Tracking cellphones through battery usage

In a development Harvard cyber security expert Bruce Schneier calls “interesting” but of unknown practicality, researchers have demonstrated how cellphones can be tracked via their battery usage. The basic principle is that along known routes you can record how much battery is used according to its distance from a cell phone tower.

Here’s a Wired story on it. Key quote:

PowerSpy takes advantage of the fact that a phone’s cellular transmissions use more power to reach a given cell tower the farther it travels from that tower, or when obstacles like buildings or mountains block its signal. That correlation between battery use and variables like environmental conditions and cell tower distance is strong enough that momentary power drains like a phone conversation or the use of another power-hungry app can be filtered out, Michalevsky says.

I guess Tobler still rides!

I discuss some of these more unusual forms of geolocational tracking in my new paper “Collect it All” available here (free) or at the journal here.

h/t several people who alerted me to this story: John Krygier (@poponthebeezer) and @agaleszczynski

Cyber security conference at New America today

A big conference on cyber security is occurring all day today at the New America Foundation.

It is entitled “Cybersecurity for a New America: Big Ideas and New Voices” and you can follow some of the commentary about it (including an interview with DIRNSA Rogers) on Twitter under the hashtag #NewAmCyber

Citizenfour wins Oscar

Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden, won an Oscar last night in the Best Documentary category. The movie will be shown on HBO tonight (9PM EST). The Oscar went to director Laura Poitras, editor Mathilde Bonnefoy and producer Dirk Wilutzky.

Small geography sidenote: one of the cinematographers on the docu was Trevor Paglen, PhD in geography and well known for his photographic work on the security state.

The bartered self

Great article in the New Yorker about digital economy of affect. Includes this very suggestive paragraph:

The free economy is, in fact, an economy of the bartered self. But attention can never be limitless. Kaliouby put me in touch with Thales Teixeira, the business professor who collaborated with her, and we met at the Harvard Club in New York. “There are three major fungible resources that we as individuals have,” he said. “The first is money, the second is time, and the third is attention. Attention is the least explored.” Teixeira had recently tried to calculate the value of attention, and found that, like the dollar, its price fluctuated. Using Super Bowl ads as a rough indicator of the high end of the market, he determined that in 2010 the price of an American’s attention was six cents per minute. By 2014, the rate had increased by twenty per cent—more than double inflation. The jump had obvious implications: attention—at least, the kind worth selling—is becoming increasingly scarce, as people spend their free time distracted by a growing array of devices. And, just as the increasing scarcity of oil has led to more exotic methods of recovery, the scarcity of attention, combined with a growing economy built around its exchange, has prompted R. & D. in the mining of consumer cognition. “What people in the industry are saying is ‘I need to get people’s attention in a shorter period of time,’ so they are trying to focus on capturing the intensity of it,” Teixeira explained. “People who are emotional are much more engaged. And because emotions are ‘memory markers’ they remember more. So the idea now is shifting to: how do we get people who are feeling these emotions?”

This raises the question of whether geolocational information is a fourth term in this equation. So time, money, attention and the extraction of geolocational information/privacy.

Talk at Colgate University on Big Data

Today I’m giving a talk at Colgate University, in New York. It was a bit of toss-up if the weather would allow me to get here (snow and flight cancellations), but thankfully I’m here safely.

My talk is entitled “Big Data Narratives: Surveillance and Privacy in the Age of the Algorithm.”

Thanks to my hosts Peter Scull, Adam Burnett and the geography department. The talk is made possible by the Dennis Fund endowed lecture series in the social sciences at Colgate.

PS: small historical note. Colgate was the place Peter Gould was evacuated to during WWII when he was a child.

Lyzi Diamond on what to learn first about mapping

Great post by Lyzi Diamond on what to learn first about mapping. I was going to quote chunks of it, but do yourselves a favor and just read it.

Oh, OK here’s an extract:

In school, typically, we learn a basic formula: “When you’re faced with this problem, use this tool to solve it.” The real world is simply not like that. So much work goes into a) assessing the problem, b) determining which solution out of the possible range of solutions is best in this particular situation, c) deciding which tool is best to execute on that solution in that particular situation, and d) doing it over again because you fucked something up. I never learned about that reality in school, and I think that was a stunting factor.

But we’re a much more technically-literate society these days, so just learning the software isn’t enough. You have to understand both the theoretical principles around the tasks you’re executing on as well as the technology that’s underlying the software. For any tool you execute in ArcGIS, there is both a geometric/spatial problem that’s being solved (in a theoretical sense) as well as a database task that’s being executed (in a technical sense). Understanding both of those things is what will make you successful in the field.

It might be interesting to put together a sample syllabus/class along these lines, throwing in the “zombie GIS” approach I wrote about recently. Here’s what I put in my own syllabus:

Course Learning Outcomes
By the end of this course you will be both able to (1) identify candidate technologies for your problem; (2) identify and secure appropriate data; (3) successfully develop a solution using appropriate GIS and mapping technologies; and (4) critique and assess maps & GIS products, including your own. Additionally, the class will emphasize a key skill: (5) finding solutions to problems. By the end of the semester you should be able to not only comprehend GIS but solve problems of GIS applications and evaluate and recommend specific solutions to real-world problems.

A little ambitious perhaps!

US spending on security may exceed $1 trillion per year

How much does the US spend on intelligence and security? Perhaps as much as $1 trillion a year, according to some estimates. A new discussion of this figure is available on the Brennan Center website.

I wrote about whether this level of security is sustainable in a commentary for Society & Space in 2013 (full-text available here).