Anonymity is not enough in apps

You can set your privacy settings on apps so that personal data is not shared. But even anonymous data can threaten security.

Take the case of the fitness tracking app Strava. Their website tracks exercise routes of users and plots them on a map of the world. The routes show up as bright lines; the brighter they are, the more they are used. You can’t pick out individuals on the map because they are only sharing data anonymously. They are revealing in ways that were never intended.

In this Strava map of Kamloops, you can see familiar areas of the city that where people have been exercising. There’s the downtown grid, Rayleigh, and Sun Peaks on the upper right. Some areas are a bit mysterious, like in the lower left. I went to Google Maps to see if there is a community there but couldn’t find any. Someone, or group, exercises near Chuwhels Mountain above New Gold Afton Mine. Is there a camp that I don’t know of?

 Strava map

Australian student Nathan Ruser was doing some similar browsing, comparing exercise routes on Strava to Google Maps, when he came across exercise routes around U.S. military bases in Iran, Syria and Afghanistan. The Strava map revealed much more than the Google map did: it exposed troop movements. It probably never occurred to soldiers how much they were lighting up the base.

While the locations of the military bases are not exactly top secret, the movements of soldiers could compromise the operational security. The fitness app could highlight sensitive outposts and troops’ habitual routes during military drills and patrols. Ruser, who is also an analyst for the Institute for United Conflict Analysts, tweeted:

“If soldiers use the app like normal people do, by turning it on tracking when they go to do exercise, it could be especially dangerous. This particular track looks like it logs a regular jogging route. I shouldn’t be able to establish any Pattern of life info from this far away (January 27, 2018)”

Air Force Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told the Washington Post that the military was looking into the implications of the Strava map.

It probably didn’t occur to soldiers that they were compromising base security by simply turning on the fitness tracker. After all, none of their personal information was being shared.

This way of thinking ignores the greater good according to Arvind Narayanan, a computer scientist at Princeton University.

“This assumes that my behaviour affects my privacy,” Narayanan told CBC Radio’s Spark, “but really I think what Strava story has shown is that it’s more than that. That’s when privacy becomes a collective issue (February 2, 2018).”

The privacy settings can be confusing. Someone going out for a run doesn’t want to spend time trying to figure out which boxes to check.

Beyond the actions of individuals and their privacy settings, there is the vulnerability of big corporations.

“Strava has been in the news but there are dozens of companies sitting on sensitive data. There’s not a lot of public oversight around these super sensitive databases about billions of people,” adds Narayanan.

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Basic income in the new world order

A basic income has been promoted from the left and right for years but nothing has come of it. Maybe new leaders and a new world order will change that.

  image: Steemit.com

Sometimes called a guaranteed annual income, it has been supported by progressives and neoliberals alike. Progressives argue that a basic income would help reduce poverty. Neoliberals say it decreases government bureaucracy by combining a number of social services like welfare, child benefits, employment insurance, and Old Age Security into one.

What politicians have failed to do, the leaders of technology may accomplish. They clearly see the loss of jobs due to automation. Innovators such Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and Space X, says:

“There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation,” Musk told CNBC in an interview last year.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg sees it differently. A vital society depends on everyone having the opportunity to create new ideas. That’s why billionaires like him should pay for a financial safety net that allows everyone to find their purpose.

“The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail,” said Zuckerberg. “Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.”

Zuckerberg is on to something when he suggests a new social contract. The failure to implement a basic income takes place in an old world order that values industrial jobs and resource extraction above those of human interaction. Industrial jobs have been reduced and more automation is on the way. Resource extraction is pushing the limits of what the earth can deliver, and pushing the conditions under which humans can live.

Jobs that involve human interaction, such as child and elder care workers, have been low-paying. What kind of crazy world order invented a system where monotonous, often dangerous, planet-threatening, industrial jobs pay more than jobs that nurture our future in children, and care for the frail and elderly?

A new world order would include Zuckerberg’s transfer to the poor through a new social contract and much more. Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis envisions an end to globalization and the start of a new era in which a basic income would be part:

“And we need a universal basic dividend that would be administered by the New Bretton Woods institutions and funded by a percentage of big tech shares deposited in a world wealth fund.”

By Bretton Woods Institutions, he means the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They helped rebuild the shattered postwar economy and to promote international economic cooperation.

Varoufakis is leading the post-globalization era in Europe with The Democracy in Europe Movement 2025. President Trump (don’t laugh) is leading the post-globalization era in the U.S.

Trump’s grip on reality may be somewhat tenuous but he does understand turmoil; he thrives on the thrill of the circus. His constituents have had it up to here with the existing order. Trump is tearing globalization apart with a world tariff-war.

These are exciting times. Where politicians failed, maybe tech leaders, global visionaries and clowns will excel.

 

In defence of Facebook

I like Facebook but I’m not an apologist for the social media giant.

Facebook has done things wrong. They failed to prevent Cambridge Analytica from gathering detailed information of millions of users. The method used was especially disturbing. They developed a quiz in which 270,000 people responded. Then the response snowballed to 50 million as data from friends was gleaned.

However, while Cambridge Analytica’s tactics were sneaky, they didn’t get anything more than what they could have obtained through a paid ad. Facebook says they are going to make the source of those ads transparent. CEO Mark Zuckerberg says: “People should know who is buying the ads that they see on Facebook.” About time.

Last year, Facebook admitted that Russian provocateurs bought 3,000 ads.  The ads were insidious because they generated anxiety over social issues: immigrants, gun rights and the LGBT community. This disquiet played well in the hands of the populist Donald Trump.

Facebook’s mistake was that it didn’t do enough to prevent such abuses. Zuckerberg said so on CNN: “This was a major breach of trust. I’m really sorry this happened. We have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data.”

Facebook performs a valuable service. It connects me to friends and family and a larger community of Kamloopsians. I have found friends from decades ago through Facebook. I can correspond in Spanish with Mexican friends with the help of Google translate.

Grassroots action groups are made on Facebook. I learn of musicians and artists coming to town through Facebook. The city posts notices on Facebook. Small businesses can advertise by just starting a Facebook page. I can send complaints to big businesses by just posting on their page.

Russian ads are not unique. All Canadian political parties pay for ads on Facebook that target specific groups, and all have detailed information on voters.

It’s not just Facebook. Every time I use a “points” card at a store, information is collected. Any time I use Google services –the browser, Gmail, or YouTube- my behaviour is tracked for the sake of advertisers.

Such a wealth of intimate data can be used for good or evil. It could be used to determine the democratic will of citizens. It could be sold to the highest bidder. Facebook needs to be regulated.

Zuckerberg himself admits it; although his reservations are revealed in his double negative: “I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated,” he said. “I actually think the question is more what is the right regulation rather than yes or no, should it be regulated?”

When Marshall McLuhan said that “The medium is the message,” he meant that nature of media affects society more than its content. Just as the printing press changed our perception of the world, so has social media.

The content of Facebook is staggering; more than just kittens and social agitation. It embraces our global digital collective consciousness. Embedded in the algorithms are the wishes and desires of one-third of the world’s population.

But more than the content, Facebook represents a new media which is altering our perceptions in ways yet to be discovered. Resistance to social media is simply an indication of how disruptive and new the technology is.

Immigrant women’s STEM skills untapped

If it makes sense for girls to enter programs in science, technology, engineering and math, then it makes even more sense to employ immigrant women who already have these skills.

    image: CIVIC York

Girls should to be encouraged to enter STEM fields. Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops is holding a camp for girls at Harper Mountain this summer. The program will provide positive female role models and build confidence in STEM studies.

It’s not just a question of gender equity but one of necessity. Canada faces a skills shortage. Jobs are waiting to be filled. TechGirls Canada founder Saadia Muzaffar says:

“The top item on the innovation minister’s national agenda is ‘the need to secure the right people—including women, immigrants, and training for the next generation—who can help us close the gap between the number of jobs posted and the number of workers available to fill them (CCPA Monitor, Nov/Dec, 2017).’”

In the field of information and communications technology alone, there will be a shortage of 182,000 workers by 2019.

What’s missing from this equation is the fact that immigrant women have these skills and that talent is being wasted.

Immigrant women aged 25 to 34 are twice as likely to have a STEM degree as Canadian women of that age (23 versus 13 per cent).  Not just women but all immigrants, on average, are highly trained says Muzaffar:

“Almost nine out of 10 newcomers with credentials above a high school diploma had a university degree at the time of landing in Canada. Among these, 82% held degrees in fields of study ranging from engineering to agriculture, biology, physics, mathematics and health sciences, as well as the humanities and social sciences. Two-thirds held professional jobs before immigrating to Canada; in management and business administration, natural sciences, health and education.”

Here are the factors that discourage talented immigrant women from being employed:

Immigrant families arrive with a lot of talent but little money. The husband finds work wherever he can, usually in a low-paying job like driving a taxi. Since the cost of child care is prohibitively expensive, the wife stays at home with the kids. The longer she is out of a job that employs her skills, the less likely she will ever be employed. Each passing year removes her connection to the workforce.

Even if immigrant families find daycare with friends or grandparents, they face the problem of having their education and work experience recognized. Accreditation can be a frustrating and expensive process. B.C. and Alberta are the worst when it comes to accreditation.

Immigrants who represent visible minorities face discrimination.

If an immigrant woman finds work in her field of expertise, it is likely to be in a temporary job with relatively low wages. There is an economic incentive for employers to keep immigrants and all women marginalized.

If we are serious about putting talented immigrant women to work, the solutions are obvious: affordable day care, simple and cheap accreditation, consolidation of part-time positions to full-time, acknowledge that we discriminate and correct our colour vision.

The future of blockchain mining in B.C.

Blockchain mines look nothing like copper mines. They are banks of computer that toil away at solving complex calculations. Blockchain is the digital ledger used by many cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Because the computers generate heat, they could be used to warm the greenhouses to grow the tonnes of marijuana needed for Canada’s budding legal market.

  image: coindesk.com

Blockchain is a revolutionary way of tracking secure, indelible transactions of any sort not just cryptocurrencies. Experts say it will revolutionize businesses in every field. Manav Gupta, chief technology officer of IBM Cloud Canada, is enthusiastic:

“We view blockchain as having the potential to change all of technological interactions the same way that the internet changed communication in the nineties (Walrus magazine, Jan/Feb, 2018).”

Where the value of Bitcoins is highly speculative, the value of blockchain is solid. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop blockchain from being caught up in a goldrush mentality. Irrational investors are madly rushing into some dodgy speculations. Convinced that anything with “blockchain” in the title is “the next big thing,” investors threw $2 billion into blockchain startups worldwide. One company saw shares rise 394 per cent by just adding “blockchain” to its name.

Blockchain can be used to secure any vital records such as medical files, business deals, legal agreements, tracing shipping containers, farm-to-market food security; even professional and academic records which are now open to fraud. Walmart and Nestle have already invested in blockchain.

Bitcoin miners loan their computers to solve the complex blockchain calculations required for each transaction. Miners are paid in Bitcoins in return. Drew Taylor has a Bitcoin mining operation in his Montreal house. He earns about $3,000 a month and pays additional costs of $200 for electricity. The computers generate a lot of heat. “But essentially it is free heat for at least one room,” he told CBC Radio’s The Current.

The amount of power used for each Bitcoin transaction is shocking high. Alex de Vries monitors the power used in Bitcoin mining. Just one transaction uses as much energy as the average B.C. household uses in 13 days. That’s 300 kilowatt-hours for each transaction. Researchers are looking for ways to reduce the power consumption.

The best place to locate Bitcoin mines is in places where the electricity is cheap. Montreal has relatively cheap hydroelectricity. Iceland has a large mine because the majority of their energy comes from geothermal and steam. Unfortunately, not all cheap energy is as green. China and India do most of the mining where the electricity is cheap but produced by burning dirty coal.

Once B.C.’s Site C dam is completed we will have lots of cheap, surplus electricity that could be put to use in blockchain mining.

Blockchain mining is comparable to copper mining because both use a lot of electricity. Highland Valley mine near Kamloops uses as much electricity as 60,000 homes, about twice what Kamloops uses.

An advantage of blockchain mining is that a secondary industry could use the waste heat. Marijuana greenhouses could use the computers as heaters so that not one kilowatt hour would be wasted. In addition, blockchain mines could be located near the dam to avoid the cost of transmitting electricity.

The digital mine would employ workers close to home in small towns in B.C. Instead of using our dam power to run LNG compressors, we could put people to work mining digital dollars and growing marijuana for Canadian’s burgeoning market.

Germany pays customers to use electricity

German power companies paid customers to use electricity on one hundred occasions in 2017. Companies paid customers a lot relative to what they normally receive -1,720 times more per kilowatt hour.

   photo: CleanTechnica

The reason why power companies were so eager to pay customers had to do with the wind. Wind turbines were generating too much power on the grid and they had to dump it quickly. Surplus electricity is a dangerous problem that has to be corrected quickly.

While wind turbines can be switched off quickly, fossil fuel and nuclear sources can’t. Power grid managers have to agile to compensate for gusty winds.

The problem with surplus electricity is that voltage quickly rises and that can damage equipment. Power grid engineering is complex but one thing is simple: power in equals power out. Managing the grid requires a balance in the production and consumption of electricity. The sum of all the power used by your TVs and toasters, and all that of your neighbour’s, equals the power produced by generators. If the power produced is more than what’s used, something has to give.  What gives is a precipitous rise in voltage.

Christmas Day, 2017, was pleasantly warm in Germany and the wind was strong. As well, demand was abnormally low being a holiday when factories and offices are shut down. Suddenly, the wind blew and power companies had to shed a lot of power from the grid. So the plea went out from power companies to start wasting electricity. Turn on your electric heaters and all the lights in your house. Open the doors. We’ll pay a lot is you do.

Too much wind power is not unforeseen. Germany spent $250 billion to develop wind turbines and they now produce 20 per cent of the country’s power. The remainder of Germany’s power comes from fossil fuels and nuclear.

Germany has obviously solved one part of the greenhouse gas problem by investing heavily in renewable sources but the other side remains unresolved –how to store surplus energy. Battery technology doesn’t have the capacity to store huge amounts of power. If it did, surplus wind power could have been stored.

Batteries will work on a smaller, household scale. Elon Musk sells his Tesla Powerwall battery for $7,000 and it holds enough power to run your house for about 3 days. Imagine being paid to store electricity and then to use it to supply your energy needs for days? In Germany, you’d be doing yourself and the power company a favour.

If you live in B.C., not so much. British Columbia has the enviable position of generating power by hydroelectricity; 95 per cent of it with the remainder by natural gas plants.

B.C. can’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially by switching to wind and solar. Small scale installations in houses can reduce the cost of electricity for homeowners. Because dams hold stored power, storage of surplus electricity is not a problem.

Germany has reduced the burning of fossil fuels with wind and solar. Now, if they could only find some way to store the surplus electricity.

Canada’s internet remains flat, despite challenges

Canada remains a world-leader in keeping our internet equal for all. Challenges to tilt the internet in favour of special interests come from at home and abroad. Last month, Canada’s telecomm regulator ruled that all online data be treated equally.

The ruling comes after Videotron, a music streaming company, offered their wireless service to subscribers at no charge for data used. This practice, called “zero-rating,” is violation of net neutrality because content would be biased in favour of their service. Subscribers to other music streaming services would pay more. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled the practice illegal.

In his ruling, the CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais suggested a less disingenuous tactic for Videotron:

“Rather than offering its subscribers selected content at different data-usage prices, Internet-service providers should be offering more data at lower prices,”

The ruling is a victory for the little-lobby-group-that-could, OpenMedia.ca (which I support financially).

“We just won again!,” they crowed in an email to me, “The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) just decided in favour of historic Net Neutrality rules that prevent Big Telecom from unfairly manipulating data caps to discriminate against certain apps and services.”

Michael Geist, professor of Internet and E-commerce Law, was equally enthused but more muted in his response:

Most notably, Canadian consumers and creators will benefit in the long term from the Net-neutrality policies.”

Canada’s firm support of net neutrality extends beyond a level playing field. Without it, giant telcomms could start to collect browsing habits of unsuspecting customers and sell them to advertisers for the purpose of targeting specific demographics.

The concept of a flat internet is vital to free expression and innovation. In an earlier column, I argued that net neutrality is fundamental to democracy:

Canadians must stand on guard for a free and democratic internet.”

Net neutrality in the U.S. has been tilting back and forth. In 2014, the U.S. appeals court ruled that the internet was not a “common carrier.” A common carrier is like a telephone line, simply a conduit to carry information. If telephones weren’t a common carrier, telephone companies could make it easier for businesses to access your phone than your friends and family.

The designation of common carrier is vital to net neutrality. Without that designation, internet service providers could effectively suppress content by making it more costly to view.

Sensibly, President Obama restored the designation of common carrier in 2015.

Now President Trump’s appointees to the U.S. telecomm regulator, called the FCC, intend to overturn net-neutrality in the U.S.

Canada faces a mixture of faux worry and resistance from the U.S.  A Trump-appointed advisor to the FCC, Roslyn Layton, said “My biggest concern for Canada is that you continue to add regulation that deters the incentive to invest,” Her fake concern for Canada not believable. Many big U.S. giants such as Netflix oppose the Trump initiatives because they don’t want their subscribers paying more than competitive video-streaming. They fear that U.S. telcomms will do what Videotron tried to do and tilt the internet in favour of their own services.

I have a feeling that Layton’s real concern is that U.S. tech start-ups will move to Canada where innovative technologies still have unbiased access to the internet.