Creepy Mr Google

Imagine this everyday conversation…


Last week some of our self proclaimed Champions of Anti Spyware and Malware all revealed, seemingly at the same time, that they had discovered a nasty piece of powerful and malicious spyware called Regin. Victims were found in countries including Germany, Belgium, Brazil, Ireland, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. One company became aware of the threat and started tracking it in 2012, while another said it knew Regin had been active for at least 6 years and that they have since discovered traces of it from as far back as 2003.

The complexity of this software used to spy on governments, companies and individuals from around the world made it hard to explore. But the scale of resources needed to create it also told them that it had almost certainly been sponsored by a nation state, although on this occasion the usual suspects: Russia and China have been ruled out because not one of the victims came from any of the ‘five eyes’ countries: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US. So experts have speculated that the software must have been created by one or more of their intelligence agencies.

Scary stuff and although Regin has seemingly been used to snoop on much bigger fish than you or I, how long can it be before the components of this spyware are stripped down, replicated and sold on to a much larger market of outwardly respectable organisations, agencies or just downright criminals? How long will it be before someone knows exactly what we are doing, where we are going, who we are speaking to and when and what our interests and perhaps even our deepest secrets are? Five years? A year? A few months? Now? The correct answer of course is NOW.

According to a recent survey by the consumer research firm Survata, 74% of the 2500 people involved care more about Google accessing their personal electronic data than they do their boss, their parents, their spouse even that other rapacious consumer of all our secrets, the NSA. There is a good reason for this because even if your parents and boss did have a look at your data, they would probably only see a small fraction of everything you search, e-mail and click anyway. While Google, good old Mr Google, logs that material more or less all the time and as things stand, even if you delete it, they will keep most of it forever, handing it over to whoever exercises their legal right to see it be it your Government, the Tax authorities, the security services or any unscrupulous individual or organisation who either asks for it under the guise of one of those above or who simply hack into it.

So what exactly does Google know about you? At the moment, if you regularly rely on the internet and use a number of devices such as Android to make your calls and search they will know a lot more than you may think. Indeed, in 5 years time if you interrogated your own Google archives for today – as well as viewing on your list of sites you viewed, they can show every email sent, chat room visited, comment made and every ad that you clicked. They will also tell you who you called and physically exactly where you were at any given moment of today. In fact if you interrogated your browsing and email records for a few days prior you would stand a very good chance of discovering exactly what you were doing today when you weren’t reading this.

Have you never been creeped out by an advert for a new camera or a device or even something like new patio furniture, which suddenly appears moments after that item was either mentioned in an email or you were only just surfing for it? It is no crazy coincidence. Yes, Google may tell us that it does this simply to provide a better service to you, but do we really need our personal lives dissected in such a way? What else are they collecting from that part of your personal life you have little choice to expose to them if you simply want to communicate and function in today’s digital world?

As an aside – as I was putting together my little opening one gag montage about Mr Google, it soon became apparent that the joke could have gone on and on and on for maybe another ten pages about the embarrassing things he might know about poor old Mr Smith, but luckily the editor in me cut it to just one page.

Often people come out with the mantra ‘If you’ve nothing to hide – why worry?’ Yes its true, internet records can help track criminals, terrorist and anyone else they use to scare us into handing over more and more of our personal lives and liberties so they can protect us. Indeed, many convictions have already been obtained after revealing only a fraction of someone’s surfing habits. So how far is the leap to a time when most judges or other prosecutors requests someone’s ‘Google Record’ as a matter of course, and could they be relied upon to use only that which is relevant? For instance – would there be an urge to reveal to say a mostly female jury – that the man in front of them spends 3 months annually in the fleshpots of Thailand, is a frequenter of certain porn sites and often denigrates women in his emails. They may even throw in the odd sound-bite from a private Lad-ish chat with a friend for good measure – indeed how much do you think those women would already be leaning towards a guilty verdict despite the fact I haven’t even told you why the man was in front of the Judge?

While we can only hope that sneakware like Regin is not unleashed on us mere mortals living towards the bottom of the food-chain, never forget that there are now countless other ways people can stalk you and look into your innermost secrets – so don’t make it too easy for them. Finally if you use Google and want to check out some but definitely not all of what Google knows about you, you can start by clicking on the links below. So if you don’t like what you see get busy revoking the default snooping permissions you gave Google when you, like most people, hurriedly clicked I agree on their terms and conditions without ever reading them.

1. Find out your entire Google Search history – Google saves every single search you have ever done. On top of that, they record every Google ad you have clicked on.

2. Your location history – If you use a laptop, Android, or other mobile device it may be sending your location as well as velocity data to Google.

3. Find out how Google sees you – Google attempts to create a basic profile of you, your age, gender, interests. They use this data to serve you relevant ads.

4. See every device that has accessed your Google account – Worried someone else might be using your account? You can find a list of all devices that have accessed your Google account, their IP address and approximate location.

5. What apps and extensions are accessing your Google data – A list of all the apps that have access to your data. You can see the exact type of permissions granted to the app and revoke access.


The Daily Truth – Awards

When did The News become so… well so un-newsworthy? In this age of 24hr rolling news when reporters in the field are more than ever supported by ordinary people feeding in stories and footage via social-media as it happens, what excuse can they have to get some stories so wrong? Yes we know all about the cowed media machines of dictators and totalitarian states, who basically reframe and lie all the time. But what hope do we have when supposedly free western news agencies start manipulating the truth?

Last month I was slightly baffled after watching an interview with one of CNN’s top reporters Christiane Amanpour, in which she decried some country or other for basically feeding its citizens a distorted story by holding back certain facts. However, any regular viewer of CNN will know that the same act of omission is quite often played out a lot closer to home. Yesterday I watched a 26-second anti-rape clip on Youtube, made as a counterpoint to a CNN report on a famous rape case, which went viral with over a million hits in the first 24hrs. It got me thinking, as I often do after watching some news channels: who the hell decides what is and what isn’t news nowadays? Also and perhaps just as importantly, who ultimately decides what angle the story is taken from?

Aaron Blanton and his partner, Samantha Stendal, just won a Peabody Award for the below Youtube clip, made in under an hour, which was the first clip ever to win this prestigious award.

In 2013, two Ohio teens were sentenced to a year in prison after assaulting a teenage girl passed out at a party, filming it and posting the footage on Twitter. The story garnered national coverage after countless internet trolls and townsfolk sent the victim and her family hundreds of death threats and several months’ worth of hate mail. During the sentencing, CNN aired a six-minute segment with two anchors in the studio, a reporter in the field and a separate analyst.

“I’ve never experienced anything like it, Candy,” CNN reporter Poppy Harlow said. “It was incredibly emotional, incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures — star football players, very good students — we literally watched as, they believe, their life fell apart.”

Blanton was floored. “It was amazing! The fact that even one person in that room – thought to take it from that angle, let alone everyone at CNN.” he said, “Oh, and by the way – CNN never mentioned the victim. Never! In the entire segment! And then it ended!” For more on the story click here.

News, distorted or otherwise has never been so available or disposable. It’s here today gone tomorrow and often fed to us in a coldly calculated way intended to protect the national or commercial interests of the company’s host nation or worst still, to pander to the whims of the all powerful sponsors and advertising companies. Perhaps CNN aired the above decried news segment in the middle of a football game, thus ensuring their audience member profile more closely matched that of the male perpetrators than the innocent female victim? Whatever the truth it won’t be the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Even companies that sell themselves with labels such as honesty and integrity and who sniff at more commercial channels are not innocent. Just look at the coverage control the British Government exerted over the BBC in the decade after George Bush declared his War on Terror on behalf of everyone – whether they wanted it or not.

We have all been baffled by the ranking of headlines and could, I am sure, recount a ‘Cat up a tree’ story appearing before ‘300 people were killed today in some train crash in Asia.’ Just this week the BBC lead item was about the stabbing of a single Israeli girl somewhere in the West Bank. This came up before 3 other items that day: A suicide bomb that took over 50 lives; The Russians once again invading the sovereign territory of Ukraine, and The total deaths in the Syrian War reaching 200,000. As awful as the girl’s death surely was for the family, that same day there were 9 stabbing fatalities in South Africa and possibly twice that amount of gun related deaths in the USA.

Niccolo Machiavelli once said “History is written by the victors.” He was referring to older military victories, which often ended in the destruction of the country that lost a war—when, effectively, few people survived to describe events from the point of view of the vanquished. However, in societies that have ever decreasing attention spans, today’s events are increasingly being recorded, for the benefit of future generations, as a collection of news sound-bites, Youtube clips and tweets of 140 characters or less, a number Twitter believe is the longest the majority of their users can manage to hold their attention for.

So in 5 or 10 years time will history recall that November 2014 was famous as the first time a space probe was successfully landed on a speeding comet half a billion kilometres away or will it be remembered as the month Kim Kardashian, a woman simply famous for being famous, took her clothes off for the cameras? Where did this dumbing down all start? The USA is of course notorious for having a large majority of citizens who are rarely bothered by external events or the history of any place beyond its own borders, so is it an American thing?

When it comes to history I, like a lot of Brit’s, have often been bemused and on occasion quite annoyed by the US’s depiction, either in fiction or via some Hollywood movie or other, of historical facts and in particular those surrounding event from the 20th Century’s two World Wars. The movie Saving Private Ryan, which opened with the beach landings on D Day in 1944, did not show a single British, Canadian or other allied soldier in the opening 20 minute depiction of heroism and brutality despite the fact the Americans only landed on two of the five designated beaches. So anyone without a keen interest in history could be forgiven for believing that it was entirely an American success.

Another damning inaccurate attempt at grabbing someone else’s glory came in a film called U-571 about a US submarine crew’s attempt to steal an Enigma machine from a German U-boat in 1942 so the Americans could crack the code. Enigma machines were used by the Nazis to encrypt secret messages before and during the second world war. However, several machines and codebooks captured by the British had allowed the Enigma code to be broken at Bletchley Park on 1 June 1941, at the height of the Battle of Britain, which was a long time before America even entered the war. The achievement is now regarded by many as the most important moment of the whole war as it allowed the allies to intercept top secret messages between the Germans for years before they realised. So at the time of the film’s release in 2000, Tony Blair condemned U-571 in parliament as an insult to the Royal Navy. Although a far more entertaining response would have been for the UK to fund a big-budget revenge epic, in which a small platoon of foppish yet plucky British lads, led by Hugh Grant swans over to Vietnam in 1968, defeats the Viet Cong, and wins that war. Moreover, it would be nearly as accurate as U-571 was.


Anyway, I am minded to hold my own awards ceremony for News Channels based not on content or the faux empathy displayed by some field hack-reporter or other. No there are too many of those back slapping events already – so mine would be ranked on things like: The truth, that days relevance, the angle and other things such as the legacy quality of what is reported. I will award the best as well as the worst of course. So please let me know, name and shame! either to my email address or you can always send them to me via Twitter.