Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Archive for the tag “Privacy”

Spies Like Us

Not too long ago, I suggested drones were out of control. I had no idea. Saw an ad on TV last week for the High Spy Drone. You can continue reading this post or go to their site.

If you’ve seen the video and paid attention, you heard the announcer say “… spy on your neighbors.” Yes, folks, for the small price of only two payments of $19.95 (plus S & H), you too can invade the privacy of anyone living next door.

Why stop there. You can take it on vacation (as the ad suggests) and spy on total strangers. Why not pull up outside a house with a pool and spy on the sunbathers? (Just be prepared to abandon the drone and made a quick getaway.)

Okay, so it’s just a toy (less than a foot square). And it’s likely that the batteries won’t keep it airborne for its full 75 minutes of video. But for that low, low price you get TWO high spy drones.

Like I said, it’s just a toy and you couldn’t add an ounce of payload to cause any real (physical) damage. The damage will depend on the pictures you take and what you do with them.

Speaking of pictures, the ad says the device’s range is 160 feet. So if you want video from 50 feet high, you can be up to 152 feet away from your target. You might even be able to spy on people two houses away.

Speaking of ads, I didn’t catch the product name in the ad and my online search failed the first day. The next day I came up with a better search phrase, “spy drone tv ad,” and wondered if anyone had a site for things seen on TV.

They did. It’s called and here’s the link for the high spy drone. However, this site is not just for toys. It’s for “Real-Time TV Advertising Metrics.” It’s an actual tool for media planning, ad effectiveness, and competitive analysis.

Interesting, but I digress. The issue here, the non-toy, non-joke concern is privacy. The fruits of the ever-shrinking world of digital are just beginning to appear. The technology that stabilizes this drone is very high-tech—and getting smaller.

As for privacy, the odds are against us. Since it wasn’t mentioned explicitly in the Constitution, government is slow to derive, and enforce, privacy rights. It’s not much help when it comes to electronic invasion, so why expect any when it comes to physical spying?

If you find your airspace being invaded by a spy drone, I don’t recommend the family shotgun. Instead, I’d get a T-shirt gun, like they use at concerts. For ammo, you’ll need a net with small weights in the corners. Maybe you’ll see it advertised on TV.

Insecurity, Part Three

Last week’s post ended with three questions: Why are we under attack? Who will protect us? Is there no hope for privacy? Here’s three more: Why do I have to do this? How did this problem get so bad? Does my life have to be this complicated?

The most important piece of advice I can give is this: choose carefully. All the concerns in the previous paragraph can be minimized by making good choices. You can do more with less if you simply buy less, and that includes the “free” stuff.

Far too many people buy new technology as fast as it’s announced. They’ll stand in line all night and dive deeper into debt to have the next great thing. Until the next great thing.

The cost of new technology goes far beyond dollars. It burns up your time and punches new holes in what’s left of your security. No matter how dazzling new technology is, you must see past the fun. What are the risks? How much of your life is at stake?

Media extols new technology, but ads are only the good news. Who will tell you about the downside of using public WiFi—whether for email, selfies, or shopping. Sites won’t warn you. Convenience trumps safety when banks push mobile banking.

Saying your data on the Internet is on a Cloud doesn’t make it safer, or quicker, or easier to access, or anything different from what it was before. But calling it a Cloud sounds really cool.

Advertising is all about appearances. Buyer Beware won’t reveal reality. If you want reality, you’ll have work hard and dig deep, Reality is where the risks are. Appearances can hide the risks.

Clouds are as irrelevant as the speed of Google searches. Speed only counts if you get what you want and get out. Google searches aren’t fast if you don’t get what you need right away. Google wants you looking (at ads), not finding. That’s browsing.

Finding is what the Internet does. And tracking. If this was a game, you would be IT (pun intended). When you’re online, how many people are looking at you? Literally if you’re Skyping.

GPS or triangulation reveals where you are. Texting or email speaks your thoughts. A selfie will pick you out of today’s lineup. We have lost any possible expectation of privacy.

What technology doesn’t bother to tell you is what makes the hacker’s job easier. The less you’re aware of exactly how and to what extent you are at risk, the more likely you will be a loser.

Clearly, the best we can do is minimize our losses. Web sites won’t help us; software can’t be bothered; government only listens to lobbies. We have to protect ourselves—and each other.

Insecurity, Part Two

Last weeks post (“Insecurity, Part One”) was getting a little long, so I left a few things out. One was very simple: keep your security information on paper, or hard copy as we used to say.

Or you could use a flash drive or any other medium not ordinarily connected to your computer, and therefore portable. If it’s not connected, it can’t be hacked. If it’s paper, hide it well.

The other point I omitted was Two-Factor Authentication (or 2FA). This was recommended by all the experts interviewed in those news stories last week. Unfortunately, it confused the reporters.

It’s supposed to work like this. You sign on to the site and then the site takes a second step (like sending a code back to you). This is meant to ensure it’s actually you and not some computer.

But no one agrees on just how to do this. For example, Google wants to send it to your phone, regardless of what device you used to sign on. In effect, they want two-device authentication.

It makes sense for the site you just accessed to authenticate by sending you a query to the device you just used. This will work even if you sign on from someone else’s computer. Just carry your security information with you (flash drive, hard copy).

If 2FA is a good idea, why not always use it? Well, for one thing they have to offer it. Currently, I use over twenty sites requiring secure access, but only one offers 2FA. Hasn’t really caught on.

So far, these things I’ve discussed are more work for you and me. The bigger question, which no one—not even the experts on TV—ever mention, is, Why don’t these sites do more to help us?

First, and most obviously, is their lack of imagination in providing Security Questions. Most of them seem only to copy from each other. Very few are unique to a single site. Laziness?

As for passwords, why can’t these sites make sure we don’t use any real words? Why can’t they come up with a way to measure the randomness of passwords, to help us make better ones?

Not only that, why can’t they suggest changing our passwords when they’ve been in use too long? Same goes for Security Questions. They could do all these things, but then they’d have to write some code. Guess our security isn’t worth their time.

Next week, the really big questions. Why are we under attack? Who will protect us? Is there no hope for privacy?

The Eyes Have It

Here, there, and everywhere, you and I (and all our kids) are being watched—every moment of every day. Remember the phrase, Do you know where your children are? Well, you can be sure somebody does. The question is, who? And for what purpose?

There are cameras everywhere: official, personal, mounted, handheld, even hidden. Many of these cameras (e.g., cell phones) are in motion; and many cameras are capturing motion. Those are just the eyes. Cell phones also have ears. And send text. Besides pictures, sounds, and words, location is broadcast via GPS. Compared to today’s technology, Orwell’s Big Brother was a piker.

Right now, sitting at my computer, I know where I am. Because it’s connected, the Internet knows how to find my computer. Atop my monitor is a webcam. Every so often, I catch it blinking—just a quick flash on and off. What did it do? Why? And worse: how could I possibly find out? With today’s face recognition software, it’s easy to locate my computer and use my camera to see if I’m sitting here.

Over four decades ago, there was a very good movie (The Anderson Tapes) about a well-planned major crime thwarted by incidental surveillance of audio and video tapes. Neither the crime nor the criminals were of interest until police combined information from the tapes. Then they watched the crime as it unfolded, preferring arrest and detention to prevention.

It’s not simply that we’re watched (and listened to and our tweets and emails read) 24/7, it’s that we have no idea by whom or for what purpose. At the time that movie was made, the National Security Agency (NSA) was so big and so secret it fed a national hunger for paranoia. NSA has grown (now bigger than the CIA), and has hi-tech tools you’ve never heard of. All for watching and listening and reading. Everything.

The only thing keeping many of us out of trouble (or off the watch lists) is there’s way too much information. We hope. Privacy, like the past, is gone. Yet, there’s a new irony in some of the old movies, like Bogart in Casablanca saying, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Search Revisited, Part One

In this blog, I’ve written over ten posts about search engines. Most were critical, with a few constructive suggestions. But everything about computers and the Internet is a moving target, and I finally have some good news about search engines.

Not that there isn’t a little bad with the good (isn’t there always?). But it’s little, and the good news is BIG: there’s a new search engine on the block. Not only new, but better. Now for the what and why and so on.

First the name: DuckDuckGo ( For some, it’s off-putting. (Yes, it’s “putting.” I checked it at the Duck faster than you can say it.) But try to remember all those years ago when we thought Google was silly. But DuckDuckGo is hard to type, so they have a URL shortcut: In this post, it’s just the Duck.

Searches with the Duck are cleaner and more comprehensive. Not only are the hit summaries better than Bing, they’re far better than Google. And (one of my pet peeves) the Duck makes no mistakes when searching with quotes. It actually did what I asked! If that’s not enough to peak your interest, try this: NO ADVERTISING. I think. I haven’t seen any so far, and think I turned it off with an option. Either way, it’s a cleansing feeling.

Here’s the kicker. I said I had some bad news. I was wrong. Last week, when (admittedly belatedly) I discovered the Duck, it promised results sorted by date. Didn’t seem to work. That was the bad news. The kicker? Now it works! But that’s not all: there are many other substantial additions and improvements since last week! Yet, it’s still clean and uncluttered.

I can’t promise that the Duck will find what you’re looking for, but it is unquestionably more efficient. Use the Duck and you’ll find things quicker and easier than with the major search engines. And far fewer irrelevancies.

You can take my word for it, but why not read what others have to say? It’s all good. There are many other major features, like privacy, that should make you want it even more. I’m not saying the Duck is the absolute best, just that you really have to give it a try. I’m betting you’ll like it.

Technology Won’t Leave Us Alone

Back on January 9 and 16 of this year, I wrote two posts about the loss and end of privacy. What I forgot was the most basic right of privacy: the right to left alone. This is so basic, I had difficulty finding a title for this post. Some options: The Tie That Binds Also Chafes; Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down; Breaking The Digital Tether. And something about breaking the digital tie is nigh impossible since it’s wireless.

“The founding fathers] conferred, as against the Government, the right to be left alone — the right most valued by civilized men.” —Justice Louis D. Brandeis (1928)

“I want to be alone, ” Greta Garbo famously said. Here’s an updated version from a friend’s recent email, expressing the same connection anxiety:

“I feel like a weirdo not being interested in smart phones.

“The idea of having a smart phone to be fixated on every moment, like everyone seems to be, simply fills me with horror. Of course we all know how in the middle of conversation or a meeting or driving (or while doing all three!) everyone grabs that stupid phone for the smallest alert, the most unimportant call. Sure, its great to have for crucial issues, for emergency info . . . but all the functions!, the entertainment! the apps! everywhere!, piled up, demanding attention!, interaction!, response!, constant update….!

“I cant bear the thought of having that need to check check check all the time. the computer is bad enough. I love getting away from it, leaving the house, mind occupied elsewhere. I will call back later, write, respond when I get home, when I feel like it, in a minute, later, when I am done talking to whoever I am talking to now. I want to walk the dogs, ride my horse and just do that, not check FB or my calls during a movie, or dinner.”

I can’t say it better; but I can say this: if we, as individuals, do not have the right to be left alone—alone with our private thoughts, desires, wishes, dreams; as well as our private irrationalities, follies, grudges, and absurd beliefs—then we cease to exist as individuals.

The Loss of Privacy, Part Deux

Last week’s post bemoaned the loss of privacy through the misuse of digital technologies. This week, a look at another threat to privacy—by our government! Without getting too technical, the acronyms you need to know are SOPA and PIPA: SOPA is the Stop Online Privacy Act and PIPA* is the Protect IP Act.

Here are three excellent sources about PIPA and SOPA:

As you might imagine, a great many corporations and individuals oppose these acts. Unfortunately, this opposition comes from all different directions; it lacks unity. While the various opposing points-of-view are well-founded, they are diffuse and may not prevent passage of these bills.

Yet, there is an alternative. None of the opposing positions discuss costs, that is, what it would cost to implement these acts. A large portion of the costs fall upon Internet Providers and blog sites—like this one. Now, ask yourself: how will these providers deal with increased costs mandated by the government? If you’re still wondering about the answer, just look in the mirror.

Clearly, all the costs of implementing these acts will fall, directly or indirectly, on the users of the Internet. That means individuals, like you and me, and businesses, non-profits, and other organizations. Will someone please hit Congress upside the head with a two-by-four and explain to them these costs will seriously harm our economy? Do they not understand the extent to which our economy is dependent upon the Internet? A cost-effective Internet?

Many of the voices opposing these acts warn about the effect on censorship; others warn about inhibiting new businesses. Simply increasing the costs of using the Internet will, all by itself, create censorship and suffocate new business. Where are the voices warning of the dangers resulting from these increased costs? Well, you’re reading mine. Now it’s your turn: tell your representatives in Congress that neither you nor our economy can afford increased Internet costs.

* PIPA is not to be confused with pipa, the four-stringed chinese musical instrument. If you searched for PIPA you found references for both. The reason, as mentioned in the post of Jan. 2, 2012, is search engines do not allow us to distinguish upper and lower case. As a result, we cannot differentiate acronyms from common words, like score, pin, or wasp—or uncommon words like pipa.

That same post said search engines allowed users to limit results to various time periods (24 hours, a week, etc.). Not quite. Bing has dropped this capability completely! Google, on the other hand, has promoted it to the main search page!! For more on browser idiocies, next week’s post will be “Change for the Sake of Change.”

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