JUNE 24, 2012, 11:00 AM
Shields for Privacy in a Smartphone World
JUNE 24, 2012, 11:00 AM
By NICK BILTON
Listen very carefully to me: Don’t look up. You are being watched.
That stranger, sitting across from you, although it looks like he is talking on his smartphone, is actually snapping pictures of you using a paparazzi-like app.
That’s not all. At that breakfast meeting last week, when you made that snide joke about your boss, your co-worker’s smartphone, innocuously sitting on the table, was recording everything you said.
Later that evening, at that restaurant, when you made an innocent, flirty joke to the server, someone recorded video of the entire interaction.
There is nothing you can do to stop any of it. Hundreds of millions of active smartphones in the world mean hundreds of millions of recording devices ready to capture your every move or utterance. Then, it is just as easy to catapult these photos, recordings or videos onto the Internet for all to share.
So how can it be stopped? Either someone invents that invisibility cloak from the Harry Potter movies, or companies will have to take a cue from James Bond movies and develop counter-surveillance products that allow us to move about without worry in public.
It could be the companies that have created these technologies that help protect us from them. For example, late last year Apple patented a technology that can disable an iPhone camera, using infrared sensors, when it is pointed at a concert stage or movie theater. It was created to prevent music or movie piracy.
But this product could be useful to regular people, too.
Todd Morris, founder and chief executive of BrickHouse Security, a surveillance and counterspy company, said some limited technologies existed today to help protect people from being recorded. For example, women can use the SpyFinder camera detector in dressing rooms to detect if a secret camera is hidden among a pile of clothes. (Creepy, but it happens — check the Internet.)
Yet there are limits. A dressing room or an office is a lot different than a large crowded space. Disabling a phone camera in a crowd using something like the Apple technology would be a nuisance to the innocents who are taking pictures of friends or landmarks. The Federal Communications Commission has long frowned on devices that jam radio signals from cellphones.
“Short of wearing a stocking over your head, or a fake mustache, there isn’t a way for someone in a crowd to inconspicuously avoid having pictures taken of them,” Mr. Morris said. “In these instances we will have to use technology to fight technology at the server level by creating algorithms that say ‘Do not post this picture of me on Google.’ ”
If companies can tag people on the Internet by recognizing their face or voice, they should be able to un-tag them just as easily, too.
A day when everyone is Big Brother will dawn as people start wearing Google glasses, or a slew of competing augmented reality spectacles, that throw the Web up on a lens and also record the world.
Tony Fadell, founder and chief executive of Nest Labs, which makes smart thermostats, said cloaking devices would become available to protect people’s privacy. What he called audio cloaks could be a hat that rains down white noise from above, garbling any possibility of recording someone’s chatter. Cloaking images, however, is going to be much more difficult, he said.
Other counter-recording technologies could be hidden in a necklace that shoots out infrared light and blurs pictures taken in your direction; or a radarlike watch that vibrates when an audio recorder is active nearby. Much of the monitoring will come from governments that hope to deter criminal activity by monitoring us, says David D. Cole, a professor of law at Georgetown University who specializes in constitutional law and national security. Government sees tremendous possibilities in technology, said Mr. Cole, “that allows it to detect crime and wrongdoing more efficiently and more effectively.” In response, companies will have an incentive to create technologies that protect citizens from their government and deter officials from documenting our every movement.
“If you think about speed guns on the highway, there were detectors developed that you can put in your car to detect patrolmen,” Mr. Cole said. Detectors, I hasten to add, that many states just as quickly declared illegal to use. The government won’t take kindly to cloaking and jamming devices. But people might.
Mr. Cole said: “I think one of the great problems of our time, is how is our right to privacy — which is so integral to our democracy — preserved in the face of technology?”