Cyber Privacy by April Falcon Doss

This is a book about pervasive data collection and its implications. The author, April Falcon Doss, is a lawyer who spent 13 years at the US National Security Agency (NSA), itself an organization controversial for phone-tapping and other covert surveillance practices. Disturbing though that is, one of Doss’s observations is that “in democratic countries … the government doesn’t have nearly as much data as private companies do.” She argues that government-held data is less troubling since its usage is well regulated, unlike privately held data – though these safeguards do not apply in authoritarian regimes.

Government use then is just one piece of something much bigger, the colossal amount of personal data gathered on so much of what we do, our buying habits, what we search for on the internet, our health, our location, our contacts, tastes and preferences, all tracked, stored, and used in ways that we might not expect. Most of the book simply describes what is happening, and this will be eye-opening to anyone who has not followed the growth of data collection and its use in marketing and advertising over the last twenty years or so. Doss describes how a researcher analyzed his iPhone activity and found that “within seven days, the phone had exported data via 5,400 hidden app trackers.” – and Google’s Android is even worse.

How much do we care and how much should we care? Doss looks at this question which to me is of particular interest. We like getting stuff for free, like social media, search, maps and directions; but how aware are we of hidden costs like compromised privacy and would we be willing to pay in other ways? Studies on the subject are contradictory; humans are not very logical on the matter, and it depends exactly how the trade-off between privacy and cost is presented. The tech giants know this and in general we easily succumb to the temptation to hand over personal information when signing up for free services.

Doss makes some excellent and succinct points, as when she writes that “privacy policies offer little more than a fig leaf of user notice and consent since they are cumbersome to read, difficult to understand, and individuals have few alternatives when it comes to using the major digital platforms.” She also takes aim at well-intended but ineffective cookie legislation – which have given rise to the banners you see, especially in the EU, inviting you to accept all manner of cookies when you visit a web site for the first time. “A great deal of energy and attention has gone into drafting and implementing cookie notice laws,” she says. “But it is an open question whether anyone’s privacy has actually increased.”

She also observes that we are in uncharted territory. “It turns out that all of us have been unwitting participants in a multifaceted, loosely designed program of unregulated research,” she writes.

Personally I agree that the issue is super-important and deserves more attention than it gets, so I am grateful for the book. There are a couple of issues though. One is that the reason personal data gathering has escalated so fast is that we’ve seen benefits – like free services and personalisation of advertising which reduces the amount of irrelevant material we see – but the harms are more hidden. What are the harms? Doss does identify some harms, such as reduced freedom in authoritarian regimes, or higher prices for things like Uber transport when algorithms decide what offers to show based on our willingness to pay. I would like to have seen more attention paid though to the most obvious harm of the moment, the fact that abuse of personal data and social media may have resulted in political upheavals like the election of Donald Trump as US president, or the result of the Brexit referendum in the UK. Whatever your political views, those who value democracy should be concerned; Doss gives this matter some attention but not as much as it merits, in my opinion.

Second, the big question is what can be done; and here the book is short of answers. Doss ends up arguing that we have passed the point of no return in terms of data collection. “The real challenge lies in creating sufficient restrictions to rein in the human tendency to misuse information for purposes that we’ve collectively decided are unacceptable in society,” she writes, acknowledging that how we do so remains an open question.

She says that her ambitions for the book become more modest as the research continued, ending with the hope that she has provided “a catalogue of risks and relevant questions, along with a useful framework for thinking about the future” which “may spark further, future discussions.”

Fair enough, but I would like to have seen more practical suggestions. Should we regulate more? Should Google or Facebook be broken up? As individuals, does it help if we close social media accounts and become more wary about the data that we give away?

Nevertheless I welcome this thought-provoking book and hope that it does help to stimulate the future debate for which the author hopes.

BenBella Books (3 Nov. 2020)

The Whole Truth by Cara Hunter

Set in Oxford, this crime novel continues Hunter’s series based on the cases of DI Adam Fawley. A student has accused a professor of sexual assault – and unusually, the accused is female. Separately, an old case returns to haunt Fawley and his pregnant wife Alex: a criminal whom he put away has done his time, will he attempt the revenge he swore he would exact when convicted?

It is a great read, a book which drew me in quickly and kept me absorbed. I love the fact that the author is a Colin Dexter fan who uses an anagram of Morse for the surname of one of her own fictitious detectives. The plot is full of twists, it’s super-clever, and I particularly enjoyed that last few chapters when the pieces slot into place, worked out by someone unexpected.

That said, I do have a few niggles. One is that there the two separate stories here are essentially unrelated and get almost equal attention, despite the fact that it is the incident with the professor and her student that is highlighted in the blurb and cover picture. Two plots for the price of one isn’t a bad thing, except that the second plot about Fawley’s old case is quite a bit more interesting and exciting than the one which is meant to be the main one. It’s just as well, since I doubt the book would have held my interest without it, but I do wonder if it would have been better to make this more compelling plot the main theme.

Second, I found it odd that the book is written part in first person, from Fawley’s perspective, and partly in third person. There is a bit of chronological jumping around too, but that I have no problem with. There are also illustrations featuring lots of text which are quite hard to read on a Kindle.

Still, these little annoyances did not stop me enjoying the book which was a welcome distraction in these strange days of pandemic.

Penguin. Pub Date 25 Feb 2021

Flashbacks of a Fool, a film inspired by a song

In 2008 Bond actor Daniel Craig starred in a film called Flashbacks of  a Fool, about a failing Hollywood actor (Joe) who returns to England after the death of a childhood friend.

Except it is not really about that. It is about regret and it struck a chord with me, not only because its nuanced, open approach to its subject, but also because the film is inspired by a song that is also one of my favourite’s, If there is something from Roxy Music’s first and most experimental album. And it is perhaps no coincidence that director Baillie Walsh, who is also a music video director, is the same generation as me and, it seems, shares some of my taste in music.

The film was critically panned on release and scores just 38% on Rotten Tomatoes; I feel it deserves better, with some magical moments including a wonderful scene with Felicity Jones as young Ruth, Joe’s first love, a scene which really is a music video but one into which Walsh threw all his passion for the song.

It would be wrong though just to watch this scene and think that you have seen the best of the movie. There is more to enjoy; sharply-observed humour (such as lunch with Joe and his agent at a smart LA restaurant), and other scenes which evoke the agony caused by humans behaving badly.

The closing scene returns to the same song and is again full of passion for what is lost and what might have been.

The film is what you get when someone with the means to make a film reflects on a song he loves and what it means to him. I am not sure how often this has been done; but in this case it worked for me.

Debugging Safari on an old iPad

Someone was trying to use the bridge application I have in progress, using an iPad 2.0. There were a couple of interesting things about this. One was that I had to rethink the warning thrown up, base on Modernizr, which detects incompatible web browsers. The problem (obvious when you think about it) is that if you use some potentially incompatible features in the same page where you are testing for them, then with an old web browser the JavaScript fails with a syntax error and the warning does not appear. The fix: I now show the warning by default, and the compatibility check hides it.

Still, I was interested in the Safari error and wanted to debug it, in case it was something I could fix. How do you debug Safari on an iPad?  The way it is meant to work is this:

– On a Mac, enable the Safari Develop menu (in Safari preferences, Advanced, Show Develop menu).

– On iOS, enable Safari Web Inspector (Settings – Safari – Advanced – Web Inspector).

– Connect the iPad to the Mac via USB. You can now use Web Inspector on the Mac to debug the Safari iOS pages and scripts.

This did not work for me on my Catalina Mac. The iOS Safari did not show up in the Web Inspector on Safari Mac. I could get it to show briefly, by switching Web Inspector on the iPad off and on again, but after than, no go. I tried a few things, but none of the proposed solutions I could find for this issue fixed it for me.

I have an older 2011 Mac Mini in a drawer, so I thought that might work, being a similar age to the iPad. I fired it up, marvelled at how old-fashioned the UI looked (I had reset it to OS X Lion), and connected the iPad. No go. Same problem as with Catalina.

Surprisingly, what did work were the instructions here (more or less) for debugging Safari iOS on Windows. This is based on the RemoteDebug iOS WebKit Adapter described here, a project which originated as an internal Microsoft experiment.


I did find it amusing that I could do this on Windows, having failed with the Mac.

The next generation of this is Inspect. This is in private beta, though the GitHub page for RemoteDebug says it has been superseded and to use Inspect instead.

It worked for me though.