Strata Week: Political data mining “bait-and-switch”

Inaugural 2013 app has plans for your data, the "unprecedented" security issues of the Internet of Things, and optical switches speed up data centers.

Here are a few stories from the data space that caught my attention this week.

Inaugural 2013 app takes as much as it gives

Inaugural2013appThe Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) launched the first official inaugural smartphone app, Inaugural 2013 (for iOS and for Android), Monday. Daniel Strauss reports in a post at The Hill that inauguration attendees can use the app to locate and RSVP to events, watch events via livestream, and navigate the event with an interactive map.

What isn’t front and center in the pomp and circumstance of the shiny new app are the terms of service and the privacy statement. Steve Friess at Politico points out that in the fine print, users are giving the PIC permission to share their data — phone numbers, email, home addresses, and GPS location data, for instance — “with candidates, organizations, groups or causes that [the PIC] believe have similar political viewpoints, principles or objectives.”

Gregory Ferenstein reports at TechCrunch that “privacy advocates find it troubling that the fine-print on the PIC’s website says it can use activity data ‘without limitation in advertising, fundraising and other communications in support of PIC and the principles of the Democratic party, without any right of compensation or attribution.'”

Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation, said in a statement reported by Friess and Ferenstein that the app is “classic bait-and-switch”:

“This is a committee that’s formed to throw a celebration for an event that should be nonpartisan. Theoretically, the whole country should be involved. It’s a patriotic, banners-and-bunting and parades kind of day. And oh, by the way, if you use this app, we may be harvesting your emails and sharing it with our friends in the Democratic Party.”

Friess reports that PIC spokeswoman Addie Whisenant defended the data mining policies in an emailed statement: “Regardless of party, it is appropriate for a president’s Inaugural Committee to support and reflect their party’s ideals and causes,” she said, in part. Friess notes that much of the privacy policy is standard, “the sort of claims to rights that most commercial apps and sites stake out in exchange for access,” but says “the fact that the PIC has presented this app for broad public use while hiding its partisan objectives in the fine print is troublesome” to privacy advocates such as David Jacobs, consumer protection counsel of the Electronic Information Privacy Center. Jacobs noted to Friess that few people downloading the app to watch the event livestream or to navigate the parade are expecting that they’re also making a political statement.

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Rising security challenges in a world of connected things

In a post at Wired this week, Forrester analyst Andrew Rose took a look at the rise of the Internet of Things revolution and the “unprecedented security challenges” it’s bringing with it. Rose writes:

“It’s scary how few people are preparing for it. Most security and risk professionals are so preoccupied with putting last week’s vulnerability-malware-hacktivist genie back into the bottle, that they’re too distracted to notice their R&D colleagues have conjured up even more unpredictable spirits. Spirits in the form of automated systems that can reach beyond the digital plane to influence and adjust the physical world … all without human interfacing.”

Rose outlines potential security and privacy loopholes, noting that “[a]s technology becomes more entwined with the physical world, the consequences of security failures escalate.” He also predicts three stages of evolution the technology will traverse: dumb object will interact with smartphones or web services, such as “smart” keys that can start a car from your pocket; the “things” will next be able to sense their surroundings — a self-adjusting thermostat, for instance; and finally, the “things” will become autonomous, no longer requiring an outside device like a smartphone to perform their functions.

“Not only will the ‘things’ be able to sense context,” he writes, “but they will be able to autonomously interact with other things, sensors, and services.” Rose notes that in this scenario, it doesn’t take much imagination to consider the havoc malicious threats or system failures could wreak.

In a similar vein, Jon Bruner continued the industrial Internet series at O’Reilly Radar this week with a look at Ford’s OpenXC, which turns cars into platforms for developers. Bruner writes that “OpenXC goes beyond the Ford Developer Program, which opens up audio and navigation features, and lets developers get their hands on drivetrain and auto-body data via the on-board diagnostic port.” He notes that due to security issues, Open-XC is read-only at the moment, but that “there are plenty of sophisticated data-machine tieups that developers could build with read-only access to the drivetrain: think of apps that help drivers get better fuel economy by changing their acceleration or, eventually, apps that optimize battery cycles in electric vehicles.” You can read Bruner’s full report at O’Reilly Radar.

Data centers running at the speed of light

Wired’s Cade Metz took a look this week at how network environments are changing in the face of increasing traffic and volumes of data, and how complex operations like Google and Facebook plan to handle it. Metz writes that “there’s far more traffic bouncing around inside the data center, from server to server, and the traditional networking gear used by these net giants wasn’t meant to handle it all.” The solution? Send the data as beams of light.

Metz explains that some data already travels as light, but typically via connections between data centers. “The next step,” he says, “is to rebuild data center networks with an eye toward optics, pairing traditional electrical networking switches with optical switches that can significantly speed the transfer of data from server to server.” Metz looks at a Google-funded research project at the University of California, San Diego called Helios (PDF) that’s aiming to do just that. George Papen, an optical networking researcher on the project, told Metz that achieving “the scaling properties of this kind of hybrid network — how the network scales up to accommodate more data traffic — is very attractive.” Metz describes how it would work:

“The basic idea is to build a network that’s part electrical and part optical. Much of this network would continue to operate like existing electrical networks, moving data as electrons across copper wires and through silicon, but it would also be smart enough to shuttle certain traffic between servers using optical switches.”

Metz goes in-depth into the ideas and technology the Helios team is researching and also looks at a similar optical switching product called Plexxi that “combines the electrical and the optical in a single switch.” You can read his full report at Wired.

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