Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - May 20, 2011

On Deadline: Can we thank Apple for a resurgence of 'privacy' concerns?

by Jay Thorwaldson

The technology of "tracking" suddenly broke on the American public like a tsunami with the recent disclosure that using an Apple iPhone4 or an iPad means that any sophisticated techno-whiz could tell you where you were for the past year.

Apple initially denied that its popular gizmos zeroed in on individuals. But under probing by some skeptical members of the U.S. Senate, the company finally admitted that, well, yeah, sort of — and promised to patch the tracking software. Someone was spooning out applesauce.

It's not just Apple being rotten about privacy. Google is also seduced by marketing-potential dollars, it seems. But Apple's Steve Jobs, Google's Eric Schmidt and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg are all "home boys" to the Palo Alto/Stanford axis, or nearby. Schmidt and Zuckerberg have both been quoted as saying an expectation of privacy is declining as a social norm.

One aspect of the Apple mess caught my attention: Why was Apple initially silent when some individuals discovered the tracking system? Apple's PR operation works overtime to promote its great devices, and I've been an Apple fan since the days of the Apple II — you know, the one with the hand-crank on the side and floppy disk that really was floppy?

Tech writers and bloggers are surmising that the lure of targeted marketing money blinded Apple designers and execs to the implications of what seems in hindsight to be a massive privacy invasion. But the implications for law-enforcement or Homeland Security are clear. I realize that invites paranoia worthy of the best sci-fi story or Hollywood thriller: Was Apple told not to tell?

Anyone who has watched Forensic Files or just about any TV police/crime show knows that the guilty guys can be traced in terms of general location by cell-phone towers connecting with their phones. But that's a general location, and there are established procedures to obtain such information from the service provider.

Not so with the new trackers. The really scary thing is that those developing the new technologies are so far ahead of state legislators, Congress and regulators that most are simply befuddled, if not outright tools or dupes of an army of lobbyists. What privacy laws exist are full of gaping holes, mostly because those writing the laws weren't aware of the universe of possibilities now (or soon becoming) available.

The 2002 film Minority Report, about crime detection in advance, shows the hero, Tom Cruise, being addressed by name from wall advertisements as he strolls through an airport — an introduction for many to facial-recognition technology. Too much? Wait until your cell phone or laptop starts addressing you by name.

This is true: Some newspapers are about to unveil a system of delivering news to one's cell phone or mobile device based on location feedback from the device. That means if you drive from San Jose to Palo Alto the news items you receive on the unit will be localized to that area.

"Oh, I must be in Palo Alto — there's a story about the City Council voting on cell-phone towers."

Is that an invasion of privacy? Or is there even a "right of privacy"? Privacy is not mentioned among the inalienable rights of the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, although many court cases relate to the topic.

Definitions of privacy vary, but interest seems to be growing. In 2010 alone new books and articles have paid detailed attention to the matter, including John L. Locke's "Eavesdropping: An Intimate History," a cross-cultural and historical comparison of attitudes toward privacy, while current adult perspectives on privacy are explored by Christina Nippert-Eng in "Islands of Privacy." Both are on my reading list.

A conference coming up June 2 in Berkeley, the "Privacy Law Scholars Conference," will delve deeply into the topic, including how teenagers perceive privacy in an era of pervasive communications gadgetry.

Concerns about privacy are not new. Sci-fi writers, as usual, have been way out there ahead of the curve. George Orwell in "1984" (written in 1948) has his protagonist stand in front of a camera and report in every morning. It's not clear to whom or what he reports in those pre-computer days.

Today, some of the trusty devices we carry around report in for us. The once distant-future of 1984 seems long ago.

Privacy concerns surged in the early 1990s. In 1991, I served as media coordinator for the First Conference on Computers, Freedom & Privacy, or CFP1, held in Burlingame. Chaired by former Woodside resident Jim Warren, founder of the West Coast Computer Faire and several publications, the conference drew hundreds of attendees and dozens of journalists.

It drew participants as varied as former hacker/crackers, privacy zealots (including one from Australia), Libertarians, and representatives of the Secret Service, FBI, CIA, district attorneys and police officials.

It was a remarkable gathering with a huge amount of time for people to huddle and talk. In the press room, Phil Zimmerman, who designed the "Pretty Good Privacy" encription system that later drew Secret Service attention, helped me set up a new e-mail account with the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), which I still use.

Going into lunch, Warren and I were hailed by notorious hacker/cracker Captain Crunch (John Draper) of the East Bay, who said he wanted us to "meet my arresting officer and prosecuting attorney," sitting with him. Teenage hacker Phiber Optic was getting career advice from his prosecuting attorney, in between practicing yo-yo tricks — not a technical gadget, just a plain old wooden yo-yo — in the conference-area lobby.

The attorneys for the FBI and ACLU, who had similar last names, spent time together.

We later put out a book of transcripts, which is still online through the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org), a leading defender of Internet and computer privacy.

In one conversation, I recall commenting that it wasn't just the Orwellian "Big Brother" that worried me most — it was the 10,000 "Little Big Brothers" tracking me for marketing or other purposes.

Bruce Koball of Berkeley, who chaired the third CFP conference, was puzzling over a theme and he, Warren and I met to discuss it. I said I had a friend who hated computers and asked why she would be interested in the conference.

"Tell her she may not be interested in computers but there are a lot of computers interested in her," Koball replied. We shortened that to "You may not be interested in computers but a lot of computers are interested in you."

We printed T-shirts with that motto under a large keyhole with an eye peering through.

I still have mine, getting about as raggedy as our personal privacy.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jaythor@well.com.

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