Privacy will die, but not because of corporations or governments: Because of you

Edward Snowden used his alternative Christmas message to highlight the death of privacy, and he’s right that privacy as we’ve all known it will die. But he’s wrong to focus on what governments are doing. Governments aren’t the ones that are going to kill privacy.

Neither are corporations the ones to blame. Google, Amazon and the like will know more about us than any company has ever known about its customers, but they aren’t the ones who will kill privacy.

No: the ones responsible for the death of privacy will be you and me.

What happens when the technology of surveillance - surreptitious cameras, tiny drones,  spyware – becomes available to every individual on the planet? What happens when every parent can follow their children’s activities 24/7, online and offline?

History tells us that technology starts off expensive and big, the domain of governments and corporations, and ends up small and cheap, available to every individual. Surveillance tech is going to follow the same pattern. And that, not corporations and governments, will be what kills privacy.

The 12 days of Surface Pro 2 – Day one

If you follow me on Twitter, you’re probably aware that I’ve been using a Surface Pro 2 off and on for a few weeks. So far, my impressions of it haven’t exactly been positive. As a tablet, I’ve found it to be pretty woeful. As a laptop, it offers less than my MacBook Air.

However, prompted by Kevin Tofel, who’s been using his Surface Pro 2 as a kind of souped-up Chromebook, and Mary Branscombe, who’s been vociferous in her defence of the product, I’ve decided to give the Surface Pro 2 a proper go. In keeping with the time of year, I’m going to use the Surface Pro 2 as my only computer for 12 days, replacing my MacBook Air, iPad Air and Nexus 7.

Importantly – for this is a test of mobility as much as anything else – I’ll be carrying the Surface Pro 2 everywhere that I would normally carry one of my usual devices. This means it’s really got to replace the iPad as a tablet (carried everywhere), the MacBook Air as a laptop, and the Nexus 7 as a sofa-surfer and occasional book reader.

Day One

It’s not a good start. One of the uses I put tablets to often is reading books, using Amazon’s Kindle software on pretty-much every platform. Kindle is generally pretty amazing. It keeps my reading position in sync, and (on tablets) any book that I start reading is downloaded to read when offline.

Happily, there’s a Windows 8 “Metro” version of the Kindle software, which looks and acts the same as on other tablet platforms. Except that when I went to continue reading a book that I’d started earlier, Kindle told me it couldn’t: “An error occurred while loading the next page. Please try again later.” Because I wasn’t connected to the net, it wouldn’t load the rest of the book – which is different to the way Kindle behaves on other tablet platforms, where if you download the book it’s available offline.

The second somewhat jarring thing is the lack of a reminder of the battery life that’s left. In Windows 8.1, to get to the battery indicator, you need to swipe in from the right hand side. That’s fine, but at the back of my brain I’m feeling like this is a laptop (and a Windows one to boot) – I should be keeping an eye on the battery.

This is an objective thing: the Surface Pro 2 actually has pretty good battery life, according to every test I’ve seen. But it feels like a laptop, rather than a tablet, and that tells my computer-addled brain to keep an eye on battery.

One thing that I am instantly missing is my iPad Air’s built-in 4G. Yes, I could tether the Surface Pro to my phone, but I’ve always found that tethering is more of a pain than it should be.

Some positives: I’m using the Type Cover 2 rather than the lighter (but horrible) Touch Cover, and it’s a really nice keyboard to type on, at least when you’re using it at a table. In the lap, the combined depth of Type Cover, Surface, and kickstand (adjusted to “lap-friendly” angle) isn’t as comfortable as a regular laptop, and if you’re lying on a sofa it’s even less comfortable still. I certainly prefer either the MacBook Air or iPad Air (with or without Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover) when sofa-surfing.

The screen is a bit of a mixed bag. I love the resolution – it’s as good as the iPad Air – but the shape and size leave something to be desired. When you’re using it in landscape orientation, it’s great for video but actually pretty poor for reading documents. If you use the onscreen keyboard, you’re also left with only a sliver of content above it, which makes it tricky to write much. Portrait orientation is just generally a bust. It’s really clear Microsoft doesn’t expect anyone to use this much. It’s too long and thin for most web pages, and the width make books into the same experience as reading a newspaper with too-narrow columns. And the Windows button, which is fixed on to what’s normally the bottom edge, sits at precisely the point where your thumb is likely to rest if you hold the device in portrait mode.

Skydrive is a mixed bag too. There appears to be a limited range of syncing options: either you have only the files you’ve accessed recently available offline, or you have every file available. You can’t select individual folders and make everything in them available, as you can with Dropbox or Google Drive (UPDATED: Yes, you can, although it’s not obvious. And the default appears to be “keep everything in the cloud” rather than “download and sync”). Of course, I could just install Dropbox or Google Drive.

The selection of apps in the Windows App Store is also a mixed bag. There’s some good, high-quality products from small developers. But there’s also some categories where there just isn’t anything of decent quality. For example, there are plenty of Markdown editors, but all of the ones I’ve looked at are (at best) nothing out of the ordinary and at worst just crap.

A fictionalised conversation between me and a Surface Pro 2 fan

Me: “Surface Pro 2 makes a pretty poor laptop, because of its crazy kick stand and lack of a bundled keyboard. Just buy an ultrabook or MacBook Air.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What laptop can you just take off the keyboard and use as a tablet?”

Me: “Yeah, but the Surface Pro 2 makes a really poor tablet. It’s too heavy, really hard to use in portrait mode, and you keep being dumped back into the crappy old Windows desktop to do things. Just buy an iPad or good Android tablet, or even a Surface if you like that sort of thing.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What other tablet can you clip a keyboard on to and have a fully-fledged laptop?”

Me: “But it’s a pretty poor laptop…”

And so it goes, round and round. Point out Surface Pro 2 is a poor laptop, and you get pointed towards the fact it’s also a tablet. Point out it’s a pretty poor tablet, and you get pointed back towards the fact that it’s also a laptop.

No, the “UK national firewall” doesn’t block Boing Boing, EFF and slashdot

Government-mandated web filtering is a really bad idea, for reasons which should be obvious to anyone who’s used the Internet for long. I’m against them: I think it should be up to adults to decide what they see, and for parents to decide what their children see.

However, in opposing them, it’s really important that we don’t go off the deep end and cry wolf about what ISPs are doing. That’s why I find Cory’s post at Boing Boing about how “UK’s new national firewall: O2′s “parental control” list blocks Slashdot, EFF, and Boing Boing” concerning. 

Cory’s post takes it’s lead from another post by Peter Hansteen, which points at o2′s URL checker, which lets you see whether an individual site is blocked by o2′s web filters. The third setting – “Parental Control” – appears to block pretty-much the whole internet.

However, I think this is misleading, and conflating two very different sets of filters. The site checker Peter linked to is, I believe, related to o2′s mobile service, not its broadband service (which is now part of Sky). In common with most mobile companies, o2 has a default blacklist, which can you opt out of easily. It also has a set of much stricter “Parental control” setting which allows parents to tightly lock-down what a child with a mobile can see. It’s this second “Parental control” setting that’s basically blocks everything on the internet, apart from a handful of “child-friendly” sites.

I don’t think this is anything to do with the government mandated porn block. It’s just the same mobile filtering that’s always been there, and that’s common across pretty-much every mobile company. I can’t imagine why anyone would change any child’s mobile to basically block the whole of the internet, but it’s opt-in, and it should be up to the parents.

Sky, which now owns o2′s former broadband service (not the mobile network), does have a system of DNS-based filtering called “Broadband Shield” which is compliant with the government-”requested” filtering system. Although I haven’t run through it, it seems to work like this: when you sign up to Sky as a new customer, you’re presented with filtering options. The default setting is on, but you can change it at this point. (More details in Sky’s response to ORG’s questions about it). The “PG” and “18″ level filtering is, of course, as much riddled with inconsistency as any other filtering system, but it’s not the “OMG BLOCK EVERYTHING” that o2′s mobile parental controls are.

UPDATE: And now this piece on the New Statesman is making the same error, conflating pre-existing filters on a mobile network with Cameron’s “porn blocking” plans. This is crying wolf. The two things are not the same. For the love of god, people, let’s have a grown up debate that actually deals with the facts, rather than sensationalising things.

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Did the NSA pay RSA $10m to weaken encryption?

According to a story by Reuters, the NSA paid encryption company RSA $10m to deliberately weaken one of its products by using an encryption algorithm which, presumably, the NSA had already cracked.

Sounds plausible. After all, we know the NSA at least attempted to influence standard-setting bodies to adopt weaker levels of encryption.

But there’s something about this story which doesn’t add up. Once you begin to think about it, this kind of deal doesn’t make sense for either the NSA, or for RSA.

For RSA, doing something like this would be a brain-dead move. Yes, as the Reuters report says, $10m looks big in the context of the $27m made by the division of RSA which allegedly received it. But for the company as a whole, it amounts to less than 2% of its annual revenue of $525m in 2007. And a decision to accept that money would almost certainly have to have been board-level: so why would they have accepted it? Would they undermine their own product – and in a way which they must have known would almost certainly leak at some point? It just looks unlikely.

For the NSA, why bother when there are more effective and secretive ways of achieving the same goal? Why not simply plant an employee in RSA with access to the code? Why not quietly pay a very senior individual (or individuals) to buy their compliance? Why not hack into the company and plant your own back door? After all, this is an organisation capable of planting malware in top secret nuclear facilities of another country – breaking into a commercial organisation, by comparison, is trivial. And using methods like bribery, “human intelligence” or hacking gives you a level of plausible deniability that no direct deal with a company could.

Paying the company money – money which would have to be accounted for somehow “through the books” – is the least secure, most probable to leak and thus least-effective option. It seems pretty unlikely to me that an organisation like the NSA would choose to do that, rather than use one of the more covert (and effective) options at its disposal.

UPDATE: RSA has “categorically denied” it was paid to weaken its security. It’s worth reading this post in its entirety, because it includes some details about its decisions.

Your New Quote Title

“Had Microsoft brought out a version of MS Office for iOS 7 within a year of the iPad being on the market, it would have been a big success and serious money maker for them. Now it is too late. You also can’t count out more and more people moving to Google’s productivity tools. I recently found out that a major national newspaper just moved everyone over to Google Docs and away from Office. I have heard that same thing happening at other big firms and big government accounts too.” – Tim Bajarin, “Why Microsoft will regret not doing MS Office for iOS

Cheap Android phones don’t mean what you think they mean

Benedict Evans ponders the meaning of Android:

As should be obvious, this makes counting total ‘Android’ devices as though they tell you something about Google or Apple’s competitive position increasingly problematic. But to me, pointing out that ‘Android’ doesn’t necessarily competed with iPad is rather boring – what’s really interesting are the possibilities that these new economics might unlock. 

A good example is this – a 2G Android phone wholesaling for $35 (just one of hundreds). Now, stop thinking about it as a phone. How do the economics of product design and consumer electronics change when you can deliver a real computer running a real Unix operating system with an internet connection and a colour touch screen for $35? How about when that price falls further? Today, anyone who can make a pocket calculator can make something like this, and for not far off the same cost. The cost of putting a real computer with an internet connection into a product is collapsing. What does that set of economics enable? 

Benedict picks out what’s really interesting about Android, and it’s absolutely not that “80% market share” pundits keep going throwing around. The kinds of devices that Benedict describes aren’t in the same market as the iPhone: a $35 2G smartphone is as comparable to the iPhone as a Mercedes S-Class is to a Mini. Both do the same thing (carry you around), but no one who’s in the market for one of them will end up walking out of a showroom with the other. 

But what is interesting, as Benedict points out, is what a $35 Internet access device enables. When devices like this are as pervasive as a pocket calculator used to be, what does that allow us to do? Smart devices, network-enabled, which are almost cheap enough to throw away are much more interesting in the long term than expensive (but undoubtedly brilliant) devices like the iPhone. 

The end point of surveillance

A starting point:

The federal government is making progress on developing a surveillance system that would pair computers with video cameras to scan crowds and automatically identify people by their faces, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with researchers working on the project.

(via Facial Scanning Is Making Gains in Surveillance – NYTimes.com)

There are very few technical limits connected to surveillance. If a government wanted to, it could monitor every electronic communication you have. It could recognise your face, your car, your clothes and follow you around the physical world. It could recognise every person you meet, track every transaction you make. None of this is rocket science, and within ten years it will be available to every government on the planet. [1]

Turning away from technical capabilities isn’t going to work. Some government, somewhere, is going to do it and gain a huge advantage over others. They won’t limit themselves to surveilling their own people: any way they can hack into the systems used by others will be used, because knowing what the citizens of other countries are up to is a massive advantage too.

Knowledge is power.


  1. And ten years after that, it will be available to every individual on the planet.  ↩

What are low end tablets used for?

Ben Bajarin takes a peek into the “white box” segment of the tablet market and finds out what they're being used for:

Nearly all evidence and data we find comes back to a few fundamental things. First, most of these low cost tablets in the category of ‘other’ are being used purely as portable DVD players, or e-readers. Some are being used for games, but rarely are they connecting to web services, app stores, or other key services. I have asked local analysts, local online services companies, app tracking firms, and many many more regional experts, and the answer keeps coming back the same. They affirm that we see the data showing all these Android tablet sales. But they aren’t actually showing up on anyone’s radar when it comes to apps and services in a meaningful way.

Is this even the same market as the iPad? I don't think it really is. Whereas the iPad is being used to effectively replace (or augment) the PC in many homes and businesses, this looks much more like a replacement for the portable DVD player. Think video iPod, not Mac replacement.

Apple’s obsession with thin and light

Jason Perlow doesn't understand Apple's “obsession” with thin and light:

It's not like the iPad 4 was a heavy device to begin with. The previous generation weighed 662 grams, the iPad Air weighs just 478 grams.

The reason why Apple is doing this is because as a culture, America and most of the western world is obsessed with the idea of “thin” and “light” to an almost unhealthy degree. They are producing precisely what the buying public wants, even if it compromises the overall durability of the design.

I'd quibble with Jason's assertion that Apple is obsessed with thinness and lightness to the detriment of other aspects of the device. I'm sure the company could have made a device as thin as the iPad Air in the past, but it didn't because that would have compromised on things which Apple holds much higher in the scale of importance than mere millimeters: battery life and thermal performance.

But to the extent that lightness is a factor Apple focuses on (thinness is just a method of removing weight and achieving the right balance), it's down to it being something which allows the device to disappear from view. Apple has consistently aimed to make the technology get out of the way, to let people do things without having to focus on the device. The bigger and heavier something is, the more the device distracts from what the person is trying to achieve.

Ian Betteridge on Macs, mobiles, and technology