Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pimped by our own devices: electronica, the cloud, and privacy piracy

It's been quite a year for technology "advances" -- particularly in the neighborhood of cloud and social media services, whether free or cheap.

Apple released its iCloud service in October of last year. iCloud enables users to store music on Apple-run servers and access their collection on as many Apple-flavored devices as they care to own, from iPods to iPhones to iPads to ... well you get the picture. iCloud also enables users to sychronize e-mail, contact, calendar data, and other digital ephemera between Apple devices.

E-mail and other messaging in the cloud is old news -- think Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail -- heck, AOL for that matter, or even The WELL -- but Google is expanding its incursion into synchronization-space by bringing its Chrome browser -- now the #1 ranked browser in the world -- and Google Chrome Sync to iOS devices (a.k.a. iThings). Chrome and it sync features are already available on Windows computers, MacOS computers, and Android mobile devices.

Nexus 7 is the 7" tablet announced by Google last month and available today if you can find inventory. The Big G hopes to use Nexus 7 to make a dent in iPad dominance of the tablet market. Indeed, the device looks pretty neat.

Casey Johnston reviewed the Nexus 7 very favorably for ars technica the week before last. On offer for $199 or $249, depending on storage capacity, the price looks astonishingly low, especially compared to iPrices.

How is this possible? As Johnston writes, "Google has freely admitted that it's selling the Nexus 7 at cost, and is absorbing marketing costs."

Why would Google do this? Johnston again:
Two things are going to supplement Google's Nexus 7 foray: to a large extent, the data it will cull from usage to power its ever-growing ad network, and to a lesser extent, content. The Kindle Fire's monetary viability was built largely on the same blocks, though the emphasis was reversed. Google has already been monetizing with both tools through its Android phones for a few years (now 50 percent of all smartphones in the US, from which Google makes no money directly). A tablet for $199 with no contract strings attached could well reach a new and wide audience to power Google's algorithms.
Not to mention the data culling power fueled by and powering Google Now. More on that in a moment: no Now now, hang on just a few more paragraphs.

Before we get to Now, let's recognize there's a common denominator to all these cloudy, socially networked offerings. That would be the targeted-advertising denominator, the very same tech company characteristic that allowed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman to rake in nearly $20bn in an IPO that was more broadly considered a "flop."

The common denominator envelope please. Ahem:
You want something for free? Okay. Tell us about yourself.
On Facebook we tell Zuckerberg and company all about what and who we like.

When we use webmail, everything we write to everyone is mined to augment the host company's databanks on who we are and what we care about.

When we sync our devices through a cloud service provider, every single piece of information that moves from one of the devices we own to another of the devices we own passes through a server that somebody else owns -- Apple in the case of iCloud; Google in the case of Google Chrome Sync (this in addition to whatever the government is up to, including but probably not limited to the National Security Agency's massive data sniffing filters).

When I write "every single piece of information that moves from one of the devices we own to another of the devices we own" I mean it. Every single piece.

Including passwords.

Yeah, yeah, they're encrypted, says Google, as do the iOS password syncing app makers, etc., etc. -- so in theory you won't see your secrets exposed as we saw happen to millions of LinkedIn and Yahoo passwords in just the past couple of months.

Not to worry, right?

Yet some do worry. In a year when Google made major privacy policy changes, and then Facebook went through another round of privacy policy changes as it rolled out the new "a complete summary of your entire life since birth," a.k.a. Timeline, quite a few seem to be worrying. Just this week the SF Chronicle reported, in Facebook down, Google+ up with customers:
Changes Facebook has made to its user experience, such as Timeline, along with concerns over privacy have brought down the social network's consumer satisfaction score, according to a new report.

But there's more. Now let's turn our attention to Google Now, the search giant's answer to the iPhone's talking robosecretary, Siri. As Google explains Google Now:
It tells you today’s weather before you start your day, how much traffic to expect before you leave for work, when the next train will arrive as you’re standing on the platform, or your favorite team's score while they’re playing. And the best part? All of this happens automatically. Cards appear throughout the day at the moment you need them.

How does Google Now know what you need "automatically"? By keeping track of where you are via GPS; by checking your calendar so the device knows where you're going; by knowing what you're interested in as expressed through search and social media, then guessing at what nearby landmarks, commercial establishments, and events correlate to those interests.

Naturally, everything Now knows Google knows. 'Cuz you're synced!

Or ... is it "sunk"?

Peter Maass and Megha Rajagopalan sum up all this data aggregation and what's being done with it in a fine, on-point NY Times article of 13 July: That's Not My Phone. That's My Tracker.
Thanks to the explosion of GPS technology and smartphone apps, these devices are also taking note of what we buy, where and when we buy it, how much money we have in the bank, whom we text and e-mail, what Web sites we visit, how and where we travel, what time we go to sleep and wake up — and more. Much of that data is shared with companies that use it to offer us services they think we want.
I wrote ten days ago that new discoveries about the bacteria that live on and in our bodies mean we are, effectively, a teeming zoo enclosed in a bag of skin.

Perhaps an inverse of that way of seeing ourselves is to note that our electronica externalizes our inner and private lives, pimping our thoughts, curiosity, whereabouts, and relationships to corporations and governments that use this information to manipulate and control us.

Yuck.

When I first caught wind of Google's Nexus 7 I thought maybe it was finally time to jump into the tablet game. Now I don't believe it is.

Why would I pay a couple hundred bucks to subsidize a pimp looking over my shoulder every minute of every hour of every device-enabled day?



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Four eyes: 4 ways Google Glass might change the world
Facebook fizzle
Google everything: technology in our times
Moving one's life to the cloud

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