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Does Big Brother really know where I am?

August 30, 2015
Where Google thinks I am: Queen Mary Road, Montréal, Quebec.

Where Google places me right now: Queen Mary Road in Montréal, Quebec.

At this very moment, as I sit in a McDonald’s in the 1400 block of West Broadway Avenue, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Google thinks that I’m sitting somewhere in Quebec.

In fact, Google Maps tells me that the exact address of my Wi-Fi connection is 5265 Chemin Queen Mary, Montréal, QC H3W 1Y3, Canada — latitude: 45.4841, longitude: -73.62889999999999.

Which is to say that just because Google can see everything that we do, doesn’t actually mean that it has very good eyesight.

The Internet doesn’t care about you as a person like the NSA does

Google is off by over 4,800 km, depending on the route you take between Vancouver and Montréal.

Depending on the route taken, Google’s fix on my location is off by over 4,800 km!

In fact, Google cannot map my location independently, it has to rely on information supplied by the network that I’m using — in this case, the telecommunications  infrastructure of Bell Canada, which provides McDonald’s Canada’s free Wi-Fi.

Bell’s national system doesn’t appear to care beans about where I am physically, just where, logistically-speaking, the significant point of my contact with the Bell network is.

And. if today it sees me in Montréal, Quebec, it’s a fact that Bell usually places me somewhere in Toronto, Ontario, which may go a ways to explaining why Facebook keeps emailing me lists of people that it thinks I may know, who work at Humber College and in Toronto City Hall.

The point here isn’t to say that the Internet hasn’t been turned into one giant spy eye, focused inwards on the day-to-day activities of people — it certainly has!

But people really do overestimate how accurate this automated spying is or how much the powers that be care about our every move.

The Internet certainly doesn’t care where poor people are

If the interests and methods of say, the NSA and Google, seem to overlap, that doesn’t make them collaborators more than it makes them competitors. Both are spying on people to get similar data but for very different reasons. National spy agencies like the NSA want to put people in prison. Google and the rest of social media just want to sell them stuff.

The distinction is significant. For example, unlike the NSA, Google and Facebook don’t actually care where a person is every second of the day but they do care where where someone is when they are seen to be spending money.

And no social media player shares the NSAs interest in seeing anyone go to prison (people in prison don’t generate a lot of salable metadata and neither are they the best consumers).

Of course, there is always the danger that the various national SIGINT services (the U.S. NSA, the Canadian CSE, the British GCHQ, the Austrailia ASD and the New Zealand GCSB — the so-named Five Eyes, et cetera) are accessing social media metadata and usefully using it — or at least trying to.

But this danger is somewhat offset by the generally useless nature of some of the user data that social media collects, as well as the fact that a growing quantity of such data is being encrypted.

In 2013, Google began encrypting the internal traffic between its data centres — specifically to stymie the NSA — and with the release of Android 5.0 (Lolliipop), the Nexus phone models, which are controlled by Google, have device-wide encryption turned on by default.

And in 2014 Apple began offering device encryption both in its desktop operating system, Mac OS X, and the iPhone iOS; a move which has made both the FBI and the NSA quite unhappy.

Naturally, in true dog-eat-dog fashion, it’s Google that’s been caught helping developers to get around Apple’s encryption, predictably to help them maintain their ad revenues.

But, fight amongst themselves as they will, Google and Facebook and Apple, et cetera, will actually work together to protect user data from government agencies such as the NSA, in much the same way that lions will protect their kill from hyenas.

And the scraps that these lions of the Internet leave lying around, enclair as it were, will be such useless things as my current location, which both CSIS and the NSA are welcome to have.

Have Wi-Fi — will travel

now-im-in-shaughnessy

Sunday evening update: Using my Wind Mobile Huawei Internet stick in my parkade, Google at least places me in Vancouver, B.C. but in the wealthy neighbourhood of Shaughnessy, near Osler Street and Shaughnessy Park in the Crescent — a nice place but a little over a kilometre from where I actually am. Click the images to enlarge them.

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