Security Is Draining Down The Plughole Of Privacy

Little by little we are giving up our privacy and with it security ebbs away without us realising what we are losing, warns Eric Doyle

Erosion of privacy is eating into our security and a principle source is the little device that many find indispensible – the smartphone. Metropeople clutching their mobiles, like Gollum gripping his “precious”, are now legion.

In the early days, mobile phones were more of an irritation to others than to the user. The old “brick” phones were plonked on restaurant tables as an ostentatious display of wealth, making Filofaxes look so passé.

With mobility comes great responsibility

As the phones reduced in size, voice pollution became the big annoyance as people bellowed responses to unheard correspondents. Many is the journey I have taken to the accompaniment of someone rollicking a provider of a service for not delivering, or spouses rowing with their invisible partners.

Now it is descending into privacy breaches. I have  heard people giving private details, such as complete credit card details, as they communicate in that cone of silence they imagine surrounds them when they disappear into the depths of a phone conversation.

Now we have two more potential leaks – vociferous personal assistants and location services.

Siri, the first true personal assistant, is an amazing app on the iPhone. It mixes straightforward diary event reminders with quite complex reasoning that allows a degree of artificial intelligence. Asking if you need an umbrella today will get the phones digital synapses crackling  to make the links between umbrella, rain and weather reports.

All very clever but people are idiots who, unlike Siri, forget things. Things, in this case, being forgetting to turn the voice off. Let’s face it, most people have embarrassed themselves by leaving their phones turned on only to have their ringtone sound at an inopportune moment. Conferences, television interviews, weddings and funerals have all been tarnished by unmuted MP3 interruptions.

At some point Siri, or its Android equivalent Iris (see what they did there?), will blurt out some secret in public: “You have an appointment at the special clinic in twenty minutes”.

Worse still: “Don’t forget to get Miriam a present for her birthday” followed by a swift battering from a wife whose name is obviously not Miriam and a night in the doghouse.

Privacy’s swings and whereabouts

Apart from time, Siri works on location. “Remind me to get a bunch of flowers when I get near my house”. And iCloud, a key part of iOS 5 functionality almost demands the use of location if the user wants to take advantage of apps such as “Find My Phone” or “Find My Friends”.

Once you cave in and decide that these apps are useful, you are at Apple’s mercy – or any other service provider. As the iCloud terms and conditions specify: “To provide such features or services, where available, Apple and its partners and licensors must collect, use, transmit, process and maintain your location data, including the real-time geographic location of your device, and you hereby agree and consent to Apple’s and its partners’ and licensors’ collection, use, transmission, processing and maintenance of such location data to provide such services.”

To think that only weeks ago this was a hot topic for debate and now it seems to be an acceptable requirement.

So apart from the unwary letting those nearby know intimate details of their lives, their location will be traceable and that kind of information will attract the attention of the police forces of the world.

Bit by bit the wall of privacy is being chipped away. It is a fool who says, “Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.” Tell that to the Jews who almost overnight went from being acceptable members of society to being considered an evil that should be eliminated in Nazi Germany.

In a prescient moment Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”