A Transparency Tsunami

Face Recognition has arrived. Smile. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working on the Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS) allowing authorities to identify individuals by their faces from street cams, driver’s license photos, mug shots or other images. As Ginger McCall points out, there is little or no “legal oversight of such technologies.”  And I agree!  Oversight and “undersight” or sousveillance is absolutely essential lest this lead to Big Brother!

FaceRecognition“A total of 37 states have enabled facial-recognition software to search driver’s license photos, and only 11 have protections in place to limit access to such technologies by the authorities.”

Alas, McCall goes on to do the same yawnworthy thing — hand-wringing that we must somehow (without hinting at an even remotely plausible way) restrict elites in the use of these new technologies.  The wrong solution to a real problem, and always, always the vague-implausible one that activists reach for.  The article in the New York Times spirals downward into a list of begged-for impossibilities, never once considering the real issue…

…which is not how to blind elites (a utopian notion never achieved by any society in history and impossible today, as cameras proliferate faster than Moore’s Law.) Rather, the solution is to limit what authorities can do to us with such systems. And to accomplish that, we need only get into the habit of looking back. Of embracing the tech waves and ensuring that no cop, no public official, goes un-recognized, unwatched.

What could be more obvious?  To work with tech trends instead of (futilely) against them? But the well-meaning activists, though properly worried, never stretch their minds in a new direction.  The only direction that can work.

== It can get way worse ==

Paul Krugman, back in June, appraised a chilling – even terrifying – new law in Hungary that allows the Prime Minister to order deep surveillance of any government official, down to aspects of their personal lives, while exempting the very top layers of authority.  “Under Hungary’s new national security law, certain authorized government officials may initiate intrusive surveillance on their higher-level underlings…. Generating a surveillance order doesn’t require that the target be suspected of doing anything illegal. Any old reason will do…. The only required approval comes from the Minister of Justice, a feature which keeps control of the program within the inner circles of the government.”

SousveillanceSurveillance“Now that the law has passed, potential targets of surveillance must sign a “consent” form. If the targets have spouses, the spouses must sign consent forms, too. And if the targets or their spouses don’t consent to this surveillance, the targets lose their jobs. In short, this “consent” is not optional and the whole family is fair game for surveillance.”

And here’s the crux: “Those specifically exempted from either the background checks or the intrusive surveillance include the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, Constitutional Court judges, the Speaker of the Parliament, the president of the Supreme Court (Curia), the president of the National Judicial Office, the Chief Public Prosecutor, the ombudsman and his deputies, the head of the data protection agency and members of the European Parliament.”

“Given that the Hungarian surveillance program involves listening to the content of phone conversations, reading emails and bugging the houses of state officials to see what they are doing, there are particular dangers here. What is to prevent the Hungarian government from simply blackmailing people with what they find? What keeps the Hungarian government from acting on purely political information (firing someone for criticizing the government, for example)? The law contains no meaningful protections against the use of the information for political and personal reasons and it offers no procedures that would reliably correct mistakes.”

== But there are also good trends ==

The Acxiom Corporation, a marketing technology company, has amassed details on the household makeup, financial means, shopping preferences and leisure pursuits of a majority of adults in the United States. Acxiom is embarking on a novel public relations strategy: openness. It plans to unveil a free Web site where United States consumers can view some of the information the company has collected about them.

ReleaseTheDataThe data on the site, called AbouttheData.com, includes biographical facts, like education level, marital status and number of children in a household; homeownership status, including mortgage amount and property size; vehicle details, like the make, model and year; and economic data, including whether a household member is an active investor with a portfolio greater than $150,000. Also available will be the consumer’s recent purchase categories, like plus-size or maternity clothing, or sports or hobby products; and household interests like golf, dogs, text-messaging, or charities.

“With about $1.1 billion in revenue in its 2013 fiscal year, Acxiom is a leading player in an industry called data brokerage. The company collects, stores, analyzes and sells consumer data with the aim of helping its clients — including well-known banks, credit card issuers, insurance companies, department stores and carmakers — tailor marketing to their most valuable current customers or identify new customers.”  AbouttheData.com is as much ruthlessly pragmatic as idealistic. Mr. Howe recognizes that regulation of his industry may be coming and that it’s better for Acxiom to be seen as a part of the solution than a part of the problem.  “You may be surprised to know that we are in favor of heightened industry regulation, but we want to make sure we have a voice in the process,” Mr. Howe said. Aboutthedata.com is Acxiom’s bid to have a say in any legislative or regulatory developments. “If we are on our front foot, if we innovate and we are learning,” he said, “we think that earns us a seat at the table.”

One should compare this to a generation ago, when the three credit scoring companies screamed and fought against allowing consumers to look at their own credit files.  It took vigorously progressive reformers to wrest that right into the public domain where — voila — credit reporting vastly improved, because consumers found a myriad mistakes.   The system now works better bcause of transparency. Um… duh?

Acxiom is clearly not led by fools, but rather by clever folks who can see where things will trend, and who want to be seen leading the way.

== Risk and  scandals==

FearOfRiskAfter some years steeped in misleading cliches, it appears that security maven Bruce Schneier has found his groove again, making cogent sense in a recent pair of essays.  The first concerns our modern, disproportionate fear of risk.  His point is both general — about how we let our fears be driven emotionally, rather than logically — and specific, as in the trillion dollar spree of over-reaction to 9/11 that made no sense economically or in helping to make us more secure. A vast spasm that also undermines democracy.

Alas, Bruce leaves out some additional factors, like the varied Fear Industries such as cable news.  Plus the fact that we are wallowing in Phase Three of the American Civil War, one side of which relishes dread as if it were Mother’s Milk… and the other side is little better in its hand-rubbing schadenfreude.

His other recent missive focuses directly on the NSA and other scandals released by Edward Snowden. “Trust is essential for society to function. Without it, conspiracy theories naturally take hold. Even worse, without it we fail as a country and as a culture.” Yes, it is a bit of a platitude and short on real suggestions.  Still, well worth a look, and vastly better than Schneier’s earlier, fumbling misstatements about transparency.

== Important transparency miscellany ==

What the NSA really does with your data: A primer on data mining.

This historical survey of wiretapping is extensive – though not as comprehensive as the eagerly partisan author would have us think.  It nevertheless provides some needed historical perspective.

A number of women across the country have listed their positive pregnancy tests for sale on Craigslist. ‘Wanna get your boyfriend to finally pop the question? Play a trick on mom, dad or one of your friends?” Dang. I mean…. dang.

Landau-SurveillanceJust when you thought the NSA-spying imbroglio couldn’t get dumber… with the added news of even vaster monitoring by the Drug Enforcement Administration… now we learn what you really ought to have expected. There’s human nature to muck things up further as NSA-officers sometimes spy on love interests. Um… duh?  And what did you expect when there’s no reciprocal accountability?  Dig it, there are ways to apply citizen supervision over even shadow-war services that must maintain copious tactical secrecy.  It can be done in a win-win way. If you cannot come up with candidate methods, you aren’t trying.

Score one for the Electronic Frontier Foundation — a major victory in one of EFF’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. The Justice Department conceded that it will release hundreds of pages of documents, including FISA court opinions, related to the government’s secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

And following up on that… Bruce Ackerman in the Los Angeles Times offers several suggested reforms for the secret FISA Court that are much in line with my earlier New York Times Op-ed, including making the court truly adversarial, diversifying the appointment of the judges and increasing oversight.  All of which advocated for the “win-win” approach that I have been pushing… though not as radically as I would like.

How to turn off the feature on your android phone that “backs up” your settings on a Google mainframe… and thus gives them your wifi passwords.  You can choose not to do this.

Is Twitter to become more invasive than Facebook? Josh Harkinson writes, “Twitter has what only a handful of other tech titans possess: a digital Rosetta Stone that enables it to know who you are, wherever you are.” Twitter will be able to track you across all of your devices.

And finally, xkcd offers varying opinions on Internet privacy.


Filed under society, transparency

3 responses to “A Transparency Tsunami

  1. The insanity of our fear-induced overreactions to 911 can’t be over-stressed. A case can be made that fear of cantaloupes is more rational than fear of Al Queda, http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/18715-cantaloupe-vs-al-qaeda. Pondering the costs we’ve brought on ourselves in the wake of 911, in resources frittered away uselessly, in civil liberties given up, in the wide swaths of devastation, misery, and death inflicted worldwide, the gut-wrenching magnitude of it all, it makes me want to weep, makes me want to scream in futile rage at this insanity.

  2. Pingback: “Internet Freedom” and Post-Snowden Global Internet Governance | Poor Richard's Almanack 2.0

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