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IEET > Rights > FreeThought > Privacy > Life > Vision > Fellows > David Brin

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Is Law Enforcement Going Dark? Dilbert’s Dilemma and Transparency Crises


David Brin
By David Brin
Ethical Technology

Posted: Nov 26, 2012

In Going Dark vs. a Golden Age for Surveillance, Professors Peter Swire and Kenesa Ahmad, discuss the assertion made by some law enforcement agencies that their ability to see, surveil and protect us is “going dark” because of some new methods of encrypted communication that are widely available to non-government entities, including criminals and terrorists.


This complaint goes back to the Cypher Wars of the 1990s that led to my book: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

Swire & Ahmad respond by showing that we are, instead, entering a "golden age of surveillance" in which agencies have access to vastly more information about everybody, including location data, contacts, interactions and rapidly searchable databases.

"The loss of agency access to information, due to encryption, is more than offset by surveillance gains from computing and communications technology. In addition, government encryption regulation harms cybersecurity."


They later add: "The evidence suggests, furthermore, that the degradation of wiretap capability has been modest at most, and—at least statistically—wiretaps have become more useful over time. The number of wiretap orders implemented in the U.S. has grown steadily the last two decades." 

Their basic conclusion is that there exists no panic-level need to rush to expand beyond the Patriot Act's already aggressive  domain of permissible surveillance methods and permissions. All correct so far, and wise.

Alas though, I might have asked for more from these scholars. Swire is a friend and  one of the best minds around in this area. Still, he and Ahmad should have at least mentioned two added points:


1) Such calm-down missives as theirs will be like failing dikes in a tsunami, the next time something terrible happens. As I explain on p.206 of The Transparent Society  (the infamous page where I seem to foretell both the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath) there will be a Ratchet Effect whenever public panic allows officials to claim "we might have prevented this, if we had better abilities to see and detect threats." In such an aftermath, those powers will be granted.  And will almost never be withdrawn.


2) The protective agencies can be expected to continue pressing for better surveillance methods, both in pursuit of a professional ability to do their jobs and as a natural outcome of human psychology.  They will never give up because we monkeys need to see and powerful ones won't be denied. If forbidden, they will simply peer at us surreptitiously.  Robert Heinlein said: "Privacy laws make the spy bugs smaller."


The answer over the long run is not to try futilely to hold back the inevitable ratchet, but to demand a price for every increase in their ability to surveil.  That price should be reciprocal accountability, transparency and "sousveillance" - the power of citizens to look back, to supervise their paid guardians, to watch the watchmen and hold them accountable.


There are many ways to do this, some venerably traditional and others innovative, for a new century. All are based on the realization that it matters less what elites know about us (they will know it all anyway: elites of government, corporations, money or even criminality) but rather what they can do to us.  Adverse action against private citizens by potential Big Brothers can best be prevented by turning the Telescreen so that it peers in both directions.  This is the only proved method; it is the way that we have had the win-win of modern society so far.  It is the only scenario that can possibly continue to work.


== Dilbert -- too -- misses the point! ==


Scott Adams - creator of the Dilbert series of comic strips about the ironies and shenanigens of life in business and engineering - has published an essay, The Privacy Illusion, about the futility of trying to conceal personal information, especially from the government.


As far as he goes, Scott Adams is right.  It is delusional and futile for any modern citizen to imagine that the "government" or any other elite will lack ways of finding out about you anything they want to learn.  His recommendation that we drop silly notions of hiding information about ourselves is correct... up to a point.  Only then, alas, Adams stops!  Making the same error as Swire and Ahmad, he does not continue and thus completely misses the point. That there is a Part Two... a vital "therefore let's do what works"... a next step that is behooved upon us all.


Look, I have to repeat because no one ever seems to absorb it. Yes, the government (or other elites) will have powers of surveillance to peer at our lives.  But we have a reciprocal power that can prevent the elites from becoming Big Brothers.  At risk of belaboring - the mighty in this world will know whatever can be known. We can't stop that.


Again, what we can do is influence what they can do to us. That will be affected - above all - by whether the watchmen are being watched.


== Other Transparency-Related Matters ==


Google released its sixth Transparency Report on Tuesday, showing what it believes is a clear trend: around the world, government requests for user data is on the upswing. “From time to time, we receive falsified court orders ... We do examine the legitimacy of the documents that we receive, and if we determine that a court order is false, we will not comply with it.” Google has been issuing semiannual Transparency Reports showing government requests received by the company since early 2010.


Eye Am a Camera: Surveillance and Sousveillance in the Glassage: Professor Steve Mann on transparency and the shifting boundaries between surveillance and sousveillance in the new age. He predicts: “Digital Eye Glass will mark the end of McVeillance (surveillance without sousveillance). As a result, veillance will be two-sided and that alone will transform society far more profoundly than augmediated reality itself!”


Quad  copters have so revolutionized, with auto-stability systems, that any derp-citizen can fly one right out of the box... the ARDrone lets you fly a camera-equipped drone that transmits back home, a real step toward sousveillance!  That's looking at the bright side.  The dark side? Well.  Buy two.  One to experiment with and one to hide in the closet, in case they're made illegal.


Names of Infamy: Deny Killers the Notoriety They Seek: Apparently, my essay on changing the names of heinous mass killers got a lot of attention.  Almost as many viewers in Canada alone as in the U.S. and a rather large number in Norway.  Might we see an effort there to pass legislation changing (for example) mass killer Brevik's name? Given the cushy nature of his imprisonment, that might be especially called-for.


Blinding or turning off your cell phone camera? A patent application filed by Apple revealed how the technology would work. If an iPhone were held up and used to film during a concert infra-red sensors would detect it. These sensors would then contact the iPhone and automatically disable its camera function.  The method describes the use of new infra-red sensors, which could theoretically make their way into a future iteration of the iPhone, to detect if an iPhone was held up during a concert with the intent to take footage. These sensors would first be able to detect infra-red light entering the iPhone’s camera lens from the stage, then shutting off all video recording capabilities. Buy up lots of cheap and used digital cameras now! Before they are all connectable from afar and capable of being hijacked by the mighty.


== The power of busybody gossips ==


I have spoken before about how the classic form of human governance is a top-down hierarchy of inherited oligarchy -- some variant of feudalism - a pyramid-shaped social order in which a few at the top lord it over the masses and make sure that their sons will rule likewise.  It was the pattern in 99% of human history and nearly always was accompanied by delusion, bad statecraft and lack of corrective criticism or wisdom.  Still, that pattern is woven into our genes and manifests when millions who should be loyal to the Great Exception -- our democratic enlightenment - yearn for fantasy or religious arbiters or "kings."


Still, the real pattern was a bit more complicated than just caste dominating caste.  The rulers had help!  First, the lords got assistance from a clade of priest/wizard/shaman/bard-types who wove incantations or spells or stories to convince the masses that it was GOOD for the lords to rule!

Then came a layer of thugs - brutal men willing to enforce that rule with truncheons, whips and nooses.

Finally, and seldom remembered or portrayed, we had a fourth layer of control over the masses. Busybodies and gossips.  Yes, they could be found in every hamlet of neighborhood.  Women or men whose joy lay in nosiness and whose satisfaction lay in bullying manipulation.


We are familiar with images of Big Brother, surveillance, the KGB and Gestapo.  What folks forget is that the real eyes and ears of every secret police system consisted of the local biddies and crotchedy farts who knew everyone's failings, lapses and stories. Who served as the system's eyes and ears.  You think those days are behind us? Have a look at this method being used in China, in service of protecting order during an important Party Congress.  It is an ancient method, as I describe in The Transparent Society.


== Let the government use your router? ==


I am involved in emergency management from many directions, often consulting for departments like Homeland Security, DARPA and DTRA.  I'm also a member of CERT (my local Community Emergency Response Team) and recently upgraded to California Disaster Corps.  So I have great sympathy for the problems our first responders face, preparing for future calamities.  Still, proposals like this one raise my hackles from a different direction - in my role as "Mr. Accountability" and author of  The Transparent Society.


Will emergency responders (and possibly other agencies) be able to turn a switch and access your home WiFi router ... in a crisis?  Should they?


"Well-meaning proposals sometimes have a way of raising troubling questions. Case in point: A team of wireless researchers in Germany proposed a way to improve the communications abilities of first responders, the brave people who rush into disastrous situations to help save the victims. But the proposal hinges on something many private citizens and privacy or security advocates will likely find uncomfortable: creating an “emergency switch” that lets government employees disable the security mechanisms in the wireless routers people have set up in their own homes. This would allow first responders to use all the routers within range to enhance the capabilities of the mesh networks that allow them to communicate with each other.


"The residents’ wireless traffic would still remain private, in theory. Wireless routers already support a technology that might make the idea feasible—the creation of guest networks that home owners can use to grant visitors access to the Internet..." though this guest status would be remotely switchable by authorities.  All told, it is within reasonable range of possible compromises, but with one problem....


...these concessions they ask from us should always be matched by concessions that we win from government.  Transparency sousveillance concessions that incrementally increase our ability to supervise and inspect the authorities, to ensure these powers are never abused.

Where is the NGO or ombundsman or agency that applies pressure in this direction, on our behalf, whenever the ratchet turns?

== Yet more transparency miscellany ==


Want a possibly better telescreen reference? Dig it.  The possibility that camera sensor elements are actually in between the pixels and thus are indistinguishable to the naked eye even if the device is dissassembled.


Ex-cop Marc Goodman runs through a list of ways that new technologies can and do empower criminals, terrorists and bad actors. His TED talk gets a bit scary... till the end when he calls for exactly the sort of openness-based solutions that I recommend in The Transparent Society ... and illustrate vividly in Existence.


No more hiding behind anonymity? YouTube is fighting against idiotic and often nasty/racist/sexist commenters by requesting full names when you upload or comment on videos.  We seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place.  Anonymity protects free speech... and unleashes the most vicious instincts from truly awful people.  Is there any way we could get to hold onto some accountability and feedback loops that encourage maturity and decency... while still keeping the most important benefits of anonymity?


It turns out that I discuss this very issue in great detail... you know where.   Moreover, I describe a win-win-win scenario.  Millions could be made by a new kind of business offering mediated-pseudonymity.  And about half of the idea is right there, in that cojoined, hyphenated word!  (Ah, but the rest... how to make money at it? There are some cute tricks. ;- .)


David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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