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I wouldn’t trust Google with my personal info

When I read in the pages of this newspaper this month that the Conservative Party was planning to transfer people’s health data to Google, my heart sank. The policy described was so naive I could only hope that it was an unapproved kite-flying exercise by a young researcher in Conservative HQ. If not, what was proposed was both dangerous in its own right, and hazardous to the public acceptability of necessary reforms to the state’s handling of our private information.

There are powerful arguments for people owning their own information and having rights to control it. There are massive weaknesses in the NHS’s bloated central database and there are benefits from using the private sector. But there are also enormous risks, so we are still a long step from being able to give personal data to any company, let alone Google.

Google is the last company I would trust with data belonging to me. In the words of human rights watchdog Privacy International, Google has “a history of ignoring privacy concerns. Every corporate announcement has some new practice involving surveillance”. It gave Google the lowest possible assessment rating: “hostile to privacy”. It was the only company of the 20 assessed to get this rating. It also said Google was leading a “race to the bottom” among internet firms, many of which did little to protect their users.

This highlights how careful we must be in using private companies to handle personal data. Actual and potential misuse of such data will be a recurrent public concern of the next several decades. This is because of the huge commercial value of a near-monopoly internet presence, combined with legally unfettered use of personal data. This is what gives Google a market capitalisation of $130 billion (£79 billion). It represents the value of exploiting its customers’ private data for commercial ends.

There is little the state can do about this. It cannot cut back Google’s monopoly, because it arises properly from the fact that Google provides a service people want. The state should impose some limits on how personal data is managed, anonymised and used, but that is a slow, technically difficult and international process. We should not disapprove of the profitability of Google, but we should recognise that the size of its profits have a dramatic effect on corporate behaviour.

It was the prospect of huge profits that pushed Google into its amoral deal with China and drove its high- handed approach to the intrusion on people’s privacy with Streetview. ()

(via Paul Gilroy)

Britain’s dirty little secret as a dumper of toxic waste

Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, ordered an investigation into two British companies linked to 90 shipping containers containing 1,400 tonnes of waste. They included syringes, condoms and nappies. The companies that received the waste — sent from Felixstowe to three Brazilian ports — said that they had been expecting recyclable plastic.

In a separate case, the Ministry of Defence was unable to explain how one of its computers was found by The Times on a notorious dump on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana. Children as young as 5 extract scrap metal from electrical items there and are exposed to potentially lethal chemicals.

Inspectors from Brazil’s environment agency, Ibama, found hospital waste in several containers, reportedly including bags of blood. Another container was full of dirty toys with a note in Portuguese saying they should be washed before being given to “poor Brazilian children”.

Ingrid Oberg, an Ibama official, who opened containers found in the port of Santos on national television news, said: “Whoever put this rubbish into the containers in the UK knew what they were doing and knew where they were going, so it is a criminal act. England needs to assume responsibility.”

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(Hat tip: Paul Gilroy)

From anger into change

It was in 1976 that the office of No 10 was first criticised as an ‘elective dictatorship‘. Thirty years later and now the Prime Minister hasn’t even been elected to his supreme position, while his First Secretary of State, and arguably the most powerful member of the Cabinet, sits in the Lords. So too do six other Ministers. Perhaps we should be grateful that at least his constituents voted for Gordon Brown to be an MP. Such is the way we are now ruled.

It is putting our democracy, and perhaps British politics itself, at risk. A symptom of this is mass abstention. In last month’s Euro election only one voter in eleven voted Conservative and this made them the winners! (One in eighteen voted Labour).

The combination of a weakened democracy and strengthened executive is very dangerous, as, to take just one notable example, our liberties themselves are imperilled by an extraordinary expansion of surveillance and controls that is permitted by the spinelessness of a suborned parliament. This is far from the only area where the controlling instinct of an over-centralised state constantly lobbied by vested interests and unchecked by countervailing power is doing great harm, think of what the City has got away with. Critical coverage in the media has helped limit the damage. But for all its welcome noise this is not much more than the proverbial dogs barking at the caravan.

At last there are signs of a breakthrough. The expenses outrage has aroused the public from its lethargy. The awakening was long overdue. Larger scandals, from the financial crash to mendacious wars, were the real weight that broke the public’s trust. The exposure of MPs’ house flipping, moat cleaning and attitude of entitlement were just the last straw. Today, voters desire for change could prove irresistible – provided it can gain and retain its full voice.

But the political class is showing every sign that it thinks it can isolate and manage the anger. ()

Gravity Sucks

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Gravity Sucks brings together for the first time the complete series of Simon Faithfull‘s Escape Vehicles, seven quixotic artworks that utilise an assortment of balloons, insects and rockets to offer the viewer the idea of freeing themselves from the constraints of gravity.

Faithfull’s works can be seen as an ongoing investigation into the incomprehensible scale of the earth as an object. The Escape Vehicles employ video cameras, transmission systems and drawing devices as measuring tools to define size, time and distance, and the experiments often involve travel either by the artist himself or by cameras sent out as surrogate, dispassionate eyes.

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Resting place of choice

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Marx had arrived in London in 1849 as a German émigré and took up permanent residence there. He last lived in Kentish Town, in north London, not far from Highgate Cemetery. Marx had originally been buried in a far corner of the cemetery, some 100 yards from the current site, in the same grave as his wife Jenny, whose death had preceded his by 15 months. That grave was topped by a simple ground-level plaque that recorded their birth and death dates. But as the grave increasingly became a pilgrimage site, with visitors complaining of difficulties in locating it, the British Communist Party in the mid-1950s re-interred the remains of Marx and his extended family in a more prominent setting. The old gravestone was incorporated into the face of the new monument, designed by Lawrence Bradshaw.

In the last few decades, a number of leading international reformers and revolutionaries have chosen to be buried in the vicinity of Marx’s grave.

Just across the path from Marx is the impressive flat gravestone of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an evolutionary biologist and free-market proponent. The two would not have seen eye to eye in their lifetimes, but in death they remain fixed in each other’s sights. This eastern sector arguably contains the wider range of personages, if you add in people like Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Sir Ralph Richardson, the actor.

Burials are ongoing, though the eastern half has the greater selection of available plots. One newcomer is Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian dissident turned critic who was murdered in London by poisoning in 2006. All told, some 170,000 people are now buried here.

Highgate Cemetery remains a kind of masked ball of treasures. Increasingly it’s becoming a wildlife sanctuary, and the place continues to live on in the imagination. In Audrey Niffenegger’s forthcoming supernatural-tinged novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, the cemetery takes on the near-role of a character, as two American identical twins end up inheriting an apartment not far from its gates. As Melville wrote elsewhere, “Something further may follow of this masquerade.”

Sanaa’s summer pavilion brings sunshine to the Serpentine

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Made of enormous sheets of aluminium polished to a mirror finish, and supported by slender stainless steel columns, the structure makes the raindrops look quite beautiful: the ceiling reflects them as they fall, so they seem to go up to the heavens, as well as down to earth. All we need is some trippy music and the pavilion, designed by the Japanese architectural collaborative Sanaa, will be complete.

This is clearly a good way to experience the structure, which was unveiled yesterday. As Ryue Nishizawa, one of Sanaa’s two founding partners, says: “The pavilion is designed to amplify the way things look.” But, as well as playing visual tricks, the swooping roofs, rising up from the ground to the canopies of trees and back down again, also amplify incidental sound: birdsong, the clip-clopping of horses, the thrum of passing traffic.

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* SANAA : kazuyo sejima + ryue nishizawa


Zaha Hadid’s Billowing, Temporary Music Hall

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As the culmination of this year’s Manchester International Festival, the organizers decided to put on a program of solo works by Bach. The only problem was that they didn’t have a suitable chamber-music hall. So they approached Zaha Hadid to design a temporary one, and she obliged, with a ribbon of fabric that swirls around inside the Manchester Art Gallery.

The translucent fabric is supported by a steel frame, which itself is suspended from the ceiling. The form, according to Hadid’s press release, is meant to respond to Bach’s intricate harmonies, and it does so by looping around the performer and audience. Not that the design was pure whimsy: The scale and shape were tweaked for acoustic considerations, which are paramount in what would otherwise be an echoing white box of a space. In particular, acrylic panels, designed to give the room the perfect amount of resonance, were hidden within the ribbon, and around the stage.

The installation is up for the duration of the festival, which ends on July 18.

10 Latin quotes for the underground

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Mary Beard in TLS:

Last week it was reported that the drivers on the Piccadilly line would be adding some well chosen quotes to their announcements on the underground: “Hell is other people”, “Beauty will save the world” and other appropriate thoughts for a commuting journey.

Surely, with Boris as Mayor, there ought to be some real Latin among the anglophone platitudes. Indeed, a surprising number of the best known Latin quotes turn out to be surprisingly appropriate for the journey to work. In no particular order:

1. “perfer et obdura! dolor hic tibi proderit olim” — or “Be patient and put up with it; one day this pain will pay dividends”. That’s Ovid (Amores III, XIa) reflecting on the insults of his mistress — but fits well enough for the rush hour commute.

2 “quousque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra” — or “How long Catiline will you abuse our patience?”. The famous first line of Cicero’s first speech against Catiline, attacking the would-be revolutionary (or innocent stooge), Catiline. But you can substitute any adversary for Catiline.. ‘quousque tandem abutere, Boris, patientia nostra?”

3. “arma virumque cano” — or “Arms and the man I sing”. The most famous line in the whole of Latin poetry, the first line of the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid. Though Virgil didn’t exactly mean the arms of the man digging into your side, as you’re stuck in the tunnel between Covent Garden and Leicester Square.

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Augmented Reality App Points to London Tube Stops

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Though much of the work being done in augmented reality has thus far been of the gimmicky, flashing, ad-centric sort—more proof of concept than truly functional—the clever iPhone developers at acrossair are putting it to fantastic use with their new app, Nearest Tube. Taking advantage of the iPhone 3GS’ integrated compass, Nearest Tube merges GPS, compass, and video camera data to create a real-time overlay of the position and proximity of, as the name implies, the nearest tube stations.