You’re under surveillance: Dragnet Nation

In ‘private’ online forums, at malls, and even at home, Julia Angwin reports, someone is tracking you.

Sharon and Bilal couldn’t be more different. Sharon Gill is a 42-year-old single mother who lives in a small town in southern Arkansas. She ekes out a living trolling for treasures at yard sales and selling them at a flea market. Bilal Ahmed, 36, is a single, Rutgers-educated man who lives in a penthouse in Sydney, Australia. He runs a chain of convenience stores.
Although they have never met in person, they became close friends on a password-protected online forum for patients struggling with mental health issues. Sharon was trying to wean herself from anti-depressant medications. Bilal had just lost his mother and was suffering from anxiety and depression.

From their far corners of the world, they were able to cheer each other up in their darkest hours. Sharon turned to Bilal because she felt she couldn’t confide in her closest relatives and neighbors. “I live in a small town,” Sharon told me. “I don’t want to be judged on this mental illness.”

But in 2010, Sharon and Bilal were horrified to discover they were being watched on their private social network.

It started with a break-in. On May 7, 2010, PatientsLikeMe noticed unusual activity on the “Mood” forum where Sharon and Bilal hung out. A new member of the site, using sophisticated software, was attempting to “scrape,” or copy, every single message off PatientsLikeMe’s private “Mood” and “Multiple Sclerosis” forums.

PatientsLikeMe managed to block and identify the intruder: It was the Nielsen Co., the media-research firm. Nielsen monitors online “buzz” for its clients, including drugmakers. On May 18, PatientsLikeMe sent a cease-and-desist letter to Nielsen and notified its members of the break-in.
But there was a twist. PatientsLikeMe used the opportunity to inform members of the fine print they may not have noticed when they signed up. The website was also selling data about its members to pharmaceutical and other companies.

The news was a double betrayal for Sharon and Bilal. Not only had an intruder been monitoring them, but so was the very place that they considered to be a safe space. 

Even worse, none of it was necessarily illegal. Nielsen was operating in a gray area of the law even as it violated the terms of service at PatientsLikeMe. And it was entirely legal for PatientsLikeMe to disclose to its members in its fine print that it would sweep up all their information and sell it.

We are living in a Dragnet Nation—a world of indiscriminate tracking where institutions are stockpiling data about individuals at an unprecedented pace. The rise of indiscriminate tracking is powered by the same forces that have brought us the technology we love so much—powerful computing on our desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

Before computers were commonplace, it was expensive and difficult to track individuals. 

Governments kept records only of occasions, such as birth, marriage, property ownership, and death. Companies kept records when a customer bought something and filled out a warranty card or joined a loyalty club. But technology has made it cheap and easy for institutions of all kinds to keep records about almost every moment of our lives.

The combination of massive computing power, smaller and smaller devices, and cheap storage has enabled a huge increase in indiscriminate tracking of personal data. The trackers include many of the institutions that are supposed to be on our side, such as the government and the companies with which we do business.

Of course, the largest of the dragnets appear to be those operated by the U.S. government. In addition to its scooping up vast amounts of foreign communications, the National Security Agency is also scooping up Americans’ phone calling records and Internet traffic, according to documents revealed in 2013 by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Meanwhile, commercial dragnets are blossoming. AT&T and Verizon are selling information about the location of their cellphone customers, albeit without identifying them by name. Mall owners have started using technology to track shoppers based on the signals emitted by the cellphones in their pockets. Retailers such as Whole Foods have used digital signs that are actually facial recognition scanners. 
Online, hundreds of advertisers and data brokers are watching as you browse the Web. Looking up “blood sugar” could tag you as a possible diabetic by companies that profile people based on their medical condition and then provide drug companies and insurers access to that information. Searching for a bra could trigger an instant bidding war among lingerie advertisers at one of the many online auction houses.

In 2009, 15-year-old high school student Blake Robbins was confronted by an assistant principal who claimed she had evidence that he was engaging in “improper behavior in his home.” It turned out that his school had installed spying software on the laptops that it issued to the school’s 2,300 students. The school’s technicians had activated software on some of the laptops that could snap photos using the webcam. Blake’s webcam captured him holding pill-shaped objects. Blake and his family said they were Mike and Ike candies. The assistant principal believed they were drugs.

Blake’s family sued the district for violating their son’s privacy. The school said the software had been installed to allow technicians to locate the computers in case of theft. However, the school did not notify students of the software’s existence, nor did it set up guidelines for when the technical staff could operate the cameras.

An internal investigation revealed that the cameras had been activated on more than 40 laptops and captured more than 65,000 images. Some students were photographed thousands of times, including when they were partially undressed and sleeping. The school board later banned the school’s use of cameras to surveil students.

On April 5, 2011, John Gass picked up his mail in Needham, Mass., and was surprised to find a letter stating that his driver’s license had been revoked. “I was just blindsided,” John said.
John is a municipal worker—he repairs boilers for the town of Needham. Without a driver’s license, he could not do his job. He called the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles and was instructed to appear at a hearing and bring documentation of his identity. They wouldn’t tell him why his license was revoked.

When John showed up for his hearing, he learned that the RMV had begun using facial recognition software to search for identity fraud. The software compared license photos to identify people who might have applied for multiple licenses under aliases. The software had flagged him and another man as having similar photos and had required them to prove their identities.
John was a victim of what I call the “police lineup”—dragnets that allow the police to treat everyone as a suspect. This overturns our traditional view that our legal system treats us as “innocent until proven guilty.”

The most obvious example of this is airport body scanners. The scanners conduct the most intrusive of searches—allowing the viewer to peer beneath a person’s clothes—without any suspicion that the person being scanned is a criminal. In fact, the burden is on the individual to “prove” his or her innocence, by passing through the scanner without displaying any suspicious items.
John Gass luckily was given a chance to plead his case. But it was an absurd case. He was presented with a photo of himself from 13 years ago.

“It doesn’t look like you,” the officer said.

“Of course it doesn’t,” John said. “It’s 13 years later. I was a hundred pounds lighter.”

John presented his passport and his birth certificate, and his license was reinstated. But the officers wouldn’t give him any paperwork to prove that it was reinstated. He wanted a piece of paper to show his boss that he was okay to drive again. 

John filed a lawsuit against the RMV, claiming that he had been denied his constitutionally protected right to due process. The RMV argued that he had been given a window of opportunity to dispute the revocation because the letter had been mailed on March 24 and the license wasn’t revoked until April 1. John didn’t pick up his mail until April 5. The Suffolk County Superior Court granted the RMV’s motion to dismiss. Gass appealed, but the appellate court also ruled against him.

John felt betrayed by the whole process. He now is very careful around state police because he worries that he won’t be treated fairly. “There are no checks and balances,” he said. “It is only natural humans are going to make mistakes. But there is absolutely no oversight.

These stories illustrate a simple truth: Information is power. Anyone who holds a vast amount of information about us has power over us.

At first, the information age promised to empower individuals with access to previously hidden information. We could comparison shop across the world for the best price, for the best bit of knowledge, for people who shared our views.

But now the balance of power is shifting, and large institutions—both governments and corporations—are gaining the upper hand in the information wars, by tracking vast quantities of information about mundane aspects of our lives.

Now we are learning that people who hold our data can subject us to embarrassment, or drain our pocketbooks, or accuse us of criminal behavior. This knowledge could, in turn, create a culture of fear.

Consider Sharon and Bilal. Once they learned they were being monitored on PatientsLikeMe, Sharon and Bilal retreated from the Internet. Bilal deleted his posts from the forum. He took down the drug dosage history that he had uploaded onto the site. Sharon stopped using the Internet altogether and doesn’t allow her son to use it without supervision.

They started talking by phone but missed the online connections they had forged on PatientsLikeMe. “I haven’t found a replacement,” Sharon said. Bilal agreed: “The people on PLM really know how it feels.”

But neither of them could tolerate the fear of surveillance. Sharon said she just couldn’t live with the uncertainty of “not knowing if every keystroke I’m making is going to some other company,” she said. Bilal added, “I just feel that the trust was broken.”

Sharon and Bilal’s experience is a reminder that for all its technological pyrotechnics, the glory of the digital age has always been profoundly human. Technology allows us to find people who share our inner thoughts, to realize we’re not alone. But technology also allows others to spy on us, causing us to pull back from digital intimacy.
When people ask me why I care about privacy, I always return to the simple thought that I want there to be safe, private spaces in the world for Sharon and Bilal, for myself, for my children, for everybody. I want there to be room in the digital world for letters sealed with hot wax. Must we always be writing postcards that can—and will—be read by anyone along the way?

As seen in The Week, excerpted from Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance by Julia Angwin. Published in February 2014 by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. ©2014 by Julia Angwin. All rights reserved.

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The future of artificial limbs

The past decade has seen huge leaps in prosthetics. How far will the technology take us? Writers at The Week investigate, what’s driven the advances?

A combination of modern technology and the horrors of war. Since ancient times, combat injuries have forced doctors and inventors to create replacements for missing body parts, ranging from metal hooks to wooden legs.

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, improvements in body armor, triage, and surgical techniques meant that wounded soldiers were three times more likely to survive than casualties in Vietnam. As a result, about 1,800 vets came home with one or more missing limbs, prompting the government to begin investing heavily in improving those soldiers’ lives.

The U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has spent $144 million since 2006 on prosthetics research and development, a project labeled “the Manhattan Project of prosthetics.” “Our goal has not been just get out of bed and walk,” said Paul Pasquina, chief of orthopedics at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, “but to get out of bed and thrive.”

What can the new prosthetics do?
They are getting closer and closer to approximating the function of human limbs. “Myoelectric” hands have movable fingers that grip and gesture naturally, and move in two dozen ways in response to tiny muscular movements in the residual limb. Prosthetic legs—once clumsy, heavy, and wooden—are now light and agile and come with gyroscopic knees that flex and extend, allowing users to climb stairs and ride a bike. These state-of-the-art legs take in data on how the wearers walk and build algorithms to anticipate their intentions, so as to move more smoothly. Advances in materials have made limbs lighter and easier to use, and they can be covered in flesh-colored silicone “skin” that looks so natural it even comes with freckles.

How does that affect users?
Amputees are now able to live much fuller and more active lives than ever before. Prior to his sensational murder trial, South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, whose legs were amputated below the knee when he was a baby, was beating able-bodied runners and competing with Olympic athletes. Some competitors even complained that his carbon-fiber prosthetic “blades” gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners. In recent years, more than 300 military amputees have returned to active duty, including 53 who went back to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The technology is there to get you back where you used to be,” says Army Staff Sgt. Billy Costello, who lost his right leg to an IED in 2011. “You just have to make calls to see who’s done what already.”’

What’s the next challenge?

To develop devices that will allow these mechanical appendages to be directly controlled by the user’s thoughts. That frontier is already being explored. In 2011, Cathy Hutchinson, a 58-year-old stroke victim and quadriplegic, commanded a robotic arm to pick up a container of coffee and bring it to her lips just by thinking about it. It was the first time in 15 years that she was able to drink without assistance. “The smile on her face was something I will never forget,” said Leigh Hochberg, a member of the research team. The technology, which uses a microelectrode implanted in the motor cortex to interpret brain activity, requires subjects to be hardwired to external computers. But devices currently in development may soon allow for the entire process to happen inside a person’s body.

How will that work?

Prosthetics are being engineered to respond to nerve signals. This new technique, called targeted muscle reinnervation surgery, utilizes functioning muscles like the thigh or pectorals, and sends signals from the brain to the bionic limb, a process known as brain-machine interface, or BMI. A DARPA-funded program has spent $71.2 million since 2009 on BMI-related projects, with the goal of transforming prosthetic limbs into an extension of a patient’s own flesh. The redirected nerves not only enable movement by thought—they enable amputees to “feel” objects through their prosthetics. “I could feel round things and soft things and hard things,” says Dennis Sørensen, a 36-year-old from Denmark who recently tested a prototype of an artificial hand. “It’s so amazing.’’

What does the future hold?
Truly bionic human beings—part flesh, part machine. Experts say that 50 percent of the human body is currently replaceable with artificial implants and advanced prosthetics. Mechanical organs, including the heart, lungs, pancreas, spleen, and kidneys, either currently exist or are in advanced stages of development. Many electronic implants, like pacemakers and hearing aids, already control, restore, or enhance normal body functions. In coming decades, said Andy Miah, director of the Creative Futures Institute, prosthetics will be able to do far more than just replace body parts lost to injury, disease, or age—they will extend the boundaries of what humans can do. “These technologies don’t just repair us, they make us better than well,” Miah said. “The human enhancement market will reveal the truth about our biological conditions—we are all disabled.”

The real Iron Man
Films such as Star Wars, RoboCop, and The Matrix depict a world where people and their machines are completely merged. Futurists and researchers in prosthetic technology say that nearly everything depicted in these films is possible; indeed, current advances in robotics, neuroscience, and microelectronics are bringing the visions of science fiction closer to reality every year. Over the next two decades, scientists expect to introduce bionic appendages that respond to thoughts, and chips implanted in the brain with the potential to download data directly into human memory banks. This summer, the military plans to test the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), which will encase soldiers in a powered exoskeleton with bulletproof body armor, a built-in weapon, and computer-generated “situational awareness displays.” It won’t fly like Iron Man, but William McRaven, chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command, said the suit “will yield a revolutionary improvement in survivability and capability” for warriors and “a huge comparative advantage over our enemies.”

As seen in The Week ;-)
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It's time for women to start asking for raises

Turns out the old adage is true: If you don’t ask, you don’t get, said Jennifer Ludden in New research by economists at Carnegie Mellon University found that “in the face of a persistent gender pay gap,” one reason men still outearn women is because “women simply don’t ask for more money.”

According to economics professor Linda Babcock, men are four times more likely than women to ask for a raise. That “failure to negotiate higher pay is crucial,” says Babcock, because it can have a “snowball effect” resulting in smaller raises and bonuses over the course of a woman’s career. And that doesn’t even account for “company retirement contributions, which are also based on a share of salary.”

The problem can also “carry over to a new employer, who is almost certain to ask, ‘What was your last salary?’” Part of the reason women don’t negotiate is that they “often just don’t think about asking for more pay,” and “if they do, they find the very notion of haggling intimidating.”

With good reason, said Tara Siegel Bernard in The New York Times. Experts say that when women “advocate for themselves” and “act in ways that aren’t considered sufficiently feminine,” bosses may “find it unseemly, if only on a subconscious level.”

Negotiation gurus say women should “take a more calibrated approach” when asking for a raise or a new job title. And while “some women may bridle” at the notion of conforming to stereotypes, “we might as well use them to move forward.”

In that case, “consider these tactics,” said Aine Creedon in If you’re angling for a raise, be prepared. “Females tend to not ask for raises when there isn’t a clear standard on how much to ask for,” so do your research.

Recruiters can give you an idea of what you’re worth, and networking with male colleagues and other employees in your workplace or at peer organizations “can be very informative.” And “bringing up outside offers” can help make your bosses realize your value. Sadly, this tactic may still be “seen as aggressive for females” and can backfire. “Approaching the matter in a passive tone” might be more effective. In fact, “the way you choose to present yourself and the language you use can make or break your chances.”

Negotiate in person, not by email, which can “come off as impersonal and cold.” It also helps to time your request to a performance review or recent accomplishment, and focus on using words like “we” and “us” that show “how this move will benefit the whole organization.”

AS seen in The Week ;-)
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Did you hear about Teju Cole's essay on Twitter?

Teju Cole might be the opposite of a book snob, said Aaron Calvin in Earlier this year, the award-winning Nigerian-American novelist turned heads by publishing a 4,000-word, deeply reported essay on immigration via Twitter, breaking the text into 250 tweets.

Except for the format, “A Piece of the Wall” reads like an article that the 38-year-old Brooklyn-based scholar might have written for The New Yorker or The New York Times. But he wanted to be sure it could be read by people who lack either access to or a deep interest in magazines or books. “In various parts of West Africa, there are different iterations of the idea that ‘White people like paper so much that they even wipe their butts with it,’” he says. “I love print. But maybe not everything has to be on it.”

No one should suffer an excess of guilt for failing to read Cole’s newly published novella, Every Day Is for the Thief, said The New York Times. As voracious a reader as he’s been since childhood, Cole claims not to worry about any of the revered books that he’s so far failed to crack. “I have not read most of the big 19th-century novels that people consider ‘essential,’ nor most of the 20th-century ones for that matter,” he says. “But this does not embarrass me. There are many films to see, many friends to visit, many walks to take, many play-lists to assemble, and many favorite books to reread.

Life’s too short for anxious scorekeeping. Also, my grandmother is illiterate, and she’s one of the best people I know.”

As seen in The Week ;-)
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