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Canadians could try harder on digital privacy

Canadians aren’t that privacy-savvy, but they are happy with their digital services. Headphones are learning to spy on you, computers are learning to lip read and Facebook is learning that censorship might just pay. It’s all in this week’s tech roundup.


People walking in a city square composited with a grid of glowing, electronic numbers.

Canadians are generally happier about their telephone and Internet service than they used to be. The Commissioner for Complaints for Telecom Services (CCTS) logged 8,197 complaints from Canucks this year — 18 per cent lower than last year, and down for the third year in a row. When they were upset, it was mostly about their wireless plans.

Unfortunately, Canadians seem just as sanguine about their digital privacy. They are apparently happy to surf and email without hiding their communications, said research from the CBC and the Toronto Star. They know how to delete their browser histories (and four in every five have) but they don’t use more advanced personal security tools such as encryption or virtual private networks.

Only 17 per cent have used a service that allows them to mask their identity, said the survey, and only 15 per cent have used encryption beyond that provided by default in services like Gmail. Anne Cavoukian, executive director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University and the former Privacy Commissioner for Ontario, called the results “troubling.”

Why would anonymous surfing be important? Just ask a Brit. U.K. citizens may suddenly get a lot savvier about digital privacy thanks to the passing of the “Snooper’s Charter,” a piece of legislation that has privacy activists worried. The law, which requires ISPs to keep a log of user activity, has anonymous VPN firms clapping their hands with joy.

For a few dollars a month, worried U.K. Internet users can now route their traffic through anonymous servers in Panama, which doesn’t have any data retention laws. It’s another example of politicians not really understanding technology, it seems.

Now your headphones can spy on you

For those of you who are paranoid about privacy, and are freaking out about the appointment of a hawkish CIA chief this week, things just got even worse. It turns out that your headphones can also spy on you.

Researchers at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University have figured out a way to reconfigure a codec — the firmware that converts electrical signals into sound and back again — so that it will pick up vibrations in your headphones as inputs, effectively turning them into a microphone. The attack uses codec chips so common that it will work on practically every home or business computer, they said. Feel free to start speaking silently with your colleagues and learning to lip read at any time. Or maybe not, because …

Google can see what you’re saying

It turns out that artificial intelligence can do that as well. Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence technology has figured out how to lip read by watching thousands of hours of TV. Working with the University of Oxford, it trained a neural network to annotate video footage with 46.8 per cent accuracy. Humans are only accurate an eighth of the time, apparently, so that’s a big leap.

It also means that those Bad Lip Reading videos on YouTube will be far less plausible. Darn. Another pleasure trashed by technology.

Dingbat of the week

This week’s dingbat is Facebook, which is taking a censorial turn. The social media network has developed censorship software to filter out certain posts from users’ news feeds in specific geographies. As it strives for access to emerging markets, reports suggest this may be a final capitulation to the Chinese government, which has banned the social network for the last seven years.

Facebook spokespeople argue that it hasn’t made any specific decision on China, but it is “spending time understanding and learning more about the country.” Still, the Electronic Frontier Foundation says in its latest report that Facebook already censors and removes lots of content anyway — and that its rules aren’t always entirely clear.

Image: iStock

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