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Category Archives: privacy

Government has its head in the sand with privacy

Conservative leader and Canada's Prime Minister Harper pauses while speaking during a campaign stop at an automobile parts factory in Brampton

There’s stubborn, and then there’s Canada’s federal government.

The steadfast refusal by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Justice Minister Peter MacKay to listen to reason when it comes to Bill C-13, their proposed cyber-bullying privacy legislation, is really quite astounding. They’re like the figurative donkeys that refuse to budge, which might be funny if the rights of the entire country weren’t at stake.

C-13, properly known as the “Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act,” has been roundly criticized since its introduction last year for being too broad. While few pundits have disagreed with its supposed intent – the outlawing of cyber-bullying – the proposed legislation also covers all manner of unrelated activities, from stealing cable signals to wire taps.

The most contentious part of the bill is that it would give immunity to telecom service providers when they hand over subscriber information to security agencies and polices forces. With customers having no legal recourse against those companies in such situations, the already voluminous extent to which they are sharing this information will certainly increase dramatically. Read the rest of this entry »

 
 

Watch Dogs’ timeliness: is it luck or genius?

watch-dogs

Tuesday is a big day for video gamers as the long-awaited hacker thriller Watch Dogs finally hits stores. If the record pre-sale orders are anything to go by, the latest blockbuster from Ubisoft Montreal will doubtlessly be one of the biggest global releases of the year. Oh, it also might be helped by the fact that it’s an excellent game – check out my full review over at TheGlobeandMail.com.

As I mention there, Watch Dogs captures the zeitgeist of our era perhaps better than any other video game in recent memory. At a time when angst over security and government spying on civilians is at an all-time high, a game about the perils of having everything interconnected hits perfectly. It’s an amazing sign of prescience by Ubisoft developers, who started working on Watch Dogs six years ago, well before anyone had heard of Edward Snowden.

The protagonist is Aiden Pearce, a street thug turned hacker who is betrayed by his underworld colleagues. As a master hacker, Pearce can do just about anything with his smartphone – he can empty out innocent bystanders’ bank accounts, control the trains and traffic lights of the city and eavesdrop on conversations happening in private residences. He can enrich himself or set his enemies up for big falls, all with just a couple of apps on his phone.

Over the course of the past year, I interviewed some of the core developers behind the game on several occasions. It was interesting to see how their thinking and confidence levels about Watch Dogs‘ subject matter evolved, especially as the Snowden revelations unfolded starting last summer.

“We were looking at where the world was going,” lead writer Kevin Shortt told me a year ago, recalling the first creative meetings on the game back in 2008. “We were all in a room having a meeting and we all put our phones down on the table. We were all very aware of how connected we are. That was what interested us: how far are we going with all this connectivity?”

There was angst at the time about the promise and peril of uber-connectivity, but it still existed as something of an abstract concept.

“I don’t think we want to come away saying it’s a bad thing, we want to come away saying what does that mean for us?” Shortt said of the game.

Senior producer Dominic Guay also said at the time that the team’s confidence in what they were doing grew steadily as many of the topics they were covering became more and more commonplace in the real world.

“We saw it through development as confirmed, where every day I’m getting new emails from researchers about how technology being comprised or hacked somewhere else,” he said.

The first Snowden revelations broke just a few weeks after those conversations. I talked to Guay a few months later and his demeanour had changed. At the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, he found that he had to explain how interconnected everything was and why that might be a problem. A year later at the same event, the team was almost jubilant that they had been on the right path.

“[Snowden] made it a lot easier. We don’t have to explain what we’re talking about anymore,” he told me in March. “Most people have an opinion about it, which is awesome. That’s even better. It made our game more relevant.”

Call it luck or call it smarts – either way, Watch Dogs may turn out to be the most talked about game of the year since it turns the spotlight on a very real-world issue, which is unusual for a genre that often deals in space aliens and dragons.

The funny thing is, even though Guay and his colleagues have been knee-deep in creating a world where the downside of current technology is readily exploited by bad guys, he’s still optimistic about it in the end.

“The promise is outweighing the peril, otherwise we wouldn’t all be using those devices. We wouldn’t all be so ready to jump on our PC to simplify our lives,” he said. “But we need to talk about the flaws too. I’d be a lot more worried if no one was talking about the flaws. It’s the best way we have to keep our shield up and find our balance.”

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in privacy, ubisoft, video games

 

CEA head Gary Shapiro on NSA, net neutrality

shapiroGary Shapiro is an opinionated individual. But then again, as the president and chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association – a powerful lobby group that represents more than 2,000 technology companies operating in the United States, including Samsung, Microsoft and Apple – he’s supposed to be.

Besides researching industry trends and reporting back on them to its members, the CEA also advocates their views to legislators and regulators. It’s a difficult job given the varying and sometimes conflicting viewpoints of its diverse membership.

Still, members are sometimes united on key policy issues that affect them all, which is something Shapiro speaks about handily. Chief among these concerns right now is the U.S. government’s ongoing abuse of surveillance technology, and its requirements of technology companies to supply information on their customers.

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Telco-abetted spying is perverse on many levels

SurveillanceEven after a few days of digestion, it’s still hard to decide on the most alarming part of this week’s big privacy revelations. In case you missed it, it turns out that Canadian law enforcement agencies are requesting basic subscriber information without a warrant from telecommunications providers on a mass level – in 2011, it was a whopping 1.1 million times. As University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist calculates, that’s one request every 27 seconds. By that math, there will be 10 or so requests made in the time it takes to read this post.

Aside from that big initial number is the equally concerning 785,000: that’s how many times just three companies disclosed the requested information. When all other providers – the ones who didn’t own up to it – are factored in, the total number is doubtlessly higher. As shocking as the enforcement agencies’ demands are, it’s at least equally outrageous that telecom companies are so easily rolling over and coughing up their customers’ data when they are not required to do so. It sure looks like they almost never say “no.”

To this end, the Canadian government is moving to implement Bill C-13, which would give telecom companies immunity from criminal or civil liability for doing exactly this sort of thing. I’m no lawyer, but the fact that such a move is on might suggest that they are indeed liable until such a law is enacted. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on May 2, 2014 in privacy, telecommunications

 

Turkey’s Twitter ban puts VPNs in the spotlight

turkey_twitterIf Tayyip Erdogan didn’t know who Barbra Streisand was before, he sure does now after his efforts to ban Twitter went awry over the weekend. If case you missed it, the Turkish Prime Minister enacted a block of the messaging service on Thursday evening. He hasn’t been a fan of Twitter since someone posted an audio recording of him last month apparently talking about hiding large sums of money. “I don’t care what the international community says at all. Everyone will see the power of the Turkish Republic,” he said in regards to the ban.

Well, the republic doesn’t seem too powerful as Turkish Twitter users quickly figured out how to circumvent the ban by simply changing some of their internet settings. Helpful graffiti even sprung up to advise users on how to do so.

The result: Twitter use in Turkey actually went up over the weekend by an estimated 138 per cent. It’s a textbook case of the Streisand effect, or what happens when someone tries to hide information on the internet (the phenomenon is named after the entertainer’s backfired attempts in 2003 to suppress photos of her house). Erdogan’s ban thus failed in spectacular fashion.

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Posted by on March 24, 2014 in privacy, Twitter

 

2014: Snowden’s NSA revelations blow over

snowdenHeading into 2014, there’s one obvious technological elephant in the room: privacy. Or to explore that euphemism more accurately, the topic that isn’t being discussed is whether people actually want privacy or not.

The answer, which I think we’ll learn in 2014, is “yes, they do,” but with the caveat of “not how we think they do.”

The past year was marked by Edward Snowden’s stunning whistle-blowing on just how much the U.S. National Security Agency, in conjunction with other government organizations around the world, is spying on every-day people. There have already been some repercussions, including large-scale public protests and threats from Europe to block U.S. data-sharing agreements.

Nothing major has happened yet from a policy perspective, with a U.S. judge recently ruling that the NSA’s phone-tapping (at least) is in fact legal. Meanwhile, it’s pretty much business as usual at companies such as Amazon and Google. Lance Ulanoff over at Mashable suggests that if companies and the courts aren’t willing to stop the spying, individuals might start taking matters into their own hands. As he writes, “In 2014, they’ll look for ways to either pull back from social media and smartphone use or use tools that will help shield their activities.” Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2014 in privacy

 

The biggest Canadian tech stories of 2013

Industry Minister James Moore came out swinging this year.

Industry Minister James Moore came out swinging this year.

It was a fun year to watch technology news in Canada. While the events weren’t as wide-reaching or influential as some of the headline-makers in the United States, there was plenty to get excited about – or that was cringe-worthy. Here are the top Canadian tech stories of the past year.

Shopify’s ascent

It’s not every day that Canada sees a genuinely good technology news story, so Shopify’s success is certainly noteworthy. With the e-commerce software company recently announcing a $100 million financing deal with the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, it’s now effectively worth $1 billion. As the Globe and Mail reports, only 39 tech firms have reached that level since 2003 – including Facebook and Twitter.

And in typical Canadian fashion, few Canadians have even heard of Shopify. Given its new lofty status, that is probably going to change in 2014. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in Blackberry, government, media, privacy, telecommunications