Printed: 2020-08-07

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Privacy will not go away—but it will evolve

David Brin

February 16, 2015

The issue will not go away. But at last the reflexes seem to be fading. The silly reflex - for example - to demand that we solve information age problems by shutting down info flows.  By standing in front of the data tsunami like King Canute screaming "Stop!"  Instead of learning to surf.

​First: this is too easy to do. "The Justice Department has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of vehicles around the U.S., a secret domestic intelligence-gathering program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists."
What is your reaction. Outrage? Want to ban this?  Fool. Yeah, that's gonna work, as cameras get smaller, faster, better, cheaper faster than Moore's law. Endlessly. Think TEN years ahead. Try some imagination, for a change, hm?
Driving this kind of activity underground will only empower elites and make them hire nasty-secretive henchmen to do all this in secret. 

On the other hand, if we stay calm, we can instead be militant for something that works… keeping public supervision representatives and public-access cameras in the control rooms of these systems! Require that operator-henchmen in such systems change jobs after 5 years and go to places where they can be encouraged to tell if there had been abuse. Whistleblower rewards. Lot of them.

These are deterrence vs abuse methods that use sight, which is possible. Deterring sight itself is not.
Can I belabor the point, having learned the hard way just how difficult it is? Worrying about what others KNOW is inherently insane, because you can never verify what someone else does not know! 

But you can verify what others DO with their knowledge. Preventing others from doing bad things is possible -- if we can see.
We became free by saying to elites: "You will inevitably see. But we demand the right and power to see (and supervise) you!" 
Again, there is an addiction to cynically demanding that we solve info age problems by reducing the amount and flow of light. By shouting at others "don't look!"  That approach is not only hopeless, it is illogical. Show me one example, across 6000 years, of it ever having worked. 
Shining Light on Anonymity
The Troll Hunters: This article shows the dawning of a new and badly-needed type of transparency… the hunting down and holding-accountable of internet trolls. 

“It is generally no longer acceptable in public life to hurl slurs at women or minorities, to rally around the idea that some humans are inherently worth less than others, or to terrorize vulnerable people. But old-school hate is having a sort of renaissance online, and in the countries thought to be furthest beyond it. The anonymity provided by the Internet fosters communities where people can feed on each other’s hate without consequence.”
Follow this Swedish journalist who tracks and exposes Internet trolls on his television show Trolljägarna (Troll Hunter). The author reminds us that “attempts to curb online hate must always contend with the long-standing ideals that imagine the Internet’s main purpose as offering unfettered space for free speech and marginalized ideas.”
“Anonymity online is possible, but it’s frail,” says one researcher who has exposed cryptic neo-Nazis.  

One lesson from this article — perhaps not intended — is to make clear the need for an intermediate, win-win solution that will promote pseudonymity — the purchase of vetted IDs from trusted sources that also convey meta-data about credibility and allowing accountability. This would be easy to accomplish, using some of the same methods as BitCoin.  The resulting billion dollar industry could give us the best of both worlds.
Mass Surveillance and Terrorism
Mass surveillance ineffective at fighting terrorism -- This article about surveillance follows the standard pattern. Starting out informative, it moves on to gloomy dudgeon, and concludes with a general armwave call for unsepecified actions, in directions that cannot possibly work.

“In response to the terrorist attacks in Paris, the U.K. government is redoubling its efforts to engage in mass surveillance. Prime Minister David Cameron wants to reintroduce the so-called snoopers’ charter—properly, the Communications Data Bill—which would compel telecom companies to keep records of all Internet, email, and cellphone activity. He also wants to ban encrypted communications services.”
France has blanket electronic surveillance. It didn’t avert the Charlie Hebdo events. They process vast amounts of imperfect intelligence data and do not have the resources to monitor all known suspects 24/7. The French authorities lost track of these extremists long enough for them to carry out their murderous acts.”
Good point!  (Though it ignores the likelihood (with real evidence) that many other attacks were staunched by national protector castes. Notice that the possibility is never raised by the writer, that this is a matter of ratios, not black and white.
Only then, alas, the pattern repeats yet again. The author reaches exactly the wrong conclusion: 

“It is statistically impossible for total population surveillance to be an effective tool for catching terrorists.”
Sorry, but this article, while informative and important, is also wrongheaded… the way nearly all earnest and sincere journalism on the topic of surveillance tends to ultimately swing wrongheaded. Always, we see the same pattern, almost every time: a smart person, knowledgable and committed to enlightened civilization, bemoaning some trend that appears likely to empower Big Brother — some Orwellian nightmare of top-down control by elites of government, of wealth, of corporatcy, criminality or tech-wizardry.
Always, these alarums are spot-on correct — till we get to the end of each piece, when the pundit recommends… 

... nothing useful, whatsoever. 
Either the article dissipates into hand-wringing that someone oughta do something, or else vague notions that we should STOP the encroachment of cameras and data sifters, somehow, despite the unstoppable trend (sometimes called “Brin’s Corollary to Moore’s Law”) that cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper, more numerous and more mobile every year.
For nigh onto 20 years I have pointed out that nothing can stop this tsunami of eyes, swarming across the world. Those who try to stand, in the face of this wave, shouting “halt!” reveal nothing but their own myopia.

Reiterating till the year 2050
Elites will see — name one counter example across recorded history, when they willingly gave up a method of intelligence gathering.  If we panic, passing laws to forbid surveillance, all we will accomplish, in the prophetic words of science fiction legend Robert Heinlein, will be to “make the spy bugs smaller.”
There is another approach, a trend that is happening all around us and one that may save freedom, despite the fact that our pundits refuse to look at it.  The trend is “sousveillance,” or assertively using these new technologies to look BACK at power.  The effects are already being seen in police departments across America, as lapel cameras become standard on cop uniforms and as citizens get used to applying their now-entrenched right to record authority.  This is the trend that will save us…
…yet the hand-wringers cannot glimpse anything that doesn’t fit their narrative.
Privacy Dead or Alive
Speaking of smart dopes… “Privacy as we knew it in the past is no longer feasible… How we conventionally think of privacy is dead,” said Margo Seltzer, a professor in computer science at Harvard University. Said her colleague Sophia Roosth: “We are at the dawn of the age of genetic McCarthyism,” “It’s not whether this is going to happen, it’s already happening… We live in a surveillance state today.”
Notice, yet again, the mental block. The inability to even turn the brain and mind toward sousveillance and the tech empowerment of the individual as a phenomenon or even as a possibility to be refuted with facts or logicIt seems plainly impossible for most such mavens to wrap their heads around the possibility that light might punish abusers and invaders of privacy – precisely that effect that we have seen for the last 100 years. So much for Harvard.
Privacy will not go away -- but it will evolve. 

A "warrant canary" is a method by which companies like Google can - in theory - let you know when the government has served a warrant for your information under a gag order.  If the company sends you daily messages "We have not been served any warants for your data… today."  Then when the notifications stop… You get the idea. And I would count on it about as far as I can drop kick an NFL linebacker.
How should the FTC have responded when Google was found to be using ad-tracking cookies that circumvented Apple’s Safari web browser? Or when Amazon’s one-click technology allowed children to make in-app purchases too easily? Or when Uber’s staff was caught using the company’s so-called “God View” application to surreptitiously track people’s comings and goings? This report gives regulators a four-part analytical framework to evaluate infractions and determine what types of penalties are called for based on a sliding scale of intent and resulting harm. — A sensible offering from folks who still believe in something called “middle ground.”  Offering some persuasive charts reminiscent of The Transparent Society.
Untraceable Money

See where we're heading, if we don't fight for transparency: Loopholes in U.S. Laws allow billions in untraceable foreign funds to pour into N.Y. C. Real Estate: "Behind the dark glass towers of the Time Warner Center looming over Central Park, a majority of owners have taken steps to keep their identities hidden, registering condos in trusts, limited liability companies or other entities that shield their names. By piercing the secrecy of more than 200 shell companies, The New York Times documented a decade of ownership in this iconic Manhattan way station for global money transforming the city’s real estate market.

"Many of the owners represent a cross-section of American wealth: chief executives and celebrities, doctors and lawyers, technology entrepreneurs and Wall Street traders.

"But The Times also found a growing proportion of wealthy foreigners, at least 16 of whom have been the subject of government inquiries around the world, either personally or as heads of companies. The cases range from housing and environmental violations to financial fraud. Four owners have been arrested, and another four have been the subject of fines or penalties for illegal activities.

The foreign owners have included government officials and close associates of officials from Russia, Colombia, Malaysia, China, Kazakhstan and Mexico."

As an indication of how well-cloaked shell company ownership is, it took The Times more than a year to unravel the ownership of shell companies with condos in the Time Warner Center, by searching business and court records from more than 20 countries, interviewing dozens of people with close knowledge of the complex, examining hundreds of property records and connecting the dots from lawyers or relatives named on deeds to the actual buyers.


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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