Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Ongoing Privacy Problem: Other Voices

Ah… and so we return to the perennial topic that this astrophysicist never would have expected to stand at the center-of. How we should deal with an increasingly information-rich world.
== A Transparency Riff Worth Reading ==
PrivacyProblemEvgeny Morozov's fascinating rumination in MIT's Technology Review on The Real Privacy Problem  begins with an even more fascinating look back at one of the visionary pioneers of our age:
"In 1967, The Public Interest, then a leading venue for highbrow policy debate, published a provocative essay by Paul Baran, one of the fathers of the data transmission method known as packet switching. Titled “The Future Computer Utility,” the essay speculated that someday a few big, centralized computers would provide “information processing … the same way one now buys electricity.”
"Our home computer console will be used to send and receive messages—like telegrams. We could check to see whether the local department store has the advertised sports shirt in stock in the desired color and size. We could ask when delivery would be guaranteed, if we ordered. The information would be up-to-the-minute and accurate. We could pay our bills and compute our taxes via the console. We would ask questions and receive answers from “information banks”—automated versions of today’s libraries. We would obtain up-to-the-minute listing of all television and radio programs … The computer could, itself, send a message to remind us of an impending anniversary and save us from the disastrous consequences of forgetfulness.""
Privacy-TransparencyBaran was, indeed, almost as much an icon of tech prophecy as  the great Memex seer Vannevar Bush. Or the late Willis Ware, who foretold in 1966 that computers would be everywhere. But Morozov goes on to cite Tal Zarsky, one of the world’s leading experts on the politics and ethics of data mining, who refers to an earlier 1985 prediction by Spiros Simitis that vast, semi-intelligent systems of automated governance, whether run by state officials or corporations, would start predicting and then nudging individual behaviors, even when they are not illegal, starting with route planning and dietary advice and so on, with the danger that such nanny systems might even lose track of the underlying reasons or correlations that  the advice (which starts firming into compulsory tones) is even based upon!   “Data mining might point to individuals and events, indicating elevated risk, without telling us why they were selected.”
Writes Morozov"This is the future we are sleepwalking into. Everything seems to work, and things might even be getting better—it’s just that we don’t know exactly why or how." 
So far, that is a very cogent description of a subtle and interesting failure mode. His subsequent discussion of rights and and contradictions is certainly an interesting one, well-worth reading.
== The rumination falls apart ==
Alas, Morozov then gloms onto a "solution" based on concealment, obscurity and hiding -- one that cannot possibly work. Like nearly every seer in this benighted field, he absolutely refuses to consider how there might be transparency and accountability-based solutions that work with unstoppable  trends toward a world awash in light, rather than raging against the tide.
jaron-lanier-who-owns-the-futureHe buys into Jaron Lanier's notion (explicated earlier by Steve Mann) of each person having a commercial "interest" in their own information and a right to allocate it for profit or personal benefit. Any business (or government) that uses your personal information would pay you for the privilege. This is an improvement over the fantasy of a legal "right" to conceal your information and to punish those who have it, a stunning delusion in a world of limitless leaks.  Lanier's notion is certainly a step forward -- instead of prescribing futile and delusional shrouds, it envisions a largely open world in which we all get to share in the benefits that large entities like corporations derive from our information.
Except that "our information" is also a delusion that will fray and unravel with time, leaving us with what is practical, what matters… how to maintain control NOT over what others know about us, but what they can DO to us.
In order to accomplish that, we must know as much about the mighty as they know about us.
In-search-of-certaintyAlas, after an interesting discussion, Morozov devolves down to this"we must learn how to sabotage the system—perhaps by refusing to self-track at all. If refusing to record our calorie intake or our whereabouts is the only way to get policy makers to address the structural causes of problems like obesity or climate change—and not just tinker with their symptoms through nudging—information boycotts might be justifiable."
This notion, that any measures taken by private persons will even slightly inconvenience society's elites (of government, corporatcy, oligarchy etc) from being able to surveil us,  would be charming naivete if it weren't a nearly universal and dangerous hallucination. It proposes that individuals attempt to cower amid a fog of their own hamstrung data ignorance, in utter futility, since the lords above them will see everything anyway.
In The Transparent Society I discuss the alternative we seldom see talked-about, even though it is precisely the prescription that got us our current renaissance of freedom and empowered citizenship.  Sousveillance. Standing up in the light while demanding -- along with hundreds of millions of fellow citizens -- the power to watch the watchmen. Embracing the power to look-back and helping our neighbors to do it, as well.
DisputationArenasArrowCoverI agree with Morozov about the need for "provocative services" where he almost seems to get the core idea, that we can solve most of these problems through open and fair confrontation, of the sort that teaches people to behave like adults.  An actual proposal for how such systems of dispute resolution through competitive opposition might work can be found in my article Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit.
Look, these matters are too important for cliches and unsubtle reflexes. It is a dismal situation when even society's smartest observers cannot see what is in front of their faces.  One simple fact.  In order to preserve both freedom and safety, we humans need to see.  And in order to see… there must be light.
==Long Live Transparency==
Privacy-Is-deadIn an article, Privacy is Dead; Long Live Transparency, Kevin Drum writes, "I call this the 'David Brin question," after the science fiction writer who argued in 1996 that the issue isn't whether surveillance will become ubiquitous -- given technological advances, it will -- but how we choose to live with it. Sure, he argued, we may pass laws to protect our privacy, but they'll do little except ensure that surveillance is hidden ever more deep and is available only to governments and powerful corporations. Instead, Brin suggests, we should all tolerate less privacy, but insist on less of it for everyone. With the exception of a small sphere within our homes, we should accept that our neighbors will know pretty much everything about us and vice versa. And we should demand that all surveillance data be public, with none restricted to governments or data brokers. Give everyone access to the NSA's records. Give everyone access to all the video cameras that dot our cities. Give everyone access to corporate databases."
Drum continues, "This is needless to say, easier said than done, and Brin acknowledges plenty of problems. Nonetheless, his provocation is worth thinking about. If privacy in the traditional sense is impossible in a modern society, our best bet might be to make the inevitable surveillance more available, not less. It might, in the end, be the only way to keep governments honest."
In fact, I don't go this far.  I believe we've retain a bit of control.  Some ability to enforce some close-in privacy.  But this (ironically) can only be assured in a mostly open world.
For more: collected articles about Transparency in the Modern World.
== Dads, tell your daughters! ==
It's been spoofed and expected for decades. At last, is this the pre-date site you can tell your daughter to check, before going out with some dude?  What's the delay, already! There should also be blood tests!
== And Finally ==
China-cyberwarA fascinating riff from Kurt Eichenwald's new piece for Newsweek, "How Edward Snowden Escalated Cyber War With China," concerning the increased challenges facing US efforts to curb widespread Chinese hacking in the wake of the controversies triggered by Edward Snowden's selective disclosures of surveillance activities. Here is Richard B. Eisenberg, Attorney-Advisor Office of the General Counsel, US Air Force-   
"Some security industry and former intelligence officials say they originally believed Snowden's apparent outrage at espionage by governments might lead him to expose activities by the Chinese, who use their hacking skills not only for economic competition but to track and damage dissidents overseas and monitor their citizens. There was good reason to believe Snowden had plenty of details about Beijing's activities – he has publicly stated that as an NSA contractor he targeted Chinese operations and taught a course on Chinese cyber counterintelligence. And while he says he turned over his computerized files of NSA documents to journalists in Hong Kong, he boasts that he is so familiar with Chinese hacking techniques that there is no chance the government there can gain access to his classified material. But outside of American intelligence operations conducted there, Snowden has revealed nothing about surveillance and hacking in China, nor about the techniques he asserts he knows so well." 
There are screwy things going on. Always remember that there are currents and implications that aren't simple black and white. Don't give in to that temptation.


Gerhard said...

The best example i've seen that really shows the potential of investigative transparency in politics comes from this site, that deals with how representatives in the European Parliament work with the text to the new Data Privacy Law.
It's quite beautiful, really.

Paul451 said...

[Robert, I left you few comments on the previous thread, to avoid mixing with this one.]

On Slashdot there was a comment that I think relates....

"I suggest letting the US spy internally without much restraint at all. But we should put in place laws that compensate victims for damages more stringently when they are damaged by error from authorities. For example people who are imprisoned and found to be innocent should be heavily compensated as should people who have lost jobs or been under threat of arrest without cause. "

I like this idea. Not for things like Gitmo, but the routine violations of privacy by authority. For example, if you are stop'n'frisked and they find nothing, you get a compensation payment. If a drug-dog "signals" you, and they search you/your car/your home, and find nothing, you get a compensation payment. If you get internally searched by cop or TSA, and they find nothing, you get a particularly large compensation payment. But it would need to be combined with body-worn cameras (and the right of access) to discourage planting evidence and lying. (If you can show planting of evidence, of course you get an even greater compensation.)

It leaves police/etc the ability to use their instincts to identify crooks/dealers/etc, but creates a strong pressure against routine abuse of power. I think that's a balance that the average person actually wants and would be much more comfortable accepting than trying to "balance" privacy protection versus law enforcement.

But I also think that an assumption in much of criminal law needs to be expanded to the conduct of police/etc. Often, if you refuse a search, a breath-test, or resist arrest, the law punishes you as if you were already guilty. The same needs to be true of police and officials. If evidence goes missing, if records aren't kept, if cameras are turned off, it should be assumed that the authority figure was doing something wrong, even without any further evidence. That's the real quid pro quo.

Paul451 said...

Re: Withdrawing our supply of information from Them.

I agree with the cryptographers. Not because it will necessarily be effective, but because we constantly need to check that "voluntary" supply is actually still voluntary. We need people who poke at the system to see what's connected. Does not having a Facebook profile make you more of a suspect in the police's eyes? Does not having any social-media accounts sometimes prevent you from participating in what should be completely independent forums? (Increasingly, yes.)

[Some years back, there was a murder case in a rural community. The community was asked to voluntarily donate DNA to eliminate themselves as suspects. A lawyer in town (not a suspect, and not the actual murderer later caught) refused to comply as a test and was subject to a hate campaign. Turns out "voluntary" wasn't. Would the town, would the rest of the state, have been so enthusiastic had the police ordered a mandatory mass screening?]

[[Similarly, there was the Canadian women who was denied entry into the US because her (US) records showed her to have been admitted into a Canadian hospital for severe depression, supposedly private information even within Canada. We need to know how they are using information against us first. And we don't know until someone messes with the system. For example, if a Canadian hospital voluntarily stops sharing this kind of information, what would happen to that hospital?]]

Re: Snowden and China.

Somewhat disingenuous of people to berate Snowden for what he hasn't revealed. After all, if the US intelligence community wanted to reveal details of Chinese surveillance known to the US, they could reveal it themselves. So given how disingenuous the... demand? accusation?... is, it destroys any credibility in the complaint.

(7000 ursewels. "I knew it, I'm surrounded by ursewels.")

Alfred Differ said...

If not knowing how things work is a failure mode we are in serious trouble. The vast majority of our institutions operate that way and are robust enough to keep working. I get the 'Connections' argument, but an anti-fragile institution doesn't require its participants to know much more than the minimum they must do to participate. Robust institutions require a bit more, but we still tend to know when we push them to hard even if we don't understand what we risk breaking. Therefore, I don't see 'not knowing' as a likely failure mode most of the time. We would have failed countless times already.

One obvious exception to this is feudalism institutions. It's obvious many people don't understand them in detail and keep trying them over and over. Fortunately they aren't anti-fragile. We crack them and people leak out to join other institutions... often to repeat the mistakes. 8)

Anti-fragility is the key to failure mode avoidance and/or recovery. I sure hope we can determine whether an institution is anti-fragile without having to understand the rules it implements in gory detail first.

Paul451 said...

1 in 4 journalists say that they now self-censor, stop research, or refuse assignments out of a fear of government surveillance.

Alfred Differ said...

We won't reveal what we know about Chinese surveillance because... it's classified information. It will be at least 25 years before we talk about it openly. 8)

I suspect the journalists are being a little paranoid. Off-line encryption won't protect them 100% as David points out, but it will slow the gov't quite a bit. That really should be enough to get an assignment done and the finished product out there were witness can connect the author to their good intentions. Once that is done, literally destroy the material they don't want released. That's how the gov't does it and it usually works.

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred - then what happens when the government then jails the journalist "in the interests of state security"? What happens when the journalist is forced to reveal the source of information?

To me this is where David's transparency ideas break down. They are analogous to ideas of free market enterprise without associated property laws.

I also find it interesting that David also thinks that privacy spheres can be maintained in the home, which flies in the face of "if it can be done, it will be done". We have just seen LG being caught over its tvs uploading data to home base even when the consumer has turned off that feature. We're seeing appliances with bugs in them (Chinese intelligence gathering?). We see authorities in the US and elsewhere pushing for ever more leeway in using spying and tracking devices. The 4th Amendment in the US has been shredded.

Where is the symmetric push back with sousveillance? Scanty IMO. In NY, where we all cheered that the police would have to pilot video recording of incidents, the judgment was overturned, and the judge removed from the case (or was about to be - I haven't read about what happened since).

I see surveillance/transparency argument as just one front in the increasingly authoritarian approach of governments. Spain has just enacted laws to block anti-government protests (back towards fascism?) and China, of course, fines anyone whose anti-government tweets are retweeted > X times. The UK government wants to gag the press (the Guardian's Snowden files) as if D-notices weren't enough and the US is trying to muzzle journalists too. On top of that, who can fail to notice the militarization of police forces everywhere. I once was shocked/thrilled at the US invention of SWAT teams for major threats. Now the use of such forces is routine and infected other countries like Britain.

What a world we are allowing.

Jonathan S. said...

"Where is the symmetric pushback with sousveillance?"

The oligarchs are trying to stop it, of course, both by legally blocking everything they can and by, to borrow a phrase from our host, memetically discouraging the very idea by trying to make it sound silly. The solution to this is not to surrender and let them have their way, however.

Alfred Differ said...

How exactly does the government jail the journalist? The damage is done and a jury trial is in order, right? The jury has to agree a crime has occurred.

I'm not arguing the journalist has no reason to be scared, but that's always been the case. They flout authority and SHOULD be scared. If they aren't, they aren't doing their job.

The symmetry in the push back is probably way down in the grass below eye level right now. I tried a little experiment recently buying bits and pieces of electronics to construct streaming cameras and microphones without using stock inventory some vendor might load with back doors for our intelligence folks. It was pretty easy and all the code was open source. I'm not expert at this stuff, but I think I can get it working and watching something mundane soon enough. 8)

Tim H. said...

Alfred, sounds like you're hoping for an instance of jury nullification, highly frowned on.

Alfred Differ said...

It is a power we possess, but that's not really the point. Juries decide on the guilt of the accused AND whether or not a law applies to the situation. It's sorta the same thing.

Jury trial is a necessary element of the protection of our liberty. Only my peers should be depriving me of my liberty when the need to do so arises.

locumranch said...

The future that Morozov, Zaraky and Simitis predicted in 1985, wherein data mining leads to inexorably to increasing levels of social and behavioral control, was (had already become) a reality by 1970, excepting that the associated techniques have become much more technologically sophisticated since, so much so that Western Culture has evolved 'Beyond Freedom & Dignity' only to become boringly transparent of motive & desire. And, by being so boringly and transparently predictable, we have become slaves to our very reasonableness. We have lost our ability to negotiate (because negotiation implies some degree of unpredictability), so we must necessarily compromise in all things, surrendering over & over.

Telling you that 'times are tough', your employer offers you a non-choice between a minor wage decrease or unemployment, and being reasonable with known financial responsibilities, you make the reasonable choice, compromise and pick the former, allowing your wages to trend downward, ever downward, down to but never crossing a well-established breaking point. Your government cites a terrorist threat and does the same, offering you your life in exchange for less. Being reasonable & fairly transparent, you choose the latter, agreeing to less, always less. Less liberty Less services. Less say. Your friends, parents, spouse & children do the same and you do the reasonable thing. You compromise, yield, surrender & knuckle under .

This is why things invariably go from bad to worse, and why they will continue to do so, until they reach your Tipping or Breaking Point, the Point of No Return, the point where you become as 'Mad as Hell' and resort to decisive action. This, too, is a known quantity and the powers that be -- your culture, government, employer, spouse, children & YOU -- will take steps to prevent that particular cataclysm from occurring by offering petty little consolations or 'harmful kindnesses' like the Dole, Food Stamps, Bread & Circuses or some occasional Pity Sex, assuming that they are at least as 'reasonable' as you are, knowing as you know that the only other behavioral option is divorce, violence or revolution.


Paul451 said...

Alfred Differ,
Re: Jury Nullification.
"It is a power we possess, but that's not really the point. Juries decide on the guilt of the accused AND whether or not a law applies to the situation. It's sorta the same thing."

Except that juries are specifically instructed that they cannot decide matters of law, only evidence. Since jurors typically take their duties seriously, they try very hard to do what they think is the right thing, and take judicial instruction very literally.

Any lawyer who had tried to get the jury to interpret the law differently than the judge had ruled, or find that the law itself is stupidly worded, would have been found in contempt (and a retrial ordered). And if a juror mentioned jury nullification to other members (and is reported), they would be dismissed and the rest of the jury instructed that it is forbidden (even though it isn't.) If a juror mentioned even an awareness of jury nullification during selection or voir dire, they would be dismissed.

Moreso, evidence that would be used by the jury to make such determination is itself quite often excluded from the jury portion of the trial, and lawyers/defendants often prevented from questioning the accuracy of forensic techniques (both supposedly for fear of "confusing" the jury.)

"Jury trial is a necessary element of the protection of our liberty."

If it's necessary, shouldn't you be more concern that it's being systematically and deliberately undermined (and de-powered) by the Judge/Prosecutor side?

"Only my peers should be depriving me of my liberty when the need to do so arises."

But that's not the system you live under. It's judges who hand down sentences, whether a jury was involved or not. In many cases, mandatory sentencing means even the judge doesn't have discretion. And it's judges who decide bail conditions, and hence whether you can be freed during the trial (which in some cases, may take years.) And it's judges who gives the instructions to the jury.

[Aside: It's been mentioned here before by others, I think, but I believe the roles of judge and jury are backwards. It should be the judge who interprets evidence (since he's likely to be more experienced at assessing witness reliability, and he typically gives his opinion in his instructions anyway), but the jury who interprets the law (after all if 12 people, given all the time they need, can't understand or agree on the meaning of the law, the law is meaningless) and later decides sentencing.]

Alfred Differ said...

Juries are indeed instructed that way, but there is no force that make us follow those instructions. We are the People upon whom their authority relies and the Constitution (with follow-on precedents) is quite clear on this. Juries decide applicability of law and guilt.

I don't want to give you the impression that we should ignore judicial instructions. Far from it. What I'm pointing out is that we have a power we rarely exercise, but when we DO the system shakes with thunder. Try getting a marijuana possession charge to stick in California and you'll see what I mean. Most DA's know better than to try.

Lawyers can't safely do what you describe for the reason you describe. It would be contempt. WE can as long as we do so with respectful insistence. The judge can dismiss us all, of course, but that's why you wait until all the evidence is submitted and the jury is deliberating. Jury members CAN point out that the law being applied is invalid and try to explain why. That is the equivalent of nullification.

Regarding my level of concern about the systematic undermining of jury powers, I'll politely point out that you don't know me well enough to know whether I am or I am not. I actually am and I work with the people around me to educate them on the importance of the duty they perform when acting on a jury. If they try to blow me off, I tend to skip the lecture and hope that they somehow evade jury duty all together leaving the duty to those of us who give a damn. 8)

Determination of sentences and determination of guilt aren't the same thing and what exactly happens varies by jurisdiction. Around here where I live there are some things I like and some I don't. I recognize that. That is why I said 'should.' 8)

I would resist your variation for how things should work, but I will admit that it would work better than some of what I've seen in some jurisdictions. I prefer putting more in the hands of juries than less, though. I would even put the actual execution of death sentences in the hands of the jury that convicts the person who receives the sentence and remove the authority of the State to execute anyone at all.

This kind of discussion can go on forever, though. In this sense I'm a classical liberal at heart and tend to ally with libertarians, so I freely admit I'm not going to get what I want anytime soon. I argue about principles with people not because I like to hear myself preach, though. I do it to point out that there is a better, more principled way to do things in the hope of moving the Overton window. That's good enough for now.