Sunday, November 03, 2013

Mother Jones' Modest Proposal

Like me, you probably share that sinking feeling that privacy is gone for good, dead without so much as a fight.  If you want a reasonable degree of privacy any more you have to live self-sustainably in a cabin on a lake deep in the forest and hope you're not outside when the satellite passes overhead snapping pictures.  If, on the other hand, you're reading this, somewhere that's being noted and added to everything else that has been noted about you including your utility bills, medical records and that last credit card statement.

 At times it seems our kids couldn't care less.  Theirs is the world of disconnected connectivity where social networking, texting and instant messaging offer acceptable substitutes for real facetime interaction.  I'm sure there's an algorithm somewhere that predicts, with remarkable accuracy, what colour shirts they'll be wearing a week next Saturday; and whom they'll text first, second and third and by when.   A total loss of privacy equals the revelation of predictability. 

So, if we've lost the war without so much as a fight, what are we to do?  Kevin Drum of Mother Jones argues we must accept that surveillance is inevitable but demand that all data be transparent - and public.

Government eavesdropping isn't the only thing we have to worry about. We're also subjected to steadily increasing data collection from private actors. It's true that, unlike a government, a corporation can't put you on a no-fly list or throw you in jail. But there are at least a couple of reasons that corporate surveillance can be every bit as intrusive as the government variety—and possibly every bit as dangerous too.

First, if Target can analyze your shopping habits to figure out if you're pregnant—and it can—another company might figure out that you're in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and then start badgering you to buy worthless insurance policies. Multiply that by a thousand and "targeted advertising" doesn't seem quite so benign anymore.

Second, there's nothing that prevents the government from buying up all this information and combining it with its programs into an even bigger surveillance octopus. That was the goal of the Orwellian-named Bush-era program known as Total Information Awareness. It was officially killed after a public outcry, but as we now know, it never really went away. It just got split apart, renamed, and dumped into black budgets.

Even the NSA itself is in on the action: The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that the agency collects more than just phone records and data packets. Via internet service providers and financial institutions, it also gathers web search records, credit card transactions, and who knows what else. In addition, the NSA has long maintained a deep collaboration with the leading-edge data mining companies of Silicon Valley. And why not? As the New York Times put it, both sides realize that "they are now in the same business."

Can we save privacy?

 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 deeply 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.

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.

Interesting points except that governments today are not in the business of being honest - or open.  As our own Shifty Steve's former and future BFF, Tom Flanagan, pointed out, Shifty is a sneak thief, making change incrementally so that no one notices until it's too late.   Flanagan also expounded on Shifty's habit of proposing change and then doing absolutely nothing or saying one thing and then doing whatever in hell suits him.

And, while governments don't respect your privacy, they fully value what they take from you.   It's useful to them and it can be very useful against you should they perceive that need.  Likewise, made public, all that data could be even more useful against them.  Remember these are the people who made us realize the need for Freedom of Information legislation and, even then, they resist.

1 comment:

Purple library guy said...

Yeah. Basically, the notion of technological inevitability doesn't cut in quite the ways Brin and others seem to believe.

While it's true that it is now harder to stop people from filming public police brutality, that's about the only area in which the technology of surveillance has much symmetry. To do the big data mining and stuff takes big budgets and legal impunity. That is, it relies on a particular social order and can only be done by the powerful to the powerless or less-powerful, not for the most part the other way around. Given a setup which makes us being spied on inevitable, us not being able to spy back effectively is also pretty much inevitable.

And technological inevitability is oversold. It's true that given our society as it is structured, with power where it is held, these technologies will be used in these ways. Well, mostly true. But even small variations can change things significantly. Sure, the US and Canada and Britain and maybe China clearly spy on their citizens in considerable depth. I don't think it's nearly as clear that Denmark or Sweden or even Germany or France do so to anything like the same degree, even though their wealth and technology levels are comparable. Given the ascendancy of neoliberal capitalism, we can probably expect them to move in this direction.

But it comes down to power. If the citizens have power, they can have a government that doesn't do that stuff. All they gotta do is cut the budget for it and refuse to allow "black budgets". Unthinkable in the US perhaps, but I don't believe unthinkable in Canada. I can well imagine an NDP government with an ounce of sense dumping those guys (metaphorically) in the Rideau canal. After all, they're basically anti-NDP and always have been, better to get rid of them.

And that's without significant social change. If we want some privacy back, what we really need is a society without huge corporations, and with more egalitarian governance.

Meanwhile, I don't see the technology itself as quite so inevitable as all that. Encryption works pretty well as long as it's open source and so there aren't any NSA back doors in it. If we could get everyone to encrypt their emails, the NSA would have a much harder time with that particular technology. If we strengthen and maintain open the technology used for securing credit card transactions, the NSA would have to get that info piecemeal from the sellers. If we stopped using Windows, spyware would have a much harder time getting purchase in our systems. Really, the changes needed to seriously curtail the ability of espionage services to gather useful information are quite small and would be basically unnoticeable if built into your software by default. Of course, a sofware corporation wouldn't do that and if they did you couldn't trust it. But using Free Software isn't a hair shirt, hasn't been for years.