Tuesday, July 26, 2005

We Can Tell Where You Live

Meant to say something earlier about the always lovely Danny O'Brien's "keynote" at the OpenTech event on Saturday.

Now I'm a big fan of NTK and its spin-off projects (although I haven't forgiven them for mercilessly pulling the plug on EHA, thus severing the only link I had with Chuffy! and Snark, to whom I'd been talking for about four years and who are now seemingly irretrievably lost down the back of the internet sofa), and I'm a big fan of Steven Johnson-style technosocial claptrap, so I was really looking forward to this talk.

Sadly I was a bit disappointed.

Firstly (and possibly most importantly), what on earth has happened to Danny's accent? Three years in California, and he's started talking like Alicia Silverstone. Which for a geek - or indeed for anyone who wasn't in Beverly Hills 90210 - is *not* a good thing.

Secondly, why did he waste so much time wittering on (in comedic fashion, admittedly) about high-school girls and pointing out the perl script on Madonna's website, and save all the interesting points for the last five minutes?

The last five minutes were great. The point was that we unwittingly leak information about ourselves and other people on the internet, meaning that The Man, stalkers, etc. can piece together our and other people's identity and whereabouts, whether we want him to or not.

One example was a project being done by Prof Roberto Cipolla (trans: Bob Onion) at Cambridge University, who's developed software that can recognise buildings from photographs. The idea is that if you get lost, you can take a picture of a nearby building with your mobile, send it to the database, it recognises the building from the arrangement of horizontal and vertical lines, and texts you back to tell you where you are.

(Don't get all excited now - at the moment this would only work if you're lost in Cambridge city centre).

Of course being the privacy loon/techno-conspiracy theorist that he is, Danny reckons that this software could be used (by The Man, the Four Horsemen of the Mediacalypse, stalkers etc.) to trawl through people's online photo archives, like at Flickr or something, and find out where they've been.

I get the feeling I should be terribly frightened about this, but somehow I'm not. I mean, I really don't mind the Sun finding out that I visited the hinterland of Catalunya (unused teenage bandname of...?) in 2002. And if you're a terrorist, you're not going to take photos of your house and your intended targets and post them on Flickr to share with your terrorist mates, are you? *Are* you?

But what if you're *not* a terrorist - say you're a Brazilian electrician or something - but you happen to have taken some photos of places that might seem like terrorist targets, and you've taken a photo of your house....

Oh, *now* I get it.


james henry said...

Possibly this is the antidote to the whole Big Brother thing though, that so much of what is we do is under surveillance, or under potential surveillance, or at least recordable, that no-one would have the time to check up on it all anyway.*

What makes me laugh is the po-faced seriousness with which people take crowd-recognition software, which has never been proved to work anywhere in the world, ever. So I'm all for it.

*I'm not actually a scientist though. As you know.

patroclus said...

Good point, although "checking up" is getting easier and easier with advances in searching technology.

You're right though, all this recognition software is dodgy as f**k. I mean, look at it. It's just scrawling over pictures with crayon. My four-year old niece could do that!

patroclus said...

Five year-old niece, sorry.

Herge Smith said...

I actually have been lost in Cambridge city centre - boy, was that depressing.

I'm actually more than happy for the M15, M16, CIA, FBI, KGB, CTU, PTA whomever to know where I've been - perhaps then they could explian to me why I visit such dull places?

James - as far as crowd recognition goes, the big question really is - how many people make up a crowd?

I'm guessing 7 + one little one.

patroclus said...

How many people make up a crowd?

Three, of course.

Sorry, couldn't resist.

james henry said...

Actually, wouldn't crowd recognition software just say 'That's a crowd. Yup. Can I go home now?'. maybe it's called something else.

hen said...

Or maybe.. "ERROR 101 - crowd not found"

- I'll get my coat.

Pashmina said...

This stuff about leaving little traces of yourself all over the internet is interesting - I got paranoid about that at one stage, but then I'm the one who's happily stuck up an online map of where they live.

Mind you, it's laughably easy to work out people's home addresses just from the electoral roll and all the directory sites anyway, so perhaps the only thing preventing us all from being stalked is other people's inability to be bothered.

There's a cheery thought to get the day started.

hen said...

Perhaps there is a business there - Tired of leaving a data trail all over the internet that no one is interested in? Call Stalker-U-like. Choose from a wide range of types from sexy hunk to femme fatal. They'll even go through your bins for free! Call now.

BiScUiTs said...

Ooh I might see if I can get employed there. Oh um I mean um...

BiScUiTs said...

I'm a bit paranoid about all that stuff too, like I rip up my bank receipt things into tiny little pieces, burn them, and then bury them in the garden.

hen said...

Foxes are always going through my bins. Maybe they are actualy stalking me.

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