We Need An Internet Of People

29th May, 2015 — Laura Kalbag

Man pointing at user appears on computer screen saying: “Your country needs your personal data”

This week’s roundup takes its name from a fabulous article by Jenny Judge and Julia Powles, ‘Forget the internet of things – we need an internet of people.’ With cautious optimism, they look at the user experience of screen-based technology, and how human-centred design could put us back in control of our own information.

“It seems that we are on the precipice either of an unrealistic digital Hogwarts or a dystopia of surveillance and exploitation. Neither is appealing. So are we stuck with an internet of either stupid or evil things? Or is there another option?

The way out is counterintuitive. In short, we need to forget about the things. We need to stop obsessing over ‘smart’ objects, and start thinking smart about people.”

Rebuilding the systems from the ground up

At the beginning of last month we looked at capitalism, inequality, and how we need to change the whole system. This week, an article in New Scientist looks at the effects of social networks becoming the places where we spend our lives, and how “FOMO,” the Fear Of Missing Out, keeps us under their control:

“In Facebookland, the authorities choose what news you see and suppress updates they consider to be unsuitable. They encourage you to report fellow citizens whose behaviour offends you; the statute book is vague about what constitutes an offence and the sanctions meted out seem arbitrary and draconian. Summary exile is common.”

The article concludes saying we should think harder about how we use social networks, and how they shape the communities they underpin, as we can’t just leave them. While hopeful, this article is unrealistic about the control we have over these services and our involvement in them. In a fantastic interview with Wired, Bruce Scheneier suggests that transparency, data-specific laws, oversight, and accountability would go much further in curbing both government and corporate surveillance. He emphasises that the current privacy-enabling technologies aren’t easy enough to use, and so not real solutions to our privacy problems.

Who owns your data?

Karma, a new browser extension that scores you based on your reputation across multiple web services, shows the value in your reputation data, but also in the data gained from the reputation algorithms built by these web services. An article about Karma on Slate is wrong when it says there aren’t yet credit report companies that track your behaviour across services; we know from Wolfie Christl’s re:publica talk, that these ‘reputation dashboards’ do exist: Acxiom and Lexis Nexis to name a couple. But unlike the scenarios envisioned by Jason Tanz in Slate, this information isn’t controlled by the individual, but by the credit companies who sell your information to third parties.

In a followup to last week’s Ouishare Fest in Paris, the Financial Times Alphaville examines how “we’re blindly and voluntarily subscribing to a new type of digital feudalism” by taking part in this illusion of the “the sharing economy.” Monica Chew and Georgios Kontaxis have written a paper suggesting that web browsers should be doing more to protect people’s data, as advertising has facilitated “warrantless surveillance without the knowledge or consent of the users”:

“The Internet’s principal revenue model leads to misaligned incentives between users, advertisers, and content providers, essentially creating a race to the bottom. Industry wields the most political and economic power, so it is up to users and user agents [web browsers] to advocate for the interests of people.”

What are those cheeky corporations up to this week?


What kind of data will reputation services and data brokers sell? This week, Aran Khanna has shown how much can be understood about you from the location data in Facebook Messages. As your location is shared automatically with every message you send on Facebook, anyone you message can easily plot your locations to the accuracy of one metre using Aran’s browser extension. If this is what Aran can do by simply scraping the publicly-available data, imagine what Facebook can do with its private collection of data and algorithms…


Google have announced that they will now host and sync all of your photos and videos for free, forever. With hosting and backups being expensive, it’s inevitable that many people will be baited into giving Google a huge amount of their personal information. As Xavier Bertels points out, Google’s algorithms for analysing images are incredibly accurate, and an Artificial Intelligence scientist working for Google says they’ve developed a “plausible path from the current software to a more sophisticated version that would have something approaching human-like capacity for reasoning and logic.” In just a few years, Google will surely know more about you from your photos than you do about yourself.

Google and Apple

Representatives from Apple and Google have attended a spy summit in a remote English mansion. Representatives in policy, privacy, and security roles at these companies met with surveillance and security agencies from the UK, US, Europe, Canada and Australia to discuss the “line between privacy and security” in the wake of the Snowden revelations.

The Intercept posits that “Hannigan [GCHQ chief] may have viewed the event as an opportunity to rein in his rhetoric and attempt to gain the trust of the tech giants.” Both Apple and Google have been speaking publicly about increasing security and resisting government requests for data, but Google won’t encrypt all its users’ data so that Google can’t access it, leaving people vulnerable. And every tech company in these countries’ jurisdictions could be forced to give governments back door access to users’ data without informing the users.

Russia, not concerned about breaking ties with massive corporations, is already demanding bloggers’ data from Google, Twitter and Facebook, threatening that it will block any services that do not comply with its internet laws. In a terrifying violation of civil liberties, Russia is using blocking as censorship to target Russian citizens who call for “unsanctioned protests and unrest,” and leaving web services with unencrypted data no choice but to participate in the censorship.

Two years of Edward Snowden

In the meantime, in a lengthy interview with the Guardian, Edward Snowden has hailed recent attempts to curb intelligence agencies’ freedom, but said that “this is only the bare beginning of reform.” Snowden described the trend in liberal advanced democracies’ (such as the UK, France, Canada and Australia) narrowing of rights in response to terrorism as a tragedy, and said the UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposed clampdown on “extremism” is “an extraordinary departure from the traditional operation of liberal societies”.

Snowden is continuing to fight for privacy and human rights, addressing the tired argument of “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” with:

“People who say they don’t care about privacy because they have got nothing to hide have not thought too deeply about these issues. What they are really saying is I do not care about this right. When you say I don’t care about the right to privacy because I have nothing to hide, that is no different than saying I don’t care about freedom of speech because I have nothing to say or freedom of the press because I have nothing to write.”

Snoopers’ Charter: Don’t let it bounce back

Don’t let the Snoopers’ Charter bounce back!

Within hours of the Conservative government winning the UK election, the Home Secretary Theresa May put the Snoopers’ Charter back on the government agenda, after it had previously failed to gain traction four times under the coalition government. This time the UK government has named the Snoopers’ Charter the “Investigatory Powers Bill” (it was previously known as the Communications Data Bill,) and it was supported by The Queen in her 2015 Queen’s Speech on Wednesday.

The new version of the Snoopers’ Charter is designed to “maintain the ability of intelligence agencies and law enforcement to target the online communications of terrorists, paedophiles and other serious criminals.” It is likely to give the police and GCHQ increased powers of data collection and retention, spying on everyone, whether suspected of a crime or not. It is also likely to try to limit the use of encryption.

Experts are queuing up to criticise the Snoopers’ Charter and other surveillance laws. An alliance of prominent academics has signed a letter to the government warning against any expansions of state surveillance without the full involvement of parliament and the public, and demanding “an open and transparent assessment and critique of UK surveillance powers.” Tim Berners-Lee also opposes the Snoopers’ Charter and mass surveillance in this Channel 4 News interview, suggesting that he doesn’t believe the government is capable of building a system that is accountable to the citizens.

Many privacy and security experts are telling us that mass surveillance doesn’t work, and that this new war on encryption is based on a lie. Even the United Nations has released a report heralding encryption. Surveilling everyone also has a chilling effect on freedom of speech, where journalists are unable to protect their source, and thus may be prevented from reporting. The retention of the data means that anything you’ve ever said could be used against you, which is likely to result in self-censorship, where we feel we can’t say anything in case it’s a crime in the future.

The Open Rights Group have also started a new campaign and petition to stand up against the Snoopers’ Charter, you can (and should!) sign the petition on their website.