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iPhone 4S’ Siri and EU privacy law November 7, 2011

Posted by Brandon in Technology Forum - the Art.
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Since the release of the iPhone 4S, some consumers have discovered troubling technological gaps in its new marquee feature.  Siri, known as Apple’s “humble personal assistant”, is raising privacy concerns.  But this shouldn’t be surprising even to the most loyal of Apple product lovers.

Released on the new iPhone 4S, Siri can be asked questions, make appointments, dictate text and activate numerous commands with normal language.  It can also answer the user’s questions and comments using normal speech.  However, Siri does not appear to deactivate when the iPhone is locked, meaning that even password protection will not stop Siri from functioning with an unauthorized user.  As MacWorld found, “we had a PCWorld editor pick up my locked iPhone 4S, activate Siri, and compose a resignation letter that was sent from my MacWorld email address”.  While this was performed on the default Siri setting, it appears that even modifying the settings does not stop this functionality.

Apart from unauthorized use, Apple may be capable of collecting personal information through Siri.  While just an interface, meaning that Siri doesn’t collect or store information, but rather transmits it, the information given Siri is saved to Apple’s local servers.  Not your iPhone. This ostensibly allows Apple to collect personally identifiable information, including the iPhone 4S user’s first and last name, relationships with address book contacts, and other personal data.

Technically however, this should not surprise users as Apple has their consent to this collection once users clicked through a license to get the ios5 update.  Under Apple’s software license agreement, part 4(c), those who download the ios5 software update, “agree and consent to Apple’s and its subsidiaries’ and agents’ transmission, collection, maintenance, processing and use of this information, including your voice input and User Data, to provide and improve Siri and other Apple products and services”.  Some have argued that this release makes phone hacking legal under Apple’s terms, but this has yet to be tested.

Assuming Apple makes no modification to affect their license or does not otherwise address unauthorized use of Siri, some consumers could consider taking action to protect the use and distribution of their personal information.

Apart from common law actions, domestic and foreign privacy legislation has been enacted to protect citizens’ personal information.  Unfortunately, US privacy law is not well-developed, and otherwise emphasizes self-regulation.  US regulations have been developed on an ad hoc basis, often after a problem has developed, making the legal protections particularly fact and industry specific. This reactionary approach could be attributed to American laissez-faire economics or the 1st amendment in the US, coupled with the precedent of only implicit privacy rights being recognized in US courts (See Griswold v. Connecticut).  What is more, the Patriot Act has arguably been used to undermine general concepts of privacy.  While this may finally force the court’s to determine privacy rights, fortunately some states including Massachusetts have taken the lead in addressing privacy concerns through direct regulation of the use and collection of personal information.

Conversely, iPhone 4s users in the EU and United Kingdom are currently better situated to protect their privacy rights.  Data privacy law in the European Union is a highly developed and constantly evolving area and has been given considerable political attention when compared to the United States.  Remarkably there are no less than three directives directly on point to the protection of digital information.  Personal information under these directives is defined very broadly, covering “any information relating to an identified or identifiable person”. Directive 95/46/EC, known as the Data Protection Directive, protects member state’s citizens from the unauthorized processing of personal data.  Accordingly, Directive 2009/136/EC or the Cookie Directive, personal info collected over the internet must remain confidential and citizens must opt into communications. Directive 2002/58/EC, or the E-Privacy Directive, further regulates the use of internet cookies, spam, user location information and the transmission of that digital data.  However, none of these laws appear to protect anonymized or aggregated data.

In the United Kingdom, the Data Protection Act of 1998 was enacted in part to bring the UK in line with the Data Protection Directive.   However, similar to EU regulations, this UK privacy law does not cover anonymized or aggregated data. While this provision plays more to Apple’s favor, EU member states will certainly have powerful tools to compel Apple to take this newly-discovered Siri matter seriously.

*Update 3/15/12: Apple among 18 firms sued for privacy-invasion in mobile apps.


Google Power October 12, 2011

Posted by Brandon in Technology Forum - the Art.
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Google’s services are generally free, but they’re not cheap.  While it is the pre-eminent source for search, cloud and increasingly mobile technology, Google has entered a new market over the last few years…Energy.  Last month, Google began offering solar panel installation packages for residential properties to support its energy consumption.  However this is not Google’s first investment in energy exploration, and it likely won’t be the last.

Data centers full of servers store and run Google’s technology, and it uses a lot of electricity.  A single data center can gobble up enough energy to power a city of 40,000 people, and Google has almost forty around the world.  “Brown” energy, or energy created from coal and oil, is expensive and shown to be environmentally hazardous.  Google had trouble finding energy investments or companies to develop new tools, so as they “do no evil”, Google moved into investing in green technology and support its development independantly.

This led Google to found a new arm of the company, known as Google Green.  Google strives to use green technology and energy to power their data centers and promote the use of sustainable energy in general.  While Google is notoriously secretive, CEO Eric Schmidt admits that “energy prices drive the cost of Google”, and the lack of green energy development inspired the company to begin investing in the technology itself.  Internally, Google is developing new materials to replace mirrors on solar-thermal farms, which dramatically cuts manufacturing costs.  It already has installed 1.6 megawatts of solar panels on its facilities, which now cover 30% of Google’s operating power needs.

In the first stages of developing green technology, Google partnered with General Electric in 2008, and began developing its own technology in 2009.  Since then, it has invested in wind farms in North Dakota, California and Oregon along with solar projects in California and Germany.  Google’s most well known projects include a $168 million investment in 2011 for a solar thermal development in California’s Mojave Desert, which could supply energy to nearby locations like Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

However, Google’s most ambitious plan involves funding and developing a “superhighway” of huge waterproof wiring to be installed off the US eastern coastline, with the goal of creating the infrastructure for large wind farms in the Atlantic.

The most recent project of supplying residential solar panels launched last month.  Under the plan, Google will finance and own the solar panel installations, and will collect fees from homeowners as well as energy subsidies from the federal government.  In return, homeowners are provided with free solar panels and installation along with the right to buy the solar energy which is collected from their own roofs.  Residential solar panel installation would otherwise cost upwards of $30,000, and the monthly “energy fee” Google will charge homeowners to use the power should be less than the local utility bills.  Indeed, for Google “it’s an opportunity to significantly expand the market” for green energy.  Certainly, much of this power would be harnessed for Google or its investor’s purposes.

Which leads to the current political “climate” for green energy.  The Obama administration is in an uncomfortable position of justifying it’s guaranteed $500 million to the solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, which subsequently filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy and laid off all its workers earlier this year.  Despite this, at the end of last month President Obama approved two more solar panel loans for $1 billion.  In Massachusetts, the company Evergreen was given $58 million in state and federal credits, only to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy as well.

Certainly the green energy sector is in need for an overhaul, and requires commercial support apart from government subsidies.  To compete with China, which provides subsidizes in the billions of dollars to it’s green energy sector, the US green energy industry needs a massive boost.  Maybe Google is just trying to do its part.  The Obama administration would certainly appreciate someone else footing the bill for a little while.

Trademarks in Notre Dame and Michigan throwback uniforms September 15, 2011

Posted by Brandon in Technology Forum - the Art.
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This last weekend with the Notre Dame and Michigan football rivalry underway, I wanted to examine the trademark background of their commemorative uniforms.  Adidas released throwback uniforms for both teams for the game, with a more pronounced Adidas mark.

Before going into some preliminary research on the trademark rights in the designs, it would be helpful to outline some basic trademark concepts and practices.  The power to protect and enforce trademarks comes from the Lanham Act, and from state law.  A trademark can be anything from words and symbols, to colors and sounds, but in order to obtain ownership over that mark, there must be an intent to use it.

Deciding whether to register a mark is very important.  While it can be expensive and time consuming, the benefits often far outweigh the burdens.  Registration improves your ability to enforce the mark because registered marks get nationwide priority and apply retroactively against unregistered marks.  Registered marks are categorized by design codes, and made publicly available to the world to place everyone on constructive notice of their existence.  A registered mark becomes uncontestable for five years, and as long as the mark is in use, the rights to the mark are indefinite.  Rights to unregistered marks are also indefinite, but it more difficult to prove continued use because registered marks carry a presumption of intention to use.

The University of Michigan claims to have registered at least five marks, and claim rights to all iterations of the classic “M” logo.  There are also a dozen or more marks which Michigan considers protected without registration.  If Michigan had to enforce these registered and unregistered marks, the process for each could be significantly different.

When a trademark application is filed, the Patent and Trademark Office [PTO] conducts a search of existing marks and examines the distinctiveness of the mark from others.  Arbitrary marks that have no relation to the product, for example “apple” for computers, have a high level of distinctiveness, and accordingly enforceability.  However, marks which are only descriptive, such as “M” for Michigan, would require a secondary meaning to be protected.  Secondary meaning would be granted if the mark clearly denotes a single source or meaning, such as immediately signaling a brand.  After years of use, the Michigan “M” in the context of its color and shape would likely pass, but the analysis could be contentious.

The distinction that is important to recognize is that if a mark is registered, this process takes place in the PTO, where examiners are presumably knowledgeable and specialize in certain marks.  Unregistered marks would be litigated in court.  This is a much more expensive process, and presents more risk to a disputed trademark owner.  For example, the party challenging the mark can show there is consumer confusion between the mark at issue and another mark through public surveys.  Depending on the scope of these surveys, rights to the contested mark could be lost forever.

It is unclear why Michigan has not attempted to register the dozen or so other marks, but it could be because they do not appear to be very distinct, or even original.  The PTO may have already rejected them outright.  Interestingly, the shamrock image on the Notre Dame helmet for this uniform does not appear to have been registered.  As the shamrock image is prolific, there may be litigation over this uniform in the future.

“Li-Fi”: wireless communications through light August 24, 2011

Posted by Brandon in Technology Forum - the Art.
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Imagine if you could access the internet by connecting to your desk lamp or a street light?  Harald Haas is developing the technology.

Last month, Dr. Haas gave a “TED talk” to audiences in the UK to present this technology and discuss its implications.  TED talks are presented by TED conferences LLC, a nonprofit established in 1984 devoted to spreading ideas from innovators in technology, entertainment and design [TED]. Speakers are invited to present at two annual conferences where attendance fees are charged, but then the videos of the event are copyrighted, released and shared under a license from creative commons.  The license, CC BY-NC-ND v. 3.0, permits the right to copy, distribute and transmit the video of TED presentations so long as the authors are attributed in the work and the video is not modified or used for commercial purposes.  Accordingly, by attributing TED conferences LLC and Harald Haas as the original source of these materials, I may share the contents of the video in which the following idea was presented.

D-Light Technology

Harald Haas, a professor at Edinburgh University and inventor of numerous patents, has developed a technology he calls D-Light, which can access the internet wirelessly using light instead of radio frequency (“RF”) waves.  He considers wireless communications a type of utility, much like water or electricity.  However, like other utilities, wireless communications have problems which limit the scope and usefulness of the technology.

Namely, Dr. Haas identifies four problems with wireless communications: capacity, efficiency, availability and security.  Capacity issues arise with RF because of bandwidth, efficiency issues with the majority of energy going to cooling base stations, lack of availability in RF reception, and security issues with the potential of RF signals to be intercepted and transmission through walls.  The use of light to replace RF solves all of these issues, explains Dr. Haas.

The D-Light technology itself comes from a microchip which is inserted into an existed LED lightbulb.  The technology uses a “mathematical trick” called OFDM, or orthogonal frequency division multiplexing, which quickly turns the LED lightbulb on and off at a rate indistinguishable with the human eye.  The OFDM is a special modulation of the LED to enable the light source to transmit data.  Ordinary RF waves send binary code to receivers through individuals lines, but OFDM technology in an LED bulb sends thousands of streams of binaries in parallel to other devices in a much wider spectrum, increasing processing and bandwidth.  In the video, Dr. Haas demonstrates the transmission of a high definition video through a desk lamp bulb transmitter.

Certainly, the implications of a successful trial of this technology is profound.  Lights are available anywhere, as Dr. Haas notes, from hospitals to aircraft to smartphones and deep-sea remote machines.  Dr. Haas addresses concerns that multiple light sources can distort the reception, and dismisses the possibility.  He says that the D-Light technology addresses all of the four concerns with wireless communication systems.  Regarding capacity and availability, light bulbs are abundant, nearly 14 billion worldwide by his estimates with capacity 10,000x that of RF, so an infrastructure already exists.  As lights are on the scale of the electromagnetic spectrum between infra-red and ultra-violet, the technology is safe and efficient.  Finally from a security standpoint, Dr. Haas says that light cannot easily move through walls, which limits access.  All that we need to do is replace incandescent lightbulbs with the semiconductor LED bulbs.

Patent Concerns

One of the first questions any investor, or skeptic of the technology, will ask is whether Dr. Haas has a patent.  It appears he did.  However, the patent application that he filed for this technology, which he calls “optical free space data transmission”, was assigned to Airbus in Germany.  This is reflected in all of his patent applications for the technology in the US, the EU, Japan, China and a few other nations.

The patent itself, US patent application number 20110069958, is described in the abstract as an invention that relates to “an aircraft data communication system as well as an aircraft comprising such a data communication system, in particular a wireless optical communication system inside an aircraft cabin and outside for aircraft services”.  While this wouldn’t appear at first glance to include the use of ‘D-Light’ technology outside of an aircraft, the patent laws are notoriously vague and patent claims in the past have been interpreted to extend well beyond the original embodiment.  One compelling critique of the US patent system argued that inventors can hide claims, and even if there was access to those claims, they are hard to interpret. Moreover the authors argue, even the interpretation of a claim could change over time, which is further diluted by the fact that clear unambiguous claims are still very expensive to research and locate.  See James Bessen and Michael J. Meurer, Patent Failure: How Judges, Bureaucrats, and Lawyers Put Innovators at Risk, Princeton Univ. Press (2009).  Therefore, the possibility arises that Airbus could sue and enjoin Dr. Haas from further developing this technology.

Would this be an unlikely event?  Dr. Haas has two other patent applications in 2011 that could be similar to his D-Light technology; a “method and apparatus for scheduling information” (Patent application # 20110143799), and a “mobile and base station transceiver apparatus for communicating (Patent application # 20110003611).  Please feel free to leave general or specific comments below.

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