Interesting privacy stuff- the debate goes on…
If you use a smartphone and download apps, as half the UK population does now, you’ve probably used an app which pops up a dialog box pop asking “Find your friends?” and offering to search some new social network – or one of the more familiar ones – for people you already know.
It’s easy and quick to click on the “OK” button. But do you know what’s happening once you do? This is where you suddenly discover that what you thought you knew about your online privacy is wrong – or at best, incomplete.
In mid-February, an Indian researcher, Arun Thampi, figured out what was happening when Path, a would-be social network app for Apple’s iPhone for “sharing your life”, asked that question. It was uploading the entire contents of your address book – names, emails, phone numbers – to Path’s servers.
The outcry over this data grab was rapid and widespread – at least among the Silicon Valley digerati and those who watch them. Path’s chief executive wrote a mea culpa blogpost, the company updated its app so it wouldn’t upload all the data, and everything seemed calm.
Then Dustin Curtis, a user interface designer, pointed out that loads of apps do this. On his blog, he noted: “I did a quick survey of 15 developers of popular iOS apps, and 13 of them told me they have a contacts database with millons of records. One company’s database has Mark Zuckerberg’s cellphone number, Larry Ellison’s home phone number and Bill Gates’s cellphone number.” But he added: “This data is not meant to be public, and people have an expectation of privacy with respect to their contacts.” More digging showed that Facebook, Instagram, Yelp and location service Gowalla did too. It seemed like it would be easier to list the apps that didn’t do it.
For those feeling suddenly itchy about their privacy, there was more to come. A few days after Curtis’s blog, Twitter admitted that it too grabbed address book data (though only, it said, your friends’ emails and phone numbers); the purpose being just to find people you already know who might already be, or will be, members of the service. Jon Leibowitz, the chairman of the US’s powerful Federal Trade Commission, summed it up in a sentence: “Right now, it is almost impossible to figure out which apps collect data and what they do with it.”
Apple chewed this over silently for a week and then announced that a forthcoming update of the iPhone and iPad software would prevent this.
But just as another privacy storm seemed to have come and gone, another arrived: Jonathan Mayer, who researches online privacy at Stanford University, discovered that Google had hacked past the default privacy settings of Apple’s browsers on the iPhone, iPad and desktop so it could track people’s use of the web, whether or not they were signed into its services. That also meant that its advertising arm DoubleClick could follow them too. Adding to the appearance of culpability, as soon as the Wall Street Journal, following up Mayer’s discovery, contacted Google, it stopped doing it. In recent weeks, only Facebook – accused wrongly by the Sunday Times of reading your text messages (the company insists it’s doing no such thing; the capability in its app is for a future mobile payment service) – has emerged without immediate criticism.
But the damage has been done. “Between the Path debacle and Google’s Safari cookies, [Silicon] Valley’s moral bankruptcy on privacy was made obvious,” commented James Grimmelmann, an associate professor at New York Law School, on Twitter.
But it’s not just in the narrow space of web browsing or apps that we’re identifiable. A chilling story in the New York Times described how the giant Target store is now so good at tracking what items people buy that it can spot if someone is pregnant – especially in the second trimester, when they begin buying things such as vitamins and maternity clothes; catch them there and “we could capture them for years”, as a statistician explained. The 25-item prediction system works so well that Target knew that a teenage girl was pregnant (and began sending appropriate shopping coupons to her home) before her father did. Which caused some red faces – first anger, then embarrassment – when he found them and accused the Target manager of encouraging her to get pregnant.
On Target’s part, it was nothing personal. But it wasn’t private either: somewhere in its machine, there was a link between the girl and her pregnancy.
Essentially, the edifices of privacy that we once thought we understood are melting like ice in a heatwave. Once upon a time, before mobile phones, it was really hard, without direct surveillance, for anyone else to know where you were. The advent of mobile phones meant police could track you by seeing which mobile masts your phone connected to. Then supermarket loyalty cards meant big retailers could make educated guesses about your home life – your income, education, life stage. Next, the location of your use of debit and credit cards, and the burgeoning number of CCTV cameras, all began to add up to a picture where not just the police but also big businesses could build up a picture of where you were pretty much throughout the week.
Now add in smartphones and apps such as Path, Twitter and Foursquare, as well as web-based companies such as Facebook and Google which rely on serving ads, and data-crunching like that done by Target (and all the big supermarkets) and the idea of “privacy” is being eroded from inside and outside. Your address book is somewhere in the “cloud”. You’re telling anyone who has access to your Facebook profile where you were. Foursquare users can track your whereabouts, if you “check in”. The supermarket where you shop is sending you coupons for nappies.
A graphical representation of how much public data Facebook used to show in 2005 compared to 2010 looks just like scary forecasts of polar ice cap melt. Except it’s already happening. In fact, online privacy looks altogether like global warming: we tut about it and mutter “something must be done”, and then do the equivalent of clambering into 4x4s – tagging photos on Facebook of friends getting drunk, tweeting pictures of our lovely trip and family on Instagram.
Simon Davies, director-general of Privacy International, the pressure group that has been warning about the ease of such invasions for years, thinks it’s an apt metaphor – but equally that, like the environmental movement, awareness is growing that it’s not right, and that we can’t go on this way.
“We have had developers tell us that they don’t want their platform screwed up by too much privacy management,” he says. “There’s all sorts of hoodwinking and linguistic devices that they use to persuade you to hand over your data.” Such practices are pervasive, he says.
But he sees signs for optimism: there’s growing awareness among a number of people on social networks (the irony might not be lost on you) that there’s value in keeping information about yourself, your whereabouts and life private. Not just to protect yourself from identity theft; also just because it’s nice to have some part of you that isn’t subjected to the panopticon of the web.
“It is like the environmental movement, in that there are evangelists working to keep the brakes on excess use,” says Davies. “I think Microsoft and Google are starting to see a change there.”
The trouble for Google is that 97% of its revenue comes from serving ads. Its profits improve if people click on ads, so it likes to show “relevant” ads – and the best way to work out which ads to offer is to watch which web pages people visit.
Google is painfully aware that government agencies take a dim view of any corporate infringement of people’s privacy – and also that if it loses users’ trust, the slope from top dog in search to also-ran could be slippery. (For that reason, Microsoft has been hammering away at the privacy topic in its PR efforts: when news broke that Google had worked around Internet Explorer’s protections, rather than follow its frankly arcane privacy system, Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s combative head of PR, tweeted in faux disbelief: “Google can work on a self-driving car but can’t figure out how to implement a standard?”)
“Even if you don’t think cookies are a privacy harm, you should care about Google’s inability to keep its promises,” noted Grimmelmann, who studies how software affects freedom, power and wealth distribution. He says it’s the same as not caring whether a politician had an affair: “[the politician] lying about it is still a big deal.”
And not many are prepared to give Google much leeway: “Of the four ad networks caught abusing [the] loophole in Safari cookie controls to track users, only Google is claiming it was unintentional,” tweeted Christopher Soghian, a security and privacy researcher based in Washington.
The culmination was the announcement last week by the Obama administration that it would push for all browsers to have a “Do Not Track” button as part of a “consumer privacy bill of rights”, while the Californian attorney general said that apps would have to include privacy policies to tell users what data they would access.
But where does it all end? “It’s a systemic problem,” says Davies. “The situation will only change when it’s not fashionable to give away your data, when it becomes sad to do so in front of your peers.”
Is there any chance of that happening? Mayer says there are “bright spots” in privacy; he is working on the “Do Not Track” system. But others in the industry point to the differences between the US and Europe – the strong data protection legislation in the latter, and its almost total absence in the former – and suggest the gulf can’t be bridged; our data will always flow downhill towards the area that lets companies make as much (profitable) use of it that they can. The columnist Helen Popkin commented despairingly: “Facebook is the slowly-warming pot of water and we, my friends, are the frog. By the time we noticed our peeling skin, another hunk of our privacy is long gone.” But that was in March last year. Since then more and more chefs have continued to gather around the pot. Do you want to find friends already using this service? Is it getting warm in here?
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We like maps…something for everyone here.
There is nothing quite as obsolete as an out-of-date map: untrustworthy, suspect, politically incorrect. An atlas that still has Czechoslovakia on it may be historically interesting, but it illustrates a world that no longer exists. Change is constant: new countries spring into being, population centres shift, capitals are shunted from one place to another. With every adjustment, another map is rendered useless.
Why not map ignorance instead? In a fast-changing world, national stereotypes remain remarkably stable. View the globe from an American perspective and you can still get away with labelling the whole of Russia “Commies”. If nothing else, it saves you having to spell Tajikistan.
The Mapping Stereotypes project is the work of Yanko Tsvetkov, a graphic artist who also goes by the name Alphadesigner. Tsvetkov has lived all over Europe, but back in 2009 when he got the idea to produce maps charting prevailing stereotypes, he was still in his native Bulgaria.
“There was a gas crisis, a pretty harsh winter, and we were a little bit cold,” he says. His first map posited a Europe made up of competing interests and reductive presumptions. Russia is simply labelled “Paranoid Oil Empire”. Most of the EU comes under the heading “Union Of Subsidised Farming”. Turkey has been renamed “No YouTube Land” and where Georgia should be it says “Armed Winegrowers”. He titled the map Where I Live and put it up on his website.
“People started leaving comments about it,” Tsvetkov says. “People I didn’t know. And then, by the unknown laws of the internet, it got quite popular.” Tsvetkov realised this could be the beginning of a larger project. He made a map of “The World According To Americans”, with Kazakhstan renamed “Borat”, the Falklands marked “British Riviera” and all of North Africa summarised as “Fucking Desert, Dude”. His map of Berlusconi’s worldview is both hilariously vulgar and, one suspects, not far wide of the mark. No matter where you’re from, you should be able to find something here to offend you.
To add to his growing collection, Tsvetkov has created two new maps for the Guardian, one titled The Arab Winter and the other Crystal Ball View Of Europe In 2022. In the former, Algeria has been renamed “Gaddafi’s Sperm Bank” (“Because most of his family ran away to Algeria,” Tsvetkov says, “so it’s like a sperm bank for the preservation of his legacy”). In the latter a smaller territory in northern Italy has been coloured orange and labelled “Gays”. “The region around Rome will be under gay occupation,” he says, “because at some point all gay people will get tired of Pope Benedict’s homophobic remarks and will invade the city to shut his mouth for ever.” Most of the references are self-explanatory, although a working knowledge of geography (or, in my case, an old atlas with Czechoslovakia on it) comes in handy.
Tsvetkov himself is nowhere near as narrow-minded as his maps. He speaks several languages, currently lives in Spain and feels comfortable throughout Europe. “I have friends in most major European countries,” he says. “I work as a designer, so we are a big community. We’re like the European ideal.” Has his cosmopolitanism also made him an expert on local prejudices and stereotypes? “Yes, there are things that you can only perceive when you are among the people, but the internet helps.”
Tsvetkov has also lived in London, and in his Europe In 2022 map the UK (minus Scotland) is called Passive Aggressive Kingdom, a nickname that stems from David Cameron’s recent refusal to sign an EU treaty. “It refers to the British way of thinking about Europe,” Tsvetkov says. “It doesn’t want to have much to do with the continent, but it wants to have a say. It’s about wanting to achieve something by not doing anything.”
Arguably these maps could do as much to reinforce stereotypes as ridicule them, but their primary purpose is to entertain. “If there is a serious problem, I prefer to present it in a funny say,” Tsvetkov says. “I think there is enough serious coverage, and loads of people who can analyse it way better than I can.”
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Cronenberg- original as ever.
It’s always tempting to imagine you can psychoanalyse a film-maker on the basis of their movies, especially so when it comes to David Cronenberg. What should we make of a director who has seared on to our collective unconscious images of exploding heads, rapist slugs coming up through the plughole, video cassettes being inserted into vaginal stomach openings, avant-garde gynaecological instruments? The fact that his new movie deals with Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and the infancy of the psychoanalytic movement only adds to the urge.
Cronenberg is sitting opposite me, on a comfortable couch, but there’s little prospect of getting him to lie down on it. If anything, it’s he who puts me on the couch. I tell the 67-year-old director that Scanners (its aforementioned exploding head in particular) was a formative experience for me, illicitly viewed and reviewed in slow motion on VHS, a good six years before I was legally allowed to. “Oh my God, I hope it didn’t do you too much damage,” he laughs. In the 1970s, Cronenberg was your typical science geek: greasy black hair, bottle-top glasses. These days, he looks pretty cool: like Ted Danson’s smarter brother.
Legions of horror fans have expressed dismay, even anger, at Cronenberg’s apparent desertion of the special effects-heavy stomach-churners with which he made his name. Cronenberg, they argue, has sold out, moving into the mainstream with films such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. “Yeah, yeah, you shrug that off,” Cronenberg says, “because they have no right to be angry. It’s the downside of having fans. Freud would have called it repetition compulsion: they just want you to keep doing the same thing. They want to be 10 years old again and see Scanners when they weren’t supposed to. But that’s their project. My project is to explore things and keep myself interested and excited by film. Two different things.”
On the surface, A Dangerous Method, could be his most conventional to date: there’s an A-list cast, historical characters and a period setting. Adapted from Christopher Hampton’s play, it is based on the apparently true story of the short-lived alliance between the young Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his mentor, Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and the pivotal role played by Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), first a patient of Jung’s, then his lover, then his student. But A Dangerous Method mischievously subverts its period trappings. Bestial impulses squirm beneath the decorous facades of 19th-century Vienna, and occasionally flare up spectacularly. In the absence of any gore, the spectacle of Knightley first raving hysterically, then being spanked by Jung in masochistic delight provide the film’s abiding images. “Of course, Keira was a little worried about the spanking scenes, but that’s normal,” Cronenberg says. “Often the actors’ fear is that they can’t give you what you want. But she’s very down-to-earth and we could have a straightforward discussion about it. I said, ‘Don’t hold back.’” Some critics have judged her jaw-jutting portrayal over-the-top, but Spielrein’s case was well-documented, Cronenberg says, and Knightley’s version of it is “absolutely accurate”.
More than just an exceptionally articulate love triangle, A Dangerous Method lays out a landscape of repression and release, strained civilities and deep neuroses, before stopping on the brink of the first world war – as if to suggest these issues would shape Europe for the rest of the century. “Freud has never been more relevant,” Cronenberg says. “Because of his understanding of what human beings are, and his insistence on the reality of the human body. We do not escape from that. Jung went into a kind of Aryan mysticism, whereas Freud was insisting on humans as we really are, not as we might want to be. That’s often hard to take, but it keeps coming back to us: the possibility of descending into tribal barbarism was very shocking to Europeans of the era. To suddenly be engulfed in flames and barbarity was the shattering of their ideals. And we’ve had Kosovo and the Balkans to remind us it can happen again.”
Has Cronenberg any direct experience of therapy? “No. It’s something you use as a tool in your life if you feel you need it, and I don’t feel I’ve needed it. It’s like taking an antibiotic when you don’t have an infection.”
For all the perversions he has put on screen, he considers himself completely normal – and try as they might, his critics have found little to contradict this self-evaluation. His parents were “warm and loving and sweet and not demanding”, he says of his Toronto childhood. They died relatively young, before he’d really got into his stride as a film-maker. He doesn’t think they’d be shocked by anything he went on to do. “They never pushed me to get a real job or anything like that. They understood art.” He switched from science to English at university. He smoked marijuana but not much, because it hurt his throat. He took LSD once. “I found it a very revealing and potent experience, and I was sure I would take it many times, but I never did.” He enjoys bicycling through the countryside.
If anything, Cronenberg’s films have revealed more about their audience than their director. Look at the way Britain lost its head over Crash, back in 1996: the reaction of the press in this country to the film’s vehicular eroticism was so disproportionately hysterical, it looks comical in retrospect. “Ban This Car Crash Sex Film,” frothed the Daily Mail, until the matter was taken up by politicians and councillors. “Crash surprised me totally, the reception,” Cronenberg says now. “It was a 20-year-old novel, well accepted as part of JG Ballard’s canon. I really didn’t think this movie that was fairly faithful to the tone of the novel would be so shocking to people here.” Ballard described the furore as “little England at its worst”, symptomatic of a “strange, nervous nation”. There was no Crash controversy in France or Canada, Cronenberg points out. “Different countries have different reactions. Some films are successful in some places; some not. I think Shivers played in Glasgow for three years non-stop. Why was that? I have no idea.”
He suggests that A Dangerous Method has brought him full circle, in a way. His very first film, a seven-minute short called Transfer, was a surrealist skit about a psychiatrist and his patient. He has broached the subject since, most notably in 1979′s The Brood, in which Oliver Reed played a renegade psychiatrist whose experimental techniques consisted of him pretending to be his patients’ abusive parents or neglected children. (It doesn’t end well for him, what with the demonic Samantha Eggar hatching homicidal mutant children in the attic.) Cronenberg later admitted that the story, which takes a pretty scathing view of psychiatry, was inspired by his separation from his first wife and the custody battle over their daughter.
As with much else, Cronenberg’s stance on therapy seems to have changed a great deal since. If there is any constant to his work, change would be it. Or rather, transformation – of the body and mind, and usually society, too. By some external force, Cronenberg’s characters are routinely thrown into a radical new mode of existence, and it’s not necessarily a negative experience: Videodrome’s toxic TV transmissions create “the new flesh”; Crash’s auto accidents are described as “fertilising”. A Dangerous Method fits this mould, too. There’s no need for body horror any more; it’s simply ideas that infect the host and catalyse the transformation.
“You could easily view the psychoanalytic circle in Vienna as the Crash cult,” Cronenberg says. “That is to say, a subversive group who have a handle on reality not accessible to society at large, and who band together to explore it. I’m interested in people who don’t accept the official version of reality, but try to find out what’s really going on under the hood.”
Uncharacteristically, after A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg went straight on to another movie: an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novella Cosmopolis, starring Twilight’s Robert Pattinson. The story is set entirely inside a billionaire’s limousine, cruising around New York. Cronenberg looks as surprised as anyone that he moved so fast. “Usually I take three or four years between movies, but suddenly there it was and I wanted to make it. I haven’t turned my back on my past, but when I’m making a new movie, my other movies are irrelevant. The critics think about your imprint, or your sensibility. ‘Is it Cronenbergesque or not?’ But creatively that doesn’t give me anything. It’s nice to be an adjective, but it can also be a trap.”
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