Tagdigital rights

Which type of Smart City do we want to live in?

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Connectivity changes the nature of things. It quite literally changes what a thing is.

By adding connectivity to, say, the proverbial internet fridge it stops being just an appliance that chills food. It becomes a device that senses; captures, processes and shares information; acts on this processed information. The thing-formerly-known-as-fridge becomes an extension of the network. It makes the boundaries of the apartment more permeable.

So connectivity changes the fridge. It adds features and capabilities. It adds vulnerabilities. At the same time, it also adds a whole new layer of politics to the fridge.

Power dynamics

Why do I keep rambling on about fridges? Because once we add connectivity — or rather: data-driven decision making of any kind — we need to consider power dynamics.

If you’ve seen me speak at any time throughout the last year, chances are you’ve encountered this slide that I use to illustrate this point:

The connected home and the smart city are two areas where the changing power dynamics of IoT (in the larger sense) and data-driven decision making manifest most clearly: The connected home, because it challenges our notions of privacy (in the last 150 years, in the global West). And the smart city, because there is no opting out of public space. Any sensor, any algorithm involved in governing public space impacts all citizens.

That’s what connects the fridge (or home) and the city: Both change fundamentally by adding a data layer. Both acquire a new kind of agenda.

3 potential cities of 2030

So as a thought experiment, let’s project three potential cities in the year 2030 — just over a decade from now. Which of these would you like to live in, which would you like to prevent?

In CITY A, a pedestrian crossing a red light is captured by facial recognition cameras and publicly shamed. Their CitizenRank is downgraded to IRRESPONSIBLE, their health insurance price goes up, they lose the permission to travel abroad.

In CITY B, wait times at the subway lines are enormous. Luckily, your Amazon Prime membership has expended to cover priority access to this formerly public infrastructure, and now includes dedicated quick access lines to the subway. With Amazon Prime, you are guaranteed Same Minute Access.

In CITY C, most government services are coordinated through a centralized government database that identifies all citizens by their fingerprints. This isn’t restricted to digital government services, but also covers credit card applications or buying a SIM card. However, the official fingerprint scanners often fail to scan manual laborers’ fingerprints correctly. The backup system (iris scans) don’t work on too well on those with eye conditions like cataract. Whenever these ID scans don’t work, the government service requests are denied.

Now, as you may have recognized, this is of course a trick question. (Apologies.) Two of these cities more or less exist today:

  • CITY A represents the Chinese smart city model based on surveillance and control, as piloted in Shenzhen or Beijing.
  • CITY C is based on India’s centralized government identification database, Aadhaar.
  • Only CITY B is truly, fully fictional (for now).

What model of Smart City to optimize for?

We need to decide what characteristics of a Smart City we’d like to optimize for. Do we want to optimize for efficiency, resource control, and data-driven management? Or do we want to optimize for participation & opportunity, digital citizens rights, equality and sustainability?

There are no right or wrong answers (even though I’d clearly prefer a focus on the second set of characteristics), but it’s a decision we should make deliberately. One leads to favoring monolithic centralized control structures, black box algorithms and top-down governance. The other leads to decentralized and participatory structures, openness and transparency, and more bottom-up governance built in.

Whichever we build, these are the kinds of dependencies we should keep in mind. I’d rather have an intense, participatory deliberation process that involves all stakeholders than just quickly throwing a bunch of Smart City tech into the urban fabric.

After all, this isn’t just about technology choices: It’s the question what kind of society we want to live in.

An easy guide to applying the #IOTmanifesto

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The #IOTmanifesto is a great set of guidelines for designing connected products and services. (Read more about it on iotmanifesto.com.)

Trying to make it more actionable (rather than just aspirational), the IOTmanifesto team created this cheatsheet that gives a bit of support in how to best apply the manifesto in everyday life, like say in a client meeting.

IoT Manifesto at Mozfest 2015

You’ll notice the color coding of the different phases of product design that the 10 guidelines of the manifesto. To make it a little easier to skim and read, here’s the list broken down into these phases (concept/design/implementation) and rearranged.

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Recollecting my Instagrams & other social data

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So, Instragram announced updates to their Terms of Services. Nothing unusual about it, really, only that the updates seem to be aimed at monetizing by allowing advertisers to use your photos without prior notice or consent (besides agreeing to the ToS, obviously).

Now, often times ToS changes trigger all kinds of resentment by the user base, and in many cases it’s a matter of legalese or bad communications. Say, if a service requires consent to copying and distributing your content: Copying and distributing can easily sound like selling or licensing or doing other weird things with your data, while it might just be necessary to run the service you signed up for. After all, you can’t store a digital image without making copies of it. That kinda thing.

That said, Instagram’s new ToS seem to be more directly aimed at advertisers, and as such it’s a different game altogether. Furthermore, they’re now part of Facebook, and as such – in my eyes – much less trustworthy than a year ago. Facebook has a horrible track record of abusing users’ trust, for example by changing default privacy settings and making it unnecessarily hard to opt out of new features. So personally I’m not willing to give Instagram/Facebook the benefit of the doubt on this one.

 

But enough with the rant. The Instagram ToS kerfuffle was as good an excuse as any to eventually try out Recollect, a service run by good former Flickr engineers, who sources closer to the matter tell me are good, trustworthy folks. Moreover, they’re building a service that charges users upfront, which seems to be to be a good model of building sustainable businesses.

So what does Recollect do? Simple – it backs up data from your social media accounts. I just had Recollect gather my Tweets, Instagram and Flickr photos as well as Foursquare check-ins. You can then proceed to download them to your local machine. (In the case of Instagram, it saves everything as HTML, so you get to keep not just your photos, but faves, comments, etc.) It’s simple, and a useful thing to do if you think that archiving your data is useful at all.

Recollecting Screenshot of the Recollect dashboard. Note the activity on the different services, and how they changed over time.

 

A nice side effect: The dashboard shows you your activity on these other services. In my case, as you can see in the screenshot, I saved more than 12.000 items, including 7.500+ Flickr photos and about 1.500 Foursquare check-ins.

I won’t be losing much Instagram: Since the Android app only came out this year, I have less than 400 photos there, it’s really a minor problem. (I also had them automatically cross-posted to Flickr anyway.) It’s just a bit of a bummer that Twitter introduced an API limit awhile ago, allowing only about the last 3.000 tweets to be accessed – so for me that means I’m about six years short on Twitter archives. Which is pretty bad, and another reason to back up data there as it passes through.

I’ve only been testing Recollect for a single day yet, but I’m pretty sure I’ll keep using it and will be happy to pay the monthly fee for a reliable backup and the option to export my data whenever I choose. Recommended!

Slides “Neue Medien – Fluch oder Segen”

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The other day I visited Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) for a day to give a keynote speech and a workshop for FES stipends at the summer academy. (Full disclosure: paid gig.) For completeness’ sake I’m posting the slides below. In order for them to make sense I’d recommend downloading the file from Slideshare so you can see the notes.

On a side note, I have to say I really enjoyed particularly the discussions with these students. We talked a lot about privacy on social networks and the implications of using these online services. I was surprised on more than one occasion: Not a lot of the participants use smartphones, which may be a budget thing given they’re all still studying. The crowd was much more critical of online social networking than I expected. (There was a strong split in the group, with those seeing chances rather than risks on one side and those highly critical of social networks on the other.)

Two things became very clear, though: (1) Just like German society overall this group had a significant part of online critics (with varying degrees of informed argumentation). (2) All of them are acutely – almost painfully – aware of the role of privacy and how it’s being affected by voluntary participation in online sharing behavior (social networking, Twitter etc), involuntary sharing (government involvement) and commercialization (all major actors are international corporations).

While I wished the overall discourse (on a societal level) about the complex issues of privacy/ownership/control of data online was based on a more informed basis, it’s very clear that we’ll be having this discussion for awhile to come. And that’s good: Keep thinking, discussing, debating. Just please make sure to stay away from panic and fear driven rhetoric as well as hyperbole. And if you happen to encounter such arguments, feel free to drop in some facts and see the fear go away.

Google Streetview in Germany, some thoughts

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A little while ago I wrote a little rant about the fake Streetview Google had launched in Germany, an odd Google Maps & Panoramio hybrid. Eventually that’s about to change: Google Streetview is coming to Germany for real.

And boy, are people in Germany going crazy over this.

On the one hand you have those who thing that having public spaces accessible online is a good thing (including yours truly). One the other you have those who claim that it’s the end of privacy, illegitimate commercialism by a global corporation or that it helps burglars.

These critics spread – or buy into – a hyperbole like I haven’t seen in a long time. They are, I daresay, going absolutely nuts.

Why is this important? Because there’s practically no privacy risk, the burglar argument is completely bogus (not even burglars are so stupid, and statistics show that there’s no correlation of Streetview and break-ins) – while on the other hand a service like Streeview is incredibly useful for all kinds of legitimate uses.

DW-World sums it up nicely:

“Behind all of these criticisms here in Germany is the fear that Google might be too powerful, while being too strange and intransparent,” [law professor] Hoeren told Deutsche Welle. “It’s not really about data collection, telecommunications and privacy and such.”

If you understand German, Mario Sixtus wrote a fantastic piece on the subject. His take: trying to restrict a service like Google, including giving house owners the right to have photos of their houses removed from the service, is an attack on all our rights to the public space.

I couldn’t agree more.

The fact that many media outlets and politicians chime in with the rest of the criticism (or rather, take a lead in the fear mongering) doesn’t make their claims any more substantial or legitimate. Either we protect those rights, or we’ll lose them. And I’d like to keep living in a country where everyone – yes, even large corporations – are allowed to pick up a camera, take photos of buildings* in public and share these photos online.

(*Photos of people are a different matter altogether, but that isn’t what Google is doing here.)

Full disclaimer: I’ve worked with Google before and I’m a member of the Google Internet & Society Collaboratory. I still think that Google’s new stance on Net Neutrality sucks.

Pros and cons of net neutrality clearly laid out

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Opposing Views, a debating platform where experts go head-to-head on all kinds of issues, has put up a discussion page about net neutrality:

Net neutrality is the principle that says all information flowing across the Internet should be treated equally. But with more people streaming data-rich video and playing online games, the Internet faces congestion concerns. Should carriers be able to sell multi-tiered access to heavy users? Should sites that generate massive traffic — like Google and Yahoo! — pay extra fees? The U.S. Government is examining Net Neutrality and its financial, legal and social implications. Do we need federal intervention to ensure fairness, or is this an issue for the market to work out?

Since net neutrality is of those topics that are very rich, complex and to some degree opaque, this is a great way to get an overview.

(via TechCrunch)

CCC Freedom Stick, Olympics Special Edition

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It’s been around for awhile, but CCC‘s Freedom Stick, a memory stick loaded with powerful privacy software, is now also available in an Olympics Special edition: CCC – China – Privacy Emergency Response Team, extra easy to use for non-technical users. It consists mainly of a TOR anonymizer plus mobile FireFox.

Freedom Stick, image courtesy of CCC Image: CCC

Who’s it for? “Especially for people with little experience it is important to have simple solutions to break through walls. For this reason we present the FreedomStick.” And by walls, they refer to the Great Firewall.

Using TOR and mobile FireFox, your connection will be quite a bit slower. But that seems like a pretty fair price to pay for not leaving any traces online.

The software and a tutorial is available here. (If you’d like to support a non-profit while preserving your privacy, German privacy fighters FoeBud sell a memory stick loaded with the software for fundraising, it’s available for €20.)