Future Perspectives… and does the ACLU (at last) understand sousveillance?

== Perspectives on our future ==

Smithsonian-imaginationA reminder: I’ll be performing at this event in mid May — THE FUTURE IS HERE: Science meets Science Fiction, Imagination, Inspiration and Invention —  will be a lavish/spectacular event MAY 16-18, 2014 in Washington DC, presented by the Smithsonian Magazine in collaboration with the UC San Diego  Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, Nerd Nite, Smithsonian Grand Challenges Consortia, and the Smithsonian Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

Presenters include: Patrick Stewart, David Brin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Brian Greene,  Adam Steltzner, George Takei,  Stewart Brand, Sara Seager, and some of the Mythbusters .

Reaching back a bit…I had a chance to speak with the mighty maven of tech-future Journalism, Tim O’Reilly, during my previous visit to Washington DC. The next day in Forbes, Tim cited me with the following quotation: “It is intrinsically impossible to know if someone does not have information about you. It is much easier to tell if they do something to you.” His article, The Creep Factor: How to Think about Big Data and Privacy, is cogent.

Dragnet-Nation-cover-art Elsewhere I tout Julia Angwin’s Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance. It’ a very entertaining and wise book, in which Ms. Angwin kindly cites my book (The Transparent Society) as partial inspiration. But here’s a quotation from an interview the author recently gave… a thought-provoking call for us to drop the sick temptations of cynicism and to re-acquire that good old, optimistic, can-do spirit.

“I am aware that I take a slightly irrationally optimistic view of this. But I also think that the only way to get change is to be irrationally optimistic. Change happens all the time. I compare privacy to environmental damage. We lived in a world where we were perfectly willing to tolerate our rivers catching fire and the air being filled with soot and people dying of black lung disease and then all of a sudden, after 50 years of that, we decided maybe we don’t want that kind of world. And we’ve been very successful at cleaning up our environment. We did it partly through laws, but we also did it by changing our social norms. I mean if you told someone 50 years ago that Upper East Side women in fur would be picking up their dog’s poop, they would have laughed at you. But we did it, we changed our social habits. I think privacy is a similar social problem. It’s something that we will change both through laws and also through being smart about what choices we make about what technology we use.” 

I had a chance to meet Ms. Angwin during a privacy (IAPP) conference in DC a few months back. Delightful and very smart.

== Is the ACLU Catching On? At last? ==

alpr-slide-title-720x450-v02_0License plate readers and face recognition are already ubiquitous. And Vigilant Solutions is bringing it to you. And yes, the ACLU is (legitimately) concerned about increasing powers of unbalanced surveillance. And yes, the ACLU joins those (foolishly) whining about it, instead of seeking the obvious and only possible answer.

Only… maybe I am too harsh. The ACLU report, “You Are Being Tracked,” does conclude by suggesting two reforms that smack of intelligent sousveillance…

1) People should be able to find out if plate data of vehicles registered to them are contained in a law enforcement agency’s database.

2) Any entity that uses license plate readers should be required to report its usage publicly on at least an annual basis.

Okay… maybe they are starting to catch on. Still, to even imagine that we won’t all be using face-recog and things like license plate scanning in the near future displays the kind of stunning myopia that always puzzles me, when displayed by intelligent and well-meaning people.

== Transparency News ==

L-firstnet-logo-500x350 The Internet of Cops is Coming… FirstNet (First Responder Network Authority)—pitched as a state of the art communications network for paramedics, firemen and law enforcement at the federal, state and local level—will give cops on the streets unprecedented technological powers, and possibly hand over even more intimate data about our lives to the higher ends of the government and its intelligence agencies. FirstNet will also give local law enforcement the ability to take digital “fingerprints from the field,” record and share high quality video, and instantaneously marry these freshly sourced data with others over the network. In the video above, a demonstrator uses facial recognition software on a tablet; finds out if the target is in a linked database, and is immediately provided with a wealth of information on him.

Of course, having a police officer be able to instantly identify you with a tablet —or the “single […] device for voice, data, and video” being developed—is open to abuse, and raises serious worries for privacy.

“One scary thought is that it could help set up … “communications systems apartheid”: where the public are relegated to an “insecure, heavily monitored network that can be turned off at the flick of a switch,” while the government enjoys the benefits of an encrypted network that is far more stable.”

Of course this is a downside scenario I long ago described in The Transparent Society.  And yet, in all the years since, I keep hearing people come crying “stop them from looking at me!” To which I respond, don’t blame me!  Blame yourselves for all the endless whining about stuff like this. Whining that will go on and on and on and that you all will never stop doing…

MILITANT-SOUSVEILLANCE …rather than focusing on what might work: the militant, assertive and practical measures that might defend freedom.  Not by trying to resist the absolutely unstoppable trend toward the mighty getting to look at us. (They will; and whimpering about it is pathetic.) But instead to strip the mighty naked with supervision so that they will never dare to use all that vision to actually harm us.

That is an activity we can accomplish. That is do-able and might actually work. We should be militant! But focused.

Alas, I have to wonder, is this generation even the same species as the ones who 200 years ago understood this distinction so well?  No matter how many times I explain the difference between militant sousveillance and impotent whines of “don’t look at me!”… it always turns out that 1% actually get it… and the rest go right back to the same futile refrain — “don’t look at me!”

Case in point. This reporter – on a dare – investigated another person simply based upon an anonymous tweet… and figured our enough information that he could have emptied the other guy’s bank account. Scary stuff.  Would you bet your life or security on any assurance that this capability has been stopped?  Really?

Let’s insist on getting to detect when and who makes such enquiries.  That might be achievable.

== And… ==

watching-youIn “The Secret Cost of a Surveillance Society” you can see a truly awful article, in which the author utterly conflates causation with correlation and draws unwarranted conclusions. Still, there is a glimmer of a point: that a sensitivity to surveillance may be deterring individuals from seeking basic services like hospitalization. As a raising of possibilities, it seems worth a read.

Watch Your Privacy: A Google Glass App overlays the streetscene with warnings (in red) of where cameras may be pointing. Close appraisal suggests they may over-promise. But the implications are interesting.

Cameras with wireless transmitters will soon be so small that they could be taped to an appliance, wall, ceiling, dashboard. “Our aim is to add eyes to any digital device, no matter how small,” says an innovator about the system–  which requires no lens… the heaviest and bulkiest part of most modern optics. “It might become almost impossible for an ordinary person to know if they are in a private space.” complains one critic, without offering any suggested way to stop the trend. We’ll need to learn more about this, and think about the ramifications.

sousveillance-david-brin

Leave a comment

Filed under science, society, transparency

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s