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The Dangers Posed by Invasive Technologies

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Mark Zuckerberg leaves after testifying on Facebook's role in a privacy scandal  at the European Union parliament in Brussels, Belgium, on Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Mark Zuckerberg leaves after testifying on Facebook's role in a privacy scandal at the European Union parliament in Brussels, Belgium, on Tuesday, May 22, 2018Credit: Bloomberg

Liron Slonimsky claims that Tommy Hilfiger customers aren’t concerned about, or don’t think about, the problematic issues that may emerge from invasive technologies of the kind her company has developed. That however is a very narrow view of the subject, and it’s one that is common both among us, the users, and among the entrepreneurs who rely on our ignorance. And what it represents, after all, is not really indifference, but rather a genuine difficulty in understanding the era of the information economy.

Many people are really and truly afraid that Facebook or Google listen in on them, because “eavesdropping” is a red line that we have the conceptual tools to understand. However, Facebook, Google and the other monsters of technology can achieve similar results by collecting and analyzing information about us, about our friends and family, and about people with profiles similar to ours – when we voluntarily provide them with information about ourselves.

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In June, Brooklyn artists Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne started a project called The New Organs, funded by the Mozilla Foundation, in which they are documenting experiences of people who feel that they are under surveillance. They told the website The Outline that the most common feeling among the 700 people surveyed is the feeling that people are listening in on them.

“We’re being spied on, but not in the way we would think,” said Brain, who is also an assistant professor of integrated digital media at New York University. “We’re stuck with a 20th-century image of espionage, with eavesdropping and microphones. In effect, there’s an entirely new system of sensors, a complex network of online monitoring tools and algorithms that keep track of us.”

The claim that young people aren’t interested in privacy is also far from being accurate. The main fear is not of undefined entities like Facebook, but of flesh-and-blood people who are close to them, like parents or teachers. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why Generation Z keeps its distance from Facebook in favor of other platforms, such as Snapchat – which is not only relatively protected from parents, but is also based on temporary interactions, and doesn’t necessarily turn into a living archive of every bit of foolishness that we have written or photographed.

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Therefore, tools like the surveillance chip launched by Tommy Hilfiger and Awear are only one more addition to a world that has become addicted, or has been sold to surveillance. We could claim that the chip itself is innocent, but what happens when the information from it is cross-referenced with other sources, as is the practice at Apple, Facebook and many other companies?

Slominsky claims that the collection of information is statistical rather than individual. In the same breath, however, she contradicts herself, when she explains that the chip is programmed to keep track of the wearer, and to construct a personal profile, in order to promote sales, among other things. And if that’s not sufficient, the technology is also full of possible bugs.

A 2016 study by the non-profit data-security organization Open Effect and the University of Toronto discovered that products similar to that of Awear suffered from a security problem that made it easy for external entities to use them to keep track of the users’ location. In many cases, companies don’t think about the problems involved in linking small and cheap devices to the internet, and leave them without any possibility of security updates, with default passwords that can’t be changed and with unsecured links.

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