Tag Archives: sousveillance

Sousveillance is the answer to surveillance

       When people complain about surveillance society being bad, what ideal alternative do they imagine? This is the best question I’ve been asked on Quora, all year. I have been asking it since 1995, when I started writing The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 
         First, let’s be clear. I respect the many brave and smart Paladins of Freedom out there, from the ACLU to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to countless journalists, activists and – yes – some politicians and business folk, who are deeply concerned that a surveillance state could lead to Big Brother. They have this reflex in part because of our enlightenment traditions of independence and freedom… but also because of dire warnings told by science fiction! (See my essay: George Orwell and the Self-Preventing Prophecy.)
big-brother-surveil       They all know that if elites monopolize the power to watch and surveil common folk, Big Brother is almost inevitable. Some fret he’ll come from aristocrats and faceless corporations, some from academia and faceless government bureaucrats. All share the same legitimate(!) fear!
          And all but a very few are reacting in ways that are stunningly dim-witted and myopic. Because they then conclude that our best option to prevent Big Brother is to hide from him! To skulk to protect our secrets. To make “cyberpunk” our romantic image of resistance. To whine and holler “Don’t look at me!”

Across 25 years I have never heard a single one of these activists explain how that can be accomplished.

        Nor heard them cite a single example, from history, when anything like it happened. They proclamations are always, always vague and near term. (Now, some near-term “privacy codes” are tactically helpful, I openly avow. But none will work across a ten year frame. Not one ever proposed.

        There is – however – a way out. A way to protect freedom and prevent tyranny and oppression by elite, staring eyes. It happens to be the way we got this narrow window of freedom in the first place. Not by cringing and cowering from elites, but by stripping them of that MONOPOLY on vision! By stripping the mighty naked. By dividing power into smaller, mutually-competing chunks. By looking back at power.

SOUSVEILLANCE-SURVEILLANCE        It is called sousveillance… look it up. It is how we got our freedom. It is assertive, aggressive, militant, and the only thing that can even conceivably work. It is the only way to hold elites accountable. Accountability is key. We must be able to watch the watchers.

        Think. It does not matter what elites KNOW about you, so long as we all know enough about them to supervise, so that they cannot DO anything to you.

        Epistemologically, you can never verify that someone else does not know something! But you can verify that they are not DOING something. If you can see.

        In The Transparent Society – and somewhat in EARTH – I go much deeper. But the essential is that we must not hide. We’ll have some privacy! Because if we can see, then we’ll catch the peeping toms!

        But above all, to be both safe and free, we must be able to see.

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The Coming Transparent World

FightFireWithFireThe 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?

TransparentWorldThe 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.

Transparency-AccountabilityHere’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.

Surveillance-SousveillanceHere’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.

Whistle-blowerNo, 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.

inspectors-GeneralOne 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:

Tools-sousveillanceTHIS 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.

scoundrelsUsing 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 ==

$600-Million-tradedAnd 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.

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Bulletins from the Transparency Front

1) Toronto researcher Steve Mann, who was one of the earliest pioneers of wearable computing and augmented reality (AR), and who co-coined the term “sousveillance,” was physically assaulted by employees of a Paris McDonald’s restaurant during a recent family vacation, for the crime of wearing AR visual aids akin to Google’s Project Glass.  We are indeed in an era of rough transition.

2) CBS tours the newly opened Nazi archives on the Holocaust which have been (unbelievably) closed until now.  Now, miles and miles of documents constitute a stunning blow to the denialist cult.  Well… one of the denialist cults.  The drought destroying crops all over the world may budge a few climate denialists.  But then, there are still some who deny tobacco is anything but good for you.

3) More on those terahertz laser scanners that do chemical spectroscopy on materials and vapors around you, without exposing you to ionizing X-Rays or (disturbingly) ever letting you know you are being scanned. This is not an imaging device, but a tool for reading absorbance spectra at the high microwave, low infrared range. “This kind of picosecond laser reads the environment in real-time. That gunpowder residue on your hand from hunting the other day, cannabis smoke particles in your hair, or even a bit of (explosive-boosting) nitrate fertilizer stuck to your shoe could trigger this scanner. Will that cause an entirely new set of headaches for airline passengers?”  But get used to the new world.  And push for the ability to look back.  To get this for ourselves.

4)  This month, if everything goes according to schedule, your Internet Service Provider may begin monitoring your account, just to make sure you aren’t doing anything wrong with it — like sharing copyrighted movie or music files. Violations may result in an escalating scale from warnings to termination of service.

5) The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) secretly spied on E-mails of its own scientists – who were filing whistle blower complaints. Disturbing? Yes, but my perspective is unusual.  I see it as a case of everything working as it should.  Looking back at power worked.  This time.

6) A report from Wired: Saying it wanted to help to protect dissidents who appear in videos shared on YouTube, Google launched a tool Wednesday that can blur their faces in footage uploaded to its servers. Now mind you, this is a stopgap measure.  As more cameras swarm, the bad news is that this won’t work for long.  The good news?  If we all can use those cams, then lying – even by the mighty – will get a lot harder. And abusing witnesses won’t be a workable option anymore.

=== Politics redux (get used to it) ===

Somewhat turgid, overblown and self-righteous, an article by Sara Robinson on AlterNet nevertheless takes a look at the present Culture War that’s tearing America apart and calls it what it is.  What I have long realized that it is.  Nothing less than Phase Three of the American Civil War.

In fact, I would couch things slightly less radically than  Robinson does in: Conservative Southern Values Revived: How a Brutal Strain of American Aristocrats Have Come to Rule America: America didn’t used to be run like an old Southern slave plantation, but we’re headed that way now. How did that happen?”

Nevertheless, let’s be plain, her essential point about the divide between two styles of American aristocracy, one represented by Gates and Buffett and the other by those wanting an old fashioned feudalism to return, is the core conflict tearing the United States apart at present.

Moreover, this phase of the Civil War must end the way the others did —

— by the blue Union being awakened, roused perhaps by polemical exaggerations like Robinson’s. Into realizing What Fox has accomplished — what southern yellow papers did at the command of slave-holding elites in 1860 — destroying any hope of negotiation.

All that is left is for Blue America to win.  Simply – and for the sake of freedom and progress and the Great Experiment – win.

=== Some (mostly) science miscellany ===

A fascinating breakthrough in producing graphene transistors. Will this result in computers based on graphene rather than silicon chips?

University of Granada researchers have developed an “artificial cerebellum” that controls a robotic arm with human-like precision.

The University of Nottingham has begun the search for a new class of injectable materials that will stimulate stem cells to regenerate damaged tissue in degenerative and age-related disorders of the bone, muscle and heart.  This is part of a huge new development in rediscovering the regenerative capability most mammals appear to have abandoned millions of years ago.

For more see Juan Enriquez’s TED talk

The first artificial molecules whose chirality (handedness) can be rapidly switched from a right-handed to a left-handed orientation with a beam of terahertz light has been developed by a multi-institutional team including Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). This development holds potentially important possibilities for uses of terahertz technologies across a wide range of fields, including reduced energy use.

…amazing times…


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Is Technology offering Transparency…or spying on us?

A look at how technology enables greater transparency…but not always both ways:

Google Goggles… or Project Glass… is finally announced.  See the official preview… and an amusing satire. These futuristic Goggles would project information directly in your field of vision, offering updates on the time, weather, map directions, road closures, upcoming appointments, names of colleagues, buildings, etc. You will be able to leave memos to yourself, send email to friends, read restaurant reviews and take/share photos or video (but can you do all this while walking?). Of course this is just scratching the surface (so to speak).  I portray this technology taken thirty years into the future (including solutions to the “walking problem), so stay tuned in just three months for a glimpse of where it will all lead. in Existence.  Or see it presaged, back in in ‘89, in Earth.

Ah, but is two-way vision always a good thing? At the Consumer Electronic Show (CES), Smart unveiled a new Smart TV that demonstrated how the seamless integration of sensors, built-in cameras and microphones enabled “smart” features such as gesture control, voice commands and all kinds of interactive and connectivity.  But this Smart TV can also turn into a spy within your home, reporting without your knowledge.  There is no indication as to whether the camera and audio mics are on. You can point the camera toward the ceiling … but there is no easy way to physically disconnect the mic to ensure that it is not picking up your voice when you don’t intend it to. Will your Smart TV soon be spying on you? Onward Orwell!

Navizon’s Indoor Triangulation System allows anyone carrying a WiFi-equipped smartphone, iPad or notebook computer to be tracked (inside as well as outdoors) without their knowledge or consent — and with no option to opt out. This Buddy Radar enables locating shoppers in a mall, doctors in a hospital, clients in a convention hall…or lost children in a crowd. If this bothers you — then disable WiFi on your devices when you’re not using it. Not a convenient solution.

technology-spyingAnd there’s corporate surveillance: Dunkin Donuts installed an employee monitoring system that monitors  their staff with video cameras and tracks every punch of the cash register. The result: a drop in employee thefts by 13%.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, tells internet users they should demand their personal data from giants such as Facebook and Google:  “One of the issues of social networking silos is that they have the data and I don’t … There are no programs that I can run on my computer which allow me to use all the data in each of the social networking systems that I use plus all the data in my calendar plus in my running map site, plus the data in my little fitness gadget and so on to really provide an excellent support to me.”

I must agree.  The really frustrating thing is not that elites will know about me.  That’s inevitable.  But what is dangerous as hell is their reluctance to let us have full access to our own information… or reciprocal information about them.

==Transparency in Science==

Scientists are not immune to bias, and they should be transparent about the sources of their funding. The director of the US National Institutes of Health called for a  compulsory online registry of researchers’ interests as a condition of federal funding. “The public may not always understand the intricacies of rigorous science, but most individuals quickly grasp the concept of bias.” Nothing came of this proposal. Each university should have a publicly searchable database of academics’ external sources of money. And that’s fine, so far… but where does this simply become a way to bully scientists, making them look over their shoulders with every step?

If we scientists do have to set this example of transparent accountability, then can we at least have back a little respect?  And start seeing Wall Street follow suit?

 == Dire news on the medical front==

Up to a third of what the U.S. spends on medical care may be wasted, in large part because of over-testing and over treatment.  Now a major panel has cited nine procedures that doctors should resort to far less often.    Fascinating article.

One of the most highly-valued contributors to this blog’s comment community, an emergency room physician, reports,  “We stand on the brink of the post antibiotic era.” One of the worst antibiotic-resistant staph infection strains called cMSRA, which can penetrate even healthy, intact skin, has just learned to defy the last defensive drug that physicians could use without fearing major consequences to children or the allergy-prone.

This is not a good time to back off from science.  In the 1950s, the most popular man in the United States was Jonas Salk.  Today, most Americans have never heard of him, and nut-jobs on both the left and right rail against vaccination and the Medical Establishment.  It seems we get what we deserve.

== Science & Tech Potpourri ==

Experiments are finally moving ahead with solar updraft power towers… of a kind that I mentioned long ago in Earth. These systems use a very large surrounding “greenhouse” – many square km of clear plastic or glass – that heats air to flow up a tall chimney while driving generators.  Efficiency is much lower than solar thermal, but start-up simplicity and load balancing are attractive, as is mixed use of the land below the sheeting.

==On the Lighter side==

Examples of my Uplift meme used in modern humor.

Terry Bisson’s classic, hilarious little story about why we may not have been contacted. “They’re Made of Meat” has been produced for a lovely, ironic radio show.

The Purdue Society of Professional Engineers team smashed its own world record for largest Rube Goldberg machine with a 300-step behemoth that flawlessly accomplished the simple task of blowing up and popping a balloon.

== And finally…  A Sober Thought on Pop Culture ==

Stooge alert!  (woop, woop, woop!)  Like most American males, and all American kids (something happens to women, I guess) I love the Three Stooges.  I haven’t seen the new movie.  I hope it’s good, though even if it’s great I expect my wife to get her year’s quota of eye-rolling exercise!

Now, let me stand up for this in philosophical terms.  The best of the old scenes weren’t the plain hitting. That was always lame. No, it was those stunning metaphysical contemplations of the inherent, hopeless irony of existence.  In other words… art!  In that art  connects the viewer directly to life’s inherent poignancy without words or persuasion.

Take some of the most perplexingly ironic-tragic stooge situational dilemmas, like the boys using Curly as a battering ram to punch through a brick wall, then trying to pry him back out with a crowbar. Oh, the expressions on his face, as the crowbar hook moved back and forth in front of him, preparing to strike like a cobra… or like implacable fate. He is hypnotized, transfixed, the way all of us have been, at various train-wreck moments of “real” life.

Nothing better distilled for me the inherent unfairness of the universe… or the absolute impossibility of human beings being able to think our way out of this puzzling quandary called the life – the game that you simply cannot win.  And yet the boys never stopped trying. Persevering. Coming up with one “hey, let’s try this!” hopeless gambit after another. And sometimes something brilliantly stupid – or stupidly brilliant – actually worked!  And you came away thinking… maybe I should keep trying, too.

I confess, that philosophical depth may just be rationalizing away what’s really no more than Neanderthal immaturity.  (See the “laughter scene” in the amazing paleolithic film QUEST FOR FIRE.) So? Nevertheless, I made my Tymbrimi and Tytlal characters big stooge fans, and for reasons that they found wholly adequate!

Ever see the Stooge flick in which they made fun of Hitler, a full year before Charlie Chaplin started THE GREAT DICTATOR?  Oh, they had guts too.

Final note.  It is a tragedy that we never had a four stooges film, with brothers Curly Howard and Moe Howard sharing the screen with both Larry Fine and the other brother, Shemp Howard.  I consider Shemp to have been a comic genius of the first order and always enjoy him immensely. I hate the fact that he is excluded from Stooge Festivals on TV. History and fans are unkind to him because we compare him to Curly, who was a force of nature – akin to gravity or electromagnetism.

Oh, never forget that the greatest city in the world — fittingly the home of Wall Street, where stooge-like intelligence and antics are the norm — was pre-named, as if precognitively, for one of Curly’s most perceptive lines. Nyuck Nyuck.

Whether the new film is a fitting tribute or (most likely) a travesty, still carry the deeper lesson with you, every day. Persevere you knuckleheads, numbskulls and dollfaces. A civilization that can produce such art should be able to achieve anything.

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Politics Redux: Blue New Hampshire, Transparency and the latest episode of WikiLeaks Mania

First a note to Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.  There’s a point that your surrogates ought to be making – (with SuperPac deniability for you, of course!) Remind folks that New Hampshire is a Blue State. About as blue as they come. And hence, if the hybrid-type republicans of the Granite State prefer Mitt Romney… what does that say about him?  Redmeat for red South Carolina.

Oh, but now on to things I actually know something about…

== The Return of WikiLeaks ==

Last month, WikiLeaks launched its latest campaign, releasing nearly three hundred documents that reveal the extent of sophisticated surveillance technology that has been used by both oppressive rulers and Western democracies — devices that enable governments or law enforcement agencies to track and monitor individuals via their cell phones, e-mail, and Internet browsing histories.

This is clearly the sort of transparency that – while it may short-term inconvenience some western governments – could help the secular trend toward an open world that (in turn) fosters and strengthens enlightenment nations and people.  In other words, embrace this! The answer to most modern problems may boil down, time and again, to a more aware citizenry.

Heck, shouldn’t earlier phases of the WikiLeaks affair have taught the US government a valuable lesson? Answer me this riddle. What was the biggest overall effect of Julian Assange’s leak of 250,000 State Dept cables? Who benefited most?

It was U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, getting exactly what she needed, when she needed it!  Scores of those leaked memos revealed US diplomats candidly despising Ben Ali and Mubarak and other Arab dictators they were forced to deal with. These revelations – secret, and hence credibly sincere – showed US envoys and apparatchiks expressing profound sympathy for oppressed people and holding their noses, forced by unpalatable circumstance to dicker with tyrants. Revealed precisely when the Arab Spring was brewing, those cables could not have been better timed to show youth in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and so on that “at worst America isn’t our enemy… and maybe they’re more with us than we thought.”

A bizarre assertion? Well, did anybody notice the near- total lack of anti-American themes during the Arab Spring?  It may not have been Assange’s intent… but that felicitous outcome was the exact thing that he wrought, and maybe our leaders should ponder the lucky break.

More important. They should contemplate the value of this overall, secular trend toward a generally more open world. Light can only – occasionally – inconvenience us.  For villainous regimes, it is lethal.

=== And while we’re on transparency…  ===

A Missouri judge ruled the FBI does not need a warrant to secretly attach a GPS unit to a suspect’s car and track his public movements for two months.

My reaction?  Let me surprise you. Mr Transparency is yawning. This simply replicates what would happen if the FBI tracked the fellow with a classic “tail.” He was publicly  visible the whole time.  If a tail was okay, then why not save us money?  Yes, yes, this may lead to “them” knowing where we are all the time?  So?  That’s coming.  Protest it? Protest the sunset. Both are inevitable.

What matters to me is looking back. And I mean looking back hard. Watch the watchmen. Supervise them intensely, then let them do their jobs. Let’s pick our fights and make them count.  Sousveillance!

=== And why transparency won’t be enough ===

Members of the House and Senate regularly buy and sell stocks even while considering major bills that will affect those companies. Yet there have been no insider trading cases brought against Congress members. Nor is it likely, for Congress makes its own rules – and those rules are silent on insider trading. “They have legislated themselves as untouchable as a political class,” writes Peter Schweizer, who has documented the money made by Congress members, in his book, Throw Them All Out. (This despite the promise, in Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America to make Congress fully accountable.)

Both parties are guilty of dubious trades that anticipated the effect of changing government policy–buying or unloading stock just before changes took place.  Alas, Schweizer’s prescription – to “throw them all out” – won’t happen because of another self-serving strategy by the politician-caste.  Gerrymandering.

Look, I favor some politicians over others, naturally.  The party that’s less disciplined, more diverse and willing to negotiate strikes me as better than one that is the most tightly disciplined and dogmatic political force – and the most fiercely anti-science – in American history, controlled by a media empire owned by unfriendly foreigners.

Nevertheless… at another level, we the people have to recognize that we are being preyed upon by the entire political caste.  Money has to be taken out of politics.  Transparency must be augmented, exponentiated.

And we must start with Gerrymandering!  An ugly, scheming job security program that has radicalized most members of Congress into raving partisan lunatics. Take a look at this outrageous example, as redistricting in Texas comes before the Supreme Court.

Only here’s the thing. A mass public rebellion against gerrymandering is already underway!  The practice has lately been banned by referendum in a number of states, most recently and powerfully in California — a blue state whose largely democratic voting population nevertheless voted to end democrat-leaning gerrymandering.  (If only all states had such vibrantly patriotic citizens.) See my article on Gerrymandering.

(Alas, not a single red state has joined the rebellion.)

Well, maybe it’s gathering momentum! A nationwide insurrection against this abuse by the political caste! In 28 other states, lawsuits have been filed against this foul practice.  A racket imposed by politicians against their natural enemy.  Voters.

Now… if only the Court were on our side…

=== Some Political Miscellany ===

* OWS Fights Back Against Police Surveillance by Launching “Occucopter” Citizen Drone. In response to constant police surveillance, violence, and arrests, Occupy Wall Street protesters and legal observers have been turning their cameras back on the police. I am no lefty or radical. Sometimes the cops are right. But this right to look back must be absolute and inviolable. Mr. Transparent Society is radical about this!

* Techies are now figuring out how to attach sensors and cameras directly to insects and powering the devices off the creatures’ own movements.  Similar to the “mosquito cams” that I spoke of in The Transparent Society (1997), these will tilt the balance of power toward whoever has the best ability to see… including ability to detect mosquito-cams!  Our only hope in such a world is NOT to ban the things – that cannot conceivably work.  But to make sure we all have them.  And hence that we can catch the peeping toms.

* Three GOP candidates stand above the others, when it comes to intellect, having interesting things to say, and departing (in spots) from pure, Know-Nothing trog-populism. Let’s dismiss John Huntsman. He actually wants calm, moderate, pragmatic negotiation – in other words, his chances of getting the Republican nomination stand between nil and hopeless.

The other two? I’ve praised Gingrich as 1/3 fascinating/smart… if 2/3 crazy. Now see Ron Paul at his libertarian best!  If only his crazy-ratios weren’t the same as Newt’s.  Well-well, these are the three I’d at least buy a beer and expect, during the conversation, to hear some interesting (if at least half jibbering loopy) things.

* Is the US Private Sector dying?  Because the “accountants are in charge”?

== And finally – the most important quotation you can cite this year ==

“There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of Science and Literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of publick happiness.”
– President George Washington, State of the Union address, 1/8/1790

Science and technology were responsible for half of US economic growth since 1945. Those who are demonizing science… and disparaging every other knowledge profession… are at-best fools and at-worst the genuine enemies of hope for the republic. Or for human civilization.  Don’t take it from me.  Take it from George Washington.


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Wonders and Disturbances: The Political Kind

Let’s take a look at a raft of political and social news, gleanings and/or outrages… followed by a potpourri of scientific and other wonders that remind us — civilization is about a lot more than anger!

But first the big news.  Exactly as I predicted, a federal court has stepped in with the most important decision and precedent of our times, one that will make a more crucial difference to our role as citizens than anything since the Civil Rights Act:  Citizens may now record their encounters with police.

This is so important that I will quote directly the first two paragraphs of the ruling just laid down by Torruella, Lipez, and Howard, Circuit Judges in the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals:

“Simon Glik was arrested for using his cell phone’s digital video camera to film several police officers arresting a young man on the Boston Common. The charges against Glik, which included violation of Massachusetts’s wiretap statute and two other state-law offenses, were subsequently judged baseless and were dismissed. Glik then brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that his arrest for filming the officers constituted a violation of his rights under the First and Fourth Amendments.

“In this interlocutory appeal, the defendant police officers challenge an order of the district court denying them qualified immunity on Glik’s constitutional claims. We conclude, based on the facts alleged, that Glik was exercising clearly established First Amendment rights in filming the officers in a public space, and that his clearly-established Fourth Amendment rights were violated by his arrest without probable cause. We therefore affirm.”

I’ve said it before, I am no cop-hater.  I admire our skilled professional protectors and I’ve helped them in many ways, over the years, from consulting with many agencies all the way down to relieving Sheriff deputies from routine traffic duties during San Diego’s 2007 wild fires (as a CERT-trained volunteer).  I consider the current “war against professionalism” – including hatred of science and our civil servants – to be a travesty and I note the historic rise in professional standards among those doing a very taxing and challenging job on our city streets, dealing with provocations that any other generation of cops – reacting according to hormonal human nature  would have handled with a billy club upside the head!

Nevertheless, this is not a fight that our hardworking public protectors can be allowed to win, at any level, in any way, shape or form. The only recourse of a citizen, when pressed or shackled or condemned by authority , is the truth. We must have access to it, especially when it concerns our potential for exoneration. Purely, universally and always. It is human nature that they’ll want to evade the accountability of our cameras.

They must be taught – simply and firmly – to get used to it.

Remember this news. It was important.

 == Politically Fascinating Miscellany ==

—  Science is really starting to zero in on a list of verified personality differences between liberals, conservatives and leftists that manifest in measurable ways in the brain.  A fascinating article… and perhaps one more reason why dogmatists have been pushing the “war on science.”

— Look at these ten charts showing America’s historically super-low tax levels. Then ask “who is behind making low taxes for the rich the top issue? The only thing that matters?” Who is financing that message? Oh, right. Got it. (Make your friends see these charts.)

— Did I sound optimistic earlier, about the appeals court’s ruling about citizen cameras?  Well, maybe I spoke too soon.  Remember, the Supremes can over-rule!

The Supreme Court majority that gave us George Bush Junior for 8 years (after which, not one Republican I know can name an unambiguous statistical metric of national health that improved, with most of them plummeting as a result of brainless misrule) – also gave us the Citizens United decision, allowing corporations to spend whatever they like to influence elections, swamping contributions from mere citizens made of flesh and blood.  Now see how blatant it has become.

“Cameron Casey wanted to invest a million dollars in the Romney campaign and why not? He and Mitt were both scions of Bain Capital, which specializes in enriching its members by selling off America. Having a President overseeing the process could net a solid return!But those pesky campaign finance laws limited Mr. Casey to a few thousand dollars. No problem! He incorporated “W. Spann LLC”, gave it a million bucks; W. Spann LLC gave that million to “Restore Our Future”; and, no longer needed, W. Spann LLC dissolved.”

You do realize that there is nothing to prevent a foreign petro-lord from doing the same thing? And… this is… okay?

— And no, I do not believe the only political crazies are on the right. Anyone who has read Earth or The Transparent Society knows that I see dangers to freedom and enlightenment coming from all quarters, instead of the ridiculous mono-directional paranoia that is the lazy habit in most modern folks. (Suspicion of authority should aim in all directions!)  Lest we forget the evils of Leninism. Even today, when one end of the political spectrum seems to have gone stark jibbering insane, I keep reminding folks that we should keep an eye on the other extreme.

See it in action here.  Oh, yes, there are leftie jerks. Only bear in mind (1) that the loony left does not control liberals – whom they despise as moderate compromisers. And (2) if the Earth really is imperiled by a movement that won’t listen when science warns of a clear danger, then we can hardly be surprised when some folks get dramatic and think – well – exaggerated thoughts.

— Sorry, but this is a matter that really chafes my hide. “Michele Bachmann thinks the world is ending and the pope is the antichrist. Her friends want to bring about the end times in Israel and her church has an issue with the papacy.” Look, I consider this separate from every other aspect of the divide across an idiotic, artificial “left right axis.” I don’t care what mythologies or beliefs people claim, so long as they remain detached from the candidate’s likely actions in office. But it really is another matter when a person asking for my vote also believes most of her fellow citizens are already damned souls. When she openly desires to see “fire rain from the sky”… while asking for the keys to our nuclear arsenal. When she openly wishes for an end to democracy and the United States of America.  I call that relevant.

— “How my G.O.P. destroyed the U.S. economy.” Yes, that is exactly what David Stockman, President Ronald Reagan’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Four Deformations of the Apocalypse.”  This summary continues: “Yes, Stockman is equally damning of the Democrats’ Keynesian policies. But what this indictment by a party insider — someone so close to the development of the Reaganomics ideology — says about America, helps all of us better understand how America’s toxic partisan-politics “holy war” is destroying not just the economy and capitalism, but the America dream. And unless this war stops soon, both parties will succeed in their collective death wish.”

Holding predictors accountable?  Those who remember EARTH and  The Transparent Society know that I have long promoted the idea of better holding accountable those who make predictions about the future. Indeed, our brains are equipped with organs – the prefrontal lobes – that seem to be obsessed with attempting to appraise future possibilities and events. We just don’t do it as well as our prophets claim they do! See my articles on Predictions Registries:  http://www.davidbrin.com/predictionsregistry.htm and http://www.davidbrin.com/predictions.htm

“Now A Hamilton College class and their public policy professor analyzed the predictions of 26 pundits …and used a scale of 1 to 5 to rate their accuracy… The top prognosticators – led by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman – scored above five points and were labeled “Good,” while those scoring between zero and five were “Bad.” Anyone scoring less than zero (which was possible because prognosticators lost points for inaccurate predictions) were put into “The Ugly” category…   Even when the students eliminated political predictions and looked only at predictions for the economy and social issues, they found that liberals still do better than conservatives at prediction. After Krugman, the most accurate pundits were Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi  …The group also found a link between conditional predictions and accuracy, that is, a prediction that was conditional (“If A, then B”) was less likely to be accurate. Finally, those prognosticators with a law degree were more likely to be wrong.”

It’s a step… though I remain a bit skeptical. As my articles describe, a truly respectably predictions accountability system will have a number of traits that seem to be missing in the Hamilton College study. For example, a specificity index is just as important as one for predicting successfully.  Still, a worthwhile effort.

— Finally:  See an interesting riff on Ayn Rand’s Hollywood days, writing treatments for a film glorifying the atom bomb. Elsewhere I call her a jibbering loony.  An apologist and rationalizer for the very same oligarchic tendencies that Adam Smith denounced.  (Choose: you can have Smith or Rand, not both.)

But in this case (for none of the reasons she gave) Rand was right about the bomb. It has proved (so far) to be a force for good. It limited the size of my generation’s wars to Vietnam level or below, saving probably a billion or more lives from the conventional WWIII that seemed inevitable in the normal pattern of human affairs. If this were 1947 and you listened to Oppenheimer and Teller, you would call Teller crazy and Oppenheimer wise. Indeed, at the time, we had no reason at all to believe Teller’s forecast that nuclear weapons would chasten humanity, wake us up and teach us new ways! Oppenheimer had history on his side and a desperate wish to step back from the precipice. But it turned out Teller was right (so far).

And the fact that we CAN be chastened into changing our ways may help explain why we’re among the first to reach for the stars.  A topic I expand upon, in my new novel.

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Sousveillance: A New Era for Police Accountability


Police are waging a futile war against camera-toting citizens. In several states, you can be arrested for filming police, even in a public place. With cameras growing ever smaller, conflicts are going to arise more and more often. There can only be one outcome. Police are just going to have to get used to it.

One recent incident: “After a horrific shootout on the streets of Miami, Narces Benoit and his girlfriend witnessed the finale: police firing a barrage of rounds into a man’s car. Narces recorded it. The police smashed his phone. But first? He stuck the SD memory card into his mouth and saved the footage.”

And then there’s the story of Emily Good, who stood on her front lawn in Rochester recording police searching a man’s car for drugs (none were found). Police responded that they didn’t feel safe with her behind them…and ordered her to go inside her house. She did not comply, continued filming, and was arrested. Recording police is not illegal in New York, and she made no threatening moves. They declared that she was “anti-police” as a rationale. Watch the video.

Another horrific example. “Woman could get 15 years for recording cops after one of them allegedly assaulted her.”

TransparentSocietyI’ve been writing about this for decades. Some very prescient passages in The Transparent Society, describe exactly this kind of tension, between citizens armed with new tools of vision and accountability, and tens of thousands of cops who – from day to day – see themselves as doing a harsh, difficult and under-appreciated job. Look, I appreciate it. Not only the skill and professionalism that has played a big part in decreased crime rates ion the United States, but also the daily fight that every officer must wage, to maintain that professionalism, under circumstances that might send any of us into uncontrollable rage. We all carry hormonal and neuronal and psychological baggage from the million year Stone Age… and ten thousand years of urban life in which the king’s thugs patrolled the streets without having to think twice before slinging their truncheons at the heads of punks.

Nevertheless, we’re asking more of you, now. It is our civilization — and the rules have changed.

In fact, the glass is far more than half full. The men and women in most modern American police forces are adapting to the the new standards of behavior. Clenching their teeth and calling “sir” even the most outrageously abusive drunks. I am proud to know some of these folks. Moreover, I can understand why they might worry about that one time they lose their cool, coming back to haunt them, because some putz on the nearby street corner decides to record that momentary lapse on a cell cam.

I sympathize. I do. Yet I refuse to accept the arguments that good cops need “privacy” to perform their jobs. It doesn’t wash. It is a ridiculous argument, aimed at achieving convenience and evasion of accountability, and we will not allow it. Technology will not allow it.

Technology will not allow it. For — according to “Brin’s corollary to Moore’s Law” — the cameras will get smaller, cheaper, more numerous and more mobile every year. So figures of authority might as well get used to it now.

This is the new world. It will be watching — assume it at any given moment. And I promise you this…juries and citizen review boards will bear in mind that we’re all human. When you suffer that inevitable, occasional, not-too-awful over-reaction, there will often be a second chance. We’re human too and we want our cities patrolled. When all of this equilibrates, we will have to make some allowances for good people, caught making a rare mistake.

What’s the alternative? Are you really going to push this “never record us” lunacy? Do you really want the law to deny us the ONLY recourse that a citizen has ever had, against bullying and abuse of power? Really? The only thing that we have on our side?

It is called the Truth. And if you fear it, then we do… not…want you as our hired protector. Please. Get another job. We are changing the rules. And from now on, only adults need apply.


Living lasers?” Way back in 1980, my first novel SUNDIVER proposed that living matter might be made to produce laser emissions. Scientists had already used organic dye as a laser amplification material. It seemed plausible (to me) that life could take the next steps, excitation and cavity reflection. All right, it’s more than just a few steps to creatures with laser-shooting eyes! Still, three decades later, my forecast is coming true. Two Massachusetts scientists report having caused laser activity inside living cells. The photos are amazing.

Want Kids to win the future? Turn them into Makers — and Sci Fi Fans. I attended Maker Faire and gave a keynote, then toured this “Woodstock for nerds” with my son.

Want to hear some good audio sci fi? One of my stories dramatized for a podcast?


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Transparency: Privacy in an era of Sousveillance

For H+ Magazine, I was recently interviewed by Ben Goertzel on accountability, surveillance and sousveillance. and our chances to maintain some level of personal privacy in the coming age of transparency and light.

An excerpt: In The Transparent Society I devote a whole chapter to how essential some degree of privacy is for most people. I argue that in a society full of liberated people empowered with highly functional sousveillance technology, sovereign citizens, able to apply sousveillance toward any center of power than might oppress them, will likely use some of that sovereign power to negotiate with their neighbors, and come up with some way to leave each other alone.

This is the logical leap that too few people seem able to make, alas. That fully empowered citizens may decide neither to hand power over to a Big Brother… nor to turn into billions of oppressive little brothers.

They might instead decide that the purpose of light is accountability. And shoving too much light into the faces of others, where accountability isn’t needed, well, THAT would also be an abuse, a socially unacceptable activity. One that you can be held accountable for.

Science Tidbits:

This wondrous solar powered plane isn’t a gimmick anymore! It looks so retro nostalgic… like something from the 1920s… yet it works. It stayed aloft 26 hours on just sunlight & batteries… and looks so cool. Also, it probably doesn’t have much of a heat signature….

The world’s leading climate change research organization issued a report yesterday that has renewable energy boosters cheering, as it foresees substantial growth in alternative energy sources over the next 40 years.

The military is taking climate change seriously. A recent report for Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, said: “We must recognise that security means more than defense” — urging a strategy of sustainability as climate change is “already shaping a ‘new normal’ in our strategic environment.” The military intends to adapt, as must shipping, insurance, and even oil companies…

No one has ever floated a boat on another world, but NASA is now considering doing just that, on Saturn’s icy moon Titan. With a proposed launch date of 2016, the Titan Mare Explorer would drift upon the ethane-methane lakes of Titan, performing chemical analyses and looking for signs of exotic life.

An accidental discovery by Japanese researchers found that Red wine turns a metal compound into superconductor! Sake, beer and whiskey also appear to work! The better it tastes, the more effective it is, claims lead researcher Yoshihiko Takano.

Wow. Stunning video: NASA captures a giant comet diving into the sun. My doctorate was for analyzing the composition and behavior of comets BTW. Put a lot of this science into my novel, Heart of the Comet, which I co-wrote with Gregory Benford. And at Caltech I was a solar astronomer! So, it’s very cool to see the collision of comet and sun! Amazing.

Red colobus monkeys in Uganda’s Kibale National Park are being hunted to extinction—by chimpanzees. According to a study published May 9 in the , this is the first documented case of a nonhuman primate significantly overhunting another primate species.

Pixar as an early propaganda wing of the Uplift Institute? The relationship between human and non-human characters is central to these movies. Whether the character is an insect, robot or rat, non-humans are sentient intelligent beings — that “humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood.”

The World Science Fiction Convention will be held in Reno this August. If any of you know teachers or librarians who happen to love science fiction and also live near Northern California or Nevada, clue them in that this year’s World Science Fiction Convention will feature a college credit course on the teaching of science fiction!

Musings about life:

Finally… a clarification. Satiation? I call satiability one of the hallmarks of sanity, and it is… but only if it means you shift your longings! When you get what you said you wanted, you should be happier! And need that thing (e.g. money) less) But that should not stop ambition and longing in general!

As Mignon McLaughlin put it, “Youth is not enough. And love is not enough. And success is not enough. And, if we could achieve it, enough would not be enough.”

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