Thwarting Big Brother

As you know, our society is rapidly moving toward a dystopian future of mass surveillance, where every step you take and purchase you make and everywhere you drive and everyone you call and everything you eat and breathe and think is logged, categorized, and stored. Or at least it sometimes feels that way. But is it possible to take some of this control back? Here's one attempt as Technology Review tells us:

A new app notifies people when an Android smartphone app is tracking their location, something not previously possible without modifying the operating system on a device, a practice known as "rooting."

The new technology comes amid new revelations that the National Security Agency seeks to gather personal data from smartphone apps (see "How App Developers Leave the Door Open to NSA Surveillance"). But it may also help ordinary people better grasp the extent to which apps collect and share their personal information. Even games and dictionary apps routinely track location, as collected from a phone’s GPS or global positioning system sensors.

Existing Android interfaces do include a tiny icon showing when location information is being accessed, but few people notice or understand what it means, according to a field study done as part of a new research project led by Janne Lindqvist, an assistant professor at Rutgers University. Lindqvist’s group created an app that puts a prominent banner across the top of the app saying, for example, "Your location is accessed by Dictionary." The app is being readied for Google Play, the Android app store, within two months.

I think this could be a real growth area for entrepreneurs clever enough to exploit it, and it goes way beyond smartphone apps. The key will be to do it in ways that are easy to use and understand. Right now you can protect yourself from online surveillance, but it requires some knowledge and work, and most people just decide it's too much of a hassle. You need to know what you're doing to root your Android phone, so only a small number of people would ever consider it.

But each new development in surveillance technology provides an opportunity to create products to thwart it. When face recognition cameras become ubiquitous, someone may make a hell of a lot of money selling fashionable masks for people to wear so they can walk the streets anonymously. Of course, at some point the government might decide that makes you a potential terrorist and make them illegal, kind of like they did with radar detectors. But anti-technology technology could be the next big thing.

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