Dozens of U.S. government websites are off-line due to the shut down because their expired TLS certificates cannot be renewed. (J. Alex Halderman, Washington, D.C., Sep 2016; Paul Friedrichs, Dallas, Feb 2007; Stephen Crocker, Austin, Feb 2004)
If Congress often seems technologically uninformed, that’s because it is—so argues a member of Congress in the pages of the Washington Post (which happens to be owned by a technologist). (Tom Kalil, Peter Van Valkenburgh, San Francisco, Dec 2017; Jini Kim and Mikey Dickerson, Washington, D.C., Sep 2014)
If there’s any question about whether the next big platform is home assistants, or that Google and Amazon are winning that race, apparently CES 2019 put those doubts to rest. Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa are being built into hundreds of third-party products, and Hulu reported that TV-watching through its service is up 50-100% when the Alexa voice interface is available. (Kyle Roche, San Francisco, Dec 2017; Thad Starner, Salt Lake City, Dec 2009; Sunil Vemuri, Miami, Dec 2011; Yoky Matsuoka, Seattle, Dec 2012)
…And maybe that’s something we should be concerned with. An error by Amazon, combined with a demand for information under Germany’s GDPR laws, recently led to a rare look at just how much data the company is collecting from our Alexa interactions.
So if you’re worried about Alexa—and Google Assistant—listening to your every conversation and movement, you should know about Project Alias, an open-source microphone and speaker that creates a white noise until you tell it to stop. An article in Fast Company compares it to a fungus, but it seems more like the little window in a speakeasy door. By the way, the hardware is based around a Raspberry Pi (Eben Upton, Detroit, May 2015 and Vienna, Jul 2013).
Alexa is not the only digital spy in the living room. Your Vizio TV—not the network, not the cable provider, not the set-top-box, but the TV—is collecting information about everything you watch on its screen. And not only Vizio, it’s just they’re more up-front about it. (Julian Ranger, London, Jul 2014; Deborah Estrin, Jersey City, Oct 2009; Christine Sottong-Micas, Cannes, Apr 1996)
While it’s not exactly another case of concern for eavesdropping, the University of California has advised students not to use WhatsApp in China. Messages within the app are protected by encryption, but the very use of WhatsApp was a key factor in the case of Paul Whelan, a US citizen arrested in Russia last month on suspicion of espionage.
In other insecurities, the state of Georgia is about to adopt a new electronic voting system that two dozen experts, including Rich DeMillo (Atlanta, Feb 2008, and Austin, Feb 2004) of member organization Georgia Tech, consider little better than the current insecure system (Avi Rubin, Austin, Feb 2004).
Meanwhile, let’s not forget last month’s revelations about the data-sharing agreements Facebook had with dozens of companies, including Amazon—an arrangement that may very well have violated U.S. privacy laws. (Roger McNamee and Jonathan Taplin, Los Angeles, Mar 2018; Roxanne Christ, Sean Parker, San Francisco, Feb 2010)
And Facebook is very sorry to have nearly put local news outlets out of business (Bob Garfield, Atlanta, Feb 2014), and for having been a conduit of fake news (Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia, Boston, Apr 2017; Douglas Guilbeault, Washington, D.C., Sep 2017). Very sorry. So now it’s going to spend $300 million over the next three years on “news programs, partnerships and content.” (Annual newspaper industry revenue decreased by $29 billion between 2007 and 2017, and newsroom employment is down by about half, so thanks for the $100m annual spend, Facebook.)
Oculus (now owned by Facebook) founder Palmer Luckey claims his current startup, Lattice, can solve problems of the military, first responders, or—most relevant to current events—border security. It “can take data from thousands of sensors and integrate it into a single cohesive, real-time 3-D model that has [tagged] all the people, all the vehicles, all the drones and the aircraft over very large areas.” Sounds like the Stephen Wicker (Washington, D.C., Sep 2018) Panopticon writ large.
Still, there is some good news for privacy-minded Americans: A federal judge ruled that it would be an abuse of power for law enforcement to force an individual to biometrically unlock a personal digital device, even with a warrant (Andrew Bud, Washington, D.C., Sep 2017).
"Art is a lie that tells the truth."