Weekend News Round-up: Surveillance face-off, big data and you

3 Jun 2014

In our weekend news round up surveillance issues raise their ugly head in terms of the NSA allegedly harvesting images of millions of peoples’ faces; the advent of self-driving cars could also provide surveillance data; and Rocket Internet is planning a US$4bn IPO.

Face off!

The New York Times reported that the NSA is allegedly harvesting huge numbers of images of people from communications that it intercepts through its global surveillance operations for use in sophisticated facial recognition programs.

“The spy agency’s reliance on facial recognition technology has grown significantly over the last four years as the agency has turned to new software to exploit the flood of images included in emails, text messages, social media, videoconferences and other communications, the N.S.A. documents reveal. Agency officials believe that technological advances could revolutionise the way that the N.S.A. finds intelligence targets around the world, the documents show. The agency’s ambitions for this highly sensitive ability and the scale of its effort have not previously been disclosed.

“The agency intercepts ‘millions of images per day’ — including about 55,000 ‘facial recognition quality images’ — which translate into ‘tremendous untapped potential,’ according to 2011 documents obtained from the former agency contractor Edward J. Snowden. While once focused on written and oral communications, the N.S.A. now considers facial images, fingerprints and other identifiers just as important to its mission of tracking suspected terrorists and other intelligence targets, the documents show.”

Self-driving cars and surveillance

Wired reported that self-driving cars will be the trigger that will turn surveillance into a mainstream worry.

“It’s quite clear: for most people, the link between government surveillance and freedom is more plainly understood by cars, rather than personal computers. As more and more objects become connected to the Internet these questions will grow in importance. And cars in particular might become, as Ryan Calo puts it in a 2011 article on drones, ‘a privacy catalyst’; an object giving us an opportunity to drag our privacy laws into the 21st century; an object that restores our mental model of what a privacy violation is.

“When my grandmother starts to consider technologically-enabled constraints on how she can drive; or people knowing exactly where she can go—abstract issues of “autonomy” and “privacy” become much more real.”

Rocket Internet planning US$4bn IPO

Bloomberg reported that Rocket Internet GmbH, the online startup investor founded by Germany’s Samwer brothers, is planning an initial public offering that may value the company at more than €3 billion ($4 billion), according to two people familiar with the situation.

“Rocket is working with Berenberg, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley on a share sale that’s planned for Frankfurt later this year, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing a private matter. Berlin-based Rocket, which calls itself the world’s largest Internet incubator, has investments in more than 75 companies including online retailer Zalando SE.

“Food-delivery startup Just Eat Plc and King Digital Entertainment Plc (KING), the creator of Candy Crush games, are among companies that have gone public this year, even as investors are cautious about how new businesses will generate profits. The STOXX 600 Technology Index has fallen this year in an otherwise rising market.

“Rocket and its ventures have received over 2 billion euros in external funding, according to Swedish holding company Investment AB Kinnevik. (KINVB) The Samwer brothers, Alexander, Marc and Oliver, founded Rocket in 2007.”

Big data’s unhealthy interest in you

One of the downsides of the big data revolution is consumers’ information could be potentially for sale, according to CNN Money.

“That’s because some data brokers are collecting information from the surveys you take, websites you visit, products you buy and mobile apps you use to create lists of consumers with certain health issues or medical conditions. They then sell this information to marketers and other companies.

“Diabetes, depression, herpes, yeast infections, erectile dysfunction and bed-wetting are just a few of the highly sensitive conditions for which consumer lists are available.

“Federal law dictates that this information can’t be used to deny anyone for a job or insurance coverage. But with little transparency about who is buying and using these lists, lawmakers and federal regulators say they are worried about other potentially harmful ways the information might be used.”

Google plans a fleet of satellites

The Wall Street Journal reported that Google plans to spend more than US$1 billion on a fleet of satellites to extend Internet access to unwired regions of the globe

“Details remain in flux, the people said, but the project will start with 180 small, high-capacity satellites orbiting the earth at lower altitudes than traditional satellites, and then could expand.

“Google’s satellite venture is led by Greg Wyler, founder of satellite-communications startup O3b Networks Ltd., who recently joined Google with O3b’s former chief technology officer, the people said. Google has also been hiring engineers from satellite company Space Systems/Loral LLC to work on the project, according to another person familiar with the hiring initiative.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years