Technology exists for a singular purpose – to assist humans in doing things beyond our innate, natural capabilities. As has been mentioned in the past, this can cut both ways as the less scrupulous among us find ways to exploit technology to take advantage of our limitations. As online shopping has become the norm, even on hallowed consumption days like Black Friday, the rise of shopping bots has caught the eye of legislators in the US, who are aiming to ban them from online retailer sites, especially around the holidays where their use is particularly Grinch-like.
What this means for you
At first blush, you might be inclined to think that surely our lawmakers have more pressing issues to address beyond algorithms programmed to snap up discounted PlayStations for scalpers, and I might even be inclined to agree with you. I called out this bit of news fluff to shine a light on the dark side of technology again, and how simple it is to exploit it in a way that only serves to line the pockets of the ethically-challenged. One might argue that enterprising capitalists are just using the tools available to get a leg up on the competition, but the shoe is suddenly on the other foot when you realize the same concept (do things faster online) is being used to crank out scammy extortion or phishing emails by the millions every single day. Just because something is possible does not mean that it is ethical, and technology is putting more of these types of decisions in front of humans at a bewildering rate. As our usage of technology grows, we must be extremely careful to not set aside our humanity just to be faster, better or richer.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles from FreeDigitalPhotos.net
If you’ve spent any time on the internet lately, you likely know that Google’s latest innovation, “Glass” is already in the hands of the media and developers, and will soon be available to the general public. While the concept of wearable computers is not new – the earliest prototypes appeared over 30 years ago – Google’s sleek device has been giving privacy advocates fits since it was announced. Now that Glass is actually appearing “in the wild” as developers and media put the device through its paces, it’s getting pre-emptively banned by businesses, and in some cases, entire states are seeking to regulate its use.
As you might imagine, a device that can (relatively) unobtrusively record video and audio of anything in sight of a Glass wearer, on top of being able to access the vast data stores of Google’s indexed information, has many people understandably concerned. Cameras and recording devices are already banned in places like Las Vegas casinos, and organizations like Caesers Entertainment have extended their policies to explicitly include Google Glass in anticipation of the device’s arrival, as have numerous bars and other businesses, some merely for the publicity, but many for serious privacy concerns for their patrons and businesses.
What this means for you:
Whether or not you ever intend to use Google Glass or something similar, you’ve already been through a social revolution, and you might not have realized it. Remember when cellphones first started appearing with cameras? Remember when laptops first started shipping with webcams built into the lid? Devices that can be used to record others without their knowledge have been used in modern society for decades. Google is not the first to open this particular Pandora’s Box – the cows have long since fled the barn. Google Glass is fairly easy to spot now, but the technology will only improve (read: get smaller and harder to spot) and we will soon have wearable computers that are completely indistinguishable from a regular pair of glasses or sunglasses. We will get to a point that we will not be able to tell whether someone is digitally augmented, and societal conventions will have to adopt to the new standard, just like they have with smartphone cameras.
The controversial CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act) proposal has passed committee review and is heading to the Senate for a vote, despite a clear warning from the Obama administration that it would VETO the proposed law. Unlike the equally controversial SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) backed by media companies and defeated through vigorous and coordinated protests from the technology industry, CISPA has divided the technology industry. Many large companies like IBM, AT&T, Oracle and Verizon backing it, while other, equally sizeable companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Google and dozens of activist organizations oppose the bill on the grounds that it doesn’t do enough to protect the privacy of US citizens.
What this means for you:
In case you are confused as to how CISPA might impact you or your business personally, here’s a summation of what the bill proposes: This law would allow telecommunication companies to share data with governmental agencies for the purposes of combatting terrorist or criminal activity, overriding any local laws that would prohibit such sharing. According to supporters, law-abiding citizens should have nothing to worry about, but opponents contend that on top of very weak protections for citizen privacy, there is nothing in the bill that would protect citizens from potential abuse by the various intelligence agencies who could amass an inconceivably comprehensive database from the information gained by CISPA. Regardless of which side of the privacy fight you stand on, it behooves you as a US citizen to be aware of where you stand on this issue, as well as encouraging everyone around you to participate as they can in helping our government come to terms with this problem.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Technology lobbyists have been pushing for reform of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act for years, primarily to address the multitude of shortcomings, loopholes that couldn’t have been predicted almost 30 years ago. Law enforcement has also jumped onto the bandwagon, having recently submitted a rider proposal that would be attached to any changes proposed to the ECPA. Their objective? To get cellular providers to retain all the text messages passing through their network, primarily for the purposes of investigating criminal activity. Currently, most providers say they do not retain the actual text messages centrally, and smartphones by default are not designed to retain text messages long term, but each provider appears to have different policies governing exactly how much data is retained, and how long. This inconsistency troubles some lawmakers, and enforcement has long held that criminals purposefully use SMS as an “untraceable, untrackable” communication method.
What this means for you:
A proposal is a long way from actual law, but many privacy advocates and watchdog groups say a rider proposal like this could hamper much needed changes to the decades-old ECPA by weighing down progressive proposals with Big Brother agendas that most technology companies find distasteful, if not diametrically opposed to in their publicy stated values – think Google’s “Do no evil” policy. The fight for privacy continues to carry into new areas everyday, but the SMS fight could be a huge battle: six billion text messages are sent everyday. Privacy issues aside, imagine having to figure out how to store this information in a way that is useful, let alone subpoenable!
The state of California just signed into law a ban on employers and universities requiring employees and applicants grant them access to their social media accounts (e.g. Facebook or Twitter). As surprising as this may seem, this was actually a thing for awhile. That is, until the internet started a ferocious publicity storm and names were named. Even still, the practice has been common enough to galvanize California lawmakers to take matters into their own hands and pass a law that in effect orders companies and universities to stop being so creepy.
What this means for you:
As of January 1, 2013, it will be illegal for you to ask your employees or applicants for access to their personal social media accounts, which will include things like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc. Keep in mind, many people already openly share many aspects of their personal life (sometimes unintentionally!). As an applicant, even before it becomes an actual law, don’t let an institution or organization bully/intimidate you into this degrading invasion of your privacy.
As a business owner, employer or educator, this area is still very grey, and proper legislation is far from being clearly defined, especially as the boundaries between employees’ professional and personal lives are blurred by increasingly permissive/flexible business cultures. Remember the days when Facebook was banned at the office? Aside from the fears about wasted productivity, there were (and still are) very valid underlying concerns of mixing personal (and possibly very unprofessional) activities with business/educational pursuits. If in doubt, ask your HR representative, and check your conscience.