I spy, with my little Wi-Fi . . .

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

A lovely bit of technology was unveiled this week by University of Washington computer scientists. It's called "WiSee" and uses Wi-Fi signals to see what people in the surrounding areas are up to.

The device essentially listens to all of the wireless transmissions coming from gadgets throughout a home or office (such as smartphones, laptops, tablets). The technology can identify nine different whole-body gestures, ranging from pushing, pulling, and punching to full-body bowling.

Researchers tested these gestures with five people in a two-bedroom apartment and an office environment. Out of the 900 gestures performed, WiSee accurately classified 94% of them.

Now you might well ask yourself, what's the point?

Well, the days of needing a remote control to do anything might be numbered. Wake up in darkness, wave your hands in one direction to turn on the lights, another to turn on the TV, lift them up to switch on the coffee machine in the kitchen.

It's all about reading signals that are floating around in the environment, getting useful information from those signals…

Our government is very upset this week. So are many governments in many parts of the world, especially Russia and Turkey. It turns out that at the G20 Summit in 2009 in London, the British government tapped phones and Internet communications of visiting officials.

Essentially, our hosts in the UK set up Internet cafés for the visiting delegates, recorded everything typed in (login and password information included), and then continued to use the same information over the subsequent years.

(They are probably still doing so because I suspect most politicians do not know how to change their email passwords.)

Why on earth is our government upset? What were they expecting?

Now we already know that governments do not give a stuff about the privacy of individuals and will happily tap into our bank accounts and phone records in the interest of "national security".

They do not trust us to be honest upright citizens even though we (democracies, that is) vote them into power.

Are they then seriously trusting other countries to not use every opportunity to spy on us?

The Americans accuse the Chinese of industrial espionage. We already know from whistleblower Edward Snowden that the US is deep into this territory itself. The Israelis are deep into Iran's tech.

You see, the reason why I started off by talking about the WiSee technology is that privacy no longer exists for most of us.

Wifi signals, cell phone signals, radio waves; all pass through our environment on an ongoing basis. Waving your arm, or opening your mouth to speak, disrupts that signal flow in a way that can be interpreted by devices that are trained to do so; and are getting better at doing so every day.

There are audio surveillance microphones, for example, that can read vibrations from closed windows and translate those vibrations into sound. (If you want one, just go to Google, search for "buy surveillance microphone".)

There is no defence against surveillance, and every year, consumer technology makes it easier to obtain information that our grandparents would never have made public. (Example: Your bra size is probably listed on that till slip from the lingerie shop that you just threw away.)

There are some sensible things we can do. Using Internet cafés, for example, is kind of like having unprotected sex with strangers. If you must use Internet cafés when travelling, use a disposable email account that does not contain sensitive information. Cross out the security code on your credit card and memorise the number instead.

But that's about all you can do. Used to be that if you needed to have a sensitive conversation in a strange land, you could do so in a wide open public space (such as a park). Today, there are bugging devices that look and behave like flying insects that can track you and eavesdrop unobtrusively.

Sun Tzu, in "Art of War" written 2200 years ago, devotes his entire final chapter to the "The Use of Spies". He writes:

"What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.

"Now this foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits; it cannot be obtained inductively from experience, nor by any deductive calculation. Knowledge of the enemy's dispositions can only be obtained from other men.

"Hence the use of spies, of whom there are five classes. When these five kinds of spy are all at work, none can discover the secret system. This is called 'divine manipulation of the threads.' It is the sovereign's most precious faculty."

For our part, let's do our damnedest to vote for sovereigns we can trust.