Privacy Implications for OpenStreetView

OSV San Fransisco coverage

I’ve been playing with OpenStreetView in the last couple of days and judging by the responsiveness of their website the word is getting around. Now, having crowds of people recording and uploading their streets obviously presents some privacy issues. I watched the talk they gave at State of the Map US and it is clear that they have particular privacy goals in mind such as blurring faces and licence plates. Their answers to questions indicated that they would like to have a more detailed policy around privacy but they’re not sure what it should be yet. For a project just getting off the ground I think that’s pretty reasonable. However there is a risk of accidentally conducting surveillance and I suspect these issues could become relevant sooner than anyone would like.

Let’s start with something familiar, Google Street View. While they caused their share of anxiety and lawsuits I think it’s fair to say that most people are pretty comfortable with it now. Google has successfully built a product that is really useful while also managing privacy risks effectively.

Here are some reasons I think Google Street View doesn’t make people nervous:

  • Snapshots are a little bit outdated, i.e., internet users can’t see a photo of your house from yesterday.
  • Drivers don’t come past very often and they travel efficient routes. Out of sight, out of mind.
  • Even though Google would have significantly more data internally, the public-facing website only shows a single recent snapshot. (Edit: No longer true, with thanks to the commenter who pointed it out. The intervals appear to be years apart so I suggest it’s still a useful comparison with OSV.)

The end result is a product where you can effectively teleport yourself to any public road, look around and see what’s there. This is no different from what you could do if you travelled there yourself. That’s essentially why I think people are cool with it.

Now OpenStreetView doesn’t have spiffy 360˚ cameras (yet) or Google’s resources but already it has privacy risks that go far beyond what you can do with Google Street View.

Photographic surveying begins to feel more like surveillance when one of two things happens: either you observe the same location again and again, or you observe the same person (in different locations) again and again. The time interval between observations is the important thing. If you take photos of a building every day you’re inevitably going to learn things about the people who live there. This sort of thing makes me nervous about my privacy and I expect it would be the same for others.

The point of OpenStreetView is that there are lots of people doing it. If participants start recording every time they hop in the car it’s possible that there could be one of these cameras zooming down the main roads of San Francisco every hour. As the density of recordings increases it will become increasingly possible to track the activities of people, cars, businesses and homes. In its current form you can look at individual tracks on OSV and access every image if you wish so I expect this would be totally possible.

However, OpenStreetView is specifically dedicated to improving the quality of OSM data. While sometimes it would be useful to get multiple perspectives on a location it seems unnecessary to have an enormous range of pictures. For example they could filter out ones with poor lighting, poor focus, or those that are simply old. The point is they have some options for obscuring or limiting the presented data without compromising the project’s goals.

Then there is the fact that the uploaded images are available basically in realtime. Unless there is a humanitarian need I think it would make sense to block access to tracks for a random time period, maybe up to a month. When the images do become available they could fudge the timestamps by ±1 week so that it’s not easily possible to organise them into a time series.

These are just a couple of examples to demonstrate that their dedication to openness could also be a privacy liability. When you combine the data from a large number of people acting altruistically and legally you can make things possible that were never intended. I look forward to seeing how they go about it, and also the creative alternative uses people come up with for the photographs.

Aside from these wider issues a couple of niggles mean that I’m not going to upload any more tracks for now. So far none of my uploads have had any blurring applied. They seem to be publicly available unblurred, which is a little annoying. This is possibly because they are still in “processing” state, which has persisted for more than a day now. The manual blur tool is also unavailable so I can’t fix them myself. I owe it to the people whose cars I’ve photographed to make sure they’re relatively anonymised before I add more to the data set.

Posted in digital rights | 4 Comments

Ruining the planet with solar power


I finally finished wiring together my little solar power system over the weekend, between naps as I tried to recover from a cold. It’s a modest size (1kW, 240Ah @ 24V) and completely separate from the grid. It will take a little while to understand how well it’s performing but it’s already clear that I will have plenty of energy left over after powering my computers. I’ll have more to say about that after I take some measurements.

In houses where you have the option of grid power the payback period of a solar system is how many years it takes before you break even compared with just buying the energy from the grid. The most effective way to reduce the payback period is to use every bit of energy you generate inside your own home.

If you have the option of selling excess power to the grid the amount you earn is nowadays usually very small. If you have a separated system like mine any excess energy simply goes to waste. If you manage to spend that energy on something you were going to do anyway like run the washing machine you avoid having to buy it from the grid.

With this in mind today I purchased a couple of cheap floor-standing lamps. I spend most of my evening time in the study so the theory goes that I can plug these lamps into my inverter and use my nice solar energy to light the room instead of grid power and reduce my payback period. As it turns out this is a stupid decision both financially and environmentally. The most rational decision on either axis is to continue using the grid power.

The financial issue is a simple mathematical matter. The lamps are the cheapest, nastiest lamps available and including globes I spent a total of 28 dollars. While they are running I will be using 2x 42W. If I am using them on average five hours a day that’s 420Wh of energy. If instead I used a single 84W globe and grid power this would have cost me approximately 10 cents per day.

It will take me the better part of a year to pay back the cost of these cheap lamps, not counting globe replacements. The rate at which I will get ahead beyond that point is ludicrously slow. If I’m not in the study for five hours every night it will take longer to get there.

Furthermore I expect my system’s total production to average maybe 3 kWh a day. These lamps will consume one-seventh of the total generating capacity. If I divide the thousands of dollars of setup costs by seven it is clear that I need to use these lamps for a very, very long time before I break even. To be fair that is the fault of the solar system, not the lamps, but it shows that it’s not the cheapest way to solve my lighting problem.

Then there are the environmental impacts. The lamps have been made out of manufactured materials, produced overseas and shipped to Australia. I used a car to go and buy them. How much solar power do I need to use before I make up for all that overhead? What about the manufacturing overhead of one-seventh of my gel cell batteries, inverter and charger?

The environmental outlook is particularly bad for me in Tasmania because we largely use hydro and wind power anyway. If I lived in Victoria I might be getting my power from a brown coal station and perhaps buying lamps would work out to less carbon dioxide emitted within a reasonable time period. That’s all but impossible when most of the grid power comes from hydroelectric dams, one of the lowest-emission sources of electricity available.

I knew all this in advance and decided to buy the lamps anyway. The only possible conclusion is that my dabbling in solar is just another consumptive hobby like motorsports, comic books or yacht racing. Of course if I apply a little perspective it would be silly to beat myself up too much–the amount of consumption tied up in a couple of (large) batteries and some lamps is far less than if I were to own and maintain a yacht–and I’m not yet ready to harass the yachties of the world. But it goes to show that even solar power, so often put forward as a solution to our problems, can very easily cross the line from helping to making matters worse if we’re not paying attention.

Having said all that there are obviously some reasons why I bought the lamps.

  1. It’s fun. It is undeniably satisfying putting together a system to meet some of my own needs in my own house.
  2. I now feel an implicit challenge to try to fit my consumption within my own generating capacity. I am already thinking about how I can use my slow cooker instead of the stove to take advantage of the extra energy during the day. If I have several rainy days in a row I will have the choice of turning on the grid-powered lights or coming up with some other compromise so I don’t need to “cheat”. On the whole I expect my consumption to decrease.
  3. Arguably it’s useful during blackouts. I don’t get many or severe blackouts since I live close to the city so this is verging on prepper mentality, but it’s there. I’ll get to feel a little smug and carry on in some capacity next time the power goes out.
  4. It’s good practice for potentially living off-grid or otherwise energy-constrained in the future. Some writers are dubious that electrical grids will survive in their current form as the limits to growth really start to bite. I’m not so sure but I’m likely to find out within my lifetime so a little prior knowledge can’t hurt.

Are they good reasons? Maybe, maybe not. But I’m going to muddle through somehow.

Posted in energy, home | 2 Comments

Wikipedia on LAN

At a cryptoparty a few months ago I presented an introduction to Tor. During that talk I set the audience a challenge: the next time you go to look up something on Wikipedia I want you to think to yourself, “You know what? It’s nobody’s business what I’m reading. I’m going to use Tor Browser.”

Out of the things you can do with Tor Browser, Wikipedia works better than just about anything else. Its article pages are fairly small so they download quickly despite Tor’s overheads. Wikipedia’s servers are (for now) perfectly happy to serve Tor exit nodes, unlike many sites, particularly those protected by CloudFlare.

Even so it’s a little inconvenient and slow compared with accessing it directly in your normal browser. The same agencies that run Tempora surveillance to track your Wikipedia reading will also treat you with suspicion if you use Tor.

There is of course another way: download all of Wikipedia then read articles offline. That way the authorities who watch all this have no idea which part you’re reading, if any. To make it more useful I’ve set it up as an HTTP server on my LAN. I am connected to other people via neighbourhood WiFi so we can share the same instance using nothing more than regular web browsers. It even works when the Internet’s down.

Using Wikipedia offline is surprisingly easy to do. I’m using the XOWA project. It’s a Java application designed primarily for use with a GUI that operates like a web browser. By passing in some command line parameters it can be launched in a headless “http server” mode:

The http server mode appears to be considered less important than the main interface so there are some small bugs. I reported a problem with search and the developer is kindly considering fixing it soon.

I have downloaded the Wikipedia text files so far and will soon have the images as well. They are about 25 and 80 GB respectively. Sqlite databases ready for use with XOWA can be downloaded from but it would be kinder to them to find a torrent if it’s feasible.

You just need to extract the 7zip files and make sure all the .xowa files are inside xowa/wiki/ When XOWA launches it picks them up automatically.

Since I have the text databases only, by default it will download media like pictures on the fly as I request pages. Since I’m interested in maintaining my privacy I have turned on the Disable web access option under Security settings. Changing options currently only works via the GUI, but you can also edit the file xowa/user/anonymous/app/data/cfg/xowa_user_cfg.gfs. Add the following line and restart XOWA:

The only downside that took me by surprise is that XOWA is pretty resource-intensive. I originally hoped to run it on my Raspberry Pi 2 with external hard drive. It worked but it took 4-5 minutes to render a page. I now have it on a HP Microserver N54L (2.2 GHz AMD CPU) and that takes around 3-5 seconds, which is fine.

I’m looking forward to having the images too. It’s just like the good old Encarta days except with more stuff. I haven’t found any trivia maze games yet though.

Posted in digital rights, internet | 1 Comment

The legality of EN15194 Pedelecs in Tasmania

It’s the big question: are 250-watt EN15194-certified electric bikes legal to ride as bicycles in Tasmania? After doing my own research and corresponding with the responsible minister I think the answer is yes. I’m not a lawyer so don’t consider anything on this website to be legal advice. I am, however, now intending to buy one.

Not that anyone would give me a straight bloody answer. So here’s how I got here. You can make up your own mind.

Broadly, the situation is that the federal government recognised the EN15194 standard but it was up to the states to update their laws to allow these electric bikes to be ridden under the same rules as bicycles.

In 2014 the Tasmanian parliament passed the Vehicle and Traffic Amendment (Power-Assisted Pedal Cycles) Bill. In his second reading speech Rene Hidding MP said:

This Government is eager to provide for the safe and legal use of Power Assisted Pedal Cycles on Tasmanian roads. Madam Speaker, this Bill will provide those opportunities in the near future.

However, the existing definition of ‘motor vehicle’ in the Vehicle and Traffic Act prohibits Pedelecs (which meet the new Standard of 250 watts) from being used as bicycles in Tasmania.

This Bill, which passed, forms the first part of the required changes. He continued:

A consequential amendment to the Road Rules recognising EN15194-compliant Power Assisted Pedal Cycles as ‘bicycles’ will form part of the 10th Road Rules Amendment Package put forward by the National Transport Commission. This is expected to occur in August 2014 which will legalise the use of these Power Assisted Pedal Cycles as ‘bicycles’ on Tasmanian Roads.

My problem was that I couldn’t find the amendments to the Road Rules. I assumed they hadn’t happened so I emailed Mr Hidding to find out what went wrong. I hope he won’t mind me reproducing the meat of his letter here as it is a useful description of what happened:

In May 2012, the Commonwealth Government agreed to recognise the United States Economic Commission for Europe’s EN15194 Standard as an equivalent Australian Design Rule for PAPCs [Power Assisted Pedal Cycles].

The new Standard allows a PAPC to have auxiliary power producing a maximum of 250 watts triggered by the cyclist’s pedaling motion. The auxiliary power ceases at a speed of 25 km/h, requiring the rider to continue pedaling to maintain motion.

To enable their use as bicycles on Tasmanian roads, the Government amended the Vehicle and Traffic Act 1999 to exclude EN15194-compliant PAPCs from being classified as a ‘motor vehicle’, which in turn has exempted them from certain matters prescribed by the Vehicle and Traffic (Driver Licensing and Vehicle Registration) Regulations 2010, including the requirement to be registered and for riders to be appropriately licensed, as well as payment of the associated fees.

In addition a consequential amendment to the Road Rules 2009 was made amending the definition of a bicycle to include PAPCs as defined under the Motor Vehicle Standards Act 1989 (Cwlth.).

The amendment to the Road Rules was notified in the Gazette on 10 December 2014.

Apart from being a good history (many thanks to Rene and his staff!) the important thing is that the changes to the Road Rules did happen. They were in fact announced in the 10/12/2014 Gazette. The changes state that a bicycle “includes a power-assisted pedal cycle within the meaning of vehicle standards determined under the Motor Vehicle Standards Act 1989 of the Commonwealth”.

In section 4.2.2 the Australian Design Rule defines:


A pedal cycle to which is attached one or more auxiliary propulsion motors having a combined maximum power output not exceeding 200 watts; or

A ‘Pedalec’.

If you look up the definition of Pedalec in the same document you find:

PEDALEC – A vehicle meeting European Committee for Standardization EN 15194:2009 or EN 15194:2009+A1:2011 Cycles – Electrically power assisted cycles – EPAC Bicycles.

That’s good enough for me.

Meanwhile the NSW Government has lost its marbles but its public service appears to still be on the ball. They publish an incredibly clear description of the relevant laws online.

Posted in tasmania | Leave a comment