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Privacy Fear: Will Apple "Spy" Planes, EU Smart Meters Peek into Everyday Lives?


Privacy threats arrive in a lot of different forms -- fears that governments spy on their citizens, concerns that adversaries or criminals will gain an upper hand, vague apprehensions that corporations will use sensitive data to psychodynamically manipulate customers..  But one growing fear is simply an existential unease that someone or something somewhere is keeping track of our everyday, mundane lives, compiling a permanent record that could somehow be used against us by the government, adversaries, criminals or corporations.

Two developments today highlight this nagging fear.  First, European press reports say that Apple, as well as its app rival Google , is using "spy" planes that can "photograph sunbathers in their back garden," surreptitiously capturing every day acts as people go about their ordinary routines, much the way Google's Street Views does.  Reports say that following Apple's purchase of C3 Technology, a 3-D mapping company that uses aerial video recording technology, the company is now testing plane-based video recording systems in twenty locations, including London.  Google, meanwhile, is reportedly using plane-based video recording to augment its 3-D Google Earth system.

The spate of articles precedes Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference in San Francisco, during which the Cupertino giant announced that Apple's latest operating system, iOS6, will feature Apple's own maps application, which enables detailed navigation and local search, among other features.  It's not clear at this point how the C3 technology fits into the new maps feature.

The fear of inadvertently capturing the prosaic details of everyday life also emerges in a report released today by an EU privacy watchdog, which argues that consumers should be able to control all but the most basic data collected by smart meters, which are only now being introduced across the continent.  Issued by the European Data Protection Supervisor, the report (PDF) says that unprecedented and massive collection of personal information in the energy sector ushered in by smart metering will create an impossibly finely grained record of virtually all activities within the home, compiling a domestic data trove ripe for mining by criminals and corporations alike.
To illustrate, by analysing detailed electricity usage data it may be possible in the future to infer or predict -also on a basis of deductions about the way in which electronic tools work- when members of a household are away on holidays or at work, when they sleep and awake, whether they watch television or use certain tools or devices, or entertain guests in their free-time, how often they do their laundry, if someone uses a specific medical device or a baby-monitor, whether a kidney problem has suddenly appeared or developed over time, if anyone suffers from insomnia, or indeed whether individuals sleep in the same room.
In both cases, Apple's "spy" plane and smart meter domestic data collection, the unstated privacy fear is that there is no place to run, no place to hide when it comes to keeping your personal matters private.  It's one thing to log onto Google and conduct searches, or send text messages by smart phone -- most people by now understand that those acts are recorded somewhere.

But everyday acts of living, such as sunning oneself in the garden or turning on the light in the middle of the night, are assumed to be private.  It's no surprise, then, that Apple's planes or smart meter data collection add to the growing list of privacy fears:  surreptitious tracking of activities once thought to be private.

Infographic by Greenpeace.

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