Saturday, 29 July 2017

Celebrating 11 years of reviewing

My yearly summary of reviews, where I name (and not shame) my favorite film / book / music / TV and video games is now up over at my reviews blog. Have a look at it here!
I did wonder whether I should also nominate my favourite podcast of the year, but eventually decided not to do so. I find that podcasts' viable lifetimes tends to be far too short for a yearly nomination. That is to say, it is hard to maintain brilliance over a long period of time; not everyone is like me, capable of achieving it for 11 years of reviews and still keep it going :-)

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Spy Who Came Back with the Dirt

Pretty much all the news places I visit were reporting this past week how the company that makes the Roomba vacuum cleaning robot is planning to embark on a new mapping adventure (see here for one example). The plan is to have its robot armada, that has already invaded our houses, send the internal map of their owners residences back "home". As in, its makers "home", where they will be selling the internal map of your house away.
[Adequate disclosure: yours truly has had a Roomba getting entangled with cables for several years now; however, mine is a dumb model. All it does is clean, generate noise, and get stuck.]
The question is, should I, should you, should we, allow this private information - the internal layout of our residences - to be given away? Bear in mind, once it's gone, it's gone; you will no longer have control over it.
If you've been reading this blog you would pretty much know by now that I am on the very conservative side of things here. I would not want my private information taken out of control, period. But am I being exceptionally stupid in this particular case, even by my own rigid standards?
Let's examine the arguments.

Favouring the side of letting the data go is the undeniable assumption that we are not exactly talking Top Secret material here. I'm pretty sure my home's building plans are on the public record somewhere, and even if they aren't then they will be once the house is put on sale and the real estate agency publishes the floor plan for the world to see. Because that's how you buy and sell real estate in this world.
The key factor here appears to be not the floor plan itself but rather the way the resident has chosen to personally furnish the place. The Roomba would be able to tell where you put your sofa, how big your sofa is, where you put your TV, where you put your speakers, etc. Picking that information apart may offer some potentially life enhancing use cases: you could be offered acoustics advice on how to improve the sound quality of your stereo, to pick on one example. To be honest, I don't really know what could be done with this data to enhance our lives with, but I will admit there may well be positive outcomes. It's just that I don't know; we don't know, and I doubt Roomba's makers know. All they know is that they can make a buck.
Then there is the negative. As Bruce Schneier alerts us, there could be implications to this data given away when something goes wrong. Say, if you want to make an insurance claim and the info your innocent Roomba had collected is, all of a sudden, used against you. Again, we simply don't know what this data will end up being used for, but we do know that once you give it away you cannot claim it back.
I will therefore go one paranoid step further and issue a generic privacy advice on allowing one's personal data to be given away. It is simply this: we already know that companies such as Google and Facebook collect all the data they can about you. Similarly, we know that third party trackers, companies such as Acxiom, do so "covertly" behind the scenes, and they are perfectly willing to sell your data to the highest bidder; that's how they make their money. With this data fed to big data processing algorithms, who knows whether tomorrow morning they will find a correlation between someone placing their TV at the corner of the room and that someone willing to spend $10 above average on shoes, hence the "need" for companies such as Amazon to charge them extra on shoes?
Make no mistake about it. It might not be willingness to pay extra for shoes, but with all that data, these companies will find something on you that could be exploited. That is the reason they exist in the first place, and they seem to be making a decent living! Last I heard, Google and Facebook are earning more money than I do.

To this still theoretical risk I will add a much more down to earth, clear and present danger type of a practical risk. By letting the Roomba in your house connect to the Internet, you may be exposing yourself to a major security risk. How? Think of all the vulnerabilities out there with Windows (WannaCry?) and other operating systems that are always on the run to patch up the latest problem. Do you think your Roomba is immune to those problems? And when was the last time you've patched your Roomba up?
Again, this is no theoretical threat. This month alone we have learnt that the Android system as well as Apple's iOS (10.3.3) have been patched up in order to fix a Broadcom wifi chip vulnerability that allowed your phone to be pwned by merely having wifi switched on! [Also bear in mind only a tiny minority of Android users actually have access to this patch. This is one of the core reasons I am firmly on the iOS side of the smartphone equation.]
My point here is not whether you want to let Roomba's maker have access to your floor plan, but whether you want to let your Roomba have access to the internet in the first place. I argue you shouldn't; nor, for that matter, should you let your run of the mill "smart TV" connect to the internet, because these are clearly a weak security link. If you do want to enjoy smart TV features, do so through well supported and patched up devices such as an Apple TV or a PlayStation 4.

Bottom line is, letting Roomba file a report on your floor plan is but one of many tiny steps each of us is taking, knowingly or unknowingly, towards the loss of control over our privacy. I am suggesting here that before we lose such control we need to make proper cost/benefit analysis. At this stage, at least, the benefits for us are theoretical at best while the risks, some lesser and some worse, are very much there.
I therefore recommend a conservative approach to one's privacy.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Drive Me to the Moon

I will start this post by asking you to spend an hour of your time watching this video featuring a guy you probably never heard of as he explains why the self driving electric car is just around the corner. And that all other forms of cars are d-o-o-m-e-d.
Thank me later!
[I will, however, credit @decryption for pointing me at this video through The Sizzle: a daily email of Australian flavoured tech news that I highly recommend.]

Welcome back!
I agree, I think the guy's a way bit too optimistic (?) in his appraisal of the situation. If only because of the way he uses the case of Australian solar panels to drive his point, in contrast to my personal familiarity with the energy market in Australia. Or the fact that Germany has learnt alternative energy sources still offer no good options when it comes to heating.
No doubt your brain is now busy digesting the potential implications of these self driving electric cars the guy was talking about. These are vast: it's not just that there is no point in owning a car anymore when one can call up one at a moment's whim. Nor is it just the fact that the absence of ape driven cars (a term I first heard from Sam Harris) will see hundreds of thousands of us humans staying alive each year instead of die or find ourselves maimed through traffic accidents.
There are implications on work, for a start. Some 20%-25% of us work in driving or other vehicle/transport related jobs that would become moot once the self driving electric car prevails. From car mechanics whose skills will no longer be required to motels that will no longer find clientele once truck drivers get the chop, society will be hit by one big hammer during the next decade.
Potential social collapses aside, I found myself fantasising about another aspect. I was thinking where I would like to find myself in this near future transport fantasy, and it occurred to me what I would like the most is a self driving electric caravan.
Think about it. You climb up to your caravan as it picks you up from work on a Friday arvo in Melbourne and order it to take you to Sydney. You spend your night in the caravan, playing video games and such, stopping for dinner somewhere along the way. Then you go to bed. In your own bed.
You wake up to a nice Sydney morning, parked right next to a top cafe, but you find yourself craving warmer weather still. No fuss; the caravan will gladly take you all the way up to Byron Bay while you do not need to care less about all the traffic going in and out of Sydney.
And so on and so on. Seriously, the only caveat I see in this dream of mine is to do with the fact that modern day caravans still haven't sorted out the toilets problem: you still need to connect to external water in order to have a proper shower, and worse, you still need to manually empty your toilet if you use the one built in to your caravan (gross!). It sounds silly, I know, but it appears humanity shall have self driving electric caravans long before this plumbing problem is solved.
Allow me to therefore ignore toilet issues and point out that, under the assumption no [other] significant unforeseen hurdle lies in this dream of mine, the invention of the self driving electric car could have significant implications on the entire housing market and our very basic understanding of this thing we commonly refer to as "home".