Privacy week prompts vendors to defend IT

ICT vendors accentuate the positive, blame the users

It was supposed to be a discussion on privacy – part of Privacy Awareness Week last week in Wellington – but the audience and moderator Diane Edwards had to work to keep that focus.

Presenters, all from technology vendors and developers, seemed concerned chiefly to show the upside of such technologies as smart phones, RFID and global positioning systems.

New technology is “just a tool”, says Mark Anderson of global business systems at IBM, whose theme was the potential of nanotechnology. New privacy concerns, he says, arise from the way people use the technology and from the human motivations of those people rather than from the technology itself.

A member of the audience pointed to digital rights management as a technology that of itself generates new possibilities of obstruction, to what has previously been a freedom to copy sound and video recordings – including obstruction to legal copying. Street surveillance cameras, he says, represents a quantum change in the balance of privacy out of their inherent capability. Technology will be used “because it can”.

Putting a positive gloss on technological determinism, Vodafone M2M (machine-to-machine communication) manager Grant Fisher spoke of technology “leading the charge” and providing “a fantastic new sandpit” for developers to play in.

With M2M solutions the telco “only provides the transport”, he says. Accountability for faulty or malicious applications rests with the provider of the application and the user who trusts the provider’s brand.

Vodafone is promoting a “Privacy by Design” philosophy with its application developers, Fisher says.

With developments such as Apple’s AppStore, one delegate stated that we have ceded control over online applications to anonymous developers in bedrooms across the world. A strong message to exercise more caution over downloads is needed, speakers agreed.

We do need to stimulate public debate on privacy consequences, says Anderson, particularly as many technology applications may be with us for a long time and ill-equipped to react rapidly to late changes in policy positions.

Asked for a figure of IBM’s spending on dealing with privacy concerns, Anderson says, “I don’t have the number and I probably wouldn’t have permission to quote it if I did. We run [privacy] training; IBM has a lot of work going on in understanding these issues and encouraging an ethical perspective on them. My short answer is ‘significant’.”

He expresses faith in the US law with which IBM has to comply to prevent it selling technology that would be abused by dictatorial regimes.

Antony Dixon of RFID specialist Times-7 spoke on RFID use in recording the performance of cycle racers and tracking luggage through airliners and airports. The audience again expressed concerns that RFID chips could be abused to store more than the expected information.

Jim Whitman from the Privacy Commissioner’s office suggested signage outlining the use and limitations of RFID labels might be appropriate, but Dixon said this in itself could generate needless fear.

Other cautions expressed during the session included well-meaning collection of electricity consumption information that could signal a user leaves home every Thursday night, and automated visual recognition of vehicle types and registration plates telling potential burglars where the owners of expensive cars live.

Web maps of heat emission from homes and businesses, shown by British scientist Andy Hopper (Forum, February 2) made a reappearance.

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