Exclusive: Hundreds Of Devices Hidden Inside New York City Phone Booths

From The Intercept I followed a link to a Buzzfeed Exclusive: Hundreds Of Devices Hidden Inside New York City Phone Booths. Buzzfeed found that the company that manages the advertising surrounding New York phone booths had installed beacons that could interact with apps on smartphones as the passed by. The beacons are made by Gimbal which claims to have “the world’s largest deployment of industry-leading Bluetooth Smart beacons…” The Buzzfeed article describes what information can be gathered by these beacons:

Gimbal has advertised its “Profile” service. For consumers who opt in, the service “passively develops a profile of mobile usage and other behaviors” that allow the company to make educated guesses about their demographics “age, gender, income, ethnicity, education, presence of children”, interests “sports, cooking, politics, technology, news, investing, etc”, and the “top 20 locations where [the] user spends time home, work, gym, beach, etc..”

The image above is from Buzzfeed who got it from Gimbal and it illustrates how Gimbal is collecting data about “sightings” that can be aggregated and mined both by Gimbal and by 3rd parties who pay for the service. Apple is however responsible for an important underlying technology, iBeacon. If you want the larger picture on beacons and the hype around them see the BEEKn site (which is about “beacons, brands and culture on the Internet of Things) or read about Apple’s iBeacon technology. I am not impressed with the use cases described. They are mostly about advertisers telling us (without our permission) about things on sale. They can be used for location specific (very specific) information like the Tulpenland (tulip garden) app but outdoors you can do this with geolocation. A better use would be indoors for museums where GPS doesn’t work as Prophets Kitchen is doing for the Rubens House Antwerp Museum though the implementation shown looks really lame (multiple choice questions about Rubens!). The killer app for beacons has yet to appear, though mobile payments may be it.

What is interesting is that the Intercept article indicates that users don’t appreciate being told they are being watched. It seems that we only mind be spied on when we are personally told that we are being spied on, but that may be an unwarranted inference. We may come to accept a level of tracking as the price we pay for cell phones that are always on.

In the meantime New York has apparently ordered the beacons removed, but they are apparently installed in other cities. Of course there are also Canadian installations.


The Cult of Sharing

Mike Bulajewski has written an excellent critique of the The Cult of Sharing. He describes the way ideas of community and sharing are being exploited by a new type of cult-like company like Airbnb and Uber. Under the guise of sharing and building community these companies are bypassing employment and labor legislation. What’s worse is that they are painting basic labor rights as the outdated way of doing things.

That’s because they’ve adopted a kind of cultural critique of capitalism. For them, the problem with capitalism is not the system itself, but rather depraved contemporary Western culture, which is greedy, individualistic, selfish and acquisitive, and rewards greedy, corrupt, ill-intentioned individuals. The opponents of the so-called culture of greed see the behavior of Black Friday shoppers and Wall Street bankers as equal manifestations of the same general phenomenon, and perhaps believing that we get the leaders we deserve, conclude that the public’s moral flaws makes them in some way responsible for the greed of Wall Street.

The sharing economy is clearly not the kind of economy where wealth and prosperity is shared between rich and poor. On the contrary, it worsens income inequality and concentrates wealth in the hands of those who need it the least. Progressive advocates are well aware of this, but they also see an upside: these startups teach their workers moral lessons about sharing, community, giving and service with a smile.

I’m not sure this is going to be the problem Bulajewski thinks it will be, but he has me worried. I hope that that shine of sharing will wear off and consumers/sharers will begin to treat this as any other industry. I also think the media will soon start reporting the downside of staying on someone’s couch or getting a ride with someone who isn’t licensed. It’s like the internet, which we all thought was a nice sharing community, until it wasn’t.

Weaponizing the Digital Humanities

Jan Christoph Meister has posted a blog about Weaponizing the Digital Humanities. His entry comes from an exchange we had, first around the paper about stylistics to psychologically profile people. (See my conference report on DH2014.) After the session we ended up talking with someone probably from the intelligence community. It is a bit startling to realize that we merit attention, if that is what it is. Certainly research on recognition of typing patterns might be of interest, but it is hard to imagine what else would be of interest.

The other side of intelligence interest in our field is our interest in surveillance. What can we learn from the intelligence agencies and the techniques they develop? I’m certainly intrigued by what they might have been able to do. What responsibilities do we have to engage the ethical and interpretative issues raised by Snowden’s revelations. My blog entry Interpreting the CSEC Presentation: Watch Out Olympians in the House! would be a attempt to interpret Snowden documents – perhaps paleography of the documents.

Meister rightly opens the ethical issue of whether our organization should have a code of ethics that touches on how our research is used. We have a code of conduct, should it extend to issues of surveillance? The humanist in me asks how other fields in the humanities have dealt with the sudden military application of their research. There was/is an issue around the involvement of anthropologists and sociologists in Petagon-funded projects.