Thursday, February 12, 2015

Walls Closing In Dept.

Before I launch into today’s tirade, allow me to make a strong recommendation for the website of a friend and colleague: The Declination. The site is run by frequent Liberty’s Torch commenter Dystopic, and is a wealth of good thinking and fine writing. Dystopic’s post of today, a compressed history of the conflict between Islam and Christendom, is an excellent example of his work. Please read it all, and reflect on its significance.


Now and then I feel what the title of this piece indicates: the sense that I’m being ever more closely monitored by faceless others determined to control my every word and deed. Some of the aspiring controllers are determined to police my language. Others merely want to collect information about me: perhaps to sell it; perhaps to set me up for a fall. I dislike the idea and fight it whenever I suspect it’s in operation. For example, I’ve avoided the acquisition of a cellphone for that reason, as literally all of them report where you are to someone at all times.

A few days ago, Samsung’s “smart TVs” became a new entry on my list of avoidances:

Introducing the full 1080p Samsung Telescreen:
The potential privacy intrusion of voice-activated services is massive. Samsung, which makes a series of Internet connected TVs, has a supplementary privacy policy covering its Smart TVs which includes the following section on voice recognition (emphasis mine):
You can control your SmartTV, and use many of its features, with voice commands. If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you. In addition, Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features. Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.

As an Electronic Frontier Foundation activist pointed out earlier today, via Twitter, the concept of a TV screen that might be snooping on your private conversations — and thus broadcasting a chilling effect by inculcating self-censorship within its viewers — is straight out of George Orwell’s 1984....

If the SmartTV owner does realize how ridiculous this is, Samsung does at least allow them to disable the eavesdropping voice recognition ‘feature’, and instead use a more limited set of predefined ‘voice commands’ — and in that instance says it does not harvest their spoken words.

However it will still gather usage info and any other text-based inputs for data mining purposes, as it also notes further down in the policy. So an entire opt-out of being tracked is not part of this very expensive package.

That’s bad enough, but via the esteemed Charles Hill, we have still more noxious icing on an already distasteful cake:

After Samsung calmed us all down, users of smart TV app Plex noticed a Pepsi commercial playing in the middle of content streamed from their own media server within the house. Plex simplifies using your home computer as a media server for smart TVs, streaming devices, tablets, phones, and game consoles. It is not supposed to inject ads in the middle of the program you’re enjoying. Yet that’s what users report happening: Pepsi ads pop up during shows streamed to their sets using Plex.

A spokesperson for Plex told GigaOm that they weren’t adding ads to users’ video streams. Users reported Pepsi ads interjected in other programs while playing programs directly on the TV from their computer, so the app wasn’t serving up the ads. This was caused by the TV, and only users of Samsung smart TVs have reported it.

Assuming that all the data reported above is accurate, Samsung’s smart TVs are being used to push advertising into the lives of their owners, independently of the source of the material being played.

Would it happen were the source material coming from a DVD? I don’t know. I have no data either way about that possibility. It seems to be a possibility whenever the TV is Internet-connected. For a “smart TV,” overtly intended to facilitate user choice and customization of the viewing experience, this is a most egregious sin.

Am I paranoid? Perhaps. But that’s not the question that concerns me. What I want to know is: Am I paranoid enough?


Commercial motives are potentially innocent. Nearly all of us seek to sell something to others, whether it’s our products, our services, or our insights. But hyperaggressive “push” marketing is another matter. If you’ve deceived your target into rendering himself defenseless against your importunings, you’ve committed fraud. Innocence is no longer yours to claim.

However one views the commercial aspects of this phenomenon, one must also address the ways in which evil persons with evil agendas can make use of it. For example, it’s not that long ago that we learned about telecom companies’ “pen registers:” the records of what numbers were connected to what other numbers at what times, and for how long. The federal government has employed that data in its anti-terrorism operations. Has it used it for other, less worthy purposes? We cannot know.

We know that major Internet service providers have been frequently pressured by the federal government to yield up information about their subscribers. The rationale is almost always the anti-terror campaign or some other kind of federal-level crime-fighting. Similar pressure has been put on the operators of popular Web-based services, such as Facebook. We cannot know whether that pressure has been consistently met with successful resistance.


“Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies!” – current Internet meme.

For many persons, a new technique for invading the privacy of others is merely an opportunity to be exploited as it becomes relevant. Those will try to pass it off as purely a commercial gambit, a version of the pre-movie commercials we must endure at the local theater. Others will characterize it as the price we must pay for the expansion of our choices technology has bestowed upon us: unfortunate perhaps, but unavoidable. While there are kernels of truth to both statements, neither is a complete picture of the situation and its hazards.

Technology, be it ever borne in mind, is value-free. It can liberate, but it can also confine and destroy. Nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons make use of the same principles, and many of the same technologies. Governments are relentless about seizing upon new technologies for the advancement of their perennial aim: the control of their subjects.

You’re surely aware of the proposals in several states to mandate tracking devices on privately owned motor vehicles, so their owners can be taxed by the mile traveled. Whether or not you think that to be a fairer method for funding road building and maintenance, think also of the possibilities for the monitoring and control of your movements. For example, think of the way it could be used to prosecute you for using your mobility to escape sales taxes. It’s not that long ago that New York State made a practice of sending tax agents to major furniture outlets in North Carolina, to record the license plates of New Yorkers buying furniture there. Is that still going on? Perhaps not. But with the near-ubiquity of the EZ-Pass, it has ceased to be necessary, as virtually all the states along the Atlantic coastline, plus quite a few others, are linked into that system – and the transceivers aren’t installed solely at toll booths.

Still think keeping that smartphone in your pocket, always powered on, is a good idea?

1 comment:

Dystopic said...

Information is big business now and people are giving it up for free. Worse, they are often paying for the privilege.

A friend of mine on Facebook convinced me to start The Declination. I had been writing my cogitations on Facebook for many years prior. He said: "why are you providing Facebook with all this free data and content?" He made a good point. I noticed soon that FB was tailoring ads to me based on my writings. I was giving them the information needed for them to serve ads to me.

Even if the government declines to use device tracking for draconian purposes (it's more likely they will eventually), commercial activities will still use this to sell you more crap.

Are you near a Taco Bell? Perhaps your phone will sense this and tell your Smart Stereo in your car to serve you a Taco ad. Then when you tweet about how much you liked the tacos on your phone, it will know that serving you taco ads is effective. Thanks for the free data, chump.

Take my friend's advice and don't give them free content if you don't have to.