One of the first things most of us learn about computers is that they are
not particularly smart; they only do the things that they have been told to
do. Sometimes telling a computer to do something can be a long and
repetitive process, bringing into question the benefits of the whole
exercise. As developers work to improve the experience of using computers,
they find themselves trying to enable those computers to make more educated
guesses about what the user may want to do. The technology to make those
guesses is improving, but it brings risks as well as benefits. How much do
we really want our computers to know - and tell - about what we are doing?
The Zeitgeist project aims to
make desktop systems more helpful by keeping close track of what the user
has been doing. Its developers describe it this way:
Zeitgeist is a service which logs the [user's] activities and
events, anywhere from files opened to websites visited and
conversations, and makes this information readily available for
other applications to use.
Zeitgeist is ostensibly independent of any specific desktop, but it seems
to be driven more from the GNOME side of the house than any other. The
fact that it has recently been entirely rewritten in the Vala language and
proposed as an official GNOME module
tend to reinforce that impression. Canonical has been putting in some of
the development effort and Unity makes use of Zeitgeist. Tools like the GNOME Activity
Journal also obtain information from Zeitgeist.
The Zeitgeist use cases
page makes it clear that the plan is to create a comprehensive
mechanism for the tracking, analysis, and sharing of user activity. Some
Tim and Joe are doing research on dinosaurs for a school
project. They both set their browser activities to shared and
always know what pages the other one is looking at. Using IM they
can easily talk about them without having to exchange links.
Daniel was at a conference a week ago and wants to remember what
computer resources (files, websites, contacts, etc.) he used
there. He opens the Journal, sets up a location filter and thanks
to geolocation data gets a list of everything he wants.
Undoubtedly there are a lot of useful things that can be done with this
kind of tracking data. But there is also a possible down side; what
happens if a detailed log of a user's activities gets into the wrong hands?
The Zeitgeist "about"
page has a rather unsatisfactory response to this concern: don't run
untrusted applications on your system. Certainly that is good advice, but
it also misses part of the point.
One can easily imagine an untrusting employer routinely examining the
activity logs on all of its computers; it would be a shame, after all, if
an employee were to be doing something unproductive on the job. This kind
of information would be even more useful to governments that, for good
reasons or bad, seek to know what somebody has been up to. The activity
log could be a gold mine for inquisitive spouses, concerned parents, or
curious roommates. This log could also open up a victim's life to any sort
of successful malware attack. The advice to avoid running untrusted
applications really only addresses the last of those concerns, and it is a
partial response at best.
A somewhat improved response can be seen in this
post from Zeitgeist developer Seif Lotfy. He has been working on the
Vala port of the "activity log manager" (ALM), a tool for controlling the
information tracked by Zeitgeist. Using ALM, it is possible to configure
the system to forget events after a specific period of time - or to disable
logging entirely. It is also possible to turn off logging involving
specific types of files (videos or email messages, say), directories, or
applications. After a proper bit of configuration, one's boss can see that
flurry of spreadsheet activity but will remain unaware of all the time
spent in a web browser.
This kind of configurability is a step in the right direction, but it is
still a partial response at best. There will undoubtedly be legions of
users who are unaware that this logging is happening at all; they are
unlikely to find the utility to fine-tune that logging. Even users who
want the functionality provided by this logging may find themselves
reconsidering after their activity is exposed to the wrong person.
For a certain class of user, the answer will be to simply turn off features
like Zeitgeist altogether - once they become aware of such features. But
even the most paranoid among us find ourselves, at times, wishing that our
computers were a little smarter in their interaction with us. Many
(probably most) of us want the computer to understand how we work
and to make that work easier and less repetitive. So, increasingly, those
computers will observe what we do and build their own models of who we
are and how we work. Progress toward the creation of those models appears to
be outpacing the work to protect them; experience suggests that this
problem will only be addressed after some people have learned about the
issue the hard way.
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