April 22, 2019

.comment: My Semi-Annual Security Rant - page 2

Orwell Was Right

  • June 6, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

The Linux Gadget That Spies on You

One of the hottest consumer electronics products of the season is a thing called TiVo. It offers tremendous versatility in recording television programs for you to view at your leisure. I know several people who have them, and all say they could no longer live happy lives if their TiVos were taken away from them.

The TiVo, as you probably know, runs on embedded Linux. And, as you can probably guess, it more or less requires that you subscribe to a service such that television listings are downloaded into it via telephone modem.

What you almost certainly didn't know, even if you read the company's literature, is that the modem communication is not one-way. Among the data gathered by the TiVo people via the modem are: who you are, where you live, what programs you watch, and when you watch them. And no, you can't opt out of their information gathering.

The Automotive Gadget That Spies on You

So far as I can tell, there is no Linux yet in the OnStar system that General Motors is putting in its automobiles. Still, it keeps track -- or can, at any rate -- of everywhere your car goes and how long it takes to get there. Your movements can be tracked. Some of your car's functions can be carried out by remote control, by an unseen person many miles away. It takes very little imagination to realize the ways that this system could be abused, if robbing one of privacy is considered an abuse. It can't be long before some company realizes there's big money to be made in keeping archives of the movements of OnStar-equipped vehicles. This is one that is going to result in some interesting court cases.

The Intersections That Spy on You

In a number of major cities, intersections are equipped with cameras that make a photograph when the light changes, to capture the license plate number of any car that blows through the light. The car's owner is then sent a citation, being guilty until proven innocent (as is, actually, the way with practically all automobile-related infractions in the U.S.). Now comes word that cities are shortening the duration of the yellow lights at these intersections, causing drivers either to slam on the brakes -- and risk being rear-ended -- or to go ahead through the intersection, getting an expensive ticket and enriching the municipal coffers (and bumping up the hapless driver's insurance rate). Using this precedent and the technology available via the OnStar system, it could soon become completely automated: Anytime the system thinks you've violated the traffic laws, you get mailed a ticket. The system would carry guilty until proven innocent to a new level, for as we all know, computers never err. (This would serve other political ends as well, discouraging people from driving at all.)

The Telephone That Will Spy on You

Have you heard of E911? No? Well, it's from the government and it's here to help you. This good idea from our friends at the Federal Communications Commission will begin "service" in October. What is its "service"? To track the location of your cellular telephone.

The stated idea is that anyone can dial "9-1-1" on his or her cell phone and the authorities will know where that person is, due to a tiny GPS receiver built into the phone. Now. It's not unreasonable to assume that if it can find you when you want to be found, it can find you at other times, too. The contractors providing this "service" say that they're going to great lengths to protect your privacy. Maybe they are. In any case, the FCC has ruled that by the end of next year, all new digital cellular telephones must be equipped with this ability to be tracked.

The Company That Spies on You

If you'd like to get really alarmed, drop on by ChoicePoint and look at the information they offer. Their material is so comprehensive that the company has entered into contract to provide information to the FBI. The writer Richard Smith recently ordered his file from the company (you have to pay to see what information they've collected on you), and discovered that much of it was wrong. He tried to opt out of their system. They said no.

The Other Companies That Spy on You

Do you have one of those grocery store discount cards? Ever wonder what those are about? Well, let me tell you: Your shopping habits are being tracked, along with your name and address, and it's not so life will be pleasanter for you. It's so you can be targeted, marketed to, worn down; so your habits can be known and played upon. Likewise your credit card purchases and things you buy online. It is no coincidence that Microsoft Corporation has a big television ad which describes how its enterprise software keeps track of the buying habits of customers -- and even goes so far as to say that the software is unsurprised when a customer uncharacteristically purchases a "Barney" tape. Instead, the ad tells us, the software adjusts based on the new information. We've so sold any notions of privacy for the low price of little dabs of ersatz convenience that it's actually thought to be an advertisable virtue in a product!

The Gadget That Shows What's in Your Pocket

Here's the lead from the wire story:

"BOULDER, Colo., May 30 (UPI) -- A federal agency is developing a radar-like device that uses electromagnetic waves to peer through clothing and detect concealed weapons from up to 15 meters (50 feet) away.

"News of the planned system comes amid national angst over domestic terrorism while adding a new dimension to the debate over the constitutionality of high-tech policing practices.

"Government sources said they hope to have a working prototype of the device by year's end. The apparatus could one day be mounted on police vehicles and driven through unruly crowds to spot individuals carrying guns, knives and perhaps even plastic explosives. . . ."

And who knows what else. Here we have the government -- our tax dollars at play -- coming up with a plan whereby police cars will cruise around, inspecting that which is normally hidden by our clothes. It will do so by focused electromagnetic radiation; you know, the stuff that regulations otherwise require us to be shielded from. The fact that there's been no case of domestic terrorism that has involved anything this device would isolate doesn't seem to matter -- terrorists combine easily acquired fertilizer with easily acquired diesel fuel, put the whole mess in the back of a truck or van, and head for the federal courthouse or World Trade Center.

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