Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Privacy: A Fine Balance

I'm currently at the Royal Society's "Privacy: A Fine Balance" conference, a DTI-sponsored shindig for eggheads, ubergeeks, cash grabbers and Home Office/defence industry control bureaucrats to thrash out digital rights issues. First speaker is Stephen Hailes of UCL, who's talking about embedded computing. He says that we need to realise that statistically, most multicellular life is insects - and it's the same with computing. 90 per cent of processors are microcontrollers - there are seven billion on the things on earth, rather more than there are people. And now they are getting networked.

As an example, he points to a device including a 250Kbits/s IEEE802.15.4 transceiver, a microcontroller, and a dab of Flash memory - a complete computer - the size of a one euro coin. But things get really interesting when you look at actuators. Karl Marx said that philosophers had analysed the world in different ways, but the point was to change it - which is what they do. "You can have a glucose sensor and an insulin pump connected by a wireless network - there are some interesting security implications from that. And it's not the future - here's the product," says Hailes.

"Fear of loss of control, the increased possibility of surveillance, profiling and security risks, new opportunities for crime, and the complexity of decision making processes within embedded systems" are the main concerns Hailes' research has raised. "Individuals are completely transparent - they feel they are not in control of these technologies but are controlled by the circuits in the car they buy from Ford. The power structures tend to be opaque."

MIT researchers gathered data on 100 students using Nokia 6600 phones and Bluetooth. Based on the lunchtime state of the database, it was possible to predict their activities for the rest of the day with 79% confidence - and their social group affiliations with 96%.

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