It's hard to stop businesses tracking your smartphone

It's a lot easier to stop advertisers tracking your browsing habits online than it is to stop people sniffing out your smartphone's location.

Remember the advertising scenes from Minority Report?

You might also remember the very creepy Wi-Fi tracker bins that appeared in the City of London in August. Operated by Renew London, they tracked the smartphones that walked past them in the street. The bins had screens on them that could show ads that were theoretically tailored to the people walking past at any moment. 530,000 unique smartphones were tracked before the City pulled the plug on the initial trial over privacy concerns.

The problem here is that your smartphone isn’t connecting to a network and giving over information without your permission - it’s just broadcasting that it’s turned-on. If your Wi-Fi card is actively searching for available networks it has to tell those networks who it is, and that information is a 12-long string of letters and numbers known as a MAC address.

It’s rather like walking around with your house number and postcode written on a note, stuck to your forehead. People won’t know anything about you specifically, but with enough watchers recognising that note going from place to place you can build up a pretty good picture of the kind of person you are. Whether you prefer to shop at Tesco to Sainsbury’s; whether you’re more likely to buy chicken with wine or beef and beer; whether your interests in certain health products might mean you’re pregnant without even realising yet.

There are as many as 40 firms offering tracking services like this to stores that want to see how their customers shop, reports the Washington Post. That means where they go in the store, how long they wait at the tills, which products they cluster around, how often they visit - and which other stores they also visit. Minority Report’s eye scanners are unrealistic in their lack of ambition: they’re way more complicated than they need to be, but also not part of an integrated system.

Online advertising has been shaken up in the wake of the largest browsers introducing ‘Do Not Track’ features. When turned on, they stop adverts from placing cookies on your machine so they can follow you around the web, adjusting what they show you dependent on where you’re looking.

You can’t really do that with a smartphone’s MAC address, but several companies like this do let people enter their MAC addresses into a database manually as a kind of opt-out. It’s time-consuming, and of course it’s not particularly well advertised. Hence the need for the Wireless Registry. Here’s Brian Fung at the Washington Post:

Together with the Future of Privacy Forum, [founders Stillman Bradish and Patrick Parodi] hope to build a kind of central Do Not Call list for MAC addresses. At least in theory, consumers will be able to visit a single Web site, register their MAC addresses for free, and the major tracking companies that have committed to the project will pledge not to follow those addresses around brick-and-mortar stores. It's a form of potential self-regulation that should look familiar if you've been following the debate over online tracking, where Web browsers have begun letting users tell commercial Web sites they don't wish to be followed.

As a solution it seems a good one, but the flip-side is that it would only take one leak for a very, very valuable list of many unique smartphone identifiers to suddenly be available in the wild. It's likely that we'll see more solutions like this being suggested - both from the tech industry and from governments - as offline tracking becomes more of a privacy worry.

Each smartphone gives some stores valuable data. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.