Information and comunication tecnology
The digital individual of the third millennium
The day of the digital individual
Year 2011. We are in the house of any individual who is preparing to face one of the many days in his life. Every day, he is gently awakened by the melody on his smart phone, and from the first hours begins, almost unconsciously, to use a myriad of technological advanced instruments, shared by one particular characteristic: that of assimilating and transmitting information on Internet. In point of fact, all the instruments we use daily, the car, the mobile phone, the computer, and even the most innocuous devices like the sports equipment used in the fitness club, or indeed the home appliances, are the authentic “devourers of information” able to interact on the Network and transmit everything they assimilate. Consequently, the individual of the third millennium is an authentic user-supplier of news and information who, being constantly interconnected with the Network, can be identified with a precise and rather exemplified term: the digital individual.
To better understand the meaning of the concept of “pervasiveness of the information technologies”, it is opportune to clarify the actual potential of these devices we commonly use. The smart phone, which, at the moment, represents the maximum development of the traditional mobile phone, is able to accomplish all the potentials of the normal notebook, therefore, being almost constantly “connected” to the Network – is able to be located, being fitted with the GPS system. It is important to underline that “constantly connected” identifies the fact that the circuits of the modern mobile phones are always powered. In fact, contrary to what one might imagine, the circuits of our ubiquitous little mobile phones are constantly “in function” and the demonstration lies in the fact that turning it on is not done by means of a switch that physically closes a circuit (therefore, activating a flow of electricity), but by means of a button which simply activates the functions of the telephone. Even if we deactivate le functions, the device is always active and able to transmit (it is the battery inside that guarantees it). When the device is turned off, it only means that the display is deactivated and that telephone calls cannot be made or received, but who guarantees us that our mobile is not manipulating other data which, however, is able to draw on its own energy?
And who assures us that our mobile is not traceable, given that this information is held only by the manufacturer? Certainly, the only way of avoiding this risk would be to disconnect the battery, but certain recent mobiles (and they are the very ones most desired by the public), do not give the possibility of removing it.
An episode of some time ago comes to mind. In May of 2009, the news was diffused that the most attractive gadget of the moment, the Apple iPhone, contained crafty software, able to connect itself, without the knowledge of its legitimate owner, to the computers of the main branch of Cupertino to transmit information on the installed software. Steve Jobs, big boss of the United States Company, attempted to reassure the users, declaring that the scope of the software was solely to verify that there was no “pirated” software on the telephone, i.e. not provided with the regular user license, but as many international experts of informatics security rightly replied: Who guarantees it? Only after several months, the Apple iPhone falls once again under the spotlight: the same designers of the device (the researchers Charlie Miller and Collin Mulliner) identify a system which can allow an mal-intentioned person (not even too expert in informatics) to completely control the iPhone, diffusing the attack also to the entire list of contacts, with the purpose of spreading the attack like wildfire. And just to demonstrate the validity of the affirmation, the two researchers, during the Black Hat Security Conference held in Las Vegas from 25th to the 30th July of last year, demonstrated to a rather startled audience how one can easily take possession of a telephone and almost all the vital functions, cancelling any possible method of protection of same. Once again, the technique used is that of the SMS. And just to keep up the tension, it was affirmed that also owners of smart phones who use different operative systems like Android or Windows Mobile, can suffer the same attacks.
But let us return and examine the other devices supplied to our digital individual. His house is a receptacle of advanced technology. The refrigerator, of the latest generation (1) , can be connected to Internet and can furnish an extraordinarily vast gamma of information: from stored products to what we habitually eat, from the state of preservation of the food to the programming of the daily shopping.
This “cybernetic” refrigerator is equipped with a touch screen display, which can also be remotely controlled (being colligated in Internet, it is equipped with an static IP network address), and has an accurate system of food monitoring, rendered possible by the fact that products contained in the refrigerator are marked with the RFid label (Radio Frequency Identification). In other words, a microchip containing varied information that can be read by means of a radio signal. Apart from the function that allows easier planning of food stocks and control of the safety of the foodstuffs, as well as the food inventory, it can also supply indications on our eating habits, on levels of consumption of different foods, on the presence of medicines kept at a cool temperature, on the presence of particular foods which can identify our state of health or chronic pathologies that impose special diets. In short, an infinite amount of information which can be filtered and cross-checked to the point that it is able to produce a very important food medical record of the individual. The television connected to the Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) via Internet (presently in rapid diffusion in Italy)is able to grant multiple content and services. Also this device, being colligated to the Net, can supply interesting indications on television channels; the most watched programmes; the hour bands of vision or what type of services are requested. Even the clothes our digital individual wears are “active transmitters”. In fact, they also contain the RFid tag. And since 2009, certain clothing manufacturers have been inserting these tiny microprocessors inside their clothing products. The reason lies in the need for traceability of the product: by means of these radio frequency sensors, it is possible to monitor the stock of the products, control the matching of the different garments, understand better the tastes of the clients and also prevent thefts in the shops that display the merchandise. Logically, these microscopic locators should be removed by the shopkeepers the moment in which the garment is purchased, but since the cost is absolutely minimal, the habit prevails, on the part of the distribution managers, to leave them inside the garments. Therefore, the locator contained in the garment will maintain its capacity to transmit all its information the moment it receives stimulation by a device able to generate an electromagnetic/electric field.
One could object that the information obtained would be of little use, being solely attributable to a type of dress, but as a great strategist and brilliant leader asserted “…all information obtainable on the adversary, constitutes a prerequisite condition for the achievement of the victory”.
The car, even if it only a little runabout, is equipped with every technological marvel, like the satellite navigator and the Telepass, formidable instrument of identification and geographical location. Also the equipment used in gyms and health clubs (pulse meters, pedometers, electro-stimulators) are all interfaced on the Net, through the most modern methods of transmission (WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.,). The year 2010, promises to be the year that will replace the printed book: the Ebook, which will be constantly connected to the Internet, able to download, besides books and magazines, also the news and the latest articles published by the on-line dailies.
The pervasiveness of the Net: is privacy non-existent?
A small clarification: the devices and equipment described and used by our digital individual are all existent and presently available on the market. Having said this, it is opportune to make a basic consideration to understand the concepts that will be discussed further ahead.
Over the last 20 years, an epoch making change has occurred, which has profoundly perturbed the concept of personal privacy. The pervasiveness of Internet has provoked upheavals in different sectors, but, in particular, in the communication and use of information.
The omnipresence of Internet and the information technologies have allowed the production of a mechanism of uninterrupted collective surveillance, which has determined profound and yet unclear consequences both at a social and individual level.
De facto, we have become unaware distributors of personal information on a large scale. If we then add that these inexhaustible containers of information are fed also by “non-personal” devices, like, for example, the video cameras of surveillance, we can undoubtedly affirm that little remains of our precious privacy.
The problem lies in the enormous change which are social fabric is undergoing, completely dominated by the information technologies perennially connected to the Net, which lead us to assume the role of distributors of electronic tracking. Also in the habits, behaviour and in the most common and banal actions, we constantly supply “recordable” information. In the past, we were accustomed to go to the book shop to buy a book, now we do it on the Net. The little man at the highway toll is now a memory which belongs to the over-forties, magically substituted by the Telepass, which records all the information on our highway travels, included therein the video recording of our car. Each time we make a phone call, send an e-mail, use our credit card, connect to a social network, read a newspaper with our Ebook, we distribute personal information on the Internet. The demonstration that the concept of the protection of privacy is changing is shown by the proliferation of a large amount of software usable on Internet which allows, also through apparently harmless webcam, the monitoring of many instances of our daily lives.
I cite the most widely known software generation of images: Google Earth. It uses satellite photos, aerial photos and topographic data taken from a GIS system (Geographical Information System) and its extraordinary capacity to show us any corner of any remote place on the face of the earth, comfortably seated in our armchairs at home, has upset the concept itself of geographical distance. However, also in this case, polemics on the protection of privacy have not been late in arriving. Besides the fact that this software is pointed out as one of the instruments, always more frequently used by terrorists, (see terrorist attack of 2008, in Mumbai, India, in which the use of the digital maps of the aforementioned programme was ascertained. Contained in this software is also a useful programme (Street View) able to show images “captured” on the streets of cities all over the world.
Included in the images presented on the portal, are people, scenes, cars photographed in different cities, which raise not a little concern over the problem of the violation of privacy.
In the United States, in particular, the Google team has taken innumerable shots in different American cities, collecting a real information container, which is rapidly placed on the Internet.
From San Francisco to Miami, from Denver to New York and Las Vegas, vehicles equipped with video cameras and photographic systems have carried out a gigantic detection and memorization operation of images of the entire Nation. Moreover, on maps.google.com, the same users can move the image of a human figure, or event photographed on one of the highlighted streets of a city, activating an opening mechanism of a new window able to visualize the photograph taken in that location. Furthermore, all the inserted images can be colligated to furnish a 360° vision and obtain a “virtual view” of the entire block or district. No other added functions are needed to “move” within the image to “zoom in” on the details of particular interest. Some months ago, a group of students from the Georgia Institute of Technology developed a system able to pass directly to Google Earth, visual data coming from video cameras in “real time” modality.
The final objective is to obtain a version of software in “real time”, where it is possible to see the movement of cars and people within the cities. The basic idea of the project is to gradually render “live” all the cities present on Google Earth.
Another of the accusations made against the Mountain View software, is also of supplying information and images ascribable to military installations, and many Countries have criticized the American Company of having made geographical monitoring similar to forms of military espionage. The photographic blow-up functions make it possible to supply a huge amount of various types of information: identification of the typology of military vehicles, the exact geographical location and, through continual monitoring, particularly interesting information, like the use and rotations of the flight departments or the stationing period of military ships in the ports. (photos, pgs. 8-9).
Among the various services of Google Maps, we also find the interfacing with mobile phones, which allows the American Company (see standards on privacy – http://www.google.it/privacypolicy.html) to “receive information on the actual position of the user (the GPS signals are sent by a mobile device) or information usable to identify the approximate position of the user (ID of the cell to which the mobile phone is connected)”. Furthermore, Google makes available to the users, also an Email software, which can be used directly from one’s own mobile phone.
Privacy or Security?
We are the distributors of digital tracking, there is no shadow of a doubt, and we do it in an almost unconscious manner every day of our lives. Accomplices to this situation are the devices we use and which are perennially colligated to Internet, i.e. to what is defined as the largest and uncontrolled – and therefore, potentially dangerous – information patrimony of the entire planet. Its danger derives essentially from the possible uses of the information contained in it and which is continually phagocytized by different entities present in every remote corner of the world.
It must also be remembered that this information, being digital, can be contained in small and economical memorization devices. For example, if we consider that, generally, the people who live in the more industrial Countries pass an average of 500 minutes a month on the telephone. A pen drive of 8 GB would be sufficient to contain all their telephone conversations, including sms and mms.
In a certain way, we are living through a unique era. Perhaps the first in which man is not yet able to understand the importance, and above all, the possible consequences of the conditioning of the Information Technology at world level, and how it is not absolutely clear the way to best manage this relentless and perturbing evolution of the informatics technologies. Has the era of the information dominion begun, perhaps? And to what extent can it be controlled? Maybe the real dilemma is the following: are we to protect privacy or improve security? Since it appears there are no middle ways or acceptable solutions which can attempt to match the respective needs to furnish an answer, I feel it interesting to cite one of the questions that presently grips the Italian political world and the same Institutions: the use of the body-scanner in Italy. Without entering into questions of the hypothetical damaging effects to the health of those who would submit themselves to the analysis of these instruments, on which the Technical Commission, appointed jointly by the Ministers Roberto Maroni and Ferruccio Fazio will express themselves, however, the affirmation of the Minister of the Interior, Roberto Maroni, results decisive when he declared in an interview, that «The body scanners, which within three months, will be introduced in the airports of Malpensa, Fiumicino and Venice are safe instruments…” ”….the body scanner will be very useful in fighting forms of terrorism which frighten and which are difficult to detect, without the instruments that technology places at our disposal».
But if the body scanners under evaluation should prove potentially dangerous, scientific research has already prepared a remedy: a new type of body scanner that utilizes Terahertz frequencies (2) instead of the X-rays at millimeter waves. Produced by the British Company, ThruVision (which has its headquarters in Oxford) the new system of identification has already been presented during a day of studies conducted at the American Embassy in Rome, at the beginning of the year, and in which some top exponents of the national Military participated. It seems that ENAC (National Body for Civil Aviation) guided by Vito Raggio, has already favourably expressed for the purchase of these innovative devices, discarding those based on the X-ray technologies.
When all the clouds of perplexity and doubts on the damaging effects of the body scansion systems are dispersed, there will remain the other aspect that is generating just as many controversies:
the question of privacy. Over a period of a few weeks, mainly in the European Countries, a variegated group of philosophers, sociologists, lawyers, psychologist and politicians have expressed judgment, to say the least, alarming, on the possibility of installing the body scanners in the airports of the Old Continent, rejecting the decision as a “…grave violation of the privacy of passengers”. Notwithstanding the polemics, the United States (which have already adopted body scanners in certain airports) have decided to increase the number of these devices present on their territory, extending their use also to the minor airports. In Europe, Countries such as Holland and Germany, have already declared their interest in the introduction of this device of personal control, and London has declared it will introduce them “gradually”, also because various British associations have protested against the installation of such equipment, stating that “they risk infringing the British laws for the protection of minors”.
In this regard, I think it opportune to make a consideration: are we questioning the violation, or not, of the privacy tied to a simple image of our body (momentary, insignificant and carried out by “guaranteed” structures like the Law Enforcement), when we pass the day spreading an enormous quantity of personal information on the Internet, usable by anyone for whatever purpose?
I think that the real problem is another: the daily erosion of our privacy by a ubiquitous technology. We pass days manipulating, often recklessly, technologies which can induce us to pour precious personal information into the Net, but should we cry ‘scandal’ if, for reasons of security, we must submit ourselves to a body scan for a few seconds?
Furthermore, as amply demonstrated by numerous images and videos issued by the producers of the devices, the overall image of the individual is shown “opacified” and, therefore, in no way is the discretion of the physical characteristics endangered.
Therefore, the problem is reduced to one single question: do we prefer to avoid showing ourselves undressed and helpless in our hypothetically embarrassing nudity or, do we desire to board an airplane, certain that no fanatic terrorist has also boarded, anxious to blow us all to pieces, with the intention of sacrificing himself on the sacred altar of his political-religious ideology?
The Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, in an interview on Radio 24, asserted that the body scanners in the airports “… are the most secure instrument against the terrorists”.
Personally, I am convinced that the right to security is one of the fundamental principles which, a Country, defined as civilized and democratic, should never renounce. With this, I do not want to say that security and privacy are the opposites of a balance, but consider it opportune to underline that the concept itself of privacy is to be redefined in an intrinsically unstable world and, at the same time, highly technological, like the present one.
After the shock of September 11th, 2001, we understood that something had changed in the perception of personal security. The world, as it had been conceived by the Western Countries, up to that moment, had assumed a new connotation: that of a planet globally and inherently insecure for the individual. The current dangers do not respect any geographic borders and are not limited to strike only strategic targets. Fear has become a distinctive feature of our daily lives. Above all, in the Western society, particularly hit by the awareness of having become the battleground of ideologies and political extremists, a spiral of terror and diffidence has been touched off, which is producing negative consequences on the same social fabric. Racial intolerance, the management of clandestine immigration, the diffidence towards any form of cultural or social integration which has a mentality or lifestyle different from our own, are phenomena which can set in motion – if not appropriately contained with measures tied to the raising of controls and security of the territory – a spiral of violence of unimaginable proportions.
Therefore, the debate should not be focused on the choice “security or privacy”, but rather on a new concept, expressible as “control and security in the respect of privacy”. This new mental representation of the security-privacy binomial imposes the diffusion of a new interpretation of the concept itself of privacy of personal information. Privacy should no longer be understood as “absolute anonymity”, but as “personal security guaranteed by control and identification processes”. The methods of recognition of the individual (made in various ways, over the centuries) must be reviewed in function of the new era in which we are living: the era of advanced technology.
Biometric systems, video cameras of control (which, for some time, have provided an important contribution to the Law and Order Forces for the rapid identification of law breakers), body scanners, electronic passports, are only some of the technological implements that we shall be forced to use to raise our sensation of personal security.
But all this, as I have explained, must not persuade us to consider these innovations as a limitation to our democracy or an nth violation of our privacy. We have to consider it as the right “mite” to contribute for continuing to lead a normal existence, in a society in continual evolution, in which personal liberty and the guarantee of equal rights and duties is assured to all those who pursue their goals in full respect of the civil and moral laws of the Country in which we live.
One last aspect of particular importance, tied to the problem of the protection of privacy, lies in the exponential growth of the bond which increasingly unites the evolution of science and the need to acquire information from the single individual. I shall cite a very recent example. In the last few weeks, a group of researchers of the Foundation FiorGen of Sesto Fiorentino, in collaboration with German researchers of the Bruker, announced a system to trace the metabolic identity card of an individual by means of a simple urine test. Through the examination of the kidney liquid, it is possible to identify exactly all the metabolomic processes of an individual. This discovery will enable doctors, in the near future, to personalize diagnosis and pharmacological therapies aimed at the solution of personal pathologies and to understand, for example, whether the alteration of a determinate metabolite is connected to the onset of disease. However, the most interesting aspect of the discovery of the team lies in the demonstration that a personal metabolic identity exists and that through an examination of a urine sample (examined with the MRI), it is possible to distinguish one individual from another.
Therefore, each one of us possesses a unique and unrepeatable metabolomic digital imprint. Furthermore, while the genome (extrapolated from the analysis of the DNA) offers the image of the potentialities of the individual, the metabolome allows the taking of an instantaneous photograph of the “real” situation of a person. It takes into account factors like the age, diet, pathologies and lifestyle, which are not shown by the analysis of the genome. Essentially, the genome indicates to us what an individual could be; the metabolome indicated how he really is. The discovery of the scientists of the FiorGen, which has aroused much clamour in the scientific world, was published in the Review of the American Academy of Science “Pnas”. In function of this, within a very few years, we can assuredly dispose of a biological identity card, in which will be registered a large quantity of “personal” information which will permit us to safeguard our health, thanks to the immediate identification of the personal clinical picture, or the assumption of “intelligent” medicines calibrated on the individual metabolism, in a way which can maximize the effectiveness, minimizing, at the same time, eventual collateral effects.
This device will also allow us to be able to distinguish one individual from another for needs ascribable to aspects tied to our own personal security.
To be able to discover, immediately, a particularly dangerous pathology could save our lives, as well as the identification of the kind of diet we practice could clear us from a judicial error, but it would have an enormous value also in the study of the habits and behaviour of persons in geographic contexts, exposed to environmental risks. Or, very simply, it could allow us to have quick access to an airplane, without having to arrive at the airport, at least, two hours ahead of time ….
We have entered the era of the Cyber-Society and there is no way to get out or go back. The Information Technology is like a gigantic wave that is coming towards us: we can choose to ride the wave, learning to use a surfboard, or we can decide to succumb beneath it. There are no alternatives. And also the need of major social safety imposes learning and using new instruments, accepting them without the customary sterile or inconsistent controversies.
(1) The mentioned refrigerator is already on the market and is distributed by a well-known company of household appliances.
(2) Terahertz Rays. The Terahertz rays laser, which is based on the use of the frequency gamma ranging between 100 GHz and 10 THz (THz radiation) is arousing considerable interest due to the possible applications in various sectors. These rays can penetrate clothing, plastic and human tissue and are much safer than the X rays. Furthermore, the fields of application can be significant. Other than security sectors, this technology can be effectively utilized in medical and biomedical diagnosis (recognition of tumors, analysis of DNA, cells, proteins etc.) With regard to its use in the security sector, considering they are absorbed in different degree from dissimilar molecules, these rays are able to reveal the chemical substances which compose the materials analyzed. For example, a Terahertz scanner, placed in an airport, can even determine whether a small container located inside a closed luggage case contains, aspirin, methamphetamine or explosives.