Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A plug for "Blown to Bits"

A friend who got a copy of Blown to Bits: Your Life Liberty and Happiness After the Digital Explosion when it came out five years ago just got around to reading the privacy chapter and is blown away (sorry) for the way it anticipates issues in the Snowden revelations, and the Eggers novel The Circle and Joe Nocera's column about it. To tell the truth, when I read the Nocera column, I said to myself "so what else is new?" and went back to preparing my classes. Still, it's nice to have someone note the things I and my colleagues Hal Abelson and Ken Ledeen talked about before they were generally apparent. Here are a few anticipatory quotes my friend pulled.

"With corporations trying to make money from us and the government trying to protect us, civil libertarians are a weak third voice when they warn that we may not want others to know so much about us." 

"The Prime Minister [Gordon Brown] had to apologize to the British nation because among the things that have been blown to bits is the presumption that no jjnior staffer could do that much damange by mailing a small parcel."

"The same kinds of clustering algorithms work on patterns of telephone calls. You can learn a lot by knowing who is calling or emailing whom, even if you don't know what they are saying to each other -- especially if you know th time of the communications and can correlate them with the time of other events."

"The snoopy neighbor is a classic American stock figure -- the busybody who watches how many liquor bottles are in your trash, or tries to figure out whose Mercedes is regularly parked in your driveway.... But in Cyberspace, we are all neighbors. We can all check up on each other, without even opening the curtains a crack."

"The government creates projects, the media and civil liberties groups raise serious privacy concerns, the projects are cancelled, and new ones arise to take their place. The cycle seems to be endless. In spite of Americans' traditional suspicions about government surveillance of their private lives, the cycle seems to be almost an inevitable consequence of Americans' concerns about their security..."

[On the failure of the Warren-Brandeis notion of privacy rights:] "Throughout the twentieth century there were simply too many good reasons for not leaving people alone, and too many ways in which people preferred not to be left alone. And in the U.S., First Amendment rights stood in the way of privacy rights. As a general rule, the government simply cannot stop me from saying anything...about your private affairs..."

"Many privacy-shattering things have happened fo us, some with our cooperation and some not. As a result, the sense of personal privacy is very different today than it was two decades ago."

"It is time to admit that we don't even really know what we want. The bits are everywhere; there simply is no locking them down, and no one really wants to do that anymore. The meaning of privacy has changed, and we do not have a good way of describing it. It is not the right to be left alone..... It is not the right to keep our private information to ourselves....."

And finally, the conclusion of the chapter:

In 1984, the pervasive, intrusive technology could be turned off:

As O’Brien passed the telescreen a thought seemed to strike him. He stopped, turned aside and pressed a switch on the wall. There was a sharp snap. The voice had stopped.

Julia uttered a tiny sound, a sort of squeak of surprise. Even in the midst of his panic, Winston was too much taken aback to be able to hold his tongue.

“You can turn it off!” he said.

“Yes,” said O’Brien, “we can turn it off. We have that privilege. ...Yes, everything is turned off. We are alone.”

Sometimes we can still turn it off today, and should. But mostly we don’t want to. We don’t want to be alone; we want to be connected. We find it convenient to leave it on, to leave our footprints and fingerprints everywhere, so we will be recognized when we come back. We don’t want to have to keep retyping our name and address when we return to a web site. We like it when the restaurant remembers our name, perhaps because our phone number showed up on caller ID and was linked to our record in their database. We appreciate buying grapes for $1.95/lb instead of $3.49, just by letting the store know that we bought them. We may want to leave it on for ourselves because we know it is on for criminals. Being watched reminds us that they are watched as well. Being watched also means we are being watched over.

And perhaps we don’t care that so much is known about us because that is the way human society used to be—kinship groups and small settlements, where knowing everything about everyone else was a matter of survival. Having it on all the time may resonate with inborn preferences we acquired millennia ago, before urban life made anonymity possible. Still today, privacy means something very different in a small rural town than it does on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

We cannot know what the cost will be of having it on all the time. Just as troubling as the threat of authoritarian measures to restrict personal liberty is the threat of voluntary conformity. As Fano astutely observed, privacy allows limited social experimentation—the deviations from social norms that are much riskier to the individual in the glare of public exposure, but which can be, and often have been in the past, the leading edges of progressive social changes. With it always on, we may prefer not to try anything unconven- tional, and stagnate socially by collective inaction.

For the most part, it is too late, realistically, ever to turn it off. We may once have had the privilege of turning it off, but we have that privilege no more. We have to solve our privacy problems another way. 

We live in scary times.

1 comment:

  1. If we extrapolate from the experience common to so many of us, of much more complicated and extensive connectivity with every passing year, it would appear that the challenge of meaningful analyses for intelligence agencies - aside from the cost and scale of what just collection entails - will be increasingly be a virtually insurmountable one in terms of isolating information of real concern, assuming there's some upper budgetary-constraint limit.