Social Legal and Ethical Aspects of Computing

Simon Davies wrote an interesting blog post on “Why I’ve stopped caring about what the public thinks about privacy” in which he explains the trap of advocates for any social benefit caring too much about whether there is majority support for their position. I agree with him that privacy advocates who understand the importance of privacy rights and privacy practices should not despair when faced with survey after survey after experiment in which many people, often a majority, either state they don’t care very much about their privacy or demonstrate through action that even if they care about privacy, they ware willing to give it up for a small perceived benefit. However, I think Simon’s article needs further consideration. Of course those of us who see the importance of privacy should not give up our advocacy. However, we should understand where the apathy or even hostility to privacy rights comes from. We need solid empirical research on this and good conceptual presentations of why it happens. Only then can we try to apply force to the right levers to improve everyone’s access to privacy.

My own work on the psychological impact of social network site affordances shows some of the reasons why people’s responses to surveys show that they have limited their desire for privacy. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that in order to maintain their sanity in the face of peer pressure and network effects pushing them into using things like Facebook, including using their “legal name” and having most things open on there, is to downgrade their privacy perceptions. If we can push back against the privacy invasive nature of these systems, giving people technological, legal and economic possibilities to connect without exposure, then I am sure that their reported perceptions of privacy will swing back.

I signed up today for a conference in Spain. They are using PayPal for taking registration. I’m trying to avoid PayPal, but as the only alternative (bank transfer) is a real pain to do from Japan, I bite the bullet when the other party only offers PayPal as a sensible option. So, I was directed to a PayPal site to process the payment, having given them all the registration details they demanded (including them requiring a landline phone number! I just re-entered my mobile number, which they had already also required). The initial PayPal page was all in Spanish. There was no visible button for changing the language. An understandable (to me) bit asked for my country, so I selected Japan and the page renewed into English. Odd, but useful to me. So, I gave them my credit card details including the billing address and submitted them. The “review and confirm payment” page then came up in Japanese. These days I know enough Japanese to have been able to figure this one out.

So, PayPal displayed itself in three different languages during one transaction, with at no point that I could see a visible button to select a language I can definitely use, and with some apparently random selections of which language to display a particular page in. This is not good internationalisation.

As part of my research I need to look into’s Kindle account offerings. Because of their setup with geographic rights restrictions it’s difficult to set up such an account without a US-registered credit card. Does anyone reading this have an Kindle account who is also available to help us get information about their practices? It’s nothing bad, it’s that we’ve been told provide a “Family Account” with features we’re recommending more service providers should give, but which aren’t available on (and’s account information is mostly in formal Japanese which is a bit beyond me).

I know at least one of my LJ friends will have sympathy with this one. I’ve received the proofs for a new journal article(*). While most of the comments are reasonable there’s a pair that are rather stupid when taken together. In the paper we reference this paper:

Dick , A . R . and Brooks , M . J . ( 2003 ) Issues in automated visual surveillance . In: Sun e t al (eds .) .

which as anyone who udnerstands referencing can see then cross-references:

Sun , C . , Talbot , H . , Ourselin , S . and Adriaansen , T . (eds). ( 2003 ) Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Digital Image Computing: Techniques and Applications, DICTA 2003, 10 – 12 December 2003, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia . CSIRO Publishing .

The copy editors have separately asked:

Please provide further publication details in the reference Dick and Brooks (2003).


Reference Sun et al (2003) not cited in the text. Please cite in the text, else delete from the reference list.



(*) From my web page “News” section about this paper: A joint paper with Dr James Ferryman of the School of Systems Engineering, University of Reading has just been accepted by Security Journal. The pre-print of The Future of Video Analystics for Surveillance and Its Ethical Implications is available from the The Open Depot. (an academoc networking site) has an interesting alert service whereby they email anyone whose page is accessed with a referrer URL from one of the main search engines, and give the search terms, the search engine and, where available (from the web server log of rather than from the search engine), the country from which my page was accessed. It’s interesting to see how people find me and from where. Yesterday I got such an alert where one of my papers was found via a search on a minor paraphrasing of one of the significant sentences (i.e. not a linking piece of text but one of the presentations of the core ideas in the paper). Thinking about how I’ve worked in the past, I suspect this was an academic checking for plagiarism in a piece of student work that has made them suspicious.

One of my current research projects (DESVALDO, funded by the CIGREF Foundation) involves surveying people about their use of digital data. While our primary target is non-expert computer users, expert users are also welcome to take it. This is the survey.

As of writing (16:00 JST on Wednesday 18th January 2012) Wikipedia is blacked out apart from one page:

Wikipedia: SOPA

This is in protest at two bills currently being debated in the US Congress (PIPA in the House and SOPA in the Senate). These bills are being rushed through at quite a fast track in congress because they are bi-partisan (meaning: the big businesses who drafted the bills, and are corruptly paying congress-critters in campaign donations for their support, have bought peple in both parties).

In early January there was a movement by some opposed to this bill asking various large Internet organisations to black out in January in a coordinated effort to oppose these bills and raise public awareness about them. Most of the major service providers such as Google can’t really afford a day’s blackout. As Wikipedia is a non-profit and doesn’t make money per eyeball it was one of the few high profile sites to be able and willing to take this step.

There are more details from the EFF about these proposals.

I’ve just submitted a paper to Computers and Society. The draft submission is available on OpenDepot.

There has been a recent spate of reports regarding Research In Motion and their difficulties with various surveillance-oriented regimes (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan) demanding access to the emails sent from the famous and popular Blackberry mobile communications system. The most recent addition to the countries demanding such access is India. I find it interesting that they are targetting the Blackberry in this way. Standard email protocols provide exactly the same facility as the proprietary systems used by Blackberry and many other smartphone systems to send and receive email to remote servers with end-to-end encryption so that only if the user device is cracked or the server is located in-country, can the government access the communications data (modulo claims of encryption cracking capabilities of Forth Worth and GCHQ).

More flexible smartphones such as the iPhone, Mobile Windows- or Android-based systems can of course be set up with standard email servers anywhere in the world. Are these the next target, or are the users of Crackberries seen as the most likely to be “misusing” (according to the governments in question) email? This attempted fragmentation and re-bordering of the internet was analysed by Goldsmith and Wu a few years ago in Who Controls the Internet? Will open platforms such as the Android be banned in favour of iPhones but only if Apple follows RIM’s example and limits email apps to in-country servers? What about travel to these countries? Will entry into Pakistan with an iPhone be followed by a revocation of any app allowing out-of-country encrypted communications?

In a clear abuse of the parliamentary process and a travesty of democracy, the Digital Economy Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons yesterday, a process which now allows the final passage of the bill to be pushed through “wash-up”. The reason this is a travesty is that the wash-up process is supposed to be for bills with cross-party support and few concerns about the detailed provisions needing further parliamentary scrutiny, to avoid clogging up the post-election parliamentary timetable with uncontroversial matters getting in the way of (supposedly) the new governments’ manifesto commitments. Neither of these is truly the case for the Digital Economy Bill. While the Conservative and Labour Front Benches may have whipped sufficient of their MPs into line this did not have all-party support. It was not (and is not) uncontroversial. Claims that it had received significant debate in the Lords ignores the constant cries from the current government about how undemocratic our Upper Chamber is. When the Lords blocks something the government doesn’t like, it’s undemocratic, but when it serves as a mechanism for the near-dictator Lord Mandelson to push through a piece of captured legislation then it’s sufficient democratic scrutiny for a major bill. The Digital Economy is incredibly important to the UK and a bill to support and develop it needed to be put through the appropriate parliamentary scrutiny and crafted with balance on all sides of the discussions. Ramming something through with Henry VIII powers, a lop-sided set of proposals which run the risk of destroying significant chunks of internet access and business through chilling effects if not legal action, all because Lord Mandelson got his ear bent by a rich representative of a dinosaur industry, is not democracy, it’s corruption and abuse of power.

Larry Lessig changed his tack in the US from lobbying for more sensible copyright (and related rights) laws to the issue of corruption in US politics and the capture of the law-making process by small groups with large amounts of money. After the DEBill fiasco in the UK, it’s easy to see why he felt that move necessary.