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Inside the terrifying new world of digital surveillance, from its latest victim

petraeus email scandalBy now you’ve almost certainly caught the scintillating details of General David Petraeus’ affair, the email messages that blew it wide open, and the ensuing media storm. What you may not have known is that as Director of the CIA, Petraeus was uniquely qualified to know the risks of the digital breadcrumbs he left. In fact, a speech he gave last March at the In-Q-Tel summit warned of just the type of digital surveillance that he was eventually ensnared in.

So maybe you can learn where he could not. Using the General’s own words from his speech, I’m giving you fair warning that your words and actions can be monitored by a growing assortment of new technologies.

“We have to rethink our notions of identity and secrecy,” said General Petraeus at the time. “In the digital world, data is everywhere… Data is created constantly, often unknowingly and without permission.”

So how can you avoid being undone by new high-tech ways to spy on individuals? Here’s a list of potential threats to your privacy.

The Internet is an open book

“The volume of Twitter and YouTube traffic in the continuing unrest in the Middle East offers an idea of what we’re up against,” observed General Petraeus, describing challenges the CIA faces. “At the start of the Arab Spring, there were 2,200 Tweets generated every second—that equals some 190 million Tweets generated each day. And, since the beginning of the Arab Spring, those numbers have risen dramatically.”

But technology has risen to the challenge presented by technology. Big data companies are now able to track what’s happening in these highly chaotic world hot spots, never mind your own little corner of the world. The CIA uses social-media data supplied by Attensity, which itself subscribes to “the full Twitter Firehose.”

Michelle de Haaff, Attensity’s vice president of strategy and corporate development, explains, “We get everything across every language. We are pulling the whole thing. We are able to sense, understand and find signals: sentiments, hot spots, trends, actions, intent.”

She adds, “In Libya, we were able to track everything: where the arms were, where the rebels were moving. We had on a map where everything was going.”

Why did you open your refrigerator twice last night?

“Every byte left behind” in our digital world, warns General Petraeus, “reveals information about location, habits, and, by extrapolation, intent and probable behavior.”

Countless companies and researchers get this, and are figuring out how to mine this information, breaking huge chunks down into digestible pieces.

“Disaggregated end-use energy data promises to transform the way residents, utilities, and policy makers think about and understand how energy is consumed in the home,” wrote the authors of a Pervasive Computing article (PDF). What’s “disaggregated data”? It’s data about all the appliances in your house – or even your plumbing fixtures – broken down so it becomes obvious how and when you used each one.

In a perfect world, this data could help us save energy. But as smart-grid technologies start to gather data from within households, it is plausible that they may someday endeavor to sell such data. For example, an insurance company might like to know about the households in which the refrigerator door opens two or more times during the middle of the night – who wants to insure a midnight snacker who may be a health risk?

surveillance sensors

Counting licensees, I mean people, in the room

The General predicts, “Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters.”

Microsoft got the memo. The company recently filed for a patent application describing a use of cameras – like those in the Kinect – to monitor the number of people in a room and detect whether there are more than the content provider allows. Here’s the exact language from the application: “The users consuming the content on a display device are monitored so that if the number of user-views licensed is exceeded, remedial action may be taken.”

In other words, Microsoft may take attendance in your living room, and sue you if you invite too many people over.

What you don’t know can hurt you

“I’ve found that our technical capabilities often far exceed what you see in Tom Cruise films,” Petraeus ominously noted.

I’m running out of space here, and we’ve barely scratched the surface.

University College London researchers figured out a way to use the Wi-Fi signals in your home as a sort of passive radar system that identifies your movements through the building. Xandem’s synergistic sensing isn’t a factor in your home, but it does allow commercial building owners to install sensors that see through walls, and thus can be completely hidden.

A growing number of police departments now routinely snap photos of the license plates of cars that pass through their communities; much of this data sits unused. But emerging data mining techniques have the potential to turn uninteresting pieces of data (CA55512 passed by point A at 12:01 a.m.) into the story of your life (John Smith goes to Joey’s Bar every Tuesday night, and so does his secretary, Mary Jones).

Let’s let General Petraeus have the last word, and watch out for those new machines.

“Machines in the 19th century learned to do, and those in the 20th century learned to think at a rudimentary level, in the 21st century, they are learning to perceive – to actually sense and respond.”

Bruce Kasanoff is co-author of Smart Customers, Stupid Companies. He helps companies spot new business opportunities through his Race to Make Everything Smart workshop.

[Image source: Disaggregated End-Use Energy Sensing for the Smart Grid by Jon Froehlich, Eric Larson, Sidhant Gupta, Gabe Cohn, Matthew S. Reynolds and Shwetak N. Patel – Pervasive Computing]

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