Privacy the price for tech advances
BY now, surely everyone who has been paying attention knows information technology has compromised our privacy. Surveillance cameras are ubiquitous, business and government track us online, and Facebook has an Everest of user data that it sells to other companies. So Thomas Keenan isn’t exploring much new ground in his book about the “unseen ways” that technology is being used to invade our privacy and try to separate us from our money. The Calgary-based computer security expert, university professor and journalist has, however, assembled a thorough accounting of ways technology has perniciously crept into our lives. The title refers to both the “creepy” feeling some uses of technology can give you, and the forward creep or evolution of technology and its uses. One example of the former is how the FootPath system tracks customers’ movements at shopping malls via their cellphones. Then there’s the iPhone app called Girls Around Me, which enables young men on the prowl to identify women in the vicinity who’ve checked in on Facebook and Foursquare. An example of the forward creep of technology is... well, evident in everything about every kind of tracking and surveillance technology. It has become more efficient, less expensive and so commonplace that its absence is more remarkable than its presence. Proprietors of small corner stores can buy security cameras for $50 apiece, and your smartphone sends signals that people can use to keep track of where you go. And that’s just for starters. “Many people believe that these disturbing technologies are confined to the Internet and that if they are careful, or even avoid online activity altogether, they will be safe,” Keenan writes in the introduction. “But the technologies that will truly change our lives will be in our cars, our streetlights, our hospitals, and even inside our brains and bodies. Our favourite watering holes, and even our pets and our children, are being infested with technocreepiness.” The creep is so diverse and so unpredictable that lawmakers couldn’t keep up even if they wanted to. And the way governments have been spying on their own citizens suggests that legislators are, at best, ambivalent. Keenan says the public tends to learn about high-tech threats to its privacy in an “episodic” way, as stories of spying and other privacy intrusion appear in the news. That’s true, but his book often feels episodic as well — chapters are packed with one anecdote after another. Because Keenan isn’t skilled at transitions, most chapters feel like information snacking rather than finished entrées. Technocreep is suitable for mass readership; you don’t have to be a technology expert like Keenan, who is good at explaining things to us non-experts. He does commit one egregious sin in communication, however, when he uses postal abbreviations for states and provinces (VA for Virginia and AB for Alberta, for example). Postal abbreviations are for envelopes, not books. Keenan should know that, and certainly the book’s editor should. Keenan ends Technocreep with a sort of call to action — or “a call to conspiracy,” as he puts it, saying readers should engage in forums and “stay informed, speak out, and vote on technocreepiness.” Before that, he offers suggestions on what you can do in your own life to find out who’s watching you online and then reduce the intrusion. Most of the suggestions are easily followed, though it would take considerable time and effort to follow them all. We can do things to fight back, he says, but “creepier things are coming our way” and the technocreep is inescapable. You have been warned. Mike Stimpson is a writer and magazine
editor based in Winnipeg.