Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Some legal issues with FON

This week Fortune magazine has an article about FON being the new way of peer-to-peer wireless connectivity, but there are a couple of things to consider before start uncorking champagne. The first obvious thing to say is that the idea is not new and that it has been around for a while, but this time is getting global and big money funding. But the real issue is whether we are not in front of another Napster case: somebody gets a brilliant idea and puts it to work before the regulatory environment is ready for it (or without considering the legal implications). It can be argued that the Argentinean businessman, always introduced as Spanish, Martin Varsavsky is not a neophyte as Shawn Fanning was, but still there are some causes for concern. For example, in the UK it can be argued that by allowing other people to connect to Internet using its wireless router, a user is establishing a electronic communications network and/or service, which will require a registration under the Communications Act 2003. In the same manner, although case by case need to be studied, it seems quite unlikely that ISPs will allow their users to share the connection so other company makes a profit. On top of that, who will bear responsibility/liability if the visitor misuses the connection?
The idea is very good, but it seems again that some of the IT pioneers and investors keep thinking that this is an area where regulation does not exist or the already the existing ones don't apply to "new" business models, or they know far more than us... Anyway, if the model is successful, we will have to wait and see whether will complement or compete with some of the proposed city-wide wireless networks.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Computing scholars and other people's privacy

The New York Times reports on the release of AOL's "three months 'worth of users' query logs to a publicly accessible Web site late last month" and the reactions of some scholars of computer science and linguistics. It seems from the article that most of them think that privacy concerns are secondary to their needs of carrying out research. What it even more worrying (actually appalling came to my mind) is that these are not people ignorant about the privacy they might be breaching; they acknowledge that they might feel uncomfortable, but that they might use the data anyway. Then, taking into account that we are talking about people who are in top-level universities and real specialists in data retrieval, the claim that the person who released the data "didn't anticipate that this kind of data could be used to track down individuals" is simply ludicrous. Obvioulsy AOL didn't believe him because he was fired (but we only have to wait to see if any of these concerned scholars offer him some post or fellowship, which of course will be unrelated to his release of the data for which they have been craving for ten years).
Since one of the scholars named in the article use his own life-experience example to justify the use of the data, I will use mine to explain why it must no be used (and should have never been released). Some years ago I was in Japan and the university in which I was doing my postgraduate studies was conducting a survey that implied giving opinions about several academic topics, administrators and faculty. The survey was designed to be very anonymous, but only if you were Japanese, single, studied one of the classic degrees and were between 18 and 25 years old. No matter how many fields I tried to left blank, any combination of them would identify me. It can be argued that the problem is that I am too different from the "normal" Japanese university student, but as far as I remember, the right to be or think different is part of what makes Western democracies be what they are.
The problems with online raw data are even worse, because context is rapidly lost or forgotten. Now lets imagine that you are a scholar who is carrying out research on online pornography, and that you use your AOL account to do some of your research at home. Try to explain that in ten years time when you are trying to become the dean of your school and somebody discover your night's habits. Or you are a 18 years old kid that does like to watch pornography every night and in fifteen years time plans to become member of the city council...
I think that those elite universities in the USA should start reviewing the curriculum and put more emphasis on ethics while handing out degrees in sciences that might have and impact on other peoples lives...

Monday, August 07, 2006

The return of the Black Box

The Sunday Times published yesterday that several insurance companies are launching policies whereas they install "black boxes" into their customers' cars, these devices monitor their usage and the insurance premium are charged according to the type/time of use. These policies are supposed to reduce the premiuns paid by customers. The same type of scheme was tried in the US and was scrapped due to high cost and that the technology was not ripe. However, once the black box is installed, there are many other uses that can be made of it, uses that raise concern about customers' privacy. Taking into account the new powers of the police (and the way they are used, as for example with the tracking of Oyster Card's users) and the faciltiy with companies can change the conditions of use only giving the consumers the option to cancel the service, the privacy issues that this development raises in England and far more than worrying.