Tag Archives: transparency

Discourtesy on the internet

One thing many readers seemed to like about my 1990 novel Earth was all the interludes and snippets portraying life in 2038. All were written in the period 1988 – 1989 (as the novel was aimed to be a fifty year projection into the future.) A future we now inhabit, in many ways.

Several scenes from the novel are logged as ‘hits’ on prediction wikis and registries, such as this one on the Technovelgy site and another on FrontPage. A few are particularly pertinent to our world of 2022.

The snippet below presages the World Wide Web, some years before it surged across the world (and hence my made-up format for ‘net addresses.”) The ways in which it misses are as interesting as the on-target predictions. But overall?

This excerpt deals with the pervasive problem of offensive behavior on the internet. Unsurprisingly, people tend to exhibit more aggressive and rude behaviors online than in person, particularly when cloaked behind a veil of anonymity and no real accountability. Harmful gossip abounds – and does damage in real life.

Dear Net-Mail User _ EweR-635-78-2267-3 aSp —

Your mailbox has just been rifled by EmilyPost, an autonomous courtesy-worm chain program released in October, 2036 by an anonymous group of Net subscribers in Western Alaska.

{_ ref: sequestered confession 592864 -2376298.98634, deposited with Bank Leumi 10/23/36:20:34:21. Expiration-disclosure 10 years.}

Under the civil disobedience sections of the Charter of Rio, we accept in advance the fines and penalties that will come due when our confession is released in 2046. However we feel that’s a small price to pay for the message brought to you by EmilyPost.

In brief, dear friend, you are not a very polite person. EmilyPost’s syntax analysis subroutines show that a very high fraction of your net exchanges are heated, vituperative, even obscene.

Of course you enjoy free speech. But EmilyPost has been designed by people who are concerned about the recent trend towards excessive nastiness in some parts of the Net. EmilyPost homes in on folks like you, and begins by asking them to please consider the advantages of politeness.

For one thing, your credibility ratings would rise. (EmilyPost has checked your favorite bulletin boards, and finds your ratings aren’t high at all. Nobody is listening to you, sir!) Moreover, consider that courtesy can foster calm reason, turning shrill antagonism into useful debate and even consensus.

We suggest introducing an automatic delay to your mail system. Communications are so fast these days, people seldom stop and think. Some net users act like mental patients, who shout out anything that comes to mind, rather than as functioning citizens with the human gift of tact.

If you wish, you may use one of the public-domain delay programs included in this version of EmilyPost, free of charge.

Of course, should you insist on continuing as before, disseminating nastiness in all directions, we have equipped EmilyPost with other options you’ll soon find out about….

—and yes that was written in 1988—

Final note: What about sentient Artificial Intelligence? On that thread, my op ed – “Soon, Humanity Won’t Be Alone in the Universe” – just ran on the Newsweek site yesterday, shining light on the first Robotic Empathy Crisis that I long ago predicted for this year… that’s unfolding before our eyes.

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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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Must we hide behind masks?

== Hide from the Man? ==

hiding-behind-masks“Our world is becoming increasingly surveilled. For example, Chicago has over 25,000 cameras networked to a single facial recognition hub,” reads the URME (pronounced U R Me) site:

“We don’t believe you should be tracked just because you want to walk outside and you shouldn’t have to hide either. Instead, use one of our products to present an alternative identity when in public.” What product? A rubber mask bearing the likeness of URME’s founder Leo Selvaggio.

If lots of people go around wearing these masks the proto Big Brother system of all those cameras will be…

ever so slightly inconvenienced, while store-owners and bank guards and mere passers-by will have their tension levels ratchet up.

Yeah yeah, I’ve heard it all. This is a cool stunt and it draws attention to our decaying yadda yadda. And it accomplishes nothing else. Except to help promote the never ending chain of whining from those who think we can protect freedom by moaning “don’t look at me!” (I lived in Britain in the 1980s, where the cameras were already blooming everywhere, inspiring me to write The Transparent Society. In Kiln People I portray how masks will provide only slight and superficial anonymity, till someone is motivated enough to scrupulously backtrack images.)

surveillance-camera-streetYes, proto Big Brothers are all over the place! And yes, the camera networks could help bring us Big Brother! I fear the same outcome and I am just as militant in opposing it. More so!

Only there’s this. I know what works… what stands a chance of working. What has already worked well enough to give us the freedom that we do have….

…and it did not come from hiding…

…or whining “don’t look at me!”

== Wiretapping updated? ==

Strict-liability two-party consent eavesdropping laws seemed fair when they were passed in dozens of states, back in Stone Age days— like the 1960s — when the ability to record was unevenly possessed and when furtive recording seemed unfair. Today, it’s foolish for anyone to assume, at any point, that what they are saying has no chance of being played back, some other time. In particular, such two-party consent laws have been used to criminalize citizen recordings of their interactions with police and other government officials.

As reported here, the most important civil liberties matter in our lifetimes — certainly in thirty years — was hardly covered by the press. In 2013 both U.S. courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be “settled law” that a citizen has the right to record his or her interactions with police in public places. No single matter could have been more important because it established the most basic right of “sousveillance” or looking-back at power, that The Transparent Society is all about. It is also fundamental to freedom, for in altercations with authority, what other recourse can a citizen turn to, than the Truth?

(This was forecast in EARTH (1989) by the way.)

openness-accountabilityIt is important to take a balanced view… not to surrender all expectations of privacy, but to know that openness and accountability will let us both stay free and enforce a little privacy, or at least insist that we be physically left alone.

In particular, the recent rulings about citizen recordings of police absolutely eviscerate the snarky-stupid shrugs of cynics who proclaim that it’s all defeat and spirals into Orwellian hell.

Let there be no mistake. The cynics are enemies of freedom, not its defenders. Their tirades of gloom undermine the confidence and can-do spirit of problem solving that might get us across this transition era.

Indeed, sometimes “looking back” works! 

== Owning our data ==

haggling The Price of Haggling for Your Personal Data: This SLATE article discusses the notion that each of us might leverage and benefit from the economic value of our information.

It is one (absurd) thing to declare “I own all the info about me!” and to demand others not look. That’s a non-starter and if we pass laws to forbid the mighty from looking at us, that will only make them furtive about it and ensure we’ll get no benefit. As Heinlein said: “The chief thing achieved by privacy laws is to make the (spy) bugs smaller.”

But it is reasonable to say that people have “interests” and “value” in their information and a right to derive royalties or a fee for its use, especially if some commercial interest is making money off it. Moreover it is in an open society that we might be able to track who is using our data and insist on routine and proper payment for such use. The idea of people controlling and selling their data for personal and economic gain—as Jaron Lanier describes in Who Owns the Future? and Doc Searls elaborated on in The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge—is gaining traction.

In this interesting article on Slate, John C Havens asserts that it’s not just about money: “But it won’t take hold until we answer a more deeply fundamental question: What are we worth as a whole?”

jaron-lanier-who-owns-the-futureIndeed, a number of Internet mavens over the years, including Jaron Lanier, have prophesied that citizens will – at some point – demand to benefit from the commercial use that major entities and corporations are deriving from information about hundreds of millions of people.

Our data is being swapped about and – as author of The Transparent Society – I don’t find open information flows to be the problematic thing. It is the cutting out of us little guys from any participation in the value chain deriving from our data.

Indeed, the way our data is shuttled and sold is invisible to us!

An article by Gregory Maus — How Transparent Big Data Markets Could Better Protect Your Data…and Your Rights — suggests setting up transparent, privately-owned, but publicly-regulated markets for the data. “Imagine something like an Amazon, Alibaba, or New York Mercantile Exchange, focused on the purchase and licensing of Big Data. Suppliers could increase their markets, buyers could increase their options, and all transactions would be public record.”

Now comes the Hub of All Things (HAT) project. The HAT is building a database which will be owned by individuals who produce data in the first place. That includes social media data, energy use data and internet of things data from our homes, such as the goods you use or the medicines you take. Kind of vague, so far. Indeed, I am doubtful. But over time, we must as a society develop ways that each person benefits from a strong interest in his or her information.


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Brave Citizenship beats a Scorched Earth Policy

scorched-earthMost of us in the west were raised with legends, myths and movies that taught Suspicion of Authority (SoA).  Thanks to the great science fiction author, George Orwell, we share a compelling metaphor — Big Brother — propelling our fears about a future that may be dominated by tyrants.

Whether they emerge from Big Government or a corporate oligarchy or the traditional feudalism of inherited wealth, it is the end result most of us dread… a return to the brutal, pyramid-shaped social order that dominated 99% of human societies — only now empowered by fantastic powers of technological surveillance and enforcement.

Finding ways to escape that fate – and instead preserve this narrow, fragile renaissance of freedom – is the common goal of activists across the spectrum. Though we are hobbled in this effort by the “spectrum” itself, whose artificial divides make us deride potential allies, proclaiming simplistic, spasmodic prescriptions.

Nowhere is this sad reflex more prevalent than in the lobotomized modern debate over how to handle information.

== The Indignant Reflex ==

Peter Watts is a very good author (Blindsight and the upcoming Echopraxia) and a clever fellow. But when he weighed in, recently, about privacy and surveillance, his core argument was nonsensical, even in its own context. The Watts manifesto for a “Scorched Earth Society” is satisfyingly militant-sounding — enough-so to excite the tech-dazzle showman, Cory Doctorow, praising Peter from his Boing Boing pulpit, and Angelique Carson, who blogs at the site of the International Association of Privacy Professionals (whose recent conference in D.C. I keynoted)

Peter Watts begins his grand declaration with an absolutely right-on premise — that one-way, top-down surveillance makes people fearful and paranoid. It can foster an intimidated public. If the gaze-from-above grows pervasive, the sole likely outcome is some orwellian nightmare.

I agree! Top-down, uni-directional surveillance by powerful elites — governmental or corporate, criminal, foreign or even technological — will be intolerable and inevitably lead to tyranny. I dread that Big Brother scenario as much as anyone… indeed, probably more so… and I am militant in seeking ways to oppose it. We share this common theme.

Watts-data-destructionAlas, like so many others, Peter thereupon declares that the sole solution will be to hide from the mighty! To use frantic (though always vague and ill-defined) methods of concealment to prevent elites from looking at us:

“Don’t just offer data protection, especially since you can’t guarantee it…Offer data destruction instead.”

In ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, well-meaning folks will proclaim variants of this general approach — concealment — as the sole recourse by common folk against abuse of surveillance by corporate and government and criminal hegemons and would-be big brothers…

…even though it cannot possibly succeed, is illogical, has no historical examples of ever having worked – even once, ever – and is not the method that gave us the appreciable (if partial) freedom and privacy we now enjoy. And in that word “offer” (above) you can find layer after layer of ironies.  Who is expected to offer this anodyne?

In fact, that prescription is only the first half of the Watts manifesto.  The contradictory second half is even more appalling — a stunning series of incantations that boil down to the following:

Our failure is ordained and rooted in fundamentals of human nature. Freedom is a fluke. Give up!  

Go ahead and read the intelligent and articulate – though deeply-relentlessly wrongheaded – Watts missive. Also Ms. Carson’s posting; If you can’t protect data, Burn it to the ground. Then come back here and continue below, for my reply.

== Predator/prey… vs positive sum citizenship ==

The Watts position – that some of us might preserve a little freedom by hiding – may be shared by nearly all activists, but it is romantic twaddle that makes no sense on a dozen levels.  Starting with the fact that information is infinitely duplicable at almost zero cost, and it leaks like hot hydrogen from a clay jar.

delete-commandSeriously, find me one time and place where blithe assurances of data-leakproofing or data-destruction proved reliable, across thirty years. Or ever. You want to base your freedom on assurances that you can “destroy” data?  Do you trust any “Delete” command to reliably and actually “burn to the ground” any single thing that was ever turned into bits and transmitted across fiber or wires or through the air?

Really?  I wish the “right to be forgotten” folks would show us how, physically and technologically, they envision this happening.

But implementation is not Peter’s concern, so let’s address the matter on the level he chose — airy metaphors and theory.  He begins by dissing yours truly, deeming my calls for sousveillance – looking back at power – the impractical dreamery of a person with no grasp of biological truths.

“The dude’s a physicist,” Watts says about me, “so I suppose he can be forgiven for thinking that it’s a good idea to get into a staring contest with an aggressive territorial 200 – kg mammal who regards eye contact as a threat display. Speaking as a biologist, I really can’t recommend it.”

Ah, well, aside from chuckling at the somewhat churlish appeal to professional credentials, might I still demur? (Note: did Watts offer his readers back links to my real arguments, as I did for him? Such simple gestures reveal whether your belief in reciprocal accountability is genuine, or hypocritically feigned.)

But let’s dig into his biological assertions. Anyone who has held extensive discussions with animal behaviorists, such as Sarah Hrdy, will know that if you cower and avert your gaze from a higher status creature, you thus declare “I am yours to beat up, at will, or even to classify as prey!” By cowering, you confirm the bully’s inherent right to stare and to control. If you then try to thwart his stare by hiding, you will only be a criminal, denying him what you have admitted is his, by right.

On the other hand, if you look back, he sees you asserting equality.

Sousveillance-over-surveillanceAnd yes, that can be dangerous! That is, it can be dangerous, if you are alone, in primitive conditions of dominate or be dominated. Conditions that we invented enlightenment civilization specifically to overcome.

Indeed, if you look-back jointly, along with thousands and millions of fellow tribesmen, the alpha is going to think twice about predation. He or she or they will pay heed to agreed process. This fact compounds if you manage to enlist other powerful social forces on your side.

We know this because it is what happened, not in airy-fairy metaphor-land, but in our real and palpable Great Experiment, which finally took civilization to a higher plane than gorillas and feudal lords.

Why do these fellows never, ever — even once — refer to the big fact?  The elephant in the room. The fact that they are – at present – among the most-free humans our species ever saw? I am fine with seeking and even prescribing ways to save freedom and enhance it!  But how about we start by looking at what has worked, so far? This positive-sum, win-win, have our cake and eat it society is profoundly imperfect!  Except compared to every single other one in history, that is. Shouldn’t we begin by asking what methods got us here?

Alas, this back-appraisal is the last thing they ever consider.

== Steps forward ==

Nor do they notice that forward accomplishments continue! Enhancing freedom in positive ways, by assertively facing down authority. Indeed, there are as many steps ahead (for them to ignore) as there are setbacks to be denounced irately.

Sousveillance-truth-brinConsider the most important civil liberties matter in thirty years — even though it was hardly covered by the press. In 2013 both the U.S. courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be “settled law” that a citizen has the right to record his or her interactions with police in public places. No single matter could have been more important because it established the most basic right of “sousveillance” or looking-back at power, that The Transparent Society is all about.

It is also fundamental to freedom, for in altercations with authority, what other recourse can a citizen turn to, than the Truth?

A fantasy? In Rialto California, all 70 of its uniformed officers have been required to wear active video cameras when interacting with the public, and the results have emboldened police forces elsewhere in the US and in the UK to follow suit.  After cameras were introduced in February 2012, public complaints against officers plunged 88% compared with the previous 12 months. Officers’ use of force fell by 60%. Most officers, skeptical at first, have adapted. In response, dozens of much larger constabularies are starting their own experiments…

…but Peter Watts would rather compare us to jungle apes than to citizens of a vast and sophisticated commonwealth who, across 250 years, have repeatedly used exactly this approach to wrest gradual-imperfect reforms and freedoms from previous aristocracies. Yes, by all means focus also on the bad news! The dangers and slides back toward feudalism! We don’t have Star Trek or the Culture, not yet.

Only dig this well; the only thing that ever has worked is deterrence.  The lesson since Rodney King is that cops beat-up people less, who might plausibly file an evidence-backed complaint that will be believed and result in discipline. Indeed, the civil rights marchers of the 1960s relied upon the crude television cameras of that era to not only tweak the nation’s conscience but to keep the marchers, themselves, alive!

Funny how this physicist would expect a biologist to notice the core biological fact, that light means life.

Politicians fear most the combination of a free and active press read by an active citizenry. That is why there’s now a concerted putsch to demolish both the press and citizen confidence. If they did not fear us, why would they bother?

== The whistleblower examples are not exact ==

Whistle-blower-lawsPeter Watts cites Manning, Assange and Snowden as folks who were punished for looking back.  And indeed, at the fringes, where they operated, there is a murky realm where we need to talk, converse, argue over many complexities. Their cases are murky because they knowingly did violate laws that had been passed by due-democratic processes and ratified via acceptance by the populace.  Moreover, very little of the NSA/State/etc shenanigans that they revealed was actually illegal by statute.

Yes, Snowden especially revealed to us that we need to re-evaluate what’s legal and change those statutes! But if you study Gandhi and King and the rhythms of civil disobedience, there is no promise that whistle-blowers get off, scott free.  I want enhanced whistle blower protections! But the only way we will get them is if we demand them.

In other words, it has to come down to my methods, after all.

Indeed, not one of the privacy protections on the table today will work worth a damn, unless they can be inspected and sousveilled.  Without reciprocal accountability and transparency, such measures might as well be written on toilet paper.

== What works? ==

What actually works is a limited set of processes:

TransparentSociety1- Divide power.  It is easier to look back at 600kg gorillas when there are bunches of them, glaring at each other. This is the key enlightenment innovation! Split government into mutually suspicious branches. Encourage rivalry between corporations and between the private and public sector.  Get some of the aristocrats on our side (e.g. Gates-Buffett).

Then create NEW elites that are able to play hardball.  The greatest invention for freedom in our lifetimes has been the rise of NGOs, orgs like the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Amnesty and so on, who take the dues of millions of meek, individually-helpless members, then use that money to hire top paladins and lawyers, ready to stare down gorillas.

(And if you, dear reader, are not engaged in this method…sending in those dues… then you are a hypocrite to complain about freedom’s demise.)

2- Sousveillance. Catch scoundrels.  Strip them. Expose them. You may be a transparency-hero whistle-blower… or just carry a live recorder whenever you deal with your town’s planning clerk. Every time light wins, it teaches the mighty to limit the number of their henchmen and to worry about their loyalty.

3- Thwart Collusion. Watch for elites getting cozy with each other or regulators getting “captured” and expose the conniving.  Siccing elite “gorillas” on each others’ throats is our core methodology. The core method of cheaters is for the gorillas to connive.

4- Stop whining and believe. That we are no less capable than the last ten generations were, at ratcheting the Great Experiment forward. That equipped with new tools, we might make Big Brother impossible.

All of these approaches were hard won by very smart ancestors… whose lessons are utterly ignored by the likes of Peter Watts, who would rather proclaim that we are helpless under-gorillas or slaves of neural reflexes  that force us, forever, to be obeisant slaves.

== Burn it all down? ==

RECIPROCAL-ACCOUNTABILITY What a lovely metaphor. Burn it down! How snarky-satisfying in its simplistic prescription! How voluptuous in its Bakuninist wrath!

But to reiterate: Watts cleverly obsesses on the tooth and claw of nature, bemoaning our inherent limitations, while…

(1) offering no solution – because the data cannot be “burned.”

(2) He utterly ignores the methods of reciprocal accountability that gave us the freedom we now enjoy and that empowered him to spread his simplistic and un-helpful metaphors.

Look, I do not expect to win this argument.  I’ve learned that the reflex to whine about power is vastly stronger than the will to pragmatically appraise and innovate new ways to utilize that have worked for 250 years.

Reacting to Peter’s essay, Michael Rush commented: “It seems to me that his observations have more to do with evolved psychology than with strategy.  Humans often have a hard time even maintaining eye contact with one another.  I think it may be an important point that while sousveillance may be our only/best chance against abuse of authority, it may go somewhat against our instincts and therefore require extra effort (which may be why you have seen so much resistance to the idea since you first proposed it).”

== It gets worse ==

I mean, jeepers.  Here’s a lovely Watts-bit: “We’re also familiar with how cops react to being recorded by civilians — or even worse, to the suggestion that we “look back” by sticking cameras in their cars . Over in LA they ‘ve already done that, only to find that vital bits of that cop-watching equipment keep going mysteriously missing. Apparently, the police don’t like being spied on.”

cameras-smallerWhaaaat?  Peter, have you ever heard of… um… Moore’s Law? Must these with-it tech whizz authors assume things will be the same next year and the next…

… when cameras are getting smaller, cheaper, more numerous and mobile faster than Moore’s Law? And IPV6 will give separate addresses to each of the thousand dirt-cheap penny-cams you’ll buy on a $10 roll and stick up anywhere?

Not interested in the future? Then how about in 2013 – the very year that a citizen’s settled-and-absolute right to film police was proclaimed.  Yes, Peter, that proclamation was answered (as I predicted in The Transparent Society (1997)) by a plague of cell phones getting “accidentally broken” by police!

So? Okay, that’s the next, totally predictable phase. I’m glad that Watts and others perceive.

But the next step — that immediately follows — appears never once to have occurred to them…

….when, within the same year, we saw a man in an orange prison jump suit, being sentenced for deliberately breaking the cell-cam of the man he was arresting… while stupidly assuming no other cameras were within view.

Are these guys really science fiction writers, if they did not see that next phase coming?

Watts spoke anecdotally of his own, personal traumas with authority, and I’m with you, brother.  I have stories of my own. But which of the following might have rescued him from a beating at the border in 2009? Futile efforts to erase data about himself?

Or a citizen in another car, shouting at the border guards: “I’m transmitting live images of this!”

== It boils down to ego ==

You know what hurts?  It isn’t watching smart guys who share my fear of Big Brother reflexively proclaiming “resistance” methods that are inherently futile and that will only play into Big Brother’s hands.

LIGHT-STRONGERIt isn’t their laziness, opining on a major issue without bothering to read or study or understand the topic, in-depth, or bring in 6000 years of historical context, or consider alternatives as anything but straw men.

Or the shallowness of assuming that their opponent-of-the-moment must have studied the issue just as little as they clearly have.

No, what grates is their assumption that they have some kind of moral high ground, as proud paladins of freedom, just because they grumble with sour-stylish verve.

Fellows, I have been fighting this fight longer and harder than you have.  And Big Brother is worried about my methods.  Not yours.



== FOLLOWUP Breaking transparency news ==

Worrisome? An Apple patent that might enable police to shut down cell phones in an area? Would this neutralize the recent court and Obama Administration declarations that citizens have a perfect right to record the police? The most important civil liberties decision in 30 years… and it could be rendered moot if all our sophisticated smart phones shut down in a crisis area.

All right then fight it by spreading more vision! Buy up old fashioned cameras and dumb phones! Encourage neighbors to perch digicams on roofs and window ledges. Do not let any 600 lb gorillas monopolize sight!

Did I ever once say I was relaxed about this fight? I am on the same side as the fellows who are dissing transparency and accountability.  I wish they would join us, fighting for light, the only thing that has ever – and that can ever – work.

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The Arrival of Face Recognition Apps… and more transparency news

Face-recognition has reached your smart phone, bringing science fiction closer and also (I expect) a storm of controversy.

NameTag-facial-recognition-appNametag, an upcoming app for Android, iOS, and Google Glass, will allow you to photograph strangers and find out who they are — complete with social networking and online dating profiles. Snap and send a pic to NameTag’s server, where it will compare the photo to millions of online records and return with a name, more photos, and social-media profiles, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where the person (or their friends) might have publicly posted photos of themselves. In the U.S., Nametag will also match the photo against more than 450,000 entries in the National Sex Offender Registry and other criminal databases.

There is already some discussion of the blatant privacy concerns… and one can see why Google has banned this capability (officially) from its very cautious “Glass” endeavor in wearable augmented reality, preferring to let these frontiers be probed by smaller, expendable companies.

Still, expect a huge row over this, along with campaigns to outlaw face-recog on the streets.  As forecast in The Transparent Society (1997) this will be a nexus of confrontation between two very different approaches to preserving privacy and freedom, and you can be sure the “let’s all hide!” reflex will start to win, at first…

…until it becomes clear.  That the “let’s all hide!” approach simply won’t work.  And if it did, we would only empower our new masters.

== Repelling Big Brother ==

Defeat-Big-brotherIn “How to Defeat Big Brother,” on Salon Magazine, Andrew Leonard posits that “In 2013, we learned the terrifying scope of modern surveillance. Now it’s time to fight back.”

In fact, Leonard appears to be among the few who actually get what it’s all about.

“The Panopticon doesn’t work if we watch the watchers back. Knowing exactly how we are being surveilled is the set-up for a prison break,” he writes in a worthy rumination… though alas without proper attribution for who’s been spreading that lonely meme for almost 20 years.

Another fellow who gets it… here’s a link to Professor Arnold Kling’s review of The Transparent Society, revealing genuine depth and perceptiveness.

== The Real Trends toward Transparency ==

Transparency-2013 Open Data and Transparency: A Look back at 2013: Was this the year that “transparency” came into its own? In this year-end review, we learn of progress in some nations, while others cling tenaciously to old, corruption-prone ways.

I described this to the cypherpunks way back in 1996… that encryption could be broken by spies and cops in a plethora of old and new-fashioned ways… such as the different sounds that each of the keys on your keyboard make. By all means, learn and improve your security.  But anyone who calls encryption a panacea is a religious fanatic.

Oh, but it gets much worse.  “Thanks to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, we already knew the NSA played a central role in promoting a flawed formula for generating random numbers, which if used in encryption, essentially gives the spies easy access to computing systems. A piece of RSA software, bSafe, became the most significant vector for the security flaw. The encryption tools which hundreds of millions of people rely on to protect the private information are significantly weaker as a result.”  Now it seems that the NSA bribed the security firm RSA (who deny this, vehemently) to leave the back door to computers all over the world open.

And wow. Reports suggest that the NSA, in collaboration with the CIA and FBI, routinely and secretly intercepts shipping deliveries for laptops or other computer accessories in order to implant bugs before they reach their destinations.  There is only one way to control this.

== On the other hand… ==

ERASABLE-INTERNET SnapChat and the Future of an Erasable Internet: My transparency-related panel interview on NPR’s show “To The Point” (KCRW) on January 3, 2014, started with a discussion of SnapChat – the latest craze among the kids – and whether we are moving to an era when the Internet’s voracious memory can be put on a diet.  Other panelists? Tech columnist Farhad Manjoo recently wrote about the prospect of a more erasable Internet.

Jennifer Golbeck, Director of the Human-Computer Interaction Center at Univ. of Maryland spoke about social networks: Analyzing the Social Web.

big_data_a_revolution_that_will_transform_how_we_live_work_and_think_by_viktor_mayer-schonberger_kenneth_cukier_book_front_cover_dustjacketVictor Mayer-Shoenberger who has written about the dangers of Big Data, warned up both up & downsides. (See his book: Big Data: A Revolution that will transform how we live,work and think.)

Ah but…  a new application, SnapHack Pro, for sale on the iOS App Store, allows users to log in using their SnapChat credentials and send and receive Snaps. The difference: all images opened and viewed in SnapHack are permanent. Ah well.  And you ever, every believed otherwise?

Dig-it. I wholly approve of this SnapChat innovation is a tool to send self-erasing blips and snaps. As a convenience for sending hair-mussed face-grimaced little fun-stupid things to pals? Terrific! … so long as you never base your safety or future upon it!  

More on SnapChat: is is really as ephemeral as it promises?

== And then it gets weird.  ==

Talking Train Windows: Trains deliver ads directly into your head: The German branch of ad company BBDO has tested a form of bone conduction technology on a train between Munich and North Rhine-Westphalia. When a commuters rest their heads against a window, hoping to catch a few winks before getting to their destination, ads which were previously inaudible suddenly begin playing inside their heads… via bone-sonic induction through the glass.

== Innovations! ==

innovations-2013The Washington Post offers a run-down on ten trends and concepts of 2013 that seemed to have the most staying power for the year ahead. Most of which you saw discussed here.

The Occulus Rift finally brings VR gaming in 3D into our age.  And there are other approaches ripening, such as Technical Illusions.  Notice that both go for the full immersion AR approach, which Google Glass deliberately avoids. And for good reason.  A major corporation does not want to face juries when folks (during the transition decade) step off curbs in front of cars.  Which will happen until some of the adaptations and adjustments that I talk about in both Earth and Existence.

See this taken to the extreme in “NatuLife”, which you can find in my collection, Otherness.

The $100 laptop is so 2010, The $38 tablet is today.  Yes a $38 tablet.

And for your smart phone, TellSpec a $250 handheld laser spectrometer will analyze food, scanning for allergens, calories, contaminants in your meal.

Bill-nye-creation-debate A terrific writeup on Bill Nye… formerly “the science guy” and now my colleague and president of The Planetary Society.  And on February 4, the amiable debater against anti-scienceism at the Ohio Creation Museum!

Go get-em Bill.  Stand up for science, enlightenment and triple digit IQs.

And finally….. is government all-bad?  Play DARPA’s web games at Verigames to crowdsource and help find software vulnerabilities. The site’s five games are designed so that when users solve puzzles to advance to the next level of play, they are actually generating mathematical proofs that can identify software flaws that cyberattacks could exploit.  Alas, good-guy agencies like DARPA may suffer for the excesses of certain others that have inveigled their way into game worlds like World of Warcraft for reasons of espionage.

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Deep insights on info-age problems — without solutions…

Here and there, we see glimmers of some folks out there starting to get it.  What this era is about.  What it needs.

privacy-commodityFor example, Josh Klein, on Slate, offers a thoughtful rumination, Privacy isn’t a Right; It’s a Commodity, on how big companies are accessing and using our meta-data… and that this is only truly unfair if it remains a one-way street.  He suggests that “privacy” isn’t the issue.  It is how to enforce our rights and interests in benefiting from our own data.

Far more often, you find cases in which fine insights and great erudition culminate in… the most dreary of unimaginative conclusions, alas! Still, you take what you can get, these days, so let’s  have a glance at one recent article that starts and continues brilliantly – laying down insights about the dilemmas of our age — before falling apart at the end, where the reader had hoped for cogent suggestions.

In the transcript of a speech,  “Tradeoffs in Cyber Security,” Dan Geer – a computer security analyst and risk management specialist – offers up a paragraph redolent with insight and meaning, even extracted from his overall context:

The essential character of a free society is this: That which is not forbidden is permitted.  The essential character of an unfree society is the inverse, that which is not permitted is forbidden. The U.S. began as a free society without question; the weight of regulation, whether open or implicit, can only push it toward being unfree.  Under the pressure to defend against offenders with a permanent structural advantage, defenders who opt for forbidding anything that is not expressly permitted are encouraging a computing environment that does not embody the freedom with which we are heretofore familiar.”

(Sharp readers may note this echoes a particular scene in EXISTENCE.)

Cyber-securityGeer goes on to show the fundamental problem faced by anyone aiming to exert control, even control that aims for the safety and protection of the public: Moore’s Law continues to give us two orders of magnitude in compute power per dollar per decade while storage grows at three orders of magnitude and bandwidth at four.  These are top-down economic drivers.  As such, the future is increasingly dense with stored data but, paradoxically, despite the massive growth of data volume, that data becomes more mobile with time.”

It is a very rich speech – idea-wise.  Here’s another pungent paragraph:

We are ever more a service economy, but every time an existing service disappears into the cloud, our vulnerability to its absence increases.  Every time we ask the government to provide goodnesses that can only be done with more data, we are asking government to collect more data. 

“Let me ask a yesterday question: How do you feel about traffic jam detection based on the handoff rate between cell towers of those cell phones in use in cars on the road?  Let me ask a today question: How do you feel about auto insurance that is priced from a daily readout of your automobile’s black box?  Let me ask a tomorrow question: In what calendar year will compulsory auto insurance be more expensive for the driver who insists on driving their car themselves rather than letting a robot do it?  How do you feel about public health surveillance done by requiring Google and Bing to report on searches for cold remedies and the like?  How do you feel about a Smart Grid that reduces your power costs and greens the atmosphere but reports minute-by-minute what is on and what is off in your home?  Have you or would you install that toilet that does a urinalysis with every use?”

These snippets merely sample an extremely thought-provoking speech that merits close reading. Another example: “It is not heartless to say that if every human life is actually priceless, then it follows that there will never be enough money.  One is not anti-government to say that doing a good job at preventing terrorism is better than doing a perfect job.”

Where Geer fails is toward the end.  Having assembled many parts and perspectives of a daunting future, he disappoints with suggestions that amount to shrugs of “what’ch gonna do?”

ZeroSumGameAbove all, Geer fails to seek out the intrinsic ways in which these zero-sum or negative-sum problems can be turned positive sum, by turning away from the paternalistic protection model, and back to one that worked for our predecessors, stretching back 300 years, who also had to deal with their own crises of expanding information. They resolved the problem by relying primarily on the robust resilience of distributed systems, especially those consisting of a knowing and empowered citizenry. In other words, lateral stability and resilience, versus vertical fragility.

That is intrinsically the basis for our enlightenment and every aspect of our social contract, and yet it is the last approach that most people — even smart ones — ever turn to.  Least of all smug “heroes” like Julian Assange, who claim to have the Peoples’ interests at heart. Fundamentally, the message preached by Hollywood has taken root: do not expect anything from your fellow citizens. The only ones you could possibly rely on, over the long run.

Geer does refer glancingly to this possibility of a positive sum outcome from synergies of reciprocal and isotropic transparency… alas, only to dismiss it from mind.  He starts by citing a sage who I must guess was my predecessor in this topic…

“Howard Brin was the first to suggest that if you lose control over what data is collected on you, the only freedom-preserving alternative is that if everyone else does, too.  If the government or the corporation can surveil you without asking, then the balance of power is preserved when you can surveil them without asking.  Bruce Schneier countered that preserving the balance of power doesn’t mean much if the effect of new information is non-linear, that is to say if new information is the exponent in an equation, not one more factor in a linear sum.”

== What does it all mean… Howard? ==

TransparentSocietyUm… either there’s a wiseguy out there with the same last name as me, who has said some smart things… or else this is the first time that I have ever been called “Howard!”  Either way, it was honest of Geer to give this two-sentence nod to the alternative approach, the only alternative to his insightful, yet suggestion-free pessimism.

Alas, he goes on the cite Bruce Schneier’s shallow and refutable dismissal of sousveillance — the “exponent” incantation — while ignoring the obvious answer…

… that individual citizens can cluster.  That they can join non-governmental organizations, like the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation, pooling their dues and enabling such groups to hire top quality lawyers, top technical people.  Moreover, such NGOs can also coalesce efforts and expertise from even wider arrays of volunteers, activists and tech-empowered smart mobs. (As I and some other authors portray happening ever-more in our future.) Indeed, such clusters can often rally support from foundations, companies… and even portions of government that are institutionally separated from the portions undergoing scrutiny.

One great way to enhance this effect might be to enact more substantial whistle-blower protection laws, plus philanthropist-funded “henchman’s prizes” that lure the revelation of heinous schemes. Worth noting — such methods could put an upper limit on the crucial product that gives conspirators their power — secretiveness times nastiness times monetary resources times the number of underlings doing their bidding. If that product is kept small enough, by suppressing some factors, then those NGOs will have a real chance, and Schneier’s entirely made-up “exponent” effect will be shown to be the chimera that it always was.

Indeed, my approach hearkens to the very fundamental trick of the Smithian branch of the enlightenment.  To break up concentrations of power and to sic powerful elites against each other.  If civil servants and corporations and the varied branches of the wealthy, and NGOs and the press and academics and so on can be kept from colluding — and incentivized to compete warily, then the powerful will leap upon each others’ malfeasances FOR us.  This is not naivete, it is precisely the formula of three centuries. Moreover, snarkers who disdain this as utopian are not only unhelpful, they prove that they know nothing of the roots of their own civilization.  The factors that enabled them to sit where they now reside, mostly-free, mostly knowing, and empowered to grouse and complain.

We can argue forever over details, e.g. whether agile, analytical and deliberative tools will actually produce smart mobs as capable as I portray in EXISTENCE.  But the core point is this… not one of the grouches out there, whether brilliant as Geer or as sadly reflexive as Schneier, have ever once presented us with an alternative suggested recourse anywhere near as potentially effective as sousveillance and universal transparency.

ReciprocalAccountabilityIndeed, whenever they try, a funny thing happens.

Grudgingly, half-heartedly, they wind up proposing that we use the cleansing, invigorating tonic of light. Amid much grinding of teeth, they suggest revelatory moves of reciprocal accountability that more and more resemble…

a Transparent Society.

== But then… signs of hope! ==

Oh, but one sees glimmers all over! After years of misquoting my works and attributing to me positions diametrically opposite to those I clearly stated in The Transparent Society (thus proving that he never even cracked open a copy of the book), it seems that at last “security expert” Bruce Schneier is starting to get the need for an open and accountable world.  He still believes shrouds and secrecy can work for the common man, a charming naiveté.  But in another recent piece, it seems that at last he now accepts we must aggressively look back at power.

BattlePowerInternetIn The Battle for Power on the Internet, Schneier discusses how cloud computing and tighter vendor control over operating systems is forcing users into constraints that were much looser in old PC days.  “I have previously characterized this model of computing as “feudal.” Users pledge their allegiance to more powerful companies who, in turn, promise to protect them from both sysadmin duties and security threats. It’s a metaphor that’s rich in history and in fiction, and a model that’s increasingly permeating computing today.”

And: “It’s not all bad, of course. We, especially those of us who are not technical, like the convenience, redundancy, portability, automation, and shareability of vendor-managed devices. We like cloud backup. We like automatic updates. We like not having to deal with security ourselves. We like that Facebook just works — from any device, anywhere.”

— Solid stuff… that I have been saying for years. Schneier goes on to describe how technological advances first are exploited by the nimble — say “Robin Hoods” — but eventually become power-multipliers for the already ponderous but mighty entities like nation states and corporations.

Bruce  then rises to exceptional cogency: “Transparency and oversight give us the confidence to trust institutional powers to fight the bad side of distributed power, while still allowing the good side to flourish. For if we’re going to entrust our security to institutional powers, we need to know they will act in our interests and not abuse that power. Otherwise, democracy fails.”

Will wonders never cease?  Welcome back toward the light.

== And finally ==

TheCircleMargaret Atwood provides a thorough and nuanced review of “The Circle” by Dave Eggers – a dystopian/utopian novel of the near future when a super version of Facebook collects all lives – mostly willingly – into a version of a Transparent Society.  Mind you I don’t think things would work this way.  Humans would insist on an equilibrium with more enforceable zones of privacy than the toilet and bedroom. Eggers is not describing humans.

Above all, and key to my argument, is that citizens empowered by transparency would be ABLE to push for such consensus reserves — realms to be left alone. Still, exaggeration is a common and effective literary technique.  (In avoiding it, I may have hurt my commercial success!) I hope some of you will report back here what you think of this book. It is at-minimum a rumination that offers much for discussion.


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Transparency Wins and Losses…

The biggest news is, of course, the ongoing hemorrhage of secrets from the Puzzle Palace… or the National Security Agency (NSA), as now the heads of at least six allied governments are standing in line to give Uncle Sam — or President Obama — a smack or two for peeping and snooping on email and phone traffic, sometimes even deep within the sanctums of government.

NSA-Shine-LightIt is all just too much, too fast, for me to blare out a quick screed of impressions and I-told-you-so’s. Though a few one-sentence snarks might be in order while I put my more temperate remarks together.  For example:

1) In The Transparent Society I warned that any elite, whether a top agency or company or cabal of the rich, would have to be loony in this coming age of light, to entrust secrets to any but as narrow a group of co-workers or henchmen as possible.  I said as much at the CIA and DTRA and DHS and ODNI and many other alphabetical realms (though never at the NSA: does it show?)

2) Edward Snowden has been more effective than any fifty Julian Assanges.  Why Snowden, a low level worker, had access to so many potentially damaging reports, is beyond me. But it reveals a level of trusting naivete among NSA officials that could be viewed as (actually) rather charming in its innocence… no, that’s not the word.  Let’s just reiterate naiveté on the part of men and women who are supposed to be hard-as-diamond realists.  Assuming something triple devious is not afoot (and my author brain spins: but you should forget this), then it means our Puzzle Warriors fell for a Twenty-First Century failure mode called the “henchman effect.”

Surveil3) How is the world of pundits and politicians responding to all this?  The best news survey I’ve seen — done with very lively multi-media and great info-graphics — has been prepared by the Guardian.  Do drop by and look-watch-probe this site… then also know this. Not one of the politicians and so on who talk about restricting NSA access to information is telling you the truth — that it won’t happen.  It cannot happen.  The increasing power to surveil is intrinsic, propelled with the ponderous momentum of Moore’s Law.  All posturing aside, if the NSA is restricted, these powers will simply flow to some other, darker and harder to supervise corner.

It has happened before, countless times, but one example serves.  Did you ever hear of Total Information Awareness, or TIA?  If you haven’t, look it up.  If you dimly recall, then shame on you and all other pundits for not mentioning it, till now.  Way back around 2003, DARPA honcho Admiral John Poindexter was smacked down by the entire political caste for talking about doing exactly the sort of things we now see from the NSA. In ensuing outrage, his programs were dissolved, banished… only to pop back up again, as in a game of Whack-a-Mole, an inevitable outcome that not one statesman or scholar or pundit discusses, amid all the posturing and righteous dudgeon.

No. Please. Leave it all at NSA, where it leaked! Where they were so generally open that they let low level contractors see top secret power points.  Then bring into play the dozens of potential actions and reforms that would enable us to supervise, sousveill, and make sure these powers are used by folks who accept — deeply and wholly — the second word in public servant.

Transparent-Society-2064) See page 206 of The Transparent Society (published 1998). Yes, that is where – in a creepy “Twilight zone” moment – I seemed to predict the events of 9/11 in detail and then the following Patriot Act: “What might  happened if  bombers actually succeeded in toppling both towers of New York’s World Trade Center, killing tens of thousands. Or imagine that nuclear or bio-plague terrorists someday devastate a city. Now picture the public reaction if the FBI ever managed to show real (or exaggerated) evidence that they were impeded in preventing the disaster by an inability to tap coded transmissions sent by the conspirators. They would follow this proof with a petition for new powers, to prevent the same thing from happening again.”

The question is, will all of this finally have the effect of unravelling the worst parts of that awful piece of Bush Era legislation?  I’ll have more to say about this later.  But suffice it to say that while I hate many parts the Patriot Act, I probably disagree with many of my civil libertarian friends over which exact parts are worst, and what reforms should be made.

I infuriate those sincere paladins of freedom by shrugging over how much the government can see.  Not one thing they ever do will discomfit the oncoming age of surveillance more than an iota, here and there. As I just said… but it bears endless repetitions until someone out there gets it … if we forbid surveillance in one realm — as we did with “Total Information Awareness” then top, state of the art surveillance will whack-a-mole somewhere else.

ElitesNo, you and I should care far more what elites can do with what they see and know.  What they DO is something we can verify, perhaps even control.  I don’t care about blinding them. (It will never happen, anyway.) I want to restore our power to supervise our civil servants. I want the watchers to be watched.

We should never have needed Edward Snowden. Nor do I consider him to be as pure as driven snow. But this conversation was overdue. And that makes him worth any number of Julian Assanges.

== a light aside ==

ChuckLorre326Big Bang Theory producer Chuck Lorre adds quick-glimpsed vanity cards at the end of his shows. This one – on transparency – makes a strong argument that it should help to bring a golden age of accountability and then better human behavior.  “The end result? Universal honesty, initially as a result of the duress of surveillance, will become the norm.”  In fact, I don’t quite go that far in The Transparent Society. But if we handle the transition carefully and don’t let this be a top-down dominance thing, then yes… openness could save us and help us choose to be better.

Finally, here are a few reasons to think twice before using LinkedIn’s new product App “Intro.”

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A Transparency Tsunami

Face Recognition has arrived. Smile. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working on the Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS) allowing authorities to identify individuals by their faces from street cams, driver’s license photos, mug shots or other images. As Ginger McCall points out, there is little or no “legal oversight of such technologies.”  And I agree!  Oversight and “undersight” or sousveillance is absolutely essential lest this lead to Big Brother!

FaceRecognition“A total of 37 states have enabled facial-recognition software to search driver’s license photos, and only 11 have protections in place to limit access to such technologies by the authorities.”

Alas, McCall goes on to do the same yawnworthy thing — hand-wringing that we must somehow (without hinting at an even remotely plausible way) restrict elites in the use of these new technologies.  The wrong solution to a real problem, and always, always the vague-implausible one that activists reach for.  The article in the New York Times spirals downward into a list of begged-for impossibilities, never once considering the real issue…

…which is not how to blind elites (a utopian notion never achieved by any society in history and impossible today, as cameras proliferate faster than Moore’s Law.) Rather, the solution is to limit what authorities can do to us with such systems. And to accomplish that, we need only get into the habit of looking back. Of embracing the tech waves and ensuring that no cop, no public official, goes un-recognized, unwatched.

What could be more obvious?  To work with tech trends instead of (futilely) against them? But the well-meaning activists, though properly worried, never stretch their minds in a new direction.  The only direction that can work.

== It can get way worse ==

Paul Krugman, back in June, appraised a chilling – even terrifying – new law in Hungary that allows the Prime Minister to order deep surveillance of any government official, down to aspects of their personal lives, while exempting the very top layers of authority.  “Under Hungary’s new national security law, certain authorized government officials may initiate intrusive surveillance on their higher-level underlings…. Generating a surveillance order doesn’t require that the target be suspected of doing anything illegal. Any old reason will do…. The only required approval comes from the Minister of Justice, a feature which keeps control of the program within the inner circles of the government.”

SousveillanceSurveillance“Now that the law has passed, potential targets of surveillance must sign a “consent” form. If the targets have spouses, the spouses must sign consent forms, too. And if the targets or their spouses don’t consent to this surveillance, the targets lose their jobs. In short, this “consent” is not optional and the whole family is fair game for surveillance.”

And here’s the crux: “Those specifically exempted from either the background checks or the intrusive surveillance include the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, Constitutional Court judges, the Speaker of the Parliament, the president of the Supreme Court (Curia), the president of the National Judicial Office, the Chief Public Prosecutor, the ombudsman and his deputies, the head of the data protection agency and members of the European Parliament.”

“Given that the Hungarian surveillance program involves listening to the content of phone conversations, reading emails and bugging the houses of state officials to see what they are doing, there are particular dangers here. What is to prevent the Hungarian government from simply blackmailing people with what they find? What keeps the Hungarian government from acting on purely political information (firing someone for criticizing the government, for example)? The law contains no meaningful protections against the use of the information for political and personal reasons and it offers no procedures that would reliably correct mistakes.”

== But there are also good trends ==

The Acxiom Corporation, a marketing technology company, has amassed details on the household makeup, financial means, shopping preferences and leisure pursuits of a majority of adults in the United States. Acxiom is embarking on a novel public relations strategy: openness. It plans to unveil a free Web site where United States consumers can view some of the information the company has collected about them.

ReleaseTheDataThe data on the site, called AbouttheData.com, includes biographical facts, like education level, marital status and number of children in a household; homeownership status, including mortgage amount and property size; vehicle details, like the make, model and year; and economic data, including whether a household member is an active investor with a portfolio greater than $150,000. Also available will be the consumer’s recent purchase categories, like plus-size or maternity clothing, or sports or hobby products; and household interests like golf, dogs, text-messaging, or charities.

“With about $1.1 billion in revenue in its 2013 fiscal year, Acxiom is a leading player in an industry called data brokerage. The company collects, stores, analyzes and sells consumer data with the aim of helping its clients — including well-known banks, credit card issuers, insurance companies, department stores and carmakers — tailor marketing to their most valuable current customers or identify new customers.”  AbouttheData.com is as much ruthlessly pragmatic as idealistic. Mr. Howe recognizes that regulation of his industry may be coming and that it’s better for Acxiom to be seen as a part of the solution than a part of the problem.  “You may be surprised to know that we are in favor of heightened industry regulation, but we want to make sure we have a voice in the process,” Mr. Howe said. Aboutthedata.com is Acxiom’s bid to have a say in any legislative or regulatory developments. “If we are on our front foot, if we innovate and we are learning,” he said, “we think that earns us a seat at the table.”

One should compare this to a generation ago, when the three credit scoring companies screamed and fought against allowing consumers to look at their own credit files.  It took vigorously progressive reformers to wrest that right into the public domain where — voila — credit reporting vastly improved, because consumers found a myriad mistakes.   The system now works better bcause of transparency. Um… duh?

Acxiom is clearly not led by fools, but rather by clever folks who can see where things will trend, and who want to be seen leading the way.

== Risk and  scandals==

FearOfRiskAfter some years steeped in misleading cliches, it appears that security maven Bruce Schneier has found his groove again, making cogent sense in a recent pair of essays.  The first concerns our modern, disproportionate fear of risk.  His point is both general — about how we let our fears be driven emotionally, rather than logically — and specific, as in the trillion dollar spree of over-reaction to 9/11 that made no sense economically or in helping to make us more secure. A vast spasm that also undermines democracy.

Alas, Bruce leaves out some additional factors, like the varied Fear Industries such as cable news.  Plus the fact that we are wallowing in Phase Three of the American Civil War, one side of which relishes dread as if it were Mother’s Milk… and the other side is little better in its hand-rubbing schadenfreude.

His other recent missive focuses directly on the NSA and other scandals released by Edward Snowden. “Trust is essential for society to function. Without it, conspiracy theories naturally take hold. Even worse, without it we fail as a country and as a culture.” Yes, it is a bit of a platitude and short on real suggestions.  Still, well worth a look, and vastly better than Schneier’s earlier, fumbling misstatements about transparency.

== Important transparency miscellany ==

What the NSA really does with your data: A primer on data mining.

This historical survey of wiretapping is extensive – though not as comprehensive as the eagerly partisan author would have us think.  It nevertheless provides some needed historical perspective.

A number of women across the country have listed their positive pregnancy tests for sale on Craigslist. ‘Wanna get your boyfriend to finally pop the question? Play a trick on mom, dad or one of your friends?” Dang. I mean…. dang.

Landau-SurveillanceJust when you thought the NSA-spying imbroglio couldn’t get dumber… with the added news of even vaster monitoring by the Drug Enforcement Administration… now we learn what you really ought to have expected. There’s human nature to muck things up further as NSA-officers sometimes spy on love interests. Um… duh?  And what did you expect when there’s no reciprocal accountability?  Dig it, there are ways to apply citizen supervision over even shadow-war services that must maintain copious tactical secrecy.  It can be done in a win-win way. If you cannot come up with candidate methods, you aren’t trying.

Score one for the Electronic Frontier Foundation — a major victory in one of EFF’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. The Justice Department conceded that it will release hundreds of pages of documents, including FISA court opinions, related to the government’s secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

And following up on that… Bruce Ackerman in the Los Angeles Times offers several suggested reforms for the secret FISA Court that are much in line with my earlier New York Times Op-ed, including making the court truly adversarial, diversifying the appointment of the judges and increasing oversight.  All of which advocated for the “win-win” approach that I have been pushing… though not as radically as I would like.

How to turn off the feature on your android phone that “backs up” your settings on a Google mainframe… and thus gives them your wifi passwords.  You can choose not to do this.

Is Twitter to become more invasive than Facebook? Josh Harkinson writes, “Twitter has what only a handful of other tech titans possess: a digital Rosetta Stone that enables it to know who you are, wherever you are.” Twitter will be able to track you across all of your devices.

And finally, xkcd offers varying opinions on Internet privacy.


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From Google Glass to License Plates: Transparency Updates

I’ve been busy with a few national interviews. One of them, on the NSA, transparency and aggressively looking back, has already appeared on the David Seaman Hour. Other topics ranged GenerationChallengfrom SETI to SciFi.   See also my interview on NPR News:  The Man Who Predicted Google Glass Forecasts The Near Future: If wearable technology will allow for some segment of society, say, government, to “spy,” then all of us should want and have the same technology available.

“How do you see research and innovation making a difference for a better future?” The European Union asked questions like this of about a hundred “sages” in preparation for the Horizon 2020: Digital Agenda for Europe conference that I will help keynote in Vilnius, Lithuania, in November.  You can view my 90 second answer… and the other participants’ answers… or learn more about the conference.

== Transparency News ==

The most important civil rights matter of all – a citizen’s right to record his or her interactions with police and authorities in public places – took several major positive turns last year, with both the courts and the Obama Administration firmly declaring it to be “established” that we have that right. Alas, it will be hard to implement day-to-day.

At the recent Future in Review (FiRe) conference, Google visionary Vint Cerf said: “Anonymity or pseudonymity is a very important part of democratic society. On the other hand, I don’t think that people should be free to cause harm.” His solution: an Internet “fire department” that analyzes and compares the IP addresses one’s computer is communicating with to ID known botnets or malware IPs.  This is not my preferred approach, which is to create commercial pseudonymity services that are strongly encrypted and reputation linked… and to encourage all responsible sites worldwide to snub non-reputationed sources.  But Vint is very smart and I’ll always try a Cerf idea on for size.

== Get used to it ==

blog-alpr-imagepool-500x280-v06Massive tracking of license plates — via cameras mounted on patrol cars, bridges or stoplights. They snap photos of every passing car, recording their plate numbers, times, and locations. Data are stored for months or years in police databases. And you expected… what?

Predictive policing.  It’s happening.  Give us the same tools. Reciprocal accountability to look back at the watchers.

Data privacy researchers have been able to identify the names of hundreds of participants in the Personal Genome Project (PGP) using demographic data from their profiles.  And you expected… what?

Oh but we’ll do it to ourselves! Motorola researchers now propose a “vitamin authentication” pill —  a small tablet that contains an electronic chip. After someone swallows the pill, the stomach acts as an electrolyte in the chip’s battery and powers it. The chip has a switch that turns on and off, generating an 18-bit signal like an electrocardiogram. One’s entire body would be the authentication token, just like the fobs that many office workers carry to get on corporate networks. The implications… the implications… my head hurts just tracking some of them….

Privacy: Does Face Recognition cross the line?  Bah. We’ll only be safe when all of us can access multiple different and redundant and overlapping and independent face-recog systems, all the time.  And when those systems report to us whenever anyone is glancing at our face… exactly what happens in “real” life.

Oh, and blogmunity member Jonathan S offers this: “One of the prizes offered last week on The Price is Right was an iPad with a paired remote-control, camera-equipped electric helicopter. Total cost, including the iPad: about $850 US. Yes, that’s right, for about the price of a middling computer, you too can have the surveillance capability many people in the US want to deny their police forces because it’s “too intrusive”. Go to the park, with fully-charged tablet and ‘copter; sit on a nice bench somewhere, and watch everything going on in the park.”

Yep.  And we are at the fork in the road. Ban these things – they will shrink, the mighty will get them anyway, and we won’t.  Or else embrace them, and you will be able to access a million eyes, and catch those who are staring at you.  Choose.

== Micro-Payments to the rescue? Saving Journalism too!  ==

jaron-lanier-who-owns-the-futureJaron Lanier opines that the internet should be changed to incentivize a myriad micro, nano or pico transactions between sovereign users and dispersed content creators (like you and me) so that we benefit from others’ use of our own information — a new utopian notion to replace one that he helped to coin, but that hew now rejects, that “information wants to be free.”  Alas, Jaron is rather vague about how such a new system would work and – more important – what powerful interests in society might be marshaled behind helping to make it come true. (read more in his book, Who Owns the Future.)

In fact, I agree with his goal, which would empower dispersed citizens of a vast, middle class commonwealth. But I’ll settle (for now) for two important things:

(1) a much more transparent world in which our present institutions of democracy, science, justice and markets work more effectively and

(2) a system of micropayments that would save the profession of journalism from possible extinction.

As it turns out, I’ve long explored parameters of the former… and I am pretty sure I know how to do the latter.  Indeed, #2 is do-able in a surprisingly efficient, simple and probably-effective way that will – almost overnight – persuade millions to pay a nickel per article to, say, the New York Times and thus save that journal and hundreds of others.  Think that’s impossible?  That folks are too addicted to the free?

I’ll bet you a nickel.

== And Transparency Miscellany! ==

The Seattle Police Department became the latest department to equip its officers with wearable cameras.  You saw it in The Transparent Society – back in 1997 and in Earth (1989).

In The Verge appears a fascinating report about the company behind the non-lethal stun guns that have become commonplace around the world, Taser International, which has set out to transform policing once again – this time, with Axon Flex, a head-mounted camera with a twelve-hour battery life that officers can use to record interactions. The device is constantly on, but it only captures video of the thirty seconds before its wearer begins using it, and then both video and audio while police are speaking to a citizen. Footage is then uploaded to a cloud-based service where it can be accessed by the police department. It includes an audit trail to reveal who has accessed the information and when.  (from Watching the Police: Will Two-way Surveillance reduce Crime and Increase Accountability?)

In a major victory for the community radio movement after a 15-year campaign, the Federal Communications Commission has announced it will soon begin accepting applications for hundreds of new low-power FM radio stations.

theprivateeye_01enr00-1-300x181I’d be interested in folks’ opinion of The Private Eye,  a graphic/comic series that posits a future when all internet secrets got spilled in a single day… and an over-reacting society clamped down to make “privacy” a fiercely enforced right. (A sham of course, hence the tale.)  Explore and report back here!

== Eyes and ears in conflict ==

Ever experience cognitive dissonance between your ears and eyes? This YouTubed remix of a speech by John F Kennedy is overwhelmingly worth a visit, to hear one of the finest odes to an open and transparent society ever delivered by any politician… at least since Pericles.  Alas, or else hilariously, the visual part is one long screech of paranoiac conspiracy theories, re-contexting JFK words into attacks upon everything from Freemasons to mainstream media.


Especially amusing: while Kennedy is describing the skulking methods of the Soviet Empire, the youtubers show image after image of US government agencies. Pithy!  Gotta hand it to em! Mind you, I do believe there are conspiracies! The ongoing effort to retake social rule by secretive owner-oligarchy manifests in many undeniable ways, such as the list of top owners of Fox. (Or the less numerous but equally nutty leftist “truthers” out there.) But these fellows do us no service by plunging down kookooland.

Listen to JFK’s words, though.  Please do. While chuckling and shaking your head over the use of dishonest imagrey to repurpose them.

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Transparency: Is it so hard to understand?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVariety, the news-zine of the entertainment biz, just ran a pair of articles on the pro vs con aspects of Google Glass.  Space was limited, but I conveyed the “pro” side.  or rather “It’s inevitable so let’s embrace the good aspects and use them to limit the bad.”  Sarah Downey Wrote about the potential dangers to privacy.  Alas, without offering any solutions.

No law or regulation  could possibly put this genie back into the bottle.  As nearly always happens, she addresses the thing in front of her — Google Glass — and makes no effort to look farther ahead, to when this hulking, borg-like contraption will shrink invisibly into the frame of a regular pair of sunglasses. Can anyone doubt this will happen?  Heck, I know folks who are already compressing many of these features into contact lenses. In such a world, laws banning Augmented Reality gear (like Google Glass) will only prevent average citizens from getting them. Luddism only ensures  a world where elites of government, wealth, criminality etc can survey us like gods, and we are powerless to look back.

 What hand-wringers never do is consider how technology can help us, rather than threaten us. For example, what if your own AR glasses can be programmed with an app to DETECT when other specs are staring at – or photographing – you?  To detect the voyeurs and peeping toms, empowering you to catch those who stare and thus deter them.  Is that so 

Indinationhard to imagine?  Isn’t that exactly what you do today, to deter those who might stare or eavesdrop in a restaurant?

People who use tech to bemoan the rise of tech that they will soon consider a regular feature of life… and who offer no alternatives, only hand-wringing … jehosephat. 

Read the essays pro and con… and weigh in on it! 

== Cogency on Transparency == 

TransparentSocietyTransparent Society Revisited, Arnold Kling’s July 1 (2013) featured article on the Library of Economics and Liberty site referred cogently to my book The Transparent Society, which he evidently both read and understood. Kling’s paraphrasings and interrogations of the concept — universal reciprocal accountability — were on-target. 

 Alas, I have found this to be rare, with most pundits skimming for a strawman caricature, such as “Brin opposes privacy.” Nothing could be more false.

Kling captures the notion of the Positive Sum Game… that not everything must be either-or.  Smithian enlightenment nations have benefited from so many win-win arrangements — in science, markets, democracy and so on — that the concept should be second nature.  Instead, it appears to be very hard to grasp.

Going back to our roots, Adam Smith did not demand zero government.  Indeed, he saw civil servants as one  counterbalancing force to set in opposition vs. the clade that truly repressed freedom and markets in 99% of human cultures: inheritance-based owner-oligarchy. Yes, civil servants can become oppressive too! Especially when captured by an owner-oligarchy.  Hence, the logic should be extended.  Keep erecting new, diverse, dispersed, opposing centers of perception, knowledge and power, so that we benefit from positive-sum, creative competition and do not fall for the failure mode of 6000 years — leadership delusion.

Getting back to The Transparent Society, my emphasis has been upon “sousveillance” or empowering citizens to look back at every sort of power or elite, from government and commercial to criminal, foreign, technological or oligarchic.  This has been, in fact, the very reflex that brought us to this festival of freedom and creativity-generated wealth.  Yet, it seems difficult to get people to parse HOW this is best achieved.  The reflex to seek power parity by blinding others — by limiting what elites can see or by cowering or encrypting or hiding from them — is so profoundly wrong-headed, yet it fills the punditsphere as handwringing commentators demand that government powers of surveillance be curbed… without ever explaining how this can be done, let alone showing one example from history when elites actually let themselves be blinded.

LibertyFlourishesRecall “Total Information Awareness”?  The endeavor of John Poindexter at DARPA to scan all the internet, all the time for signs of danger?  Public opposition shut it down right?  Only we find its parts simply found new shadows to root, and grow within.  

The opposite approach is what can, has and will work. Last year, in a civil liberties event vastly more important than PRISM and all that, federal courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be “settled law” that citizens have a universal right to record police activity on public streets.  Sousveillance triumphed… and hardly anyone commented. (Indeed, it will be a battle all our lives to prevent local cops from smashing our cameras “by accident.”) 

== And on to the the Ridiculous == 

Internet “security expert” Bruce Schneier is at it again, creating fabulous dichotomies that have almost no bearing upon the true dilemmas the lie before us.  He starts by laying out a genuine concern, that the FBI and other state agencies are striving to win maximal legal and technical access to the Internet – including all decrypted traffic – in order to do their jobs with maximal efficiency.  Bruce does some good work at the beginning, covering several hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Alas, then he goes on to say:  “The FBI believes it can have it both ways: that it can open systems to its eavesdropping, but keep them secure from anyone else’s eavesdropping. That’s just not possible. It’s impossible to build a communications system that allows the FBI surreptitious access but doesn’t allow similar access by others. When it comes to security, we have two options: We can build our systems to be as secure as possible from eavesdropping, or we can deliberately weaken their security. We have to choose one or the other.”  

losersWhere to begin? The government and other powerful elites are NOT intrinsically as transparent as we are. They can create intranets and keep them secure from the methods that let them spy on regular internet traffic.  Lots of agencies already do this.  Yes, their adversaries can also set up secure intranets — but if those loci are within US borders, the FBI can then legally (with warrants) break down doors.  Meanwhile, in any race for security and privacy through shrouds, we — you and me — are automatically destined to be the losers.  That is not a race we can win.  But we can change the race. 

The dichotomy is not between technologically secure and un-secure.  It is between letting elites exercise surveillance unsupervised or … supervised. It is whether we wise up and start demanding a price every time public agencies claim they need to see better, in order to protect us.  I see no point in investing all our strivings into blinding them, when the next major trauma will result in the next Patriot Act, giving them all the powers they claim would have prevented catastrophe. It is the ratchet effect and it dooms all such measures. 

inspectors-GeneralAnyway, I’m not sure I want our watchdogs blinded.  I care much more about retaining control over the dog… a choke chain of close supervision… to remind the dog that it’s a dog, and not a wolf.  There are measures we could demand, such as more powerful inspectors general.  Citizen inspectors (based on the old Grand Jury concept) vetted and cleared to enter any room (especially the surveillance control rooms) and ask any questions. There are many such measures that, instead of trying futilely to restrict what elites can see and know, instead fiercely clamp down on what they can DO with that information.

Ponder… information is slippery and infinitely copy-able.  But the actions of physical agents of authority — arresting you, slandering me, firing that dissident across the street… THOSE things we have a chance of detecting, deterring, controlling.  If we make the real world the thing that we care most about.  

That distinction – between what agencies and other elites can SEE and what they can DO — seems to utterly escape Schneier and most of today’s hand-wringers.  If we give in to their notion of a tradeoff between safety and freedom, then we all will inevitably lose, since we will have sacrificed the very notion of a positive-sum, win-win game.  

All of our radicalism should be aimed at forcing new, innovative and better forms of supervision and sousveillance upon powerful elites, instead of hopelessly trying to blind them.  

== To the creepy ==  

The NSA is quietly writing code for Google’s open source Android OS. Google says anyone has the right to do so. Read the aricle carefully because while nothing illegal was done, some care should be taken to parse consequences.  

I am less upset than you’d expect.  If the NSA experts are offering “Security Enhanced” systems for Android… and they are open source inspected by thousands of bright private individuals, then we can presume two things:1) Hackers and others will find it harder to break Android security. 2) If the NSA has inserted some kind of back door, it’s one that it considers so safe from discovery that it is not worried about the open source community. 

Number 1 sounds okay.  Number two is frightening, at first. But if they are that clever, they could have introduced it using one of their thousands of fronts and false identities in the hacker, open source or anonymous communities.

 In fact, what matters is not what the NSA sees.  That has never been the point.  What matters is not letting them look at us without being supervised by a diversity of adversarialy skeptical watchdogs!  Again, that distinction between what they might see/know and what they might do is crucial, though, alas, too few make it. 

Obsession with limiting the vision of elites is not only historically unprecedented and futile, it stymies clear thinking and perpetually stops us from talking about how to supervise them better.


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