Who owns data on you?

I’ll tell you a little story first. True as it happens. Many years ago – decades actually! – I used to hang around IRC-based chat rooms talking to other techies and MUD gamers. One evening we got a troll, some annoying kid that believed the anonymity of the Internet allowed him to be as rude, obnoxious and basically na-na you can’t find me, loosers as he could. Despite him being on another continent, several timezones away, I sent him a live feed of his house shortly after and funnily enough he stopped being so cocky and vanished, never to be heard from again.

This was, of course, long, long before GPS, Facebook, Google or anything else you can probably think of. How on earth could I manage that, you may wonder. Well, people are predictable, they form habits, have tells, they leave clues without knowing it. We kept him talking while I made a list of his favourite insults, a mention of the weather, so forth. Simply based on this and the fact it had rained an hour ago earlier that evening in his state, I got his real name, address and found a traffic cam with an Internet feed on his street.

(Back then you paid by the minute to get connected and 9,600 bps was as good as it got. By comparison, I am now getting 152,000,000 bps. (Or 0.0096Mb vs 152Mb if you prefer). Data harvesting by spooks and big companies has increased at a similar exponential rate).

What someone like the NSA, GCHQ, Facebook or Google can do in this age of always-on, fast broadband and the ubiquitous social sharing explosion would stop you in your tracks if you truly understood the depths of it…

If you are a fan of ‘Person of Interest’ you’d probably grasp the idea, particularly if you watched Nothing to Hide (season 3, episode 2). This one featured the head of a fictitious internet company (Life Trace) which allows people to find others through information readily available already on the web. (As it happens I used a similar real company – decades ago – to find that troll I mentioned at the start). Life Trace offer a service, selling the information gathered to people who will pay for it. This episode related to those ultimately hurt by the information that was provided through the site.

With all that in mind :

Have you ever sat down to think about how much data in held on you, by whom, for how long and what uses it could be used for? Have you ever wondered about going ‘off the grid’ and removing all trace of yourself from the records? How hard could it be?

Consider a typical day, getting up, having breakfast and driving into town for a little shopping:

Your breakfast is again interrupted by the phone. The first, earlier, was someone trying to ‘help’ you claim money back from a mis-sold PPI (for a loan you never had!), this one is trying to sell you solar panels. Both are particularly annoying as, after registering under TPS failed to stop cold callers you went ex-directory. Not even finished your morning cuppa and already any number of scammers and nuisance callers already have your name and number, often with other partial or complete information, possibly including your address and even the last 4 digits on your credit card.

As it was a call, you can add the telephone company (and mobile) to the starting list of people with your name, address, bank details and purchasing habits. BT et al will, of course, have a detailed record of all the calls you’ve made, to whom, for how long and labeled you accordingly. Such legally obtained details (often even mandatory for the service providers) can be made available to authorities on request, naturally. If you consider phones as a utility, feel free to add the gas, water and electricity boards to the people with similar records on you.

Breakfast done you take the rubbish out to bin, meeting the postman with a parcel from Amazon…

Bins are under the province of the local council and they too have a stack of files on you and everyone in your house. They know who is registered to live there, how long you’ve lived there and just how much you are worth to them in terms of poll tax and, if they can, parking charges.

That’s before we think about what they are doing with all those (now digital) surveillance cameras which are now using increasingly sophisticated recognition software. (These can record and analyse voice, eyes, walking stride and more, though not the ones bolted around your local shopping centre – YET.)

Talking of your home, that too has a history, methodically detailed and cross-referenced, all searchable with the right permissions or even just knowing where to look. Who owns the house, how much you paid for it, what price it was on the market for, how much is left on the mortgage. (Rightmove, for instance, record searchable past sales going back 20 years). Your title deeds, increasingly available online, can include who lived there before you – going back decades, centuries in some cases and even mentioning who died in the house and how!

This alone covers a long list of people and companies with a vested interest in knowing all about you. Solicitors, surveyors, ground rate companies, banks, mortgage companies. Talking of which, credit rating companies like Experian and Equifax are constantly assessing your worth – and your risk to lenders. Late with a payment, they’ll be told. Apply for another credit card, they’ll find out. CCJ against you, they’ll know that too.

Amazon meanwhile are adding that completed order to their profile of you, one that’s kept and expanded indefinitely. Send a birthday voucher to a relative, buy a book, order a coat… they really do know all about you, from your probable intellectual, political and hobby interests right down to your knicker size (if you order such from them). You only have to look at your order history or the from page to see the extent:

‘Related to Items You’ve Viewed’

‘What Other Customers Are Looking At Right Now’ (based on what we know about you)

‘More Items to Consider’ (based on the last thing you looked at)

– and so forth down their recommendations.

Nothing wrong with it in principle and I am fine with it myself, find it extremely useful. But this is where it starts to unravel because Ah, I see you are interested in Psychology, criminal thrillers and ‘How to get away with murder’, Mr Fred Smith of Anytown!. That’s not Amazon mind you, that’s me, right now, looking at YOUR Amazon account because I can. Legally. Up to a point at any rate. This is because if you know even a fragment about someone, a last name, an email, then Amazon lets you search for and examine Wishlists. Handy if you want to share a birthday list with relatives, less good if you have a stalker! Of course it depends on if you even have such a wish list, but if you do if can be very telling.

Before you set off you decide to check your email and message a friend to meet up for a meal at lunch. Handy things, smartphones. You can check how many spammmers got or guessed your email, how many companies passed on your email and other details to ‘partners’ because you forgot to tick or un-tick a tiny hidden box. Perhaps you noticed it but didn’t have a lawyer handy to untangle the ambiguous, nested double-negatives of the option:

Untick here if you don’t want us to not share your details with our partners.‘ What!? Smiley is confused!.

Incidentally, while you are doing this your phone’s GPS may well be recording when you are at the moment in a hidden database, a tracking list going further back and in more detail than you may be comfortable knowing.

Oh look, a robin. Get a quick snap and upload it to Facebook (or Twitter, Pinterest, Flickr). What? You never use those? Of course, understandable. Facebook is procrastination incarnate, you wouldn’t be seen… Hmm? Is that you? It is, isn’t it? That’s you in a pink bonnet the photo lovingly uploaded by your Aunt Mabel, seen by your mate Baz (as suggested to him by Facebook) and duly shared with a wholly embarrassing caption he kindly Photoshopped in.

That’s the thing about ubiquity, postings get everywhere and once they do they are grabbed, mined, copied, shared and before you know it the most embarrassing moment of your entire life could be a viral video seen by millions.

Well, I’ve got you suitably paranoid, I’d better not get into everything Facebook gather on you, eh. Or the rest. For instance on that trip to town you will encounter many of the following and never ever registered it until I kindly point it out to you.

The Tax office

DSS / benefits offices (now totally online. Making life misery for many!)

Any reminders of the DVLC (also moved online).

Or the police for that matter. You weren’t speeding were you?

Add to that insurers, car and otherwise. You can bet they are doing EVERYTHING they can to be allowed total access to your profile. If you drink, smoke, if your family has a history of heart conditions, if you have a genetic marker, they want to know. They want to know in the finest possible intimate detail and the day they do, premiums will skyrocket!

Your gym memberhip and any other members clubs you are in.

Anywhere you eat, drink or shop – especially if they have loyally cards and/or take credit card payments. This applies a hundredfold if you are buying online.

Your dentist, doctors, hospital, all your medical files are increasing being moved to computers for easier reading, easier sharing. Even the vets’ record of your pet’s treatment.

Your school, college etc. They’ll all have records on you, many of which they’ll have shared in ways you might not think of at first. References, perhaps. Maybe you want them to confirm the exam certificates you claim you gained (those you can’t find the originals to, anywhere). But what about… the school play you were in? Remember, you were 6 and played a lamb, you wore your dad’s sheepskin coat inside out? Remember? No? Well, Aunt Mabel does, she found the polaroids and got your cousin to scan them for Facebook. She also found the article of the event, covered by the local paper – now digitised – and added a link to that. So kind.

Of course your employers have access and input to many of the above, let’s not forget them. Perhaps the above incident made you decide to look for a new job. Suppose you get short-listed. Guess what, certainly for higher profile jobs, it’s now a common policy to look online to see just who they are hiring. And everything you ‘liked’ on Facebook, every photo you shared, ever embarrassing comment on Twitter, the minutiae of your LinkedIn profile, your entire life is spread out for inspection.

I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes from Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place
(Said to CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo in an interview. (Dec 2009)

Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it. With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches […]
We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.

(Told to the Atlantic at the ‘Washington Ideas Forum’ (October 2010).

You might also want to read :

Irony is lost on cold callers

CNN : FBI launches a face recognition system

Wired (2012) : How much data did Facebook have on one man? 1,200 pages of data in 57 categories. Note that was back in 2012, they were still young then; their arsenal is now (2015) so sophisticated they have facial recognition software that can look at a photo, detect who it is (within 97.5% of a human studying it), and pull in links based on who they have found!

Wall Street Journal (2010) : The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets

The Economist (2014) : Getting to know you : Everything people do online is avidly followed by advertisers and third-party trackers

ProPublica, Journalism in the Public Interest (2014) Everything We Know About What Data Brokers Know About You

Moz (2008) : The Evil Side of Google? Exploring Google’s User Data Collection (In 2008 Google needed around one million servers to handle their search. Think they got any smaller in the past 7 years?)

Huffington Post (2010) : Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s Most Controversial Quotes About Privacy

The Guardian (2010) : How I became a Foursquare cyberstalker

The Guardian (2013) : How supermarkets get your data – and what they do with it:
It doesn’t matter if you are part of a loyalty scheme, pay by card or even cash, ‘Big Brother’ supermarkets know your every move.

The Guardian : (2015) Facebook ‘tracks all visitors, breaching EU law’. It adds that "the Opt-out mechanism actually enables tracking" i.e The very act of saying do NOT follow me creates a files to be passed around, duly flagged and monitored, to the effect, "Hey, this is Fred, he doesn’t want us to know about him. Just saying…"

Simply Zesty (2012) : The Rise Of Big Data And How Social Media Uses It
The Atlantic (2012) : I’m Being Followed: How Google—and 104 Other Companies—Are Tracking Me on the Web

Neurotechnology : VeriLook Surveillance SDK
Face identification and movement detection

Why the NHS is no longer fit for purpose!

I was reading something in the Guardian entitled I loved being a midwife but bullying, stress and fear made me resign and what started out as a quick agreement grew.

It’s not just midwives but all levels of the NHS, right down to the caterers, porters and cleaners (most of whom are now outsourced to the cheapest subcontractor). Once the envy of the world, gone now are the ward matrons that kept the ship running tightly, replaced instead with an bloated army of box-ticking managers, accountants and bureaucrats for the sake of bureaucracy, their wages sucking the money out of trusts that should be spend on nurses and doctors.

Equally too – and disgustingly so – are gone nurses that care and this is desanitation by bureaucracy of the worst kind. Don’t get me wrong, there are still a lot of great nurses and doctors, but for every good one another 5 are lost because nurse training now isn’t about patient care, it’s about getting a degree. Thus many that would make fantastic NURSES are excluded simply because empathy is neither required nor wanted in a written assignment. And again, for every good nurse and every 5 that WOULD make good nurses are those that aren’t ‘nurses’. This of course is why you often see filthy wards, stinking of urine and faeces, pots left accumulating under beds, bedding soiled. This new breed of “nurses” think such things are beneath them. That’s not what they are training for, apparently!

Gone now are the ancilliaries, the SEN’s, the SRN’s, replaced by an army of youths that – seeing the lifelong debt of student loans for regular degrees – take the easy choice of a paid, vocational qualification. Many will, of course, leave the NHS on graduation, short of laws saying they have to pay the cost back if they do. Similarly for doctors, the focus is on leaving hospitals and getting a lucrative private practice with as many patients as possible (preferably healthy ones they don’t have to see!)

It’s not that the NHS’s initial ideal failed, it’s that successive governments have used it as a political weapon, strangling it in red-tape and targets. It’s no longer about how many patient were ‘cured’ but about how many were ‘seen‘ – not whether they were treated effectively, compassionately or even treated at all. It’s no longer treatment with due care, but dispassionate, unfeeling due process. The NHS is being dismantled by spreadsheets and statistics!

This from the NHS says it all, really :
To work as a nurse in the NHS, you must be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), which means you’ll need a degree in nursing. Diploma courses are no longer available. You can use our course finder to find nursing degrees.

Funny, the dictionary definition says “a person trained to care for the sick or infirm, especially in a hospital.” I see no mention of care in the NHS entry.

Note that I do not work in the NHS, but my mother did (as a midwifery sister). I have, however, spent a lot of time in hospitals over the years and have witnessed first-hand the rise in statistics and box-ticking over actual patient care.

Also of possible interest :

Official complaint to the Ann Marr, Chief Executive of Whiston Hospital

Comments on their reply : Reminding hospitals about patient care.

And their – eventual – apology: Official apology from Whiston Hospital for lack of patient care

Checking your heart age

Just read an interesting if a tad morbid article in the Telegraph about an NHS calculator that predicts when you will have a heart attack! Curious to note their use of ‘will’ as opposed to ‘may’.

It does ask for details like your current blood pressure and cholesterol levels, height, weight, whether you smoke and about specific health problems like kidney failure. Doesn’t seem to care how much alcohol you consume though, or much else, though I guess the cholestrol and BP are a rough enough guide IF you know them. As it pointed out in the article I read:

"Dr Malhotra said he was concerned that the new NHS tool does not take account of basic lifestyle factors – such as the type of diet people ate, and how much exercise they took."

For me it cheerily spits out that I have a heart age of 65, a 12.2% chance of a heart attack or stroke in the next decade and that On average, someone like you can expect to live to the age of 71 without having a heart attack or stroke.

Without knackered kidneys and other problems that play havoc with your blood pressure the best I could get – e.g. perfect health – is a heart age of 47 and a 2.8% chance of a heart attack in the next decade and tells me someone like you can expect to live to the age of 81 without having a heart attack or stroke. Read like that, everyone who does the test, regardless of age, gender, race or fitness is in line for a heart attack at some point! What are they trying to peddle?

It does advice that "Your heart age is an estimate because you don’t know all your numbers. We’ve based your result on the national average. If you have high cholesterol, your heart age could be as high as 76, but if it is healthy it could be as low as 57".

Twenty year difference. OK, high cholesterol is probably not a good thing. Just as well I eat healthily. Less healthy eaters might want to know that even without addition problems or inherent risks if I said I smoked 20 a day and was a chunky 24 stone the risk goes up from 3% to 20% and the heart age jumps up from 50 to 92. Probably the point it’s trying to get across, hmm.

NHS Check your heart age

Bet insurance companies would love to hoover up this sort of data to calculate premiums!


Telegraph article: NHS calculator predicts when you will have a heart attack

NHS : Check your heart age

Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Aiming for grammatical balance.

My grammar and general literacy skills aren’t as great as that of some of my friends, nor am I always as thorough in the proof-reading, but they do tend towards warm fuzzy feelings when I actually find a new or unfamiliar word in a book and have to look up. That’s after mentally ringing the typos and printing errors in the same book, or at the very least mentally disagreeing with the author as to whether a hyphen goes in A level/A-level, or not. It can be subjective and does depend on the sentence but as I hope even Lynne Truss would agree with me, there’s a a difference between the following:

I got A level (A level in what, a game? Should I be impressed?)
I got A-level (Implies a reply to a question, such as "How did you do in English?", and begs the question of what grade they achieved. (I only got an ‘E’, I must admit!))

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

Needless to say the mutilation of English language in on-line games and social media sites like Facebook can drive me to distraction as I fight the (ir)rational urge to correct everyone!

So, after wandering into the front room and finding me happily reading a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynne Truss) and asking How is that going to help your OCD?, my daughter sent me the following link and message:

found you a site youll connect with http://www.apostrophecatastrophes.com/ notice that theres no full stop at the end off this

She is quite pleased with herself; she packed so many errors into the sentence that I missed one at first. In my defense I’d just glanced at the message, shuddered, and followed the link. I made it part way down the page of captured design and editorial howlers at Apostrophe Catastrophes before retreating in shock. Didn’t help that the web site – deliberately – added more of their own (to the subtitle).

Anyhow, if you want to know what an Oxford comma is, the difference between a hyphen and a dash, or simply read a refreshingly interesting book on grammar that can casually drop words like solecism1, logorrhoeic2 and onomatopoeias3, give Eats, Shoots and Leaves a try.

1 A grammatical error in in speech or writing that changes the sentence, a gaffe.
2 Undue wordiness, basically verbal diarrhea!
3 Words that sound like the thing, e.g. buzz, hiss, cuckoo.

If you like that book, you might also like My Grammar and I (Or Should That Be ‘Me’?): Old-School Ways to Sharpen Your English by Caroline Taggart, J A Wines. You can’t curl up on the couch in the same way but it is an easy read for a grammar book and does give some very good examples.

Web designers and bloggers that like grammatical precision and dislike having their marks, characters and symbols removed, altered or changed by language settings and browser peculiarities might find this page helpful : HTML Character codes: Symbols

How much common sense do you have?

I got Perfect common sense!!

You have an abundance of common sense! You ranked in the 90%th percentile, which means that you are able to answer difficult questions correctly that the average person would not be able to. You analyze problems literally, and are able to see past trickery or distractions to come to solutions more easily than normal people. You have a mind for science and math, and intricate problem solving. Well done!

Personally though, I don’t think the last question is correct in its choice of answers:


Options are:
West, onto the ground, the tree doesn’t have leaves, or east.

Think about it for a minute. The logical answer, even if it’s referring specifically to the evergreen tree, is ‘onto the ground’. It can’t be ‘the tree doesn’t have leaves’ because evergreen trees DO have leaves, they just doesn’t shred a lot. You can’t say east or west as there’s no direction given for the wind; equally without knowing the strength of the great gust you can’t definitively say no leaves were torn off. Only answer is onto the ground.

So, the quiz options should have offered ‘not enough information to go on’.

(As Wikipedia points out: Evergreen trees do lose leaves, but each tree loses its leaves gradually and not all at once