Now I’m no cynic, so I take everything that any government, especially the UK and US governments, tell me at face value.
On 22 January, Home Secretary Alan Johnson warned us that “The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre has today raised the threat to the UK from international terrorism from SUBSTANTIAL to SEVERE. This means that a terrorist attack is highly likely.” He also pointed out that “In his statement to parliament on security and counter terrorism earlier this week, the Prime Minister said that the first and most important duty of government is the protection and security of the British people.”
Oh dear. I and the rest of the British people must expect another terrorist attack imminently. That’s what he said. But that nice Mr Brown also said that the government is duty bound to do everything to protect me. I must accept their help and help them to help me.
Yesterday, I also noticed a separate and obviously unrelated report in the Register:
Exclusive The Home Office has created a new unit to oversee a massive increase in surveillance of the internet, The Register has learned…
“More recently, [a Home Office spokesman said] we have been considering how, in a changing communications environment, lawful acquisition of communications data and interception of communications can continue to save lives, to counter terrorism, to detect crime and prosecute offenders, and to protect the public.”
Officials envisage communications providers will maintain giant databases of everything their customers do online, incluing email, social networking, web browsing and making VoIP calls. They want providers to process the mass of data to link it to individuals, to make it easier for authorities to access.
Oh dear, oh dear. Here, despite it being International Data Privacy Day (also yesterday) I can see that I shall have to abandon any outrage against the creeping tyranny and galloping authoritarianism of Comrade Brown, MI5, their NSA paymasters, the Grand Committee of the New World Order, and all the other bastards and accept the total loss of all my data privacy in order to protect myself from this new SEVERE terrorism threat.
After all, this government has never, ever, ever lied to me before. Has it?
The big news of the week is the iPad, Apple’s new tablet computer. I have to say something; so, well, I’m worried. I’m as impressed as ever with Apple design and innovation. I had the first publically owned Mac+ in the UK (I was reviewing it for the FT, liked it so much that I made Apple an offer and refused to give it back). But the new Apple is now doing the same as the old Apple.
Back then, Apple was on the verge of dominating the world’s desktops. Then they took a wrong turn: they kept the Apple software proprietary to the Apple hardware and tried to own the applications through associated companies like Claris. Meantime, Microsoft was almost giving away its own software, probably with the intent to kill off Digital Research and the CP/M family but with the added bonus of halting Apple in its tracks. Apple went into hibernation; Steve Jobs left, and as far as I could tell, the company very nearly didn’t survive.
Meanwhile, I switched from the Mac to Windows. I still preferred the Mac, but as a freelance journalist I had to follow the market.
Then Jobs came back. The iMac and the Macbook followed. It looked as if Apple had learnt its lesson: retained its innovative design but become more open. My first concern was when Apple tried to prosecute bloggers – that’s not the old Apple that I knew and loved. But the adoption of Unix as the basis of OS X seemed to confirm the new openness. But look closer and look elsewhere. Jobs’ inherent desire to own the world is showing through again. Look at how Apple controls music through the iPod. Consider how closed the iPhone is, and how difficult and restrictive it is for new developers. If you don’t get approved and into the App Store, you don’t get onto the iPhone. And now the iPad is just, if not more, restrictive.
The OS is still closed – if your app isn’t approved by Apple, you can’t get it on the tablet; and you can only get your books from the iBook Store. And Jobs has closed the usual back door – this thing has no standard ports (just like the iPhone). It will only connect to other Mac products.
Jobs has done it again. Closed shop. Apple will own the world. Only it won’t. He tried before and he failed. And, eventually, he will fail again. Take the book app on the iPad. If you decide it’s a bit bulky to read the iPad on the train, and think a Kindle would be better, guess what: you can’t copy the electronic book you bought from one to the other. Eventually,there will be open alternatives to all the Apple products – and when that happens the current Apple devotees, me included, will desert in droves, feeling betrayed by Jobs’ megalomania.
Jobs’ megalomania is the hero’s fatal flaw. As all students of literature know, the fatal flaw is the cause of the tragedy; and it is Apple and all Apple lovers that will suffer.
I have long been a fan of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). This is an example of why they have full Hero status with me…
Most of us are concerned about the amount of information that marketing companies are collecting on each of us. We assume that the main methods are the use of tracking cookies and the even more intrusive use of deep packet inspection interception/surveillance (DPI). We circumvent the former by turning off cookies – or at least removing them when we close the browser. And although the UK Home Office controversially advised Phorm that DPI was probably legal, most legal experts and the EU itself seem to think it is not. Game won? Oh, no. Why on earth should we assume that?
It should come as no surprise, then, to discover that the marketers are looking at other ways they can get what they want: information about us. One approach is browser fingerprinting; the analysis of the data that your browser leaks when it visits a website. It turns out that when this information is captured and analysed, it creates a fingerprint of your browser. Needless to say, the more information it gathers, the more unique is your fingerprint.
EFF has started an experiment, called Panopticlick, that will help it to “evaluate the capabilities of Internet tracking and advertising companies, who are in the business of finding as many ways as possible to record your online activities. They develop these methods in secret, and don’t always tell the world what they’ve found. But this experiment should give us more insight into the future of online tracking, and what web users can do to protect themselves.”
Put very briefly, Panopticlick will, with your approval and anonymously, analyse the information given out by your browser and tell you how common your browser fingerprint probably is. If it is unique, of course, they (the marketing companies) have got you. Rather than them giving you a tracking cookie to follow you around the Internet, you are presenting them with your own unique business card every time you visit one of their ‘participating websites’ (inevitably all adult and betting sites, and almost certainly all big commercial organizations).
At this point I would not be surprised if you were to shrug your shoulders and say,impossible – they can’t possibly tell who I am just from me anonymously visiting a website. If you think that, please read EFF’s. It explains the number theory behind the process in terms that even the most unscientific of us, including me, can understand.
Then, if any of this has got your concerned, or even just mildly interested, please go toitself. Take the test. I did. Now I think I’m pretty careful. I clear out my cookies every time I close the browser, and I have NoScript installed. Nevertheless, in a test database of about 10,000 users, I am as near as dammit unique. That’s worrying. It means that every time I visit a participating website they almost certainly know it’s me. It’s worrying to me as a consumer to think that marketing companies are gathering data on me; and it’s worrying to me as a citizen. If commerce can do it, you can be damn certain that Big Brother governments (not necessarily but including your own) are doing exactly the same thing.