Pri­vacy the price for tech ad­vances

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Mike Stimp­son

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.

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