We are increasingly surrounded by “always-on” devices with microphones that listen for our voice commands. Most require a "trigger phrase" or wake word to begin recording or actively computing responses, but that means they must analyze every sound to parse whether it is that word.
As if that weren't a murky enough boundary, fraught with possible paths for misuse or abuse, now many devices can team up to follow you around and obtain a great deal of info , using technology, called ultrasonic cross-device tracking. Ultrasound "beacons" emit high-frequency tones (inaudible to humans) embedded in advertisements, web pages, as well as in some brick and mortar stores. Currently, most Android and iOS phones require permission to access a user's microphone and receive these inaudible inputs.
The Federal Trade Commission evaluated ultrasonic tracking technology at the end of 2015, and the non-profit Center for Democracy and Technology wrote: 'the best solution is increased transparency and a robust and meaningful opt-out system. If cross-device tracking companies cannot give users these types of notice and control, they should not engage in cross-device tracking,” reports L.H. Newman in Wired.
In the biggest post-election transparency news... Britain’s new surveillance law will force internet providers to record every internet customer's top-level web history in real-time for up to a year, which can be accessed by numerous government departments; it will force companies to decrypt data on demand. Intelligence agencies also get the power to hack into computers and devices of citizens. This represents the most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy.
Despite having lived in Britain in the 1980s and seen the proliferation of camera surveillance then, I still remain puzzled by the blithe acceptance of one way snoopery over there. In contrast to which...
Even the Bugs will be Bugged: I was quoted in this article in The Atlantic: Big Brother society results not from being watched but from one-way observation.
== Light fights corruption ==
The Helvetia Cold War deepens. An automated private system, using public records, has applied itself to tracking planes used by authoritarian regimes flying in and out of Switzerland. The system has been set up to potentially provide evidence of money laundering. "Swiss investigative journalist François Pilet and his cousin Julien Pilet set up the GVA Dictator Alert Twitter bot to track planes registered to “authoritarian regimes,” as defined by the 2015 Democracy Index.The aim is to bring transparency and accountability to the leaders."
The bot currently tracks the movements of more than 80 aircraft from 21 countries, including Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Since its launch in April, the bot has logged more than 60 arrivals and departures from Geneva International Airport by planes that belong to the regimes, and few had anything to do with legit business or diplomacy. Of course dictators and kleptocrats will find a way around this. The overall kleptocracy problem is only getting worse and it will only be solved with major new treaties imposing transparency on the mighty cheaters of the world. For that to happen, the world's powers will have to fear something much worse than light.
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Transparency International (TI) are joining forces in a new initiative. The Anti-Corruption Initiative "will connect investigative journalists turning a spotlight on the secretive shadow economy with anti-corruption activists able to translate complex information into compelling campaigns for change. This project will build on the best of cross-border independent investigative journalism. The already substantial impact of such work can be amplified by activists who use information uncovered by quality reporting to create pressure on governments and kleptocrats around the world.”
I can think of nothing more important… or quixotic, given the entrenched power interests lined up against this. But it is wholly in keeping with what I’ve said humanity needs, if we are to avoid catastrophe. It's needed for the children of the rich – and poor – to actually benefit across this century. In The Transparent Society, in EARTH and in EXISTENCE and many other places I’ve emphasized that only light disinfects against error, of the sort that made every feudal state a living hell.
Alas, my SF'nal powers only see this breaking through if several honest, developing world presidents join together to do something utterly unexpected and unprecedented.
Apparently the attack on Liberia’s internet access was not as complete as at-first thought… though the Mirai-based botnet denial of service ploy was pretty harsh and still seen by some as a rehearsal for a bigger assault upon the West.
== Society and the future ==
I was interviewed by Brett King for his Breaking Banks podcast about the future of banking and transparency: Fintech and IBM World of Watson.
Are we bound for “Mad Max,” “Star Trek,” “Ecotopia” or an Orwellian super government? The answer may depend upon on how information flows across society. I was quoted in this interesting perspective on future governance on Earth. The model presented by Peter Frase in his newly released book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism -- is unusual (e.g. calling Star Trek an example of post-scarcity, abundance-propelled communism). Both intriguing and a harbinger.
A Harbinger? Because we will soon start to hear again names that had passed out of familiarity, in the West. Like Karl Marx. Far from being cast into irrelevance, Marx will be discussed more and more – rising back into pertinence – as the Rooseveltean middle class melts away and 6000 years of class war resume.
The issue Frase raises is whether new technologies will, as in Star Trek, spare us all violent class struggle, by restoring a vast and healthy middle class that encompasses everyone? Or will a rising feudal oligarchy unintentionally resurrect Marx as an icon for their victims?
== Shallow but sincere ==
New America Weekly devotes whole issues to special topics. This one is about transparency in government -- which has engaged me a bit for only 25+ years or so. Articles include how to make the modern invention of think tanks more effective by being more open:
"In the Digital Age, governance, technology, education, science, platforms, and more are being pushed to become more “open.” Open movements are working to remove barriers that prevent the public from fully accessing these institutions, systems, and fields. Open education, for example, aims to broaden access and increase opportunities for learning. In the United States, open government strives to improve transparency, increase collaboration, and facilitate public participation in our democracy. Open science accelerates the pace of inquiry and discovery in academic research. Underlying each of these movements is one critical need: open use of information."
==Transparency-related miscllany ==
First Apropos to our earlier posting on Whether Government (especially government paid research) is useless, which was reprinted as a feature on the Evonomics site, See this cogent example... A timely article from the BBC lists the advances that led to the iPhone and how government research enabled all of them.
Who is on your side? According to Lindsey Tepe, a senior policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America:"In 2009, the administration made a modest request that each federal agency identify three high value data sets to make openly available to the public; now data.gov is the home for government data, housing nearly 200,000 datasets on education, health, energy, governance, and more. Today, every agency that funds more than $100 million in research and development grants has put in place a plan to make that information more accessible."
Other articles from New America Weekly deal with tradeoffs of intellectual property rights and use of personal information, posing vexing questions that are too seldom asked by myopic pundits, as in “what will happen with my data 10 years from now?”...
... and how openness can have unexpected side effects in grassroots democracy. Comments author Heather Hurlburt, "It should be noted that open government did make an appearance in international policy when the Obama Administration launched the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The U.S. joined an initial 7 countries—now up to 69—in holding civil society consultations, drawing up national action plans, and making commitments to increase transparency in areas from legislation to policing to using town criers to share budget data with the public. In addition to those changes on the government side, OGP has offered civil society groups a spark and a mandate for their work. Still, the appearance of open government as a foreign policy tool abroad has not changed the reality at home. The open government agenda sits uncomfortably with traditional ideas about secrecy and expertise in foreign affairs."
Heather Hurlburt goes on to describe how: "“Multi-stakeholderism” —the trend toward non-governmental entities, both civil society and private sector, joining national and international authorities at the negotiating table." And yet, "an irony that the Administration which has made open government a byword at home and internationally has been more aggressive than any predecessor in protecting information in the national security space—and has suffered more embarrassing failures to protect information."
== Final Thoughts ==
Well-meaning dopes. I mean those activists who (1) are right to fret that Big Brother might use surveillance against us… but who then (2) rave that the solution is to hide! To shout at elites not to look at us! Or to somehow conceal ourselves and our information.
For two decades I've asked these dear people (and they truly are fighting the good fight… in the wrong direction) when has that prescription ever worked? Even once. Ever? In the history of our species?
Each of us fizzes with biometric identifiers! Go ahead and fabricate fake fingerprints. Your unique walking gait might be altered (for a short time) by a pebble in your shoe. But can you change the specific ratio of lengths of bones in your hand? Or the speckles on your iris, or the pattern of blood vessels in your retina? How about the oto-acoustic tones that many humans emit from their own eardrums, and that can be uniquely identified by sensors?
Oh but it goes on and on. Spend any time in a well-monitored room and the micro-biota of your farts may give you away. And now researchers have “fingerprinted” the white matter of the human brain using a new diffusion MRI method, mapping the brain’s connections (the connectome) at a more detailed level than ever before. They confirmed that structural connections in the brain are unique to each individual person and the connections were able to identify a person with nearly 100% accuracy.
This could be good news, in giving us an ultimate fall-back against ID thieves — or very bad news for any revolutionary movement against Orwellian tyranny. So? Never let it get to that point! There is one way to do that.
Shall we trust encryption, as governments acquire quantum computers? Anyway, how will that stymie the mosquito drone that flew into your keyboard last week, recording every letter that you type?
Then there are cameras, getting smaller, faster, cheaper, better and more mobile at rates far faster than Moore’s Law. If you find a clever way to evade them now, will it work next year, when there are four times as many of them and harder to spot?
Hiding won’t work. It cannot. Nor will shouting “don’t look at me!”
Only one thing has ever worked. Only one thing possibly can work.