A recent article in The Independent newspaper by Andrew Griffin highlights that Facebook is almost certainly tracking people using its rainbow picture tool, which enables users to change their profile picture to rainbow coloured in support of same-sex marriage.
In using the tool many users are probably not aware that they are providing demographic data to Facebook which could be used to target advertising, or be supplied to third parties. Just as many are not aware that the Facebook “pay with data” financial model, means that all information provided to the site may potentially be used for commercial purposes. It should also be noted that although Facebook has stated that the information gathered by the tool will not be used for serving advertising, the site is notorious for its ever-changing privacy model, so the assurance probably needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Interestingly, social scientists have already picked up on what a gold mine the data provided by the rainbow tool might be – see the article here in Psychology Today.
Unfortunately, there is another perhaps more sinister dimension to the use of such a tool, in that it allows demographic profiling of individuals by Governments, security and private organisations based on a photograph alone, as people using the tool will be indicating that they have a particular political persuasion or world view. This may not be a problem for some people, but could be if you live a repressive regime or want employment in a particular industry, or with a sensitive employer.
Julian De Vries reports on The Nation website that in the US it is possible for someone to be prosecuted for deleting their browser history or other electronic records, even though the individual has no idea they are under any sort of investigation.
The problem lies with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was originally enacted in the wake of the Enron scandal to stop corporations under investigation from shredding or destroying incriminating documents. However, its application has been broadened out by prosecutors to cover situations way beyond its original aims.
One reason why it has been possible to expand its use is that prosecutors do not have to show that an individual deleting material is aware an investigation is underway. As a result anybody even innocently deleting electronic records such as browser history or text messages, could years later be prosecuted for doing so. The scenario is not a hypothetical one either, with a number of such cases prosecuted since the act was passed.
Comment from Newsblog Editor:
This type of scenario where the use of a particular piece of legislation is applied in situations way beyond its original aim or purpose is one that we are familiar with in the UK, a good example being the situation with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). This act has routinely been expanded beyond its original aims, in particular by councils, to cover situations such as conducting surveillance to ensure children do live in a particular school catchment area.
How this type of abuse of legislation can be stopped is something that politicians, the legal profession and civil liberties campaigners should perhaps start thinking about.
Ryan Whitwam reports on the ExtremeTech website that researchers have found a way to track android phones by studying their power use over time.
The technique works on the principle that the further away a phone is from a base station, the more power the phone uses to maintain a connection. Researchers called their proof of concept application PowerSpy. Before it can be used a power map of an area has to be established so that PowerSpy knows what performance to expect a a particular location.
Although making a call or using apps will also drain power, the algorithm used in PowerSpy is designed to monitor power use over several minutes, so that battery usage not associated with location can be filtered out.
Ellen Nakashima reports in the Washington Post that the recently discovered hack (see previous post here) by the Chinese of the
Joel Brenner, a former US counter intelligence official said about the news,
“This is potentially devastating from a counter intelligence point of view,” “These forums contain decades of personal information about people with clearances . . . which makes them easier to recruit for foreign espionage on behalf of a foreign country.”
Sir Tim Berners-Lee has previously highlighted the dangers of blackmail if foreign spy agencies get hold of data on persons with access to national security information, although in the context of the retention of web surfing and phone records – see here.