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Cast-off Gadgets Spy on Owners (on Purpose for a Change) 73

Eric Smalley writes "For the project, dubbed Backtalk, researchers sent refurbished Netbooks to developing countries via nonprofit organizations. They set up the computers to record location and pictures, and send the data home to MIT--with their new owners' consent... The MIT team used the data to build visual narratives about the computers' new lives."
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Cast-off Gadgets Spy on Owners (on Purpose for a Change)

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  • Heheh, it's as if google and/or facebook helped fund this research project....

    I hope they didn't catch them doin the nasty.... *shudders*

  • by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:07PM (#36871764) Homepage Journal

    I don't really buy the legitimacy claimed in the summary. Facebook, for example, has your permission to track everything you do. Lawyers love inserting clauses into every contract once they're aware of them.

    We live in a society of a million de-facto laws created by contracts that we have no real alternatives to signing if we want to maintain a modern existance. Home Owner Associations, forced arbitration agreements, "we can terminate the contract at any time for free, but you must bay $X00 to do so".

    Just because you've gotten someone to agree to something unethical, does not mean that ethical questions evaporate.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by maxume ( 22995 )

      Here's how they went about it: []

      Now you can provide a deeper explanation about how it was unethical, rather than accusatory hand-waving.

    • It might be heresy to say this on a tech site, but if you disagree with waiving the rights that a modern existence demands, there's no law against joining the plain people. (Yet.)
    • by ElectricTurtle ( 1171201 ) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:29PM (#36872066)
      I get so sick of this whiny, hypersensitive attitude that voluntary agreements aren't really voluntary if you need it. The circumstances of need are not de facto coercion, no matter how badly your entitlement mindset wants them to be.

      "Negative" aspects of agreements are essentially part of the cost weighed by actors within a market. If a person wants to choose to be part of this project instead of paying a higher upfront cost, it is to the mutual benefit of both parties. I don't see how it is unethical to give somebody an economic advantage in exchange for consent to some random images. The only argument against it that would still benefit the participants in this project is that they could afford to dispose of the equipment without the condition, which while true would offer less motivation to do so, which reduces if not eliminates supply, and so the poor get nothing.

      In the end the Hobson's Choice still provides the willing with a service they otherwise could not have. If it is really a system wherein one must accept a small negative effect to receive a larger positive effect, is it really fair for you or anybody other than the interested parties to determine that it should be nothing instead? Isn't it presumptuous to assume that just because you might not act under the same conditions, that those conditions should not be offered at all?

      In the end it's a damn better use of the devices than junking them and letting them end up in a toxic heap in the same countries to be picked over by urchins who will get lead poisoning melting them down.
      • A much shorter car analogy: I need a car. But nowhere will give me one for free, they all demand "money". And so technically I "agree" to give them my money, but I was coerced, I had no choice other than to not have a car, and so am forced against my will into giving them money. Monstrous.
        • Except the car still belongs to them because they gave you a false but guinine looking title in the first place, and that's good because you fell for it, and caveat emptor is the highest law of the land..

          • You don't understand contract law at all or the principle of caveat emptor. Fraud invalidates contracts. Period. Aside from puffery (subjective nonsense like 'ours is the best most wonderful widget since time began'), any material quantifiable misrepresentation of a good or service invalidates obligations set forth in a contract.
      • entitlement mindset

        Got it. The desire to not be abused by large corporations or via contracts (acceptance of which is not always optional) is now an "entitlement mindset." I suppose it's an "entitlement mindset" to not want our elections to be unduly influenced by corporate money.

        • Acceptance is always optional, or the contract is invalid on its face. If somebody is aiming a gun at a person and says 'sign this contract or I will kill you' then the contract is not legally binding. But of course when you say 'not optional' you mean 'because they need it!' Need is not coercion. So yes, you are not entitled to terms that are perfect for you in every way. If you want something from somebody, you play by their rules, except where otherwise prohibited by law (discrimination against protect
          • of course when you say 'not optional' you mean 'because they need it!' Need is not coercion.

            I need electricity. I do have to agree to a contract, in exchange for service. By your own logic, they are free to stick whatever terms in there they want and I am bound to them. Otherwise I can fight them in court (and they can just outspend me) or just "do without" because I don't need electricity.

            If you want something from somebody, you play by their rules

            I see. So all power to the provider, none to the consumer.

            • Except this is wrong. You don't *need* electricity from the power company. You *can* do without - Light and heat can be generated by other methods(burning wood, gas, etc), refrigeration as well.
              And if you *do* need electricity for some specific thing, you can always setup a couple of batteries, inverter and charge them with your choice of method: Solar, wind, gas generator, or even using your vehicle to charge them on the way to work.
              So, yes. It may be a Hobson's Choice... But you *do* have the choice to ju

            • If it was worth it to me to spend the money, I could buy the material necessary to generate my own power. (Some people do this so effectively that the utility company pays them for the power they are putting into the grid.) Ditto for food and water, any number of things. Just because ordering off the shelf is more convenient and more common doesn't mean there is no choice. Further, it might surprise you to learn that electricity is not actually required for you to live, and that a lot of people had healthy
      • I normally don't engage in sensitive angry posting on the Internet because I feel it violates the ethos of a reasonable society. I feel compelled to make an exception in this case because you have personally insulted me because of my political opinion. Your beliefs in this case make you a terrible person.

        I state the following without any intention of hyperbole: You are the kind of person that would allow slavery and the selling of ones children into slavery. That's the rational end-point of "contracts-as-

        • This is the second time somebody has said that this necessarily leads to selling children into slavery. Its so distorted and disingenuous I can't imagine where you get off calling me a terrible person. Selling children into slavery implies involuntary actors, whether they be de facto or de jure, and so are excluded from possible scenarios of voluntary acts as a class. It's quite ludicrous, but you are so desperate to defend your mindset that there is no emotional appeal you won't sink to using, even if it i
          • Contracts establish involountary actors. That's the point of a contract in your system. You must do what the contract says as long as it's legally signed.

            What I get now is you are saying you exclude parents the right to sign contracts on their behalf. This is the usual justification those arguing from your point go to. I wasn't unaware of this justification. Who then can make choices on behalf of children? Themselves? How much leeway do they get? What are the limitations? The point of my jab is not

      • by Hatta ( 162192 )

        Ok, sure. Let's withhold something you need, let's say air, and see what you're willing to agree to. Are you going to argue that such an agreement was reached voluntarily?

        I suspect you are not. If you allow that such an agreement is not voluntary, all that's left to decide is where we draw the line. Or in other words, what really constitutes a "need".

        In the end, it's not even philosophically coherent to speak about voluntary agreements and coercion. Such arguments rely on fictional concepts like free

        • Irrational. A monopoly on air is impossible, as is water (it comes from the sky, lol), and so, effectively, is food (unless you can dig up a historical monopoly thereof, for which I would be quite impressed).

          So if impossible conditions suddenly came to pass whereby things which were necessary conditions for life were attached to unreasonable terms, then yes, that could be construed as coercion. When this hypothetical ever becomes true let me know, then we can figure out how to apply ethics therein.

          And a
  • The Slashdot title implies some breach of privacy but the article says it was with the owners consent. Is there any evidence that it is actually spying? Was it hidden in some clause in the small print or was it an optional opt-in? Or is it just another sensationalist Slashdot headline?

    • by Flipao ( 903929 )
      New owner: Wait, you were spying on me?
      MIT voyeur: Hey you agreed to this, it's in the EULA!
      • by maxume ( 22995 )

        They attached stickers with text explaining the project (in the local languages).

        • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *
          Still doesn't make it ethical and it's questionably legal depending on local laws. Some terrorist organizations offer to pay the families of suicide bombers a fair amount of cash if they blow themselves up. These people agree. Does that make it legal and ethical?
          • by maxume ( 22995 )

            Yeah, but it sort of hollows out the whole argument with the user claiming they were unaware.

            And I'd be a lot more interested in what aspects you find unethical and what laws you think were broken than I am in an analogy that isn't quite related to the situation.

            • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *

              One of the pictures for example shows a classroom. In many countries it is illegal to publish or broadcast pictures of minors without the explicit consent of the parents. Not civil illegal. Criminal illegal. That's just one possibility. Not to mention that this software takes pictures randomly or at 20 minute intervals. I am sure the owner of the machine has not obtained permission from anyone who happens to be in the background or explained the whole process to them. Nor are any of those people obtaining a

              • by maxume ( 22995 )

                You is flailing around a bit. I pushed back on your comment because it was general and reactionary.

                You've explained why you think there might be something illegal about the pictures. You apparently don't have a concrete example of something that is illegal about the pictures (this isn't a terrible thing, but it speaks to why I find your comment reactionary).

                You still haven't explained what you think is unethical about the project.

                I never said that I needed legislation in order to distinguish between right a

        • So they weren't spying.

          spying (Verb)
          1. Work for an organization by secretly collecting information about enemies or competitors.
          2. Observe (someone) furtively. (Furtive: 1. Attempting to avoid notice or attention; secretive.)

          As it wasn't done secretly and the users were made aware of this then maybe "monitoring" would be a better word.

          I'm going to abstain from Slashdot's knee-jerk "OMFG SPIES!" reaction for now until there's some evidence either way. I stopped reading Slashdot about a year ago because most

      • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *
        What about all the other people in the photos. Did they agree to be spied on too, or can the owner of the machine waive their rights for them too? This is a highly unethical project and MIT should be ashamed of having their name associated with it.
        • At least, in the US, if they're in a public place they waive that right.
          Until you know what laws apply in the country in question, don't make assumptions.

  • [] Just think if all our junk could just tell us where they were and how much they like there new homes we would never need to hoard anything. I know my feelings of "what happened to (so and so)" would appease my feelings and I would feel much better. And I guess also if the equipment is being treated badly I could go and get it back and just keep it. Kind of like the Island of Misfit toys, until someone really wanted them. I can just see it - 1 calculator to a good h
  • Finally (Score:5, Funny)

    by PPH ( 736903 ) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:58PM (#36872502)

    I'll get a look at that Nigerian who is sending me all those e-mails.

  • What a disgusting, exploitative project. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves. I can't even imagine the mindset of these people - do something nice like sending the refurbished netbooks to less privileged people, but then ruin it by recording the users like zoo animals and publishing pictures of them. The rich, privileged, snotty kids responsible should learn some compassion and respect for those less fortunate than them! If this is some attempt to demonstrate how great recycling/refurbishing

To do two things at once is to do neither. -- Publilius Syrus