Privacy vs Omniveillance

Media discussions of privacy, freedom and the information age are starting to get more interesting, as folks finally start to realize a core truth… that everything eventually leaks. That the reflex of whining and demanding shadows to hide-in will never work. The data we entrust to banks and retail chains? The trade secrets that companies rely on for competitive advantage? The cherished spy programs of our governmental professional protector caste (PPC)? If these do not leak because of hackers, or accidents, then would-be (or self-styled) whistle-blowers will see to it, sooner or later.

OMNIVEILLANCE-PRIVACYIt has long been pointed out that information is not like other commodities. It can duplicate itself at virtually zero cost, and those copies can escape even without you noticing it’s happened. That is Fact Number One. Everything eventually leaks.

Fact number two is one I’ve tried to point out for decades. That this is fundamentally a clash of values and civilizations. The Western Enlightenment (WE) has always been the rebel and underdog, versus the 99% standard human (and zero-sum) pattern of top down control by hierarchs. (There was never much functional difference between leftist-communist oligarchies and right-wing wealth-inheritance oligarchies; both hewed to the endlessly-repeated feudal model.) In contrast, the positive-sum WE has many disadvantages and instabilities, though it is also vastly more creative, successful and productive. The one trait that tips the balance, though, is Fact Number Two:

All enemies of the WE are lethally allergic to light. Go ahead and name one. If it is not allergic to light, then it probably is not an “enemy” at all, but a peaceful rival that can easily be incorporated into the diversity-friendly WE. (Indeed, the “western” part is already fading away.)

Which provokes our core question… is the world of information leakage one that we should (at a fundamental level) be fighting against… at all? Or actively encouraging?

Let’s suppose we do decide to support an ongoing secular trend toward a world of accountability and light. Yes, this end-goal will stymie almost all bad guys. But does that mean we must bare ourselves overnight? Or completely? Especially, must we do it before the other guy does?

Suppose we choose a path of moderate-pragmatic, incremental, gradually-increasing transparency… what are our options?

== Fretful oversimplification ==

privacy-commodityLet’s start with an extensive article on : The Death of Privacy in the Guradian, by Alex Preston, on the psychological, social and cultural repercussions of loss of privately secret space:

“While outposts of civilization fight pyrrhic battles, unplugging themselves from the web – “going dark” – the rest of us have come to accept that the majority of our social, financial and even sexual interactions take place over the internet and that someone, somewhere, whether state, press or corporation, is watching.”

Preston continues: “Perhaps the reason people don’t seem to mind that so much of their information is leaking from the private to the public sphere is not, as some would have it, that we are blind and docile, unable to see the complex web of commercial interests that surround us. Maybe it’s that we understand very clearly the transaction. The internet is free and we wish to keep it that way, so corporations have worked out how to make money out of something we are willing to give them in return – our privacy. We have traded our privacy for the wealth of information the web delivers to us, the convenience of online shopping, the global village of social media.”

Death-privacyAll of this is true… and misleading and shrill. Because it buys into zero-sum thinking, which is the fundamental enemy of everything the WE stands for. The dismal (but deeply human) notion that every gain must have a paired loss. That a “trade-off” between security and freedom, or between privacy and all that cool-stuff available online, cannot be evaded, and therefor we must choose the painful righteousness of the writer’s simplistic prescription.

Let me reiterate. The Enlightenment’s fecundity at problem solving came from refusing dichotomies… like the insane “left-right axis” that has lobotomized politics everywhere.Only people who decide that we can have our cake and eat it and share it with the poor and see the cake thereupon grow… only such people will come up with enough innovative approaches to get any cake at all.

Only they will save the world.

==Giving up Privacy==

In one of life’s ironies, I am “Mister Transparency…” yet I believe some privacy can and should be preserved. A whole chapter of The Transparent Society is about how the only way we can preserve a little secluded intimacy or confidential sharing may be if we live in a society where most of the people know most of what’s going on, most of the time. Only such openness will stand a chance of deterring snoops and busybodies and peeping toms.

But some folks are far more transparency-radical! They “get” that all of our enlightenment innovations — like science, democracy, markets, justice, art and personal freedom thrive best in light… so they demand that it ALL be laid bare! As a moderate pragmatist (though perhaps a militant one) I find such zero-sum passion unnerving. But such people merit our attention.

In one extreme example…

Noah Dyer, a professor at Tempe’s University of Advancing Technology, wants to “live without privacy for a full year” by paying a camera crew to film him at all times. “The way I see it is that we’re going to lose our privacy, but that’s going to be awesome. The society that most quickly embraces not having any privacy is going to have the biggest evolutionary advantage. All of their citizens are going to be able to act in their own best interest based on totally accurate information.” ( Why We Care About Privacy.)

Dyer is getting a lot of press for a hackneyed and simplistically predictable stunt that we’ve actually seen before… posting online absolutely everything about his life, from his email passwords to bathroom breaks and sex.

Pardon me for yawning, but if you expect “Mr. Transparency” to get excited about this, either way, sorry about that. Likewise the frantic, “danger, Will Robinson!” hysterics of this reporter who writes about Dyer, in the Atlantic. Please.

== More zero-sum contempt ==

TheCircleMuch attention has also been given to Dave Eggers’s book — The Circle — portraying a future in which Dyer’s view is dominant and the plot-propelling oppressive nosiness comes not from a single Big Brother state but from millions of insatiably nosy little brothers, nagging and judging and chivvying those who seem reluctant to “share everything.” Most people don’t realize that this failure mode… and not an orwellian state … is the scenario taking place in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” In the Eggers book, his heroes desperately seek a little privacy or space to be themselves, to be unique and autonomous human beings.

Of course, this zero-sum, either-or kind of thinking is poisonous. It is just as oversimplifying as any would-be tyrannical system, clothing itself in sanctimony, by portraying an “opposite” that can be nothing but vile. A strawman that Eggers sets up in order to be knocked down.

In fact, We do not have to choose between triplet fangs: Big Brother surveillance or stripped-naked little-brother coveillance, or (heaven forbid) the MYOB (mind your own business) rage of privacy “defenders” who just play into Big Brother’s hands, by denouncing cartoon versions of transparency.

In fact, the society of nosy jerks portrayed in The Circle will not happen, because your neighbors would hate it just as much as you hate the thought of it! Eggers’s portrayal of his fellow humans and citizens is depressing not because it might come true, but because Eggers and the critics who praise him actually seem to believe (in their sanctimony) that their neighbors would put up with such a world… instead of using transparency and openness to catch the voyeurs and say “hey man! Back off.”

Well, well. Perhaps they are members of a different species than you and me.

== More shallow privacy articles ==

Is there anyone out there even slightly interested in probing this important matter with nuance and a positive-sum frame of mind? Maybe suggesting ways we that can win-win?

Jacob Morgan’s rather shallow article in Forbes suggests that “Privacy Is Completely And Utterly Dead, And We Killed It” — without contemplating at all whether there are types of privacy, and whether some kinds might be protected, even enhanced, in a mostly transparent world, wherein we are empowered to watch the watchers and to catch the peeping toms.

As I mentioned, in the Guardian, Alex Preston falls into the same zero-sum thinking: “Google knows what you’re looking for. Facebook knows what you like. Sharing is the norm, and secrecy is out. But what is the psychological and cultural fallout from the end of privacy?”

At least a little better than those dismal jeremiads… read the article: Why We Care About Privacy. And yes, my positive-sum temperament makes me believe we can gain the advantages of a transparent society without going this far, still, it is a refreshing contrast against the usual zero sum reaction to the info-age… railing laments and demands for levels of privacy that only ever existed in our minds, plus shrilly silly-unrealistic demands that the mighty “stop looking at me!”

As if such wailings ever stood the slightest chance of working. We will never blind the eyes above us. But we still have a chance to strip them naked. And look back.

== Can we see what’s watching us? ==

mann-computer-visionTo illustrate how pervasive omni-veillance is becoming…. Computer vision is embedded in toilets, urinals, hand- wash faucets, as well as those domes in the ceilings that monitor you in buildings like banks and casinos (and soon everywhere.) Now, sousveillance maven and Toronto professor Steve Mann has a fascinating paper describing methods to easily reveal the scanning field of such visual sensing systems: The Sightfield: Visualizing Computer Vision, and seeing its capacity to “see:”

“Moving a wand through space, while tracking its exact 3D position, makes visible the otherwise invisible “rays of sight” that emanate from cameras. This capacity to sense, measure, and visualize vision, is useful in liability, insurance, safety, and risk assessment, as well as privacy/priveillance assessment, criminology, urban planning, design, and (sur/sous)veil lance studies.”

Mann concludes, “The device may be used cooperatively, e.g. by a user or owner of a surveillance system to visualize the efficiency of their own cameras, or uncooperatively, as a video “bug sweeper” which uses video feedback to detect a hidden surveillance or sousveillance.”

There is hope. If we insist on a general ability to see, that will include the ability to spot voyeurs. If we start designing systems right, then we will be able to do what assertively brave humans have always been able to do, when some busybody stares. Tell them: “Hey bub…. back off.”
POSTSCRIPT: Following up from last time.

America’s police departments need greater accountability—and it must come from outside the forces.

Yes… though with less sanctimony. Do this progressively, pragmatically, irresistibly, with some sympathy for the 85% of cops who are sincerely trying to do a really, really hard job.

1 Comment

Filed under society, transparency

One response to “Privacy vs Omniveillance

  1. Pingback: Links this week, because, why not? (3) | no sign of it

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