Webster Times: Nichols Explores How the Web Watches Us

Nichols in the News 

Editor’s Note: The following article appeared in the Nov. 9, 2018, edition of The Webster Times.


When you look into your iPhone screen, who or what is looking back at you?

That was the general question behind last week’s “iPhone or iSpy” forum at Nichols College, where three of the school’s professors took a look at how corporations and governments are increasingly intruding on our privacy, often with our quiet collusion. That’s even beginning to scare Professor Len Samborowski, who admits he’s been a “technology junkie” for a long time and has almost every electronic device now available. The turning point came in the middle of the night, when, instead of turning on a light to check the time, he asked the question aloud, and his “smart” house answered him.

“It occurred to me this Amazon Echo was an active microphone listening to the silence and the sounds of my personal sanctuary in my house,” he said.

For 30 years, Samborowski was in Army military intelligence, spending his time “piec[ing] together insignificant crumbs of data” to understand America’s adversaries. In those days, even with his background, he had access to far less data than did the president. Today, he argued, that’s not true anymore because of the Internet.

“My 3-year-old granddaughter has about the capability of the President of the United States” to learn things, communicate, buy things, etc.”

She’s also being watched as much. Six major corporations now collect terabytes (billions of bytes) of data from virtually everyone, generally using it for their own profit and sometimes to influence elections and other political processes, he noted. A lot of it comes from our smartphones, which provide an average of 171 minutes of data daily on at least 81 percent of the U.S. population over age 13 to anyone who can get it, “and your phones are being monitored,” he said. Among other things, corporate and government agencies can find out who you know, where you go, what you do at home, your emotional state, and it’s all largely what he described as “passive” information gathering – “all that’s involved is you sitting in front of your screen.”

The key is to balance the convenience of technology with its intrusiveness.

“Just because tech can do something doesn’t mean you have to implement it,” Samborowski said. That intrusiveness is why Assistant Professor Erika Smith has become quite skeptical of tech. Some time ago, she found a picture of her daughter being shared online by someone she didn’t know, and came to the conclusion it had originally been shared by someone who had legitimate access to her strictly-limited Facebook account. She noted about half of Americans distrust both social media and the government, but have a greater trust of corporations (despite the fact they run social media?), and 63 percent oppose mass gathering of Americans’ electronic data.

Despite that, Smith added, we’ve had decades of such surveillance. It began with the OBI (the precursor of the FBI), founded in 1908 to keep tabs on various groups suspected of being a danger to the government. That excuse has been used repeatedly for various spying projects, typically targeting organizations with a more left-wing bent and those deemed “potential political opponents” of the president at the time (under FDR, among others). Over time, the courts began allowing such things as warrantless searches of people and property entering or leaving the country since 1977, warrantless wiretapping of communication since 2001, and a more general mass surveillance “even without connection to criminal activity” since 2008, Smith said.

Some of those programs were famously revealed by Edward Snowden several years ago, but some has become a part of daily life. “It’s difficult to see how to peel back” this surveillance architecture because “some of this is becoming so ingrained” into our relationships, she noted. Even though she’s distrustful of it, she noted there are many people she considers friends for whom she has no other way to contact them except social media.

Samborowski agreed, saying “As all this connects, it’ll be harder to unscrew.”

Professor Boyd Brown sees himself as being “somewhere in the middle [on the techno-skeptic scale], but I don’t have a lot of technology because I’m too lazy to figure it out.”

That’s often not true of today’s kids. It’s become a stereotype that if you can’t make tech work, ask a kid. But that has a dark side: Brown said most children today have 600-700 photos of themselves online before even reaching kindergarten, and it has become fairly easy to analyze any photo to determine who, when and where it was taken.

He described today’s tech world as being “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.” There are more than four internet-connected devices per person on Earth, but access is very unequal. “A really small part of the human population has a lot of devices,” Brown said – mostly in the English-speaking nations, Europe and parts of East Asia. Many are being put to good uses, but he noted it’s “a double-edged sword” because all of them can be ways “somebody can attack us” or control us, and he briefly listed several major hacks since 2007 that stole the data of millions or paralyzed whole nations.

Brown also noted one common weak point: our cars, which have “16 points of entry” to data thieves because they often have “150 million lines of code.”

He used Samborowski as a symbolic guinea pig, since Samborowski drives a Tesla, by showing a short video demonstrating how it’s fairly easy to hack into and steal Teslas with a laptop or iPhone using methods “that have been known for years.”

After their brief presentations, the crowd of several dozen people, including about 20 from Shepherd Hill’s Global Awareness Program, had numerous questions and thoughts on the issue. One woman cited the ongoing Facebook scandal as an example of how confused things are: “citizen information is just everywhere” and people trust cellphone companies more than government, yet Verizon got 20,000 information requests from the government last year. In the same vein, another raised concerns about the ethics of who’s getting and using that data, noting companies could easily change hands after the data’s been collected.

“I predict greater cooperation [between government and corporations] because it’s a cost-effective way for the government to get lots and lots of data,” Smith said.

Brown agreed. He cited a recent study about the DNA data that people have voluntarily uploaded to the web which found that just one percent have done so, but it can identify about 60 percent of the American population. Such data enabled police to close a decades-old serial murder case in California not long ago, he noted, but what if it’s used by insurance companies to reject coverage or by others for other things?

One woman cited the classic 1984, adding, “We as a people are totally complicit. We’re giving ourselves away.”

Brown dovetailed with that idea, noting Americans gave up liberty for security after 9-11, but are getting upset about it.

“That’s the new normal,” he said. “If we accept this level of scrutiny as normal, if the pendulum swings back, will we regain all our freedoms? I fear something cataclysmic will happen that makes people take a real look.”

Despite that ominous thought, all three agreed that critical-thinking skills, asking questions, basing decisions on the merits of a source not their viewpoint, and carefully identifying what information you want on the internet are all crucial to making the best use of modern technology.

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