Thursday, September 26, 2013

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 images collected by street cams, driver’s license photos, mug shots or other sources. As Ginger McCall points out, there is little or no "legal oversight of such technologies."  And I agree!  Oversight and "under-sight" 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.

The data on the site, called, 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." 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. 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.

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." For Twitter will be able to track you across all of your devices.

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.

Finally...xkcd offers varying views on Internet privacy.


Dennis said...

Making data generated by the government accessible costs money. Where will the money come from to implement transparency initiatives (e.g., standards, database management and conversion, website maintenanc3e, user support, etc.) that provide access to data the public can use to manage government accountability?

Dennis McDonald
Alexandria VA

camp said...

Hi David,

I'm curious about your position about privacy/transparency. Are there no constraints on your embrace of transparency? I have a copy of The Transparent Society on my shelf, but have not yet read it, so please forgive me if you've answered this question there (or elsewhere).
The reason I ask is that while I see the value of your position with respect to many of the technologies being discussed today, I do have longer term concerns regarding brain computer interfaces (BCI), voting, etc... With respect to BCI, do you suggest that the full range of brain states be made transparent to elites? Emotions? Dreams? Fantasies? As a proponent of cognitive liberty I have concerns about full transparency in the realm of cognition. Even if we have systems to watch the watcher, doesn't there seem to be some benefit to limits on the reach of the all seeing eye?
Re voting, this is an instance where society has made a choice in favor of secrecy and this choice has been embedded in the foundations of the practice. Votes are secret for at least two reasons: (1) to avoid coercion (prior to the adoption of the Australian(secret) ballot in the late 1800s there was rampant corruption, vote buying, etc... ex.: Tammany Hall) and (2) to encourage free choice. The second point spills over into the first, but there is a long standing belief that some degree of privacy allows for a greater diversity of thought and expression. And that this increase in the range of thought and expression benefits society through increased innovation, expansion of human rights, etc... (now there's obv a contrary current that believes that anonymity/pseudonymity increases trolling and anti-social behavior - perhaps both are true. Certainly it's not provable as to where this nets out and in the absence of such proof I'd favor liberty - that people should have the freedom to choose whether to express themselves anon/pseudo/on the record.)
Finally, while you are certainly correct that there has never been a society that has allowed for total secrecy (whatever that would mean), as the example of voting highlights, neither are their societies which have been fully transparent or which do not have some traditions favoring privacy.
So, do you favor transparency in ALL circumstances? and if not, how are you drawing the lines? and where?

Grateful to hear your thoughts on these points.


sociotard said...

The article you linked to did a good job requesting how judges to the FISA court should be appointed, but while it mentioned the problem with the advocate (where the person appointed could be a quisling or a moron) it didn't mention how to fix that.

I think there should be certain positions in the government appointed by persons more likely to oppose the government.

After every presidential election create a "Panel of Opposition". Arrange all states in order of percentage of popular vote for the person who one the presidency. Select the six states where the person who won had the least percentage of the popular vote. Let the legislatures of these states appoint one person to the Panel of Opposition.

The Panel of Opposition gets to appoint people to position intended opposed actions by the executive branch, like the FISA court Privacy advocate. If the panel feels that a given position meets that criteria but is not given to them to make the appointment, or if they feel such a position should exist, they may take the matter to the supreme court.

Because they are from the place where the president did poorly, they will have reason to appoint someone who will fight any action of the executive. Because they are from State governments, they will have reason to oppose the Federal.

Maybe this panel helps select the Inspector General? Or Ombudsmen, or auditors, or other opposition in court appointments.

Lorraine said...

"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."

I think it's time to replace the expression "above suspicion" with "below suspicion." Show me someone who is harmless, and I'll show you someone who is powerless.

Mr. Howe of Axciom: “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,”

That's an ironic request. Mr. Howe may be surprised to know that I am not opposed to the story of my life streaming out of my devices, but I want to make sure I can see the data stream. What this means to me is not that I get to see my dossier as understood by Axciom, but that I get a tour of the querying capabilities of Axciom's wholesale product offerings.

David Brin said...

Chris (camp) I would hope that you would at least flip open the table of contents of The Transparent Society and see that I devote a whole chapter to the importance of privacy (of some kind; it will be redefined) for our sanity as human beings. I have been plagued by people who read the title and assume I want everyone to go around stark naked. Few ponder that we actually have our present unusual levels of privacy because we citizens have the power to hold accountable violators of our space, but only because we can CATCH them and openly expose their rudeness. This happens, and privacy survives, precisely because we live in a mostly open society.

If you can follow that logic and grasp it with curiosity, then perhaps you might like to read the cascade of ironies in The Transparent Society. Otherwise, please, don't bother.

Sociotard I would go much farther allowing outside groups to appoint ombundsmen in the FISA cort. Security-cleared but adversarial. The ACLUU would be one.

Your approach is fine. I'd also demand that every member of congress appoint one scientist from his/her district to a science council to supplement the civil servants of a restored and vigorous OSTA. I have an ulterior motive. I'd love for the nation to see the goombahs that the gopper would mostly appoint. But the hi quality ones would then sway their congressmen.

sociotard said...

I considered the use of NGOs like the ACLU, but I do worry that they might have the same Quisling problem that direct appointments would. How would we decide what groups get to do that?

I do really wish that Congress could reform to use the Collaborative Stakeholder Conflict Resolution strategy that the BLM uses. There's gotta be a better, perhaps more formal way than the current "lobbyist" model.

Oh, you've probably seen it before, but this essay on the evolution of attitudes towards "Kodakers" in the late Victorian was pretty interesting.
"Kodakers Lying in Wait": Amateur Photography and the Right of Privacy in New York, 1885

And, related, this tidbit from an 1888 newspaper article:
"The Kodak has added a new terror to the picnic. The sedate citizen can’t indulge in any hilariousness without incurring the risk of being caught in the act and having his photograph passed around among his Sunday-school children. And the young fellow who wishes to spoon with his best girl while sailing down the river must keep himself constantly sheltered by his umbrella.”

matthew said...

This contains the first set of realistic action points on how to achieve some level of transparency in NSA spying that I've seen in a mass market media article. Ignore the "shock" headline and read America's Creeping Police State in Salon

matthew said...

Popular Science on why they are turning off public comments to new articles. Reading insulting comments made readers less likely to believe results.

Mal said...

That's an odd idea, that because a technology is pervasive, we can't/shouldn't limit it's uses. By that logic, we should all carry automatic weapons to protect ourselves. It's a cheap and pervasive technology, obviously we can't stop it! The best thing to do is to just have more of it.

But we do limit pervasive and cheap technologies. Of every sort. From guns to refrigerators to band saws to printing presses to farm equipment to knives and fire. Just not the technologies that silicon valley makes money with.

This is mostly an American idea. Other countries do sensible things and limit the technologies they find contradict their democratic values.

Alex Tolley said...

The Hungary example really epitomizes the differences of opinions on transparency. Dr. Brin tends to assume a world where the infrastructure of institutions and laws will keep everyone honest and ensure that sousveillance has a powerful countervailing effect on surveillance. But others of us, see that the world is not like this and that power resides outside these channels.

In the US, we saw the effect that videoing the Rodney King beatings had...zilch. The jurors were simply persuaded that they couldn't believe their lying eyes. Today we see a Congress that is willfully not taking action against Clapper and Alexander who lied to them. Indeed, we appear to be seeing Senators outright lying to their constituents and certainly not upholding what most of us interpret as the Constitution.

Seymour Hersh is scathing in what he sees as the gutting of the role of journalists in providing their form form of sousveillance. link

Hungary night be an object lesson on a nightmare scenario, but it isn't clear to me that those in power are doing much to reverse our slouching towards it.

While French Revolution is Dr. Brin's fallback scenario for change, remember that there were no police then, nor large military to maintain order. It was napoleon who took his opportunity after the revolution with his famous "whiff of grapeshot". We now have increasingly militarized police who may offer their own version of his actions.

David Brin said...

Mal, your own metaphor defeats itself! Replace guns with cameras and you get ALL of the good that might derive from guns -- e.g. mutual deterrence of bad behavior -- without almost any of the bad things -- e.g. impulsive death.

I frequently am invited to talk about all this in Europe… next at an EU conference in Lithuania in November. True, Europeans seem to actually believe that technologies can be kept sealed in a bag! I lived in Paris when the French thought their "minitel" computer network system would last for decades. I find this naivete charming… and nonsensical. You will not stop the cameras from getting smaller, faster, more mobile, cheaper and vastly more numerous. Do you actually believe you can? Truly? Banish them and they will SEEM to disappear as the world elites of money and government only make them too small to see and keep US from using them

Alaex you are similarly naive. The Rodney King tapes affected police behavior HUGELY, which matters more than one stupid redneck jury. And the proliferation of cams, now protected by the courts, will do this even more.

BTW… you ignore one more thing. The police and army are people too. You see them as henchmen of Big Brother. I dare any future Bushite to try it. BTW… Fox has seen to it that most cops are now democrats.

Alex Tolley said...

@david Brin The Rodney King tapes affected police behavior HUGELY, which matters more than one stupid redneck jury.

Hugely, how? better or worse? :) I assume you mean better to support your argument. But what data do you have to support it? I accept that increased video and dissemination may well bias perceptions of police abuse. However, in my lifetime, it is clear that the police have increasingly militarized, even in my home country of England where the police never carried guns in my youth. That the police get away with abuses, such as shooting unarmed civilians, without penalty is reported frequently. Maybe it was worse before video recording, but I don't see the evidence. What is clear is that the authorities push back against any recording of police actions. Despite the "settled law", and the use of recordings in police vehicles, NY's police chief has pushed back strongly against the requirement for officers to be recorded in "stop and frisk". And note that the fundamental right of citizens to be left alone is not addressed. Is it better that officers are now civil when searching you, rather than emulating tv cops?

You call me naive, but who is being naive here, given the desire of those in power to game the system to stay in power. You like to use history to support your arguments, but then you ignore features of it that undermine your arguments.

locumranch said...

"In the traditional view, a person is free. He is autonomous in the sense that his behavior is uncaused. He can therefore be held responsible for what he does and justly punished if he offends. That view, together with its associated practices, must be re-examined when a scientific analysis reveals unsuspected controlling relations between behavior and environment."

B F Skinner, 1972

By continuing to insist that two-way transparency will improve social justice, forcing all facets of society (the high & the low) to behave in a more 'responsible' manner, David makes the classic error of the non-behaviourist.

He proposes that all individuals are 'free' or autonomous in a classical sense; he assumes that subjective phenomena (emotion, intent, incentive) carry very little weight in the human decision process; and he asserts that all consequential human actions have a conscious or rational basis. None of which are entirely true.

Indeed, some increased transparency can produce the effect that David desires, an improved moral climate based on the judicious application of transparency to behavioural leverage points, but only up to a predetermined tipping point past which it tends to have the opposite or deleterious effect.

Scenario 1:
ANY socially undesirable behaviour (drug use, tax fraud, marital infidelity, self-exposure, etc)) is considered illegal & immoral UNTIL increased transparency reveals how common such behaviour actually is, leading to its legalisation & social acceptance.

Scenario 2:
Certain individuals (deviants, perverts, outcasts, etc) find themselves in an intolerable double-bind situation, unable to gain even transitory social acceptance while pursuing their interests, leaving them with 'nothing to lose' and very few options besides violent outbursts & self-destructive acts.

Scenario 3:
A social group is punished for certain unpopular behaviours (gun ownership, marital mandates, gender inequality, Sharia Law, etc) even though this demographic believes that these activities are essential to its continued survival, leading to increased social unrest & open conflict.

Being social creatures, we are not 'free' in any classical sense. Quite the opposite. Society is pushing us -- always pushing us -- into predetermined roles, a 'pushing' that triggers predetermined responses like surrender & compliance OR the inevitable 'push-back' detailed in the scenarios above, a process that is merely accelerated by transparency.

"I did not direct my life. I didn't design it. I never made decisions. Things always came up and made them for me. That's what life is."


Jerry Emanuelson said...


Even though determinism appears to be true as a basic condition of reality, that matters little to humans because our knowledge is always imperfect and incomplete. A basic characteristic of human knowledge is that certainty and knowledge are mutually exclusive. (Certainty is just an emotion, and has nothing to do with actual human knowledge.)

Therefore, living in a deterministic universe has little impact on how humans should behave since humans are not omniscient.

The elites who spy on us also have imperfect and incomplete knowledge, no matter how good their tools are.

For all of us humans with incomplete and imperfect knowledge, transparency matters. The more clearly we can see those who desire to be our "masters" and "overlords," the better our decisions will be.

And humans do make decisions every minute, even in a deterministic universe. Those decisions are most effective if we realize that we and everyone else are always operating on imperfect and incomplete knowledge.

David Brin said...

Jerry you got it. The more open the world, the SMALLER conspiracies have to be. And the smaller their maximum number of reliable henchmen. I do not claim there won't be conspiracies! But if they are kept small, we have a chance.

matthew said...

This is important work. Please consider chipping in. A Kickstarter to make all the world's safety regulations free and publically searchable, with hyperlinks

locumranch said...

David is, of course, technically correct: "The more open the world, the SMALLER conspiracies have to be". But, then again, he is neglecting Scenario #1 wherein an exposed 'conspiracy' simply becomes redefined as 'business as usual', the examples of which are legion.

(1) The corruption of our financial institutions was exposed fairly recently, as evidenced by the LIBOR Scandal, Mortgage Crisis & the derivatives trading scam, and 'We the People' bailed these institutions out without either punishing those responsible or correcting the oversight problems, allowing these same institutions to return to 'business as usual' in record time.

(2) Our Oil Conglomerates ignore the very safety regulations that they themselves create, commit negligent homicide, cause the Gulf Oil Catastrophe, avoid criminal liability, pay a token fine and all is forgiven, then they return to 'fracking' business as usual in a very public & legal manner.

(3) Monsanto gains a stranglehold over US Agriculture, controlling roughly 95% of the US Seed Market, through the 'judicious' application of US Patent Law & malicious prosecution of non-compliant farmers, in a very public & LEGAL manner, recently exposed by '60 Minutes' (Yes, that show still exists). This, too, is 'business as usual'.

(4) The US Pharmaceutical Industry makes windfall profits after price-fixing with 'Medicare Part D', made possible by a very very very public conspiracy with the US Congress & the Healthcare Industry, yet no outrage exists. It's just more 'business as usual'.

(5) Gambling, Fraud, Sexual Deviancy, Pornography & Prostitution: Name your favorite vice once criminal, shameful and/or private but no longer. And, coming soon to a location near you, the 'Conspiracy to produce, distribute & market illegal narcotics' -- specifically marijuana & hash -- is BIG 'business' as usual' worth an estimated $600 Billion US dollars.

Thank You, Transparency!! Thank You so much for transforming Immorality into Big Business through the magic of Public Exposure, proving that even the most moral public policy is entirely arbitrary and showing once & for all that there is no such thing as bad publicity.


David Brin said...

locum I never said transparency was a panacea by itself. It allowed you to get the facts that you just presented to us. Now join millions trying to use those facts to convince enough of your neighbors to join you in demanding a restored anti-trust system.

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