About ownership, remote control and privacy

Recently, I made a blogpost about the ownership of your own device and how control of technology is directly linked with the freedom of society – as well as with the freedom of each individual. The argument made in that post was, that remote control of technology in the hands of manufacturers put users out of their own control and makes censorship, supervision and control of society more and more easy and – therefore – likely to happen. Image of a router that looks like a camera

Just some weeks later, Edward Snowden leaked documents that show how the NSA was granted access to users data from US internet giants like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and many more. These documents show that remote storage of private data puts users out of control of their privacy. As we will see, the worst still is to come: remote private data storage by a machine that is under remote control.

I assume that the vast majority already read a lot or at least the most important information about a surveillance program by the National Security Agency (NSA) which is called #prism. All of you who know the background can easily skip to the next paragraph as – for reasons of completeness – this paragraph just continues with a brief summary of Snowden’s leak about the Prism program:

In recent years, so-called ‘cloud-services’ count more and more users. These are services that offer you to store your data, emails, calender, social communication and more or less everything that users would like to have an online access to it. These services tend to be structured in a hierarchic and closed way. As Tim Berners-Lee points out, especially their communication channels tend to break the internet into fragmented islands. Most of them are available for no cost. Instead, users pay by signing highly questionable terms of service that allow the service providers to collect, reuse and sell as much data of each user as possible. Now we have knowledge that this is not just done for business operations but that the NSA was also granted access to users information. Because Edward Snowden leaked detailed information about the supervision by the NSA and, according to Bloomberg, thousands of firms are cooperating with the NSA.

As this wouldn’t be worse enough – to supervise all citizens by having access to private life and private data -, it still becomes worse: The combination of centrally stored private information of every citizen with remote control of their very own Hardware. Xbox One is a new video game console from Microsoft and it works best as an example to shed some light on the ongoing loss of privacy and transparency of citizens towards the state.

First, Xbox One will have an integrated webcam and microphone. Of course, this is not evil per se – integration of a microphone, camera and other periphals can be used to enable new modes of gaming, for example. But, when I have a machine in my living room that includes a microphone and a camera, I must have control of this machine! This is not just missing in the Xbox – the Xbox and its integrated Kinect is the opposite of having control: the machine will be connected to the internet all the time, transmitting data to servers from Microsoft [1]. Officially, this is done for offering personalized adds, voice control and monitoring of media usage, about what Microsoft also filed a patent [2]. In addition, the camera also includes the technology to see WHO (face recognition) is sitting in front of the camera and how he feels. So, to sum up, Microsoft sells a machine that has the ability to hear and see everything in front of it, can identify persons and their feelings, record everything and then stores all data on Microsoft servers.
As this fact alone is already bad for your privacy, now combine these functions with the ability for the NSA to have access to it. Feels like the NSA is directly sitting in your living room and records everything you are doing, who you meet, when you are at home, how you feel and so on. This is very close to the Orwellian Television in his novel 1984. Shouldn’t such a technology be forebidden? Shouldn’t we stop economy and state from spying at us?

You might say no, there is no need for a law because there is no need to buy this machine, so customers can decide for themselves if they like to buy it or not. Hence, if you do not feel comfortable with it – just let it be. But, that’s too easy and the assumption of ‘no need to buy it’ comes to short in practice. I tell you why: First, some people need protection because they don’t care about privacy or just don’t know about the implemented spy technologies in Xbox.
These people should be protected by us, who care about these aspects of privacy. They should be protected before giving up all their citizen rights that former generations fought for us to have it – and by protecting them we protect the general idea for us, too. Just imagine, once the mainstream does not care about issues of privacy anymore and privacy disrespecting machines will become beststellers – privacy for everyone will be gone.
Why? Because of the spread-effect: Imagine, that you might be concerned about your privacy but your neighbor is not, or your friend is not. Your neighbor, for example, buys a surveillance machine like the Xbox – then you cannot feel safe anymore to enter his flat, if you do not like your privacy to be exposed to the NSA. Or every time you will walk into a house for the first time you first have to check if there is a supervision-machine inside or not. To protect us from such behavior, we have to make sure that such sort of supervision is generally forbidden.
Finally, please take a look at the big picture: In this very moment, we are talking about one product of one company that is mainly used for video gaming. This is very specific and the product might be something you do not have to buy. But if we let them sell this video machine without resistance, then next will be maybe a windows phone that comes with these integrated features and permanent upload to Microsoft servers (including the spread-effect). Other smartphones might do the same to keep competitive. In short, phones that we carry around all the time might be able to record everything we are doing, what we say, what we see, how we feel, who our friends are and upload this information to hidden servers. And they will not just spy on their owners. Because of the spread-effect they will be able to spy on everybody surrounding them. Now, if we come back to the initial counter-argument, you can say there is no need to buy an Xbox, but it is very hard to say that there is no need to buy a phone.

That is why we have to call now on consumer protection to take action. There should be the general right of an owner of a device, to use the device for whatever he likes what includes the full control of his very own IT. This also includes the freedom of not being supervised, to be able to turn off his IT, to stop remote control and to give back control over personal data and IT to the only one who should be really in possesion of it: the user.
Again: It is not about to forebid to integrate a microphone or a camera into any device. It is about to forebid that these machines cannot be turned off and that users cannot decide on their own what they would like to transfer to non-personal servers and what not! That’s why it is time for us to call on the state or – better – the European Union to protect us from such a behavior and to keep our private life and the right to own our property.

Sign that tells you about surveillance of the NSA

And, as long as we do not have sufficient consumer protection given by the state, I have an idea how to protect ourselves and to stop this behavior: In Germany, there is a law that if you video-monitor a public place, than this has to be publicly announced. Now, if we think about the spread-effect that was mentioned above, you can transform this idea to the Xbox. Because if you have an Xbox at home and you invite friends, you should warn them that they are monitored. Hence, every customer who buys a Xbox One, should be given a sticker along with the hardware, that he has to stick on his front-door. The sticker than should say something like: “This flat is under 24h surveillance by Microsoft and the NSA”

Getting people to have to stick their doors with such a sticker, I assume this will very soon decrease Xbox’ selling numbers – and by this – hopefully stop such practices.

[1] as a sidenote: Microsoft was the first major company that was cooperating with Prism
[2] needless to say that software patents are a harm for society. For more information see here: https://fsfe.org/campaigns/swpat/swpat.en.html

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