Monday, 16 June 2008

Your private life on your ID card

The news that the new ID cards will contain sensitive personal medical information is a very nasty prospect. Why on earth should I have such private and sensitive data on a card that has to be produced in a variety of situations and can easily be lost? Why should the bank have access to my health information? If I go to see an eye doctor, why should he have my banking details?

Keep in mind that every encryption technology has limitations, but these cards will be there for a long time and cannot be replaced overnight. All it takes is for a simple secret code to be leaked or stolen, and all of a sudden your local video rental store can know your bank accounts, your visits to the GP or sexual health clinic, your card transactions and who knows what else. And once the ID cards are used in every general practitioner's clinic, in all hospitals, in all bank branches and so on, it becomes only a matter of time before one of the keys is secretly stolen. You won't know it happened. Your card will be read like it is normally read, but it gives up far more information than you'd be willing to divulge if you knew about it.

I would expect that the powers that be have plans for some good security in place, but in the report I linked there are no mentions of what these might be, or whether people will even have the right to NOT have their medical information on the card. Does this mean, for instance, that our constitutional right to vote will become conditional on having our medical information on the ID card?

The ID card is a document that we are legally obliged to posses. It should therefore have nothing on it beyond the absolute minimum of information required to identify the individual - which is what the ID card is for anyway.

I think it's high time that we started being more aware and concerned about the importance of defending our privacy. In a world where a 500Gb hard disk costs less than €100, you could store all the personal details of every person in Malta for a few cents each. There are companies to whom this would be a useful asset - they might want to market their new herbal remedies to anyone who visited a dermatological clinic in the past year, or invite people with a low bank balance to take out a no-questions-asked loan and mortgage from their online bank. They are ready to pay good money to posses a slice of the private life of everyone in the country. The new ID cards could be exactly what they're looking for.

We need to defend our privacy if we want to remain in control of who to trust with our personal details.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

The Cinema Experience

I remember that when I was a young boy, going to the cinema was an exhilarating experience. TV in those days was a black-and-white affair with one Maltese station and a handful of Italian ones. Video recorders had still not made their début. Going to the cinema was a family treat. We could see feature films in full colour and in much better clarity than the grainy TV we had at home.

Fast forward to the present day and the home TV situation has improved dramatically. We've got stereo colour TVs at an entry level, and if you really like your home entertainment you can get flat TVs with crisp pictures, surround sound systems and even home projectors so you can enjoy the images in a large format. DVDs and a large number of video rental stores provide your choice of movie, at a time of your convenience, with all the comforts of your home. Oh, and microwave popcorn of course.

Yet compared to all these impressive changes that have taken place in the home entertainment field, cinemas have barely moved ahead for all these years. Probably the biggest improvements locally have been the cleanliness of the venue and banning smoking indoors. That's all? In over 30 years? Cinema owners as well as the production companies are complaining about the constantly dropping sales from cinemas, blaming it on everything and everyone but themselves. When was the last bit of really impressive innovation taking place in a cinema? Where has the cinema experience gone? Where are the queues of people standing in actual awe of what they are about to experience?

Going to a cinema, especially for a family, is an expensive undertaking. First one has to travel to the cinema and hopefully park somewhere reasonably near to the theatre. Then, apart from the cost of the tickets themselves, one has to buy drinks and snacks from the exorbitantly-priced "bar" - which only sells salty, thirst-provoking snacks or sweets. Once inside, one often has to deal with the rest of the audience, and there are few things as annoying as having someone running a continuous commentary on the film to a companion just behind your right ear. Except perhaps trying to catch the actors' words through the rustling crisp packets, ringing mobile phones, and people getting up to take a leak or coming in after the movie has started. Why would anyone want to pay through the nose for that?

If the cinema is to remain a profitable business, new ways need to be found to once again make the cinema experience something to look forward to. There have been a few attempts to do this, like 3D films, but these tend to be relatively short, documentary-style films. When will we be able to see something like the Lord of the Rings in full 3D with shaking ground, or projections on the front, side and above to fully immerse oneself in the experience? Or maybe some new-fangled environmental cinema where you can actually feel the heat of the desert sun or the cold of the Antarctic tundra. Now that would be something to look forward to. If cinemas do not try to recapture the experience that they lost, they are a dying breed.