The Ongoing Privacy Problem: Other Voices

Ah… and so we return to the perennial topic that this astrophysicist never would have expected to stand at the center-of. How we should deal with an increasingly information-rich world.

== A Transparency Riff Worth Reading ==

PrivacyProblemEvgeny Morozov’s fascinating rumination in MIT’s Technology Review on The Real Privacy Problem  begins with an even more fascinating look back at one of the visionary pioneers of our age:

“In 1967, The Public Interest, then a leading venue for highbrow policy debate, published a provocative essay by Paul Baran, one of the fathers of the data transmission method known as packet switching. Titled “The Future Computer Utility,” the essay speculated that someday a few big, centralized computers would provide “information processing … the same way one now buys electricity.”

“Our home computer console will be used to send and receive messages—like telegrams. We could check to see whether the local department store has the advertised sports shirt in stock in the desired color and size. We could ask when delivery would be guaranteed, if we ordered. The information would be up-to-the-minute and accurate. We could pay our bills and compute our taxes via the console. We would ask questions and receive answers from “information banks”—automated versions of today’s libraries. We would obtain up-to-the-minute listing of all television and radio programs … The computer could, itself, send a message to remind us of an impending anniversary and save us from the disastrous consequences of forgetfulness.””

Privacy-TransparencyBaran was, indeed, almost as much an icon of tech prophecy as  the great Memex seer Vannevar Bush. Or the late Willis Ware, who foretold in 1966 that computers would be everywhere. But Morozov goes on to cite Tal Zarsky, one of the world’s leading experts on the politics and ethics of data mining, who refers to an earlier 1985 prediction by Spiros Simitis that vast, semi-intelligent systems of automated governance, whether run by state officials or corporations, would start predicting and then nudging individual behaviors, even when they are not illegal, starting with route planning and dietary advice and so on, with the danger that such nanny systems might even lose track of the underlying reasons or correlations that  the advice (which starts firming into compulsory tones) is even based upon!   “Data mining might point to individuals and events, indicating elevated risk, without telling us why they were selected.”

Writes Morozov“This is the future we are sleepwalking into. Everything seems to work, and things might even be getting better—it’s just that we don’t know exactly why or how.” 

So far, that is a very cogent description of a subtle and interesting failure mode. His subsequent discussion of rights and and contradictions is certainly an interesting one, well-worth reading.

== The rumination falls apart ==

Alas, Morozov then gloms onto a “solution” based on concealment, obscurity and hiding — one that cannot possibly work. Like nearly every seer in this benighted field, he absolutely refuses to consider how there might be transparency and accountability-based solutions that work with unstoppable  trends toward a world awash in light, rather than raging against the tide.

jaron-lanier-who-owns-the-futureHe buys into Jaron Lanier’s notion of each person having a commercial “interest” in their own information and a right to allocate it for profit or personal benefit. Any business (or government) that uses your personal information would pay you for the privilege. This is an improvement over the fantasy of a legal “right” to conceal your information and to punish those who have it, a stunning delusion in a world of limitless leaks.  Lanier’s notion is certainly a step forward — instead of prescribing futile and delusional shrouds, it envisions a largely open world in which we all get to share in the benefits that large entities like corporations derive from our information.

Except that “our information” is also a delusion that will fray and unravel with time, leaving us with what is practical, what matters… how to maintain control NOT over what others know about us, but what they can DO to us.

In order to accomplish that, we must know as much about the mighty as they know about us.

In-search-of-certaintyAlas, after an interesting discussion, Morozov devolves down to this“we must learn how to sabotage the system—perhaps by refusing to self-track at all. If refusing to record our calorie intake or our whereabouts is the only way to get policy makers to address the structural causes of problems like obesity or climate change—and not just tinker with their symptoms through nudging—information boycotts might be justifiable.”

This notion, that any measures taken by private persons will even slightly inconvenience society’s elites (of government, corporatcy, oligarchy etc) from being able to surveil us,  would be charming naivete if it weren’t a nearly universal and dangerous hallucination. It proposes that individuals attempt to cower amid a fog of their own hamstrung data ignorance, in utter futility, since the lords above them will see everything anyway.

In The Transparent Society I discuss the alternative we seldom see talked-about, even though it is precisely the prescription that got us our current renaissance of freedom and empowered citizenship.  Sousveillance. Standing up in the light while demanding — along with hundreds of millions of fellow citizens — the power to watch the watchmen. Embracing the power to look-back and helping our neighbors to do it, as well.

DisputationArenasArrowCoverI agree with Morozov about the need for “provocative services” where he almost seems to get the core idea, that we can solve most of these problems through open and fair confrontation, of the sort that teaches people to behave like adults.  An actual proposal for how such systems of dispute resolution through competitive opposition might work can be found in my article Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society’s Benefit.

Look, these matters are too important for cliches and unsubtle reflexes. It is a dismal situation when even society’s smartest observers cannot see what is in front of their faces.  One simple fact.  In order to preserve both freedom and safety, we humans need to see.  And in order to see… there must be light.

==Long Live Transparency==

Privacy-Is-deadIn an article, Privacy is Dead; Long Live Transparency, Kevin Drum writes, “I call this the ‘David Brin question,” after the science fiction writer who argued in 1996 that the issue isn’t whether surveillance will become ubiquitous — given technological advances, it will — but how we choose to live with it. Sure, he argued, we may pass laws to protect our privacy, but they’ll do little except ensure that surveillance is hidden ever more deep and is available only to governments and powerful corporations. Instead, Brin suggests, we should all tolerate less privacy, but insist on less of it for everyone. With the exception of a small sphere within our homes, we should accept that our neighbors will know pretty much everything about us and vice versa. And we should demand that all surveillance data be public, with none restricted to governments or data brokers. Give everyone access to the NSA’s records. Give everyone access to all the video cameras that dot our cities. Give everyone access to corporate databases.”

Drum continues, “This is needless to say, easier said than done, and Brin acknowledges plenty of problems. Nonetheless, his provocation is worth thinking about. If privacy in the traditional sense is impossible in a modern society, our best bet might be to make the inevitable surveillance more available, not less. It might, in the end, be the only way to keep governments honest.”

In fact, I don’t go this far.  I believe we’ve retain a bit of control.  Some ability to enforce some close-in privacy.  But this (ironically) can only be assured in a mostly open world.

For more: collected articles about Transparency in the Modern World.

== Dads, tell your daughters! ==

It’s been spoofed and expected for decades. At last, is this the pre-date site you can tell your daughter to check, before going out with some dude?  What’s the delay, already! There should also be blood tests!

== And Finally ==

China-cyberwarA fascinating riff from Kurt Eichenwald’s new piece for Newsweek,How Edward Snowden Escalated Cyber War With China,” concerning the increased challenges facing US efforts to curb widespread Chinese hacking in the wake of the controversies triggered by Edward Snowden’s selective disclosures of surveillance activities. Here is Richard B. Eisenberg, Attorney-Advisor Office of the General Counsel, US Air Force-   

“Some security industry and former intelligence officials say they originally believed Snowden’s apparent outrage at espionage by governments might lead him to expose activities by the Chinese, who use their hacking skills not only for economic competition but to track and damage dissidents overseas and monitor their citizens. There was good reason to believe Snowden had plenty of details about Beijing’s activities – he has publicly stated that as an NSA contractor he targeted Chinese operations and taught a course on Chinese cyber counterintelligence. And while he says he turned over his computerized files of NSA documents to journalists in Hong Kong, he boasts that he is so familiar with Chinese hacking techniques that there is no chance the government there can gain access to his classified material. But outside of American intelligence operations conducted there, Snowden has revealed nothing about surveillance and hacking in China, nor about the techniques he asserts he knows so well.” 

There are screwy things going on. Always remember that there are currents and implications that aren’t simple black and white. Don’t give in to that temptation.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Ongoing Privacy Problem: Other Voices

  1. David Drake postulated the same “everybody can watch everybody” solution to intrusive surveillance in a novelette entitled “Nation Without Walls”, published in the July 1977 issue of Analog. He later released it, along with some additional stories set in the same “universe”, as “Lacey And His Friends” in paperback from Baen.

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