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Published on Sunday, February 17, 2019

Loss of privacy marks societal change?

I bought a Fitbit a couple of weeks ago. It tells me things I never thought I would want to know. How many steps I’ve taken each day. How many hours I’ve exercised. How many stairs I’ve climbed – 35 floors worth, apparently, the result of living on a steep hill some 300 feet above the lake. 

            And my heartbeat, of course. (At my age, I need constant re-assurance my heart is still beating.) My Fitbit tells how many times it’s beating per minute, right now. Also my average heart rate over the last week. And the highest it went.  

            Each week, Fitbit congratulates me on my progress. So far, I’ve received three award badges. Obviously, my little black wristband relays information to an anonymous computer somewhere.

            I can’t help wondering how many other people also know about my heart rate, my exercise hours, and my sleep habits. 

            Indeed, I would bet that someone, somewhere, can hack into that data and learn more about me than I know myself. (Don’t take that comment as a dare!)


Gathering information…

            As I have written before, nothing is private anymore. 

            Google, for example, collects all kinds of information about me, every time I do a search. And then uses that information to anticipate my interests.

            Several years ago, I searched for some not-so-common light bulbs. Only one company made them. The bulbs themselves cost less than $5 each, but the shipping would have cost over $50. 

            So I didn’t buy any. But for months, every web page I opened included a pop-up ad for that light bulb company. Even if I just wanted to read a magazine or newspaper article. Or to post a Facebook message. Or to view a National Geographic photo feature.

            Clearly, someone was sharing information about me. 


...and spreading it

            You probably didn’t know that a company called Taboola plants billions of ads a day – that’s right, billions every day! -- on other websites. It’s the origin of a story linking NDP leader Jagmeet Singh to a $5.5 million mansion – fraudulent, but blindly repeated by legitimate news media across the country. 

            In March 2018, Cambridge Analytica hit headlines over charges that it had “mined” the personal data of 78 million people from Facebook and other sources to build individual profiles that could be targeted with political messages. 

            Apparently this revelation came as a shock to many people. 

            Where have they been the last 20 years?


User beware

            When you put data, any kind of data, on the internet, you make it available to anyone who wants to read it. Just ask Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia. Consider yourself lucky if you’re sufficiently insignificant that no one bothers digging up your personal dirt.

            I’ve had emails telling me that someone has seized control of my home computer, and can now use its camera and microphone to spy on me, even if I’ve turned the computer off. I don’t believe these threats, but I hung a piece of cardboard over the camera lens anyway. 

            A small flurry erupted in a parliamentary committee last month, over whether the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) had the capability of spying on Facebook messages.

            RBC denies it. Vigorously and emphatically. The Tyee online newspaper published a Facebook report that RBC “had the ability to read, write and delete private messages by Facebook members using its app between 2013 and 2015.” 

            The RBC app -- started in 2013; quietly closed in 2015 -- enabled RBC customers to send person-to-person money transfers over the social media network.

            RBC customers had to approve the Facebook connection, of course. But, again according to The Tyee, “access to messages on Facebook’s platform included those the customer … received from other Facebook users who did not use RBC or consent.”

            In today’s world, every life is an open book.


Beginning, or ending?

            Philosopher Ken Wilber suggests that life is like a circle. Among other similarities, both birth and death are marked by a total lack of privacy. If you’re a baby, people feel free to peer at you, handle you, talk about you as if you weren’t there. Someone feeds you, bathes you, makes decisions for you, and wipes your bum.

            The same for the very old. 

            If Wilber is right, does our collective loss of privacy imply that our civilization is coming to an end? Or is does it herald some emerging pattern of life that we can’t even imagine yet?


Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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I got lots of flak over last week’s column. The first and strongest letter, unfortunately, refused permission to quote from it. Essentially, it charged me with a lack of humanity for – by the writer’s reading – blaming the three men in the engine for the crash. 


Terri Churchill, mom of a CPR engineer, said much the same: “I found your article to be irresponsible in its tone and suggestions. You admit to being ignorant about how trains function -- the procedures and mechanics of air brakes. Why do you then suggest the crew may or ‘may not have done’ something to set the train in motion? These three men are dead. To cast blame on them before the whole story is understood is disgraceful.”


Bev Ireland echoed Terri’s views: “I am disappointed that you would state ‘we are not getting the full story’ on the train crash. Why should we expect the full story before the investigation is completed on this tragedy?

            “My railroad family tell me when the brakes are completely bled off there is nothing the train crew can do to stop a runaway train. They are unable to re-apply the brakes or throw it into reverse. They knew very soon there was a problem because they had radioed ahead to clear the tracks . How the brakes were released is as yet a mystery but it is certain the new crew did not know it. It could have been an error from the previous crew and there was a conversation heard on the radios in the bunkhouse which indicated they were having some difficulty. No doubt they are rethinking their actions and wondering about their role in this very sad crash. 

            “Congratulations to all railroaders who spend hours at a time away from home, doing their job carrying our goods and produce. God bless the families of these men and their railroad families who are grieving.”


Warren Harbeck lives in Cochrane, where mile-long freight trains go by many times a day. “You’ve raised important questions,” Warren wrote. “But by all reports – such as one in the Edmonton Journal -- officials are pointing a finger at the severe cold weather interference with the train’s brakes, and not at the crew.”


Eduard Hiebert commented, “Of the reporting I have come across concerning this event, yours is by far the best background I have received…”

            Citing his own experience with air-brakes, on both trucks and trains, Eduard continued, “My best guess is the entire system lost air, maybe even the loss of ability to recharge the system, which at some point means the entire train no longer had any air brakes. Even with a properly functioning air system it would take a critical amount of time to build up pressure again and once rolling with a certain momentum, trains even on the flat have a [huge] stopping distance… And if the system had a malfunction they may have never regained any functional braking capacity.

            “In short, I'm with you that there are many unanswered questions, and it's shocking that so little bona fide factual information is being released as to what actually happened.”


Isabel Gibson noted that “airplane-crash investigations can take a year to report their results.  Offhand, it's one of the few things I can think of where the immediacy demands of our 24-hour news cycle don't take precedence over the investigatory process.  Think of how reporters repeatedly throw unanswerable questions at initial briefers after other natural and human catastrophes: unanswerable because the facts are not known yet, and can't be known yet.  Perhaps this investigation, too, needs to take its course, and we need to be patient (so those who do know about railroads can carry on) and to be watchful (so we are sure that the results, when reported, are thorough and complete).  Maintaining our own focus is, perhaps, the best we can do.”


Bob Rollwagen was terse: “Humans will make errors. I also know little about rail transportation but I keep hearing that pipelines are safer. This is where humans continue to ignore reality.”


And I’ve already had a letter about this morning’s column, which appears in the Kelowna paper Saturday morning.  A.J. Goodman wrote, on behalf of the Royal Bank, “We saw your column this morning and are disappointed that you did not inquire with us to understand the facts of the service we developed that would enable clients to send money transfers to their Facebook friends. 

            “The Tyee willfully ignored these facts in their reporting and took out of context Facebook’s general comments about the full functionality of the API to which they were granting access. 

            “To be very very clear, we did not have, nor did we need, the ability to see user messages. The service we developed required that we facilitate a transaction, send a transaction notification, and deliver a transaction receipt. All of this would have been done in accordance with the fraud, AML, security and privacy regulations that a bank like RBC must follow… Had you looked into this further, you would have seen that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner confirmed that RBC is not being investigated for this matter. 

            “We appreciate the theme of your story -- that, as we live in an increasingly digitally connected world, Canadians should be more vigilant than ever of the information they share and gather about themselves. 

            “But you are erroneously conflating our service with that theme. Had you taken the time to reach out to us for comment we would have gladly explained to you how the service worked and what information we were accessing.”






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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think too many links constitute spam.)

                       Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                       Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at www.singhallelujah.ca

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://www.churchwebcanada.ca>

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, www.traditionaliconoclast.com

                       Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawood@gmail.com to get onto her mailing list.

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatso@gmail.com or twatsonsentex.net



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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Sharp Edges

Tags: Facebook, Fitbit, Google, Taboola, RBC, privacy



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