriage Made in Sci Fi

May 4, 2020

We can expect the volume of data available for analyses, tracking, and monitoring to skyrocket. EurekaAlert!, a site operated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reports, “Tiny Sensors Fit 30,000 to a Penny, Transmit Data from Living Tissue.” The project out of the Cornell Center for Materials Research was described in the team’s paper, published in PNAS on April 16. The optical wireless integrated circuits (OWICs) are a mere 100 microns in size. The news release explains:

“[The sensors] are equipped with an integrated circuit, solar cells and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that enable them to harness light for power and communication. And because they are mass fabricated, with up to 1 million sitting on an 8-inch wafer, each device costs a fraction of that same penny. The sensors can be used to measure inputs like voltage and temperature in hard-to-reach environments, such as inside living tissue and micro fluidic systems. For example, when rigged with a neural sensor, they would be able to noninvasively record nerve signals in the body and transmit findings by blinking a coded signal via the LED. … The OWICS are essentially paramecium-size smartphones that can be specialized with apps. But rather than rely on cumbersome radio frequency technology, as cell phones do, the researchers looked to light as a potential power source and communication medium.”

The researchers have already formed a company, OWiC Technologies, to market the sensors and have applied for a patent. The first planned application is a line of e-tags for product identification. The write-up predicts many different uses will follow for these micro sensors that can track more complicated data with less power for fewer dollars. Stay tuned.

Cynthia Murrell, May 4, 2020

Medical Intelligence Sentinels

April 29, 2020

Analysts at the U.S. National Center for Medical Intelligence were concerned about the novel coronavirus well before most of the country. That is because researchers at the agency are good at their jobs; if only those in charge would listen to them. The Star Advertiser shares the article, “Medical Intelligence Sleuths Tracked, Warned of New Coronavirus.” A division of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the organization has been around since World War II, when it was part of the U.S. Army Surgeon General’s office. The article reports:

“At least 100 epidemiologists, virologists, chemical engineers, toxicologists, biologists and military medical expert — all schooled in intelligence trade craft — work at the medical intelligence unit, located at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. … Most of the information they study is public, called ‘open source’ material. A local newspaper in Africa might publish a story about an increasing number of people getting sick, and that raises a flag because there’s no mention of any such illness on the other side of the country. A doctor in the Middle East might post concerns about a virus on social media. But unlike organizations such as the WHO, the medical intelligence team, part of the Defense Intelligence Agency, also has access to classified intelligence collected by the 17 U.S. spy agencies. The medical unit can dig into signals intelligence and intercepts of communications collected by the National Security Agency. It can read information that CIA officers pick up in the field overseas. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency can share satellite imagery and terrain maps to help assess how a disease, like Ebola or avian flu, might spread through a population.”

The quality and availability of information varies by region. Countries with underdeveloped health systems may not compile good data, for example, while some governments cannot be trusted to admit how serious an epidemic is. In such cases, researchers rely more heavily on reports from the local level. The scientists analyze data from these many sources on infectious diseases, natural disasters, toxic materials, bioterrorism, and different countries’ preparedness for each type of threat. They regularly report their conclusions to military commanders, defense health officials, and policymakers. Constantly on the lookout for threats to our armed forces overseas and our citizens at home, these professionals should really be given the consideration they deserve.

Cynthia Murrell, April 29, 2020

Palantir to Help HHS Track Coronavirus

April 28, 2020

With Peter Theil’s ally in the Oval Office, Palantir Technologies’ fortunes have ballooned. Now, in addition to working with intelligence, military, and law enforcement agencies, the data-mining firm has contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services. The Daily Beast reports, “Team Trump Turns to Peter Theil’s Palantir to Track Virus.” Sources say the company will contribute a major aspect of the HHS Protect Now platform, perhaps even its core element. That element is rumored to be the existing Foundry data integration and management platform. The CDC has been using Foundry to track hospitals’ efforts to cope with the surge in COVID-19 patients.

Reporters Erin Banco and Spencer Ackerman write:

“The HHS Protect Now platform, which is set to be unveiled later this week, pulls data from across the federal government, state and local governments, healthcare facilities, and colleges, to help administration officials determine how to ‘mitigate and prevent spread’ of the coronavirus, according to a spokesperson for the department. HHS told The Daily Beast that the department was working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Federal Emergency Management System (FEMA) on scaling the HHS Protect Now project, which became operational on April 10. … HHS said it has 187 data sets integrated into the platform, with inputs that include hospital capacity and inventories, supply chain data from the government and industry, diagnostic and geographic testing data, demographic statistics, state policy actions, and coronavirus and flu-like emergency department data. The spokesperson also said HHS was relying on ‘private sector partner contributions of data.’”

The tool generate models to predict the spread of the disease as well as the impact of decisions by the administration’s task force, state governments, and local leaders.

Cynthia Murrell, April 28, 2020

A Russian System for Citizen Scanning

April 27, 2020

This may simply be propaganda, but it is interesting. Sputnik News tells us Russia is developing a new, frisk-less citizen search tool in its article, “Russian Engineers Working on Total Recall-Style Unobtrusive Screening System.” Under development at a subsidiary of defense contractor RTI Systems, the project should be completed by next year, we’re told. The tool would “discretely” scan people without having to stop them and use AI to recognize objects in real time. The article cites RTI’s Kirill Makarov as it relates:

“The scanning system is envisioned as a ten-meter corridor accommodating three inspection zones. Passing through these zones, a person can be examined remotely, with the computer determining what he or she is carrying or hiding. The system is expected to help authorities scan for carriers of illegal weapons, controlled substances, or other objects. According to the businessman, the institute tasked with creating the system is already in the process of receiving technical requirements from would-be customers, who see the complex’s unobtrusive nature and ability to work clandestinely as huge advantages. ‘At the moment such a thing is not being implemented anywhere else. Only Israel has something similar, but the low resolution with which they’re working does not allow for the use of neural networks for object recognition,’ Makarov boasted. Makarov also promised that between 85-90 percent of the system would be created using domestically-made components. As far as safety is concerned, the businessman pointed out that the complex will be based on non-ionizing radiation, making it safe for humans.

I suppose we’ll just have to take their word for that.

Cynthia Murrell, April 27, 2020

Apple and Google: Teaming Up for a Super Great Reason?

April 21, 2020

In a remarkable virtue signaling action, Apple and Google joined forces to deal with coronavirus. The approach is not the invention of a remedy, although both companies have dabbled in health. The mechanism is surveillance-centric in the view of DarkCyber.

Google Apple Contact Tracing (GACT): A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes” provides an interesting opinion about the Google Apple Contact Tracing method. The idea seems to be that there are two wolves amongst the sheep. The sheep cooperate because that’s the nature of sheep. The wolves have the system, data, and methodology to make the sheep better. Are there other uses of the system? It is too soon to tell. But we can consider what the author asserts.

But the bigger picture is this: it creates a platform for contact tracing that works all across the globe for most modern smart phones (Android Marshmallow and up, and iOS 13 capable devices) across both OS platforms.


The write up states:

Whenever a user tests positive, the daily keys his or her devices used the last 14 days can be retrieved by the app through the GACT API, presumably only after an authorised request from the health authorities. How this exactly works, and in particular how a health authority gets authorised to sign such request or generate a valid confirmation code is not clear (yet). The assumption is that these keys are submitted to a central server set up by the contact tracing app. Other instances of the same app on other people’s phones are supposed to regularly poll this central server to see if new daily keys of phones of recently infected people have been uploaded. Another function in the GACT API allows the app to submit these daily keys to the operating system for analysis. The OS then uses these keys to derive all possible proximity identifiers from them, and compares each of these with the proximity identifiers it has stored in the database of identifiers recently received over Bluetooth. Whenever a match is found, the app is informed, and given the duration and time of contact (where the time may be rounded to daily intervals).

The author includes this observation about the procedure:

Google and Apple announced they intend to release the API’s in May and build this functionality into the underlying platforms in the months to follow. This means that at some point in time operating system updates (through Google Play Services updates in the case of Android) will contain the new contact tracing code, ensuring that all users of a modern iPhone or Android smartphone will be tracked as soon as they accept the OS update. (Again, to be clear: this happens already even if you decide not to install a contact tracing app!) It is unclear yet how consent is handled, whether there will be OS settings allowing one to switch on or off contact tracing, what the default will be.

The write up concludes with this statement:

We have to trust Apple and Google to diligently perform this strict vetting of apps, to resist any coercion by governments, and to withstand the temptation of commercial exploitation of the data under their control. Remember: the data is collected by the operating system, whether we have an app installed or not. This is an awful amount of trust….

DarkCyber formulated several observations:

  1. The system appears to be more accessible than existing specialized services now available to some authorities
  2. Apple’s and Google’s cooperation seems mature in terms of operational set up. When did work on this method begin?
  3. Systems operated by private companies on behalf of government agencies rely on existing legal and contractual methods to persist through time; that is, once funded or supported in a fungible manner, the programs operate in an increasingly seamless manner.

Worth monitoring this somewhat rapid and slightly interesting tag team duo defeat their opponent.,

Stephen E Arnold, April 21, 2020

Cookies and Fingerprints: You Will Be Monitored by Mom

April 15, 2020

Everywhere you go on the Internet, cookies are tracking your movements (even with a VPN). The technology is over a decade old and they range from tracking pixels, content tracker, cross-site tracking cookies, social trackers and browser finger-printing. The Next Web explains that browser fingerprinting is becoming more popular with advertisers in the article, “Digital Fingerprints Are The New Cookies-And Advertisers Want Yours.”

Digital Fingerprinting refers to a company generating a profile about your device’s characteristics. These can include everything from operating system down to browser settings. In other words, it is more like an anonymous barcode. Your identity is not attached to the digital fingerprint, but your data is for advertisers to send targeted ads.

Banks use digital fingerprinting as a security measure. Banking Web sites can identify the device you are on, but if they do not they ask security questions. Advertisers now want the technology to make more money. For users, it is more along the lines of capitalist Big Brother.

There are ways to turn off digital fingerprinting. Most of the tracking happens when you are on the Internet, so look through your browser settings and see if it has tracking protection. Even if you turn on tracking protection it does not entirely hide you:

“While “incognito mode” prevents your browser history from being recorded on your computer and prevents your spouse to spy on you, it does not prevent websites that you visit from collecting data about you and it does nothing to block fingerprinting. Similarly, clearing your browsing history on a regular basis, while a healthy thing to do, does not address fingerprinting either.

While ad blockers block ads from loading, not all ad blockers also block trackers, even less fingerprinters. Trackers can come attached to ads, but quite often they are not part of the ad delivery process itself. Social trackers, tracking pixels and fingerprinters for instance don’t need to piggyback on an ad to track your data.”

To avoid cookies, use a private connection, a good decent VPN, and browse in incognito mode. It does not work 100%, but it is better than capitalist Big Brother.

Whitney Grace, April 15, 2020

Startup Gretel Building Anonymized Data Platform

March 19, 2020

There is a lot of valuable but sensitive data out there that developers and engineers would love to get their innovative hands on, but it is difficult to impossible for them to access. Until now.

Enter Gretel, a startup working to anonymize confidential data. We learn about the upcoming platform from Inventiva’s article, “A Group of Ex-NSA And Amazon Engineers Are Building a ‘GitHub for Data’.” Co-founders Alex Watson, John Myers, Ali Golshan, and Laszlo Bock were inspired by the source code sharing platform GitHub. Reporter surbhi writes:

“Often, developers don’t need full access to a bank of user data — they just need a portion or a sample to work with. In many cases, developers could suffice with data that looks like real user data. … ‘We’re building right now software that enables developers to automatically check out an anonymized version of the data set,’ said Watson. This so-called ‘synthetic data’ is essentially artificial data that looks and works just like regular sensitive user data. Gretel uses machine learning to categorize the data — like names, addresses and other customer identifiers — and classify as many labels to the data as possible. Once that data is labeled, it can be applied access policies. Then, the platform applies differential privacy — a technique used to anonymize vast amounts of data — so that it’s no longer tied to customer information. ‘It’s an entirely fake data set that was generated by machine learning,’ said Watson.”

The founders are not the only ones who see the merit in this idea; so far, the startup has raised $3.5 million in seed funding. Gretel plans to charge users based on consumption, and the team hopes to make the platform available within the next six months.

Cynthia Murrell, March 19, 2020

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