Posts filed under ‘Surveillance society’

Accidental spies

Google’s feeling the heat in Germany and Australia. Co-founder, Sergey Brin, admitted that Google has “screwed up”. I guess that’s what you call it when you hack into 600GB of private wireless data, in over 30 countries, whilst cruising the streets snapping images for the Street View mapping service. Oh, how silly of me: Google “accidentally” managed to capture that 600GB of data, they didn’t intentionally set out to hack into private networks. But Google: I think you’ll find the finger of wire-tapping pointed at you. To appreciate the seriousness of Google’s accidental spying, they were collecting data that potentially includes emails, passwords, Facebook or Twitter updates and Web sites visited. And when you think about it, Google probably knows more about you and me than any Government does and yet Google is not regulated.

This “inadvertent” collection of data has led to Google facing a class action lawsuit, which could see the search engine giant coughing up US$10,000 every time it screws up and collects data from unprotected networks. Two lawsuits have been filed, one in the Oregon federal court and the other in Washington and claim privacy violation pursuant to 18 USC §2511, under which plaintiffs and class members are entitled to $100 a day for each day their data was breached or $10,000 per violation per plaintiff. The two plaintiffs are Vicki Van Valin of Oregon and Neil Mertz of Washington, who claim that their homes’ wireless networks were not password protected and that the Street View vans cruised by their residences at least once. The lawsuit states in part:

“When Google created its data collection systems on its GSV [Google Street View] vehicles, it included wireless packet sniffers that, in addition to collecting the user’s unique or chosen Wi-Fi network name (SSID information), the unique number given to the user’s hardware used to broadcast a user’s WiFi signal (MAC address, the GSV data collection systems also collected data consisting of all or part of any documents, emails, video, audio, and VoIP information being sent over the network by the user [payload data]”.

The plaintiffs successfully applied for a temporary restraining order against Google and this prevents the search giant from deleting the collected data. Valin works for a technology company and works from home a fair bit. This would mean that a significant amount of data Valin sends over her wireless network is subject to her employer’s non-disclosure agreement. This could make things very interesting for Google and, in comparison, Facebook’s ongoing privacy bungles look kinda rosy.

Seems that New Zealand’s Privacy Commissioner is also interested in asking Google a few questions because oh nooooooo, shock, horror, Google accidentally collected data in NZ too. And the only time I’m likely to agree with Australia’s Communications Minister, Stephen “Internet Filter” Conroy, is when he said: “The code that the computer program collects is designed to collect this information..Yes, I’m saying they wrote a piece of code designed to do it….(and that this has been) the largest privacy breach in history across western democracies“.

BTW: don’t you think that Page and Brin are a couple of toothy dudes?

Photo credit: SMH.

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May 26, 2010 at 1:00 am 2 comments

NZ Spy Bill

I’m trying to find out exactly how many CCTV cams are here in Christchurch, New Zealand. I’ve been told it’s 44. Certainly, 25 new cams were added to the CCTV network in 2009. In Oxford, where I’ll be living, I’ve yet to spot one. I will do a thorough check as there’s bound to be one, probably at the town’s only ATM. But it’s a relief to be in a town where you and the streets aren’t watched day in day out by a lot of unblinking eyes.

What has me more alarmed though is an NZ Bill I’ve blogged about before – the Search and Surveillance Bill 45-1 (2009). Skim that blog post first before reading on. The Bill is currently before the Justice and Electoral Committee which is due to report back in late 2010.

I was watching Sunday last week and there was a report on just how intrusive this Bill could be into the every day lives of New Zealanders. Why don’t you watch the session – it’s pretty damn frightening. I was pleased to see a partner from NZ law firm, Bell Gully, being interviewed about concerns that Government agencies will have increased surveillance powers and you can read that law firm’s submission here.

As I understand it, over 70 “non-police” NZ agencies (such as Fisheries Ministry, Inland Revenue Department, Commerce Commission, the Reserve Bank and the Pork Industry Board) already have the power to obtain a search warrant (as long as it is deemed “role appropriate) but the Bill is a step beyond this – it gives these agencies the power to enter private property and covertly install a listening or recording device, set up hidden cameras or plant tracking devices on cars without someone’s knowledge.  At the moment, when one of these agencies obtains a warrant, it’s for the production of documents or to answer questions. If there is reasonable cause, a search of physical property might take place.

The S&S Bill extends investigatory powers and is trying to provide a homogeneous framework for regulators but….it is basically giving police powers to non-police Government agencies. Scary. Who will be overseeing exactly what these agencies can and can’t do? And under what circumstances will an agency be given the power to enter private property for secret squirrel operations? From my reading of the S&S Bill, it seems that non-police agencies would also be given the power to obtain a “residual warrant” that would allow them to legally hack into someone’s computer remotely and this would include asking an ISP to provide access to the person’s computer network.

Surely this Bill is contrary to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, which gives New Zealanders the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure?

What really, really scares me is that should the Bill become law, I can’t see how a person has the right to silence. It seems that under an Examination Order, a Government agency can haul you off for questioning and you have no right of refusal. I guess you could cite s60 of the Evidence Act and claim ‘privilege against self-incrimination’ – but I’m not sure how far that would get you.

Anyway, I plan to study this much more deeply. It’s very concerning that a democracy like New Zealand is considering such invasive powers (no doubt it’s being touted as an “anti-terrorism” measure). If you know anything, leave a comment.

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May 24, 2010 at 11:02 pm Leave a comment

Achtung Google!

I’m watching with interest a simmering cat fight that could boil over soon. Germany is looking at Google, closely, very closely and the German Federal Commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, Peter Schaar, is not happy with the search giant, saying that Google may been in breach of German privacy law.

Regular ThinkingShift readers know of my distaste for Google’s Street View service. After being pressed by the German Government to cough up information on the Wi-Fi data contained on the hard drives of Google’s Street View cars, Google posts (what sounds like) a transparent, open post.

The story goes like this: Google has allegedly been collecting private data on individuals by scanning for private wireless networks and recording the details whilst cruising streets with those ugly Google Street View vans. European officials were concerned about Google’s activities and demanded they reveal the type of data collected. Cornered, Google admitted that private data had been collected but oops, it was a programming error, and we didn’t mean to do it, sorry. But it seems that what Google was busy collecting was not just the names and addresses of private citizens but also information sent over the network such as emails and what websites were visited by those citizens.

Illegally tapping into private networks is against German law so Google is in hot water. Peter Schaar isn’t taking any of Google’s excuses lying down, saying:

‘‘So everything was a simple oversight, a software error! The data was collected and stored against the will of the project’s managers and other managers at Google. If we follow this logic further, this means: The software was installed and used without being properly tested beforehand. Billions of bits of data were mistakenly collected, without anyone in Google noticing it, including Google’s own internal data protection managers, who two weeks ago were defending to us the company’s internal data protection practices.’

If German data protection authorities had not demanded Google reveal what exactly was on the hard drives of Street View cars, then I wonder if Google would ever have admitted to “the software error”. Ah, I doubt it.

And German citizens are none too happy about Street View either, with many private home owners signing up to have their properties excluded from the spying Google eyes. I can assure Google that should they ever try to come down the driveway of our rural property in New Zealand, a huge cat fight will erupt. One poor woman in the UK has been captured by the cruising vans not once, not twice, but 43 times as she innocently strolls down a Suffolk street, walking the dog.

Google: your credibility is evaporating dudes.

UPDATE: 18/05/2010 Google’s woes are going from bad to worse – the Australian Privacy Commissioner is also asking questions of Google since the internet behemoth admitted it had “inadvertently” been recording Wi-Fi data from unsecured wireless networks in over 30 countries. Electronic Frontiers Australia and the Australian Privacy Foundation have sent Google a “please explain” joint letter and are pressing Google to reveal what data its Street View cars and vans actually collect. Can’t wait to hear Google’s latest response: “oh, we’ve been collecting heaps of data about private citizens in over 30 countries for four years?  Really? We had no idea: must be a programming error. We’ll get back to you”.

All this sounds like Facebook’s latest debacle over privacy issues – and what’s happening now with Facebook? People are leaving it in droves. I have a Facebook “presence”, basically a cartoon cat avatar and minimal information. I think I will now even de-activate this. Note: there is a difference between deleting stuff off Facebook and de-activating your account. It seems Facebook retain the data (eg photos, your connections blah blah) and can data mine it to death.

Mark May 31 in your diaries as “Quitting Facebook Day” – there’s a whole website devoted to quitting Facebook on that day. I plan to join the exodus.

UPDATE: May 26 2010 – Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA), Joe Barton (R-TX) and Ed Marley (D-MA) have sent a letter to Google and asking for a reply by June 7. There are 12 juicy questions that Google is being grilled on. Read it here.

UPDATE: May 27 2010 Google is resisting all demands to hand over private internet data to Regulators (and snubs Hong Kong’s Privacy Commissioner whilst it’s at it). Mmmmmm…..if Google “accidentally, inadvertently, oops, we didn’t mean to” collect data, then why are they fighting so hard to deflect any attempts at getting them to handover the collected data?

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May 17, 2010 at 8:57 am 2 comments

We see you here; we see you there

Do you remember your high school years? Was it full of Zac Efron dudes singing and dancing their way through musicals? Or pretty young things spending more time on their appearance than their learning?  My time in high school was pretty pedestrian now that I think about it. I always had my nose in textbooks, showed up to all classes and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I had a crush on a few dudes; every weekend I cleaned the pool for my ancient history teacher; and I plotted and schemed how to avoid physical education classes. But that’s about as radical as it gets. Boring, yeah, I know.

But seems if you’re a kid in school these days, it’s not necessarily a pleasant thing to experience. Why? Because we’ve reached the point where every school kid is looked on as a possible threat. Before I launch myself into the topic, yes, there have been some terrible incidents in schools where kids and teachers have been attacked or shot. But not every kid is planning to off his or her fellow students or teachers. Some are there – gasp! – to learn and gain the marks needed to enter university or college.

Take a moment to remember your high school years – then read this letter from James Stephenson as he relates a school stuffed full of CCTV cameras and invasive searches. Stephenson graduated from Virginia’s public schooling system two years ago, so it’s all fresh in his memory. He talks of staff searching student cars and lockers; how heavily-armed and armored police officers roam the halls; and he invites us to consider that CCTV cams don’t make you feel more secure – they make you feel “twitchy and paranoid”. My heart went out to Stephenson when I read this letter. I cannot imagine being a kid in high school surrounded by security and teaching staff who consider I might be a potential threat and therefore have to monitor, surveil, frisk, search and spy on me. And of course you would have read about student laptop webcams used to spy on kids at school and in their own homes.

Now, I’ve just been reading about the circus going on at a school in Chelmsley Wood, UK (rest assured dear American reader: you are not the only country forced to put up with the theatre of security). Kids at Grace Academy in Chelmsley Wood discovered security cameras had been installed without parent permission in……the toilets. Yeegads! Apparently, this school has 26 CCTV cameras.  I presume the CCTV cams in the loos are only pointing at the washing basins but I would not be surprised to learn otherwise.

The question in my mind is: what will be the results for a generation of kids who have been constantly monitored from kindergarten onwards? You just have to read Stephenson’s heartfelt letter to know that all kids are not saying “who cares, I’ve got nothing to hide”.  The really interesting bit in my mind of Stephenson’s narrative was when he talked about an English teacher who never had any trouble with the kids in her class. She simply treated her class with respect and expected the same from them.

Most violence that kills children is outside the school environment. For example, between 1990 and 2001, two million children were killed in wars where small arms were used. In 2007/2008, 43 children (or 62% of killings in England and Wales) were killed by their parents. And in the United States, in 2005 there were 555 cases of infanticide with 60% of children dying at the hands of their parents.

I am not saying that child-on-child crime isn’t a serious issue in schools. It’s a tragedy that any child is killed or attacked whilst at school. But authorities should be probing the cause of school massacres not installing hundreds of CCTV cams in the false hope of stopping incidents. I suspect that schools and school authorities are in the grip of what Stanley Cohen refers to as a “moral panic”. I’ll do some more thinking on this and perhaps do another post.

March 18, 2010 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

No flight for you

I know that some of you will think I’m hysterical or paranoid – take your pick – but I’m not giving up on the issue of full-body scanners. Installing these scanners at airports around the world and looking on all of us as suspects is pure theatre. To be seen to be doing something, anything.

In previous posts, I outlined my thoughts. Go here and here for a refresher course. I cynically suggested that sooner rather than later we would be denied the ability to get on a plane if our asses were hauled aside and we were asked to undergo the “privilege” of having a scan but refused. I have asked the question of whether or not Islamic women, being subjected to body scans, violates Islamic rules of public modesty.

And this week, I heard of the first example of a Muslim woman being barred from boarding a flight because she refused to undergo a full-body scan.  My understanding is that full-body scanners installed in airports like Heathrow are (for the moment) not mandatory for all passengers. What happens is security staff  “select” passengers at random or for some other reason (like passenger profiling) and haul them off for a scan.

I don’t know why this woman (and her female companion who also refused to be scanned) was selected. One would hope it’s not because she is a Muslim and therefore automatically (and stereotypically) considered to be a higher threat (because it’s the Muslims who want to blow up the world don’t you know? It couldn’t be non-Muslim sickos and whackos now could it!).  The woman decided to forfeit her ticket to Pakistan rather than suffer the indignity of a full-body scan.

Now, I am not of the Islamic faith and do not declare any special knowledge of it. But from my limited understanding of Islamic ethics, modesty is part of faith and since God knows and sees everything, a true believer would feel “shy” in front of God and therefore wish to adopt modest dress and certainly would not wish to display “one’s bits”.

The full-body scanners show the outline of passenger’s genitals. My understanding is that the  Qur’an declares it is a violation of Islamic teachings that men or women be seen naked by other men and women. Full stop. Period.

So what to do? BIG Government bleats that we need to be protected and therefore must be scanned, monitored, searched, surveilled to death. But when religion comes face to face with the Nanny State and its hysteria over security, what to do?

I’m not sure why the scanners can’t be adapted to simply show an outline of the body sans “bits and pieces” or why those of the Islamic faith or those like me, who declare full-body scanners an invasion of personal privacy, can’t simply get the pat-down, frisking business. After all, the full-body scanners did not stop the Underwear Bomber.

I know that a cat fight might be looming between the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the British Government (who have installed scanners at Heathrow and Manchester airports). The Commission has written a letter to UK Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, which you can read here.  But I’ll give you the gist of the letter:

  • the Commission has not seen sufficient evidence that the decision to deploy full-body scanners complies with the general or specific equality duties under the Race Relations Act 1976, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (aka: dudes you might be acting in an unlawful, unfair or discriminatory manner);
  • the Commission is concerned that a full equality impact assessment was never done, which could lead to the serious risk that a measure introduced to protect the travelling public will have unintended discriminatory consequences;
  • the Commission is concerned about the implications of the introduction of body scanners for the right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (dudes: you could be in serious breach of EU privacy laws = BIG cat fight);
  • the Commission is concerned about the selection criteria for scanning.

I’m not sure if his Lordship has responded to the EHRC but clearly the Commission has fired a warning shot. Lord Adonis can be found muttering away in Hansard about passengers being selected for scanning but seems to me there is no transparency around how passengers are selected nor any indication of whether a passenger can challenge why they have been selected.

I remain unconvinced that full-body scanners will help protect us. Terrorists come in all shapes, colours, sizes and religions. I don’t think Muslims were busy conducting the paramilitary campaigns of the IRA in 1970s Northern Ireland and England. BIG government is the terrorist amongst us – by instilling fear in us to achieve political goals. I simply have to look up the definition of “terrorism” to find out who the real terrorists are:

“the calculated use of violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear”

Most likely the Israelis are chuckling about the UK and the US obsession with airport security and its blind faith in scanners and obtrusive technology. The former head of security for the Israeli national airline, El Al, has said that the airline has prevented terrorism in the air by making sure every passenger is interviewed by a well-trained agent prior to check-in. Seems sensible to me: I would not object to an interview.

March 7, 2010 at 2:00 am 2 comments

The eye in ID

So you know that I think the future will be full of iris scanners, full-body scanners, CCTV cams, micro-chips – basically a future full of us being surveilled, tracked, monitored and profiled. And so to news this week that iris scanning technology is starting to make its way into law enforcement. If you live in Arapahoe County, Colorado USA – well, you might be asked to undergo an iris scan. Police in the county will become the first law enforcement agency in Colorado to begin identifying criminals, missing children and seniors using biometric analysis of the human iris.

Check out this video:

Iris scanning technology is still fairly rudimentary and can be fooled. The individual undergoing a scan must remain still so that the scanner can do its thing. But there is a research project afoot to develop the ability to obtain facial and eye data when the subject is moving or when the lighting is not good. And I think the future will be full of us being surveilled and scanned without our knowledge. As we move through the streets of our cities, go down into the subways, travel the trains and buses, I suspect that unobtrusive, public iris scanning will be taking place, perhaps linked to online advertising. So you’re walking into the subway, pass a scanner and beep beep goes your iPhone with the latest glam ad for a product that matches your profile. Very Minority Report.

The issue I believe is that there will be a lot of scanning, surveilling and monitoring going on but no SEEING.  The social contract of a city is that which is woven by its citizens. Anyone who has read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, knows that the city is a living organism with a delicate balance between watching and being seen. We’ve all learnt to live in cities and with our neighbours by being watchful of others – taking care not to smash into someone as we walk down a busy street or keeping a respectful distance from others and not invading their “space”. You learn to pick up subtle cues from people and you know not to walk down a deserted, unlit street.

Security cameras, iris and body scanners – sure they can all watch and monitor but they can’t see. And do you think for one moment that crazies and whackos are deterred by surveillance? Nope, they ignore it or find a way around it.

If we allow surveillance technology to take over then we lose the ability to really see. We become watched. And because we allow the Government to introduce CCTV cams, airport scanners and so on, we come to believe that watching is acceptable and so we watch our neighbours, we watch for terrorists, we watch for suspicious behaviour, but we don’t see. And the result? I think it’s a step towards the ultimate destination of knowing someone’s intentions before they act.

Don’t laugh just yet – read this piece from The Guardian. Scientists and researchers are already imagining a scanner that would be like shining a torch onto the human brain, revealing intentions and thoughts. Right now, the technology doesn’t exist to scan a brain and judge whether a person is likely to commit a crime. But the surveillance technology we are currently surrounded by assumes we have evil intentions of blowing up planes. So how short is the step to a brain scanner? A very short one I’d say.

The ethical debate about how brain scanning technology should be used or if indeed it should be used at all will never take place. Because we are becoming inured to surveillance technologies scanning the heck out of us, we will just say yeah, bring it on, I’ve got nothing to hide. It will be such a hassle to get through security at airports and just get onto a plane (remember when flying used to be fun?) that we will all be broken mentally and just accept the surveillance and monitoring. This makes it so much easier to introduce more intrusive surveillance and take us from the Sleeping Society to the Controlled Society.

The neuroscientist, Jean-Pierre Changeux, has warned of a dark future when neuroscience becomes entangled with imaging and scanning technologies:

“…… the annual public meeting of the French national bioethics committee held last week in Paris… Jean-Pierre Changeux, the chairman of the committee and a neuroscientist at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, told the meeting that understanding the working of the human brain is likely to become one of the most ambitious and rich disciplines of the future. But neuroscience also poses potential risks, he said, arguing that advances in cerebral imaging make the scope for invasion of privacy immense. Although the equipment needed is still highly specialized, it will become commonplace and capable of being used at a distance, he predicted. That will open the way for abuses such as invasion of personal liberty, control of behaviour and brainwashing. These are far from being science-fiction concerns, said Changeux, and constitute “a serious risk to society”. Nature (Vol 391, Jan 22 1998 p 316).

And Japanese scientists are said to already be there – they’ve developed a machine that can take images directly from the human brain. Scary.

February 14, 2010 at 5:07 am Leave a comment

Skip the chip

I’ve blogged about VeriChip before.  If you have no idea who or what VeriChip is, let me briefly tell you. VeriChip was (and I say was because VeriChip has a new name) a Florida, US-based company that had grand plans for inserting microchips under the skin of humans. Back in 2007, they announced plans to implant 200 Alzheimer’s patients in Palm Beach County. The microchip implanted is a radio-frequency identification chip that contains a 16-digit patient identification number and if someone with Alzheimer’s is lost, the chip will identify and track.

I suggested from chipping patients, it’s an easy jump to say the prison population, immigrants guest workers, then parolees or sex offenders, then perhaps to get through immigration – then the whole population. Always the argument would be – it’s to protect the population from criminals; it’s to protect military bases or nuclear power plants; we need to identify wandering Alzheimer’s patients blah blah. And then it’s a small jump from the chip carrying medical information to holding other information about you, for example, chip-based payment for groceries would require your credit card details be recorded on the chip. I see no reason why airline tickets couldn’t be disposed of in a future of microchipped humans – pay for your ticket and when you get to the airport a scanner verifies payment and processes you through immigration. One microchip in the human arm can hold an infinite number of potential uses to track and control humans albeit some uses might be beneficial or innocent. But well-meaning and innocent can often turn into exploited and abused.

And speaking of credit card details – guess what type of company VeriChip recently acquired? ooooh, shock: a credit monitoring and anti-identity theft company known as Steel Vault.  The combined company will now operate under a new name: PositiveID. Let’s pause for a sec and look at the name: PositiveID. I think that’s pretty clever actually. Any negative or Orwellian thoughts one might have had about a company called VeriChip is now replaced by a fairly innocuous, positive sounding name.

But let’s look at what this acquisition might mean. PositiveID will not only stick chips in patients and link the chips to personal  health records (through their HealthLink chip), there is the potential to cross-check patient health records to people’s credit scores (because Steel Vault is the company behind, which is a credit reporting, monitoring and scoring service. The company is also into identity theft products).

So what I hear you say? Well, here’s some scenarios for you:

  • it’s a no-brainer to suggest that the old VeriChip company would wish to integrate the two services – so the implant could determine your credit rating or worthiness;
  • using RFID technology to identify every human being in America, heck the whole planet (and they’d market this under the guise of protecting your identity because the chip would be embedded with all your personal details. Heck I can name the chip for them – call it RealID);
  • you wouldn’t need to worry about leaving your credit card at home, just scan your arm. Forgot your Driver’s License? no problem: wave your arm over a scanner;
  • potentially there will be one chip carrying two things: a link to your personal health record and your credit score or rating. No doubt they will prattle on about how the two types of information will be kept apart (so that for example, doctors treating you won’t be able to snoop into your financial health) – mind you, I can’t find any statements about how this security would be put into place;
  • I’m sure you’ve read about how so-called secured data has been lost. I don’t wish my private health or financial details being hacked or scanned by some portable scanner;
  • what’s to stop clever hackers from changing say the dosage of medication recorded on the chip?
  • basically you could end up being a walking credit or debit card. Eeeew.
  • VeriChip is the company that said back in 2004 that its chip would one day be used as a credit card.

And in this fear-driven age we live in, it will be relatively easy to make everyone think they should be chipped. In fact, if you’re not chipped, you’ll be suspect. The chip will be marketed under the name of safety and protection. If your kid has a microchip, they’re safe from abduction or getting lost. A school in Rhode Island is already busy chipping the kids. If your elderly parents are chipped, they’re safe from wandering off or forgetting their medicine dosage and history. If you have the chip, you don’t need to carry a wallet anymore or a Driver’s License. You can wave your arm and get into a nightclub. You won’t need a passport because the chip will carry all your personal details and travel history.

Our armed forces and police will get the chip. There was a recent suggestion that every Metropolitan police officer in the UK would be microchipped so their movements could be tracked. The US Department of Defense has been studying how to develop a rice grain-sized chip in soldiers so if they are wounded on the battlefield, vital medical signs can be relayed back to their unit.

In fact, I can envision a time in the not too distant future when you will not be able to buy, sell or trade anything without a chip embedded in you. And many of you might say bring it on, who cares if I’m chipped. So if I can’t persuade you that chipping humans will lead to the total loss of human rights, then let me try the medical argument.

There are studies that suggest a causal link between implanted microchip transponders and cancer in laboratory rodents and dogs. We chip our pets for identification purposes. It would be pretty harrowing to think that malignant tumors, typically sarcomas, could arise at the site of the implant you have innocently agreed to have your dog chipped with. It’s suggested that tumors grow around the site of the implant to fully encase it.

Of course, results in animals do not necessarily apply to humans. Or do they? What could happen within your body if you get a glass-encased chip? At the very least, the animal tests should raise red flags and more research should be conducted into human cancers and microchips.

““There’s no way in the world, having read this information, that I would have one of those chips implanted in my skin, or in one of my family members,” says Dr. Robert Benezra, head of the Cancer Biology Genetics Program at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He’s a doctor, head of a Cancer Biology Genetics program – guess he might know what he’s talking about.

I read the other day that a South African inventor has incurable cancer. It’s a story out of the X-Files really. Earlier this year, he noticed a small, hard lump had appeared under the skin of his right shoulder but ignored it until he found that a weak signal was picked up by an EMF meter on the bench in his lab. No equipment or devices were running at the time and he tracked the signal back to his shoulder – where a doctor found a microchip and…a rare form of cancer was found in the site from where the microchip was removed (the surgery apparently disturbed the cancer cells and were then released into the man’s bloodstream). I haven’t been able to find out why on earth a microchip was implanted in his shoulder. The man was not aware of its presence. So it all sounds very mysterious.

So until studies can prove otherwise, I’d be skipping the chip.

December 13, 2009 at 2:27 am Leave a comment

Gnomes and big government

It was ex-Prez Ronald Reagan who once uttered the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the Government and I’m here to help”. Whenever I think of Reagan’s words I think of the current state of Governments, particularly in Australia and the UK (and increasingly the US) – over-regulated; massive Government spending; massive Government debt; massive Government intrusion into our lives. BIG Government. Massive. Here to help. Scary.

Government regulation should be a balance or a partnership between the state and its citizens. If the balance is right, then Government provides the rules and regulations and its citizens are free to challenge or debate them. But in our over-regulated society, the scales have been tipped towards Big Government and the increasing tendency to monitor, surveil and control the behaviour of its citizens. The duty of a citizen (in a democratic society) is being taken away from us. Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “The State must follow, and not lead, the character and progress of the citizen”. As citizens, we have rights and responsibilities. Aside from paying taxes and respecting the law, the most treasured responsibility IMHO is to maintain constant vigilance over the Government the citizens have elected and which SERVES its citizens. Was it not Thomas Jefferson who said: “Lethargy [is] the forerunner of death to the public liberty”.

Hang on: I’m getting carried away. Because this is actually a post about gnomes and BIG Government. Yes, really. So let me get into it.

Have you ever seen a gnome spontaneously combust? Have you ever seen one of these:

catch alight and burn down a house? Have you ever witnessed some evil little gnome purposely trip someone down a flight of stairs? Or lurking in a garden late at night, waiting to pounce on some poor unsuspecting person as they make their way up the garden path towards their front door?

Nope?? Me either. But apparently, local Council chiefs in the UK have been doing some serious gnome investigation and decided to ban garden gnomes…because….they are an elf and safety issue. Sorry, I mean health and safety issue. Seems some woman in Tipton, West Midlands is guilty of excruciatingly bad taste rather than possessing two 6-inch gnomes that are a fire hazard. But the local bureaucrats, nosing around in people’s lives and extending the reach of BIG Government, considered that gnomes in the communal area of the block of council flats could catch alight (what the? aren’t gnomes usually made of pottery?) or block an exit.

Now, if there was a congregation of gnomes busy blocking some fire exit or if the little dudes were plotting and scheming evil things to inflict on residents, then I might understand the banning. But since when did a couple of gnomes, desperately trying to tart up the appearance of low-income homes, constitute a fire hazard? Council were also busy investigating welcome mats, a welcome plaque hanging outside the same woman’s home and a pottery tortoise. These items were also identified as serious health and safety risks and their removal was demanded by council officials. Seems all this offending stuff was just outside the door of the woman’s flat.

Now, here we have a perfect example of government intrusion and waste of tax payer money. To be fair, the local council has admitted it was somewhat over-zealous in interpreting fire safety rules but this isn’t the point. Contemporary society is in the grip of health and safety neurosis. The Conservative leader, David Cameron, has woken up to this fact. Things are out of control when good samaritans can be sued; when railway staff refuse to help carry a baby buggy up a flight of stairs because they weren’t insured to do so; or (and this is unbelievable) a local council orders the removal of tinsel from a school crossing patrol officer’s Stop sign for health and safety reasons.

Yes, well…I’m sure you can see how the Christmas tinsel would be a health and safety issue. Perhaps the patrol officer might inadvertently hang himself with the tinsel as he catches sight of that evil congregation of gnomes heading towards him.

There are many good reasons for health and safety regulations but not ridiculous actions that are more reminiscent of an over-protective parent. Over-regulating leads to a burden on business and citizens; it leads to a feeling of powerlessness; it shows that we are out of balance with the state, which does not trust our judgement or good sense to do the right thing. It was Durkheim I believe who made the link between suicide and an over-regulated society. An individual who feels oppressed, persecuted or powerless in the face of a society weighed down by complex rules and regulations is more prone to fatalistic suicide.

Let us recall the words of Jefferson about lethargy. And let us recall the duty of the citizenry to be vigilant over the actions of those we have elected. If we don’t give a toss about the intrusion of Government into our daily lives and if we continue to allow government at its many levels to dictate to us…then we get the government we deserve.

Louis Brandeis said: “The most important political office is that of the private citizen”. There is a decline in political participation by citizens (read this book if you don’t believe what I just said) and a growing disenchantment with political parties. Post 9/11, we have been in the grip of what Frank Furedi rightly calls the culture of fear – fear of terrorism, fear of swine flu, fear of environmental devastation, fear of stranger danger, fear of the future, fear of immigrants – and this has allowed BIG government to swoop down, particularly when it comes to intrusions and surveillance of private activities.

Now it seems BIG government is telling us we need to worry about gnomes.

UPDATE: catching up on my RSS feeds – I didn’t think anything could top the absurdity of the gnomes and tinsel business – but yep, the Brits (again) can come up with more inanity. A grandfather was on some rickety old UK train and went to the cafe bar on the train to find something to eat. Having spotted an egg sandwich, he was told he couldn’t have it. Why? he asked. This is the answer from the steward – get ready for it:

“Don’t you see? If the train has to be evacuated you could choke to death on the sandwich”.

YEEGADS…can the Brits get any more ridiculous with this health and safety neurosis? If you think dudes are going to choke on some smelly old egg sandwich, THEN DON’T OFFER IT FOR SALE IN YOUR TRAIN’S CAFE. Duh.

December 6, 2009 at 2:16 am 1 comment

Don’t do it NZ!

Well, I never thought I’d have to sling off at my beloved New Zealand but what the??? Has NZ taken a leaf out of the Bush Administration’s book of unwarrantless surveillance?  Are NZ citizens about to become the most surveilled on Earth, taking over from the Brits?

There’s a little piece of legislation NZ’ers need to worry about – the Search and Surveillance Bill 45-1 (2009). If you want to hyperventilate, have a read of the whole Bill. If you want to be spared the discomfort of lack of breath, I’ll summarise for you. As I understand this Bill, it will:

  • give increased search and surveillance powers for government agencies, other than police, who have law enforcement responsibilities. This would include agencies such as the Fisheries Ministry, the Inland Revenue Deparment, Commerce Commission, the Reserve Bank and even…wait for it…the Pork Industry Board;
  • what are these increased powers I hear you ask? These agencies will have the ability to eavesdrop on phone conversations, hack into computers and use hidden cameras to watch every move you make. This will include the power to use tracking devices without a person knowing they are being tracked.

I’ll pause here. A good friend of  mine joked the other day that I have the sort of suspicious mind that might lead me to suspect that pot plants are listening into my conversation. She was of course joking (I think). But reading this Bill, it would seem that an NZ agency could indeed place an eavesdropping device into a pot plant. Now, I do wonder what on earth the Fisheries and Pork Industry dudes would be doing – do they plan to use the goldfish in people’s homes to eavesdrop or farm pigs?

Joking aside this Bill has been slammed by the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the NZ Privacy Commissioner. The word “chilling” has been used to describe this Bill.

Let’s look further:

  • on my reading of the Bill, non-state agencies (such as fisheries, conservation or labour) will be able to conduct warrantless surveillance or compel a person to answer questions or handover computer access codes (clause 125(4)(a).  To require NZ citizens to answer questions is the removal of the right to silence and a total invasion of civil liberties;
  • unfair searches and seizures could be conducted;
  • these agencies will have the power to detain anyone at the scene of a search.

I don’t see much in the way of safeguards or accountability built into this Bill. For example, once remote accessing of your computer has taken place or you’ve been tracked by video camera for days on end, is there a requirement that the agency in question inform you that surveillance has taken place and has finished?  Doesn’t seem so.

When I come back from Taiwan, I plan to look into this further. I’m concerned that, particularly with computer searches, there are muddy waters – and this could lead to mixing up private data with evidentiary data.

Clause 57 has me fretting also. It deals with obtaining residual warrants for surveillance. Section 3 of the Bill defines a surveillance device as:  

(a) an interception device;

(b) a tracking device;

(c) a visual surveillance device

So residual warrants cover surveillance that is not of a visual, electronic or tracking nature. Clause 57 goes on to say that a law enforcement agency, if they wish to use a surveillance technique, procedure, or activity other than that defined in Section 3 must obtain a residual warrant. As I read it, the technique, procedure or activity could include covert entry into a private citizen’s home.

I don’t have many NZ readers. Most of my readers are from the US and Americans well know the sort of warrantless surveillance crap and threats to democracy and civil liberties that have been slung at them by Bush and his croneys. I hope that NZ citizens kick up a stink about this Bill. I believe that it was met with such criticism that it won’t potentially become law until May 2010. I just hope it doesn’t sail through Parliament.

If you know more, leave a comment.

Image credit: Tumeke!

November 10, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Pigs, dogs and Big Brother

Gotta love these pigs. They are giving the finger to Big Brother, well, more their cute, wiggly tails. So we know that pets are implanted with RFID chips (usually under the skin between the shoulder blades in a dog or cat and providing the owner’s details together with information about the animal, which is logged onto a central database.) But RFID technology is also used for farm animals – to trace livestock through their life cycle. Microchip implants can identify an animal’s origin so if there is an outbreak of a disease, such as mad cow, the RFID-tracking system will identify the farm from which the animal carrying the disease came from. If you ask me, this is Animal Farm meets Big Brother. And one day, in the not too distant future, humans will be implanted with RFID chips and our daily activities and life-cycle will be tracked. But back to the pigs.

You’re about to watch a short video of smart pigs in Essex, UK. These pigs are equipped with (rather cumbersome) RFID-enabled collars that limit piggy’s food to a certain amount per day. The pig goes through a gate and the RFID collar works out how much food to dish out. You then see poor piggy looking sad that there is no more food as it leaves the feed chute area. But in a classic case of learned behaviour, some of the pigs have figured out the collar is the key to more food. And this is happening on a number of independent farms not just the one farm. Some pigs ditch the collars (yeah, they look uncomfortable) and other clever pigs come along, pick up the collar and…carry it to the feed gate a second time. So the animal that often ends up as bacon on the breakfast buffet is smart enough to make the mental connection between collar and more dinner and is teaching other pigs to subvert Big Brother.

And in another story of learned behaviour (this time without surveillance overtones) – have you heard about the Moscow dogs? Stray dogs have turned into canine commuters, using Moscow’s subway system to full advantage. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many industries moved from Moscow into the surrounding suburbs and stray dogs used the industrial complexes as shelter and for food scavenging – so when industry moved, they moved too. What’s fascinating about this is that the dogs apparently work together, helping each other to learn the length of time they need to spend on a train to the suburbs; what stop to get off; and which carriages to travel in. And just like human commuters, they often take a nap on the train. There’s even a Russian website devoted to these metro dogs. Apparently, the dogs wait patiently on the station for the train to pull in and they have learned to use the traffic lights, crossing the streets with pedestrians. And they have learned innovative tactics to easily obtain food from humans. In the evenings, they hop on the train and return to Moscow. Check out this YouTube video – you can see the dog is snoozing, the announcement is saying the train is reaching a station; the dog stirs; looks around to see people are getting off; and calmly saunters out the door, ready for a day’s scavenging.

October 24, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

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