The European, a top policy journal, ran one of my best summaries of the argument for a Transparent Society – one in which we are all empowered to see and to hold accountable those who might harm us. I argue that this is the only way we can possibly defend freedom, safety, science, justice and – ironically – some privacy in the rapidly unfolding 21st Century.
On the same topic, here is a very intelligent and well-written appraisal of how we might use increases in light to improve our societal health, instead of giving in to the temptation to cower and hide from the mighty: How to Get Positive Sousveillance, an analysis from the University of Oxford. I liked many of the bullet points (naturally.)
And see this intelligent discussion with some unusual insights, by Evgeny Morozov, in MIT’s Technology Review.
Here’s an interesting and insightful review of The Transparent Society. Can we thrive in the info age by embracing, not fearing the power to see?
The opposite approach, pushed by almost everyone, simply cannot work! That prescription — to find ways to control and limit information flows and protect the databases from leaking — has never once been demonstrated in practice to be effective. Not once… ever! Instead, every couple of months another tsunami spilll takes place… from one company then an agency then a nonprofit then another trusted company… and no one learns the obvious lesson. Take this latest example:
The company that mainstreamed desktop publishing — Adobe — admitted in a statement that hackers gained unauthorized access to 2.9 million customer accounts and stole part of the source code for at least two major consumer-facing products. And you are … shocked? How many times must this happen before we all realize that Everything Leaks? That locks and keys and shadows will fail fundamentally and in principle!
There is another approach, one that works.
(Oh, for those wanting an even broader perspective, grab a PDF of my extensive talk on the future and transparency for the Potomac Institute in early 2013.)
== The NSA News just keeps coming ==
NSA internet spying sparks a race to create offshore havens for data privacy. Yeah. That’s gonna work great.
Here’s a spark of background history. The basic legal justification for the NSA and FBI tracking meta-data on millions of phone calls came from a 1976 case against a purse-snatcher. As Wired reports: ” In a rare declassified opinion (.pdf) from the FISA court released August 29, Judge Claire V. Eagan addressed the key point: If it’s legal to spy on a single purse snatcher without a warrant, then it’s legal to spy on literally everyone.”
This case, Smith v. Maryland, is highly relevant to today’s Supreme Court. When the justices ruled last year that authorities need a court warrant to affix GPS devices to vehicles, Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed to side with privacy activists, when she mentioned Smith in a concurring opinion, noting: “it may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties.”
=== How to let them do their (supervised) jobs ===
I am frequently asked how we citizens can use transparency to stay in control over the government we own. Things are made more complicated by the fact that many of our public servants need tactical secrecy in order to do their jobs. Everyone from CIA snoops to undercover cops… they can only serve us if they can operate in shrouds and shadows to some degree, like the villains or adversaries they are investigating. It often surprises folks to learn that I – “Mr. Transparency” – have no problem with tactical secrecy, both in practice and in principle… so long as we have accountability systems in place to ensure it remains only temporary and only tactical.
Alas, this need is often pushed – as it was with the Patriot Act – as a reason to keep shadows permanently, and thus to evade accountability. That distinction is important to keep in mind.
Here’s the thing about scandals like the overweening excesses in surveillance that we are learning the NSA and others indulged-in. Attempting to – and believing that you somehow can – shut them down is insane.
It will never work. As we saw in 2003 when John Poindexter’s “Total Information Awareness” (TIA) was “stopped,” amid crows of victory by the ACLU and privacy activists, whenever you seem to succeed at squelching some elite power of vision, the ever rising power of surveillance will only crop up elsewhere like a whack-a-mole game. Recent revelations like the NSA phone tracking system and PRISM have shown that the mighty will see. Hand-wringing over this is ineffective and — well — essentially stupid.
Moreover, blinding our protectors seems to be a counter-productive tradeoff, when theirs truly is a big and important job.
What we really need are better ways to supervise. And to supervise not so much what they can see, but what they do.
No, I am not recommending a tsunami of Edward Snowdens… though it appears that Snowden has been vastly more capable and effective than Julian Assange could ever dream of being. And, indeed, that whistle-blower tsunami is coming, whether our public servants like it or not. Their only options are to (1) reduce the number of secrets to a manageable number that can be curtilaged and (2) limit the number of trusted henchmen far below the absurd half a million the government security apparatus now admits they have as contractors.
Oh and one more thing… build trust. Submit to supervision by your bosses (the citizens)… or at least by our delegated and trusted ombundsmen, who are security cleared and discreet, but also answerable to us, and not to the agencies they are surveilling.
== The Inspectorate ==
Is that even possible? Well, it has been discussed and partially implemented many times. For example, in 1911, Sun Yat Sen, the first President of modern China, set up a constitution with a fifth branch of government — the Inspectorate — which would be completely independent of the executive and judicial and so on. It did not work so well for China, because of primitive and violent circumstances. But we in the West already have virtually the entire system in place already! All it would take is a reform that could be implemented with a one page law.
One of my longstanding suggestions for how to navigate this critical time — maintaining freedom and empowered citizenship while allowing civil servants to do their jobs — has been to establish the office of Inspector General of the United States, or IGUS. All of the inspectors in government agencies who now are caught in conflict of interest, owing their jobs to the folks they inspect, would be transferred under the authority of a separated and uniformed service, under command of an august and utterly respected neutral… national busybody. Trained under a code of simultaneous nosiness and discretion, this corps would know how to tell legitimate tactical secrecy from borderline over-reach (meriting soft warning)… all the way to actions that break both law and honorable loyalty to the People.
Indeed, the topic is already up for discussion. As the Washington Post reported: In January, Senators Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) sent a letter to the White House co-signed by 14 other senators that urged President Obama to fill the vacant Inspector General positions at six government agencies: the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Interior, Labor and State. Some positions, such as State’s, have been vacant for as long as five years. “Inspectors General are an essential component of government oversight” and “occupy a unique role,” the senators noted. They specifically pointed to the IGs’ authority for “speaking truth to power” in addition to their “dual reporting obligations to their agency head and to Congress.”
(Unusual cogency from Mr. Coburn, I might avow.)
Still, they miss the point. As long as the IGs are subject to cabinet officials, instead of separate from them in their own, highly-protected agency, they will not be the agents of sousveillance accountability that we need.
Indeed, even if they ever ARE so separated and empowered, it will not suffice! I could name a dozen other measures to ensure upward and downward reciprocal accountability while allowing our officials to do their jobs! Some are discussed in The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose between Privacy and Freedom?
IGUS is but one of many ways that we could impose supervision… or “sousveillance”… while also getting the win-win of effective/perceptiveness by those who need to perform tactically secret tasks on our behalf. But it is a pragmatic measure, easily and swiftly implemented. And vastly more effective than all hand-wringing re see nowadays from wailing privacy advocates.
In any event, the key point is:
THIS is where our radicalism should be pressed! Not handwringing jeremiads and denuciations of the surveillance from above that will absolutely happen, whatever our complaints. We cannot stop the eyes above us from seeing. But we can look back and insist that the mighty be (almost) naked. Our radicalism should not be resentful or try to blind others, it should insist upon reasonable and pragmatic tools of sousveillance and supervision. It is the only way.
== Transparency News ==
This extended article provides a look at Chicago’s police-run surveillance system that deploys 1200 cameras equipped with facial recognition capabilities. I found the system itself shrug-worthy… welcome to the 21st Century. The Powers will see. But what stirs anger and fear is the description of how secretive the Chicago Police Department has been, avoiding accountability, supervision or even queries from press or public. That is the half we must not allow. Alas, it is the half that the ACLU virtually ignores.
This is significant. California law to give journalists five day warning before government can access their records. California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law on Thursday to give journalists in the state five days’ notice before government agencies serve subpoenas on their records held by third parties, such as phone companies and internet service providers.
Using light to skewer scoundrels! Fake reviews are a known problem online—but New York has managed to crack down on them using an equally fake yogurt shop. After a yearlong investigation, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman this week announced that the state has reached settlements with 19 companies; they’ll stop with the bogus reviews and pay $350,000 in fines. Those companies fall into two buckets: businesses that are unhappy with their review ratings on sites like Yelp, and businesses that help those companies by delivering fake reviews.
But in the long run, we need better credibility-rating services that rank order (for example) our Yelp! posting by our credibility scores. A billion dollar industry awaits the first VC who talks to me about this!
== HFT strikes again ==
And finally… You’ve seen me inveigh before about how dangerous High Frequency Trading is and how vastly more dangerous it may be destined to become. Now this. The mystery of $600 million traded in 7 milliseconds after Federal Reserve announcement.
As reported on NPR: A couple of weeks ago, the Federal Reserve announced it would not be tapering its bond buying program. The announcement came at at 2 p.m. ET. The news takes seven milliseconds — about the speed of light — to reach Chicago. But before the seven milliseconds was up, a few huge orders based on the Fed’s decision were placed on Chicago exchanges. “According to trading data reviewed by CNBC, they began buying in Chicago-traded assets just before others in that city could possibly have been aware of the Fed’s decision. By one estimate, as much as $600 million in assets changed hands in the milliseconds before most other traders in Chicago could learn of the Fed’s September surprise.
Sound fair? Sound like an open and flat and competitive “market”?
Mystics who think we can gain the benefits of markets without constant fine tuning and aggressive regulation are religious fanatics who never read Adam Smith and who do not give a damn about gritty reality.