Monday, November 15, 2010

Facebook "privacy," smart cars, and personal drones

Four links on three unrelated topics:

1. Privacy on Facebook (not): 

(a) The New York Times reported on October 22 that the capacity of Facebook to allow marketers to connect with very specific groups of people ("say, golf players in Illinois who make more than $150,000 a year and vacation in Hawaii") can inadvertently allow those marketers to learn sensitive personal information that Facebook claims it keeps confidential.

(b) Francis Harvey (to whom my thanks) sent me a link to a November 4 article about Air Force efforts to warn "Facebook users of a new location-based application that may pose a security risk because it publicises users' locations without their specific consent." As usual, the application is on by default, meaning that Facebook users must adjust their privacy settings manually.

2. Better software in cars. Francis Harvey (thanks again!) also alerted me to an October 15 press release from McMaster University announcing a major initiative to develop advanced software for use in automobiles. Cars already have multiple computer chips running thousands of lines of code, and the possibility of errors or malfunctions to cause trouble - including fatal trouble - is growing. New approaches to developing software are needed to address these challenges.

3. Military software for the masses. A breezy article brought to my attention by Don Searing (again, thanks!) entitled "Celebs beware! New Pandora's box of 'personal' drones that could stalk anyone from Brangelina to your own child" touches on potentially serious developments. Small flying drones (measuring about 3 feet from tip-to-tip of its helicopter-like blades) are being used by U.K. police who pilot the drones using software developed by the U.S. military. If the past is prologue, we can expect ever-cheaper drones over the next few years becoming affordable to corporations, then small businesses, then to merely well-off individuals, who will be able to use them to spy on - anyone. Presumably it will be rare for inexpensive drones outfitted with weapons to be sold to the general public, but the cunning people who brought us the Improvised Explosive Devices that have killed and maimed so many people in Afghanistan and Iraq must be salivating over the possibilities already.

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Stage Set for Showdown on Online Privacy"

This New York Times article (November 9, 2010) describes a potential clash between the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Commerce Department over regulating online privacy.

Apparently the FTC's stance is pro-privacy (a.k.a., pro-consumer, pro-individual, pro-people) while the Commerce Department's stance is pro-business.

The FTC is thinking about requiring a "do not track" feature, much like the "do not call" lists that many Americans gratefully started using a few years ago to cut down - nearly eliminate, in my experience - telemarketing calls. The Internet equivalent would allow users to opt out of being tracked, presumably either one Web site at a time or globally. I'd like to see this implemented. There are sites where I appreciate being tracked;, for example, gives me useful suggestions by tracking my preferences over time, and wisely or foolishly I trust Amazon with that information.

The argument from business and the Commerce Department will be that such protections are too costly and will slow economic expansion. Some would characterize this as a battle between individual rights and commercial greed. I don't attribute greed to corporations; they are intended to make money and are generally well-designed to do so. It would be foolish of them not to argue their point. But I hope privacy wins out.

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

Monday, November 8, 2010

Robot hands, robot guards

Two snippets on robots:
  • An article in ScienceNOW (Oct. 25, 2010) describes a new robotic "hand" that can pour the contents of a glass into a mug and draw a square with a pen. The hand has no fingers. It's a "thin rubber sack filed with coffee grains or small glass spheres." When its flexible surface is pushed onto an object, a pipe in the hand's "wrist" sucks out some air, and voilĂ ! the sack contracts and can lift the object. There's a nice video to illustrating its use. This hand is another example of how imitating humans might not be the best way to design robots - mimicking the human hand has not been very successful so far.
  • An article in the New York Times (Nov. 3, 2010) describes the increasing appeal (and decreasing cost) of using toy robots that can be remotely controlled via the Internet to keep an eye on one's home. The robots are relatively inexpensive and typically can move around the house and send sights and sounds to the remote user. The Times article mentions the entertainment value of these robots, but emphasizes their use as a security system. To me, they look more like an insecurity system; our family, at least, would feel more anxious going out of town leaving a robot behind that we could use to check on our house. We can't check it now, so we don't think about it. Make it possible to check for trouble and we'll frequently think about trouble. I'll pass.
Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director