John Naughton digs into the challenges of living in an open, liberal society when everything we do, say, or feel is being stolen by governments or monetized by the services that provide what we have come to consider our collective public space:
Some years ago, when writing a book on understanding the internet, I said that our networked future was bracketed by the dystopian nightmares of two old-Etonian novelists, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Orwell thought we would be destroyed by the things we fear, while Huxley thought that we would be controlled by the things that delight us. What Snowden has taught us is that the two extremes have converged: the NSA and its franchises are doing the Orwellian bit, while Google, Facebook and co are attending to the Huxleyean side of things.
In The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, his magisterial history of the main communications technologies of the 20th century – telephone, radio, movies and television – the legal scholar Timothy Wu discerned a pattern.
Each technology started out as magnificently open, chaotic, collaborative, creative, exuberant and experimental, but in the end all were “captured” by charismatic entrepreneurs who went on to build huge industrial empires on the back of this capture. This is what has become known as the Wu cycle – “a typical progression of information technologies: from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel – from open to closed system”.
The big question, Wu asked, was whether the internet would be any different? Ten years ago, I would have answered: “Yes.” Having digested Snowden’s revelations, I am less sure, because one of the things he has demonstrated is the extent to which the NSA has suborned the internet companies which have captured the online activities of billions of internet users. It has done this via demands authorised by the secret foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court, but kept secret from the companies’ users; and by tapping into the communications that flow between the companies’ server farms across the world.
The internet companies offered us shiny new “free” services in return for our acceptance of click-wrap “agreements” which allow them to do anything they damn well please with our data and content. And we fell for it. We built the padded cells in which we now gambol and which the NSA bugs at its leisure. - John Naughton
The reason this made sense is because so much of our communications and data are now entrusted to these internet giants. Tapping into them must have seemed a no-brainer to the NSA. After all, Google and Facebook are essentially in the same business as the agency. Its mission – comprehensive surveillance – also happens to be their business model.
The only difference is that whereas the spooks have to jump through some modest legal hoops to inspect our content, the companies get to read it neat. And the great irony is that this has been made possible because of our gullibility. The internet companies offered us shiny new “free” services in return for our acceptance of click-wrap “agreements” which allow them to do anything they damn well please with our data and content. And we fell for it. We built the padded cells in which we now gambol and which the NSA bugs at its leisure.
This is the central dilemma of the social web. If we are to connect with others, we need to share our emotions, habits of mind, heart, and body, and through this sharing we can attract those that we wish to connect with, and they reciprocate. However, those providing the services through which our sociality is mediated access the catalog of what we read and gaze upon, our yearnings, actions, and our dark desires. They tap that emotional flow like a Swiss bank account, and drain it to pay for the servers, fiber, and acqui-hires behind it all. - Stowe Boyd
In our rush for “free” services, we failed to notice how we were being conned. The deal, as presented to us in the End User Licence Agreement, was this: you exchange some of your privacy (in the form of personal information) for the wonderful free services that we (Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype, etc) provide in return. The implication is that privacy is a transactional good – something that you own and that can be traded. But, in these contexts, privacy is an environmental good, not a transactional one. Why? Because when I use, say, Gmail, then I’m not only surrendering my privacy to Google, but the privacy of everyone who writes to me at my Gmail address. They may not have consented to this deal, but their email is being read by Google nonetheless. And before any lawyer (or Sir Malcolm Rifkind) pops up to object that having machines read one’s communications is not the same thing as having a human being do it, let me gently inquire if they are up to speed on machine-learning algorithms? The fact that Mark Zuckerberg is not sitting there sucking his pencil and reading your status updates doesn’t mean that his algorithms aren’t making pretty astute inferences from those same updates – which is why Facebook probably knows that two people are going to have an affair before they do; or why one can make interesting inferences about the nature of a couple’s marriage from inspection of their network graphs.And this is where the interests of the NSA and the big internet companies converge. For what they have both managed to do is to abolish the practice of anonymous reading which, in the good old analogue days, we regarded as an essential condition for an open, democratic society. In a networked world, the spooks and the companies know everythingyou read, and the companies even know how long you spent on a particular page. And if you don’t think that’s creepy then you haven’t been paying attention.
This is the central dilemma of the social web. If we are to connect with others, we need to share our emotions, habits of mind, heart, and body, and through this sharing we can attract those that we wish to connect with, and they reciprocate. However, those providing the services through which our sociality is mediated access the catalog of what we read and gaze upon, our yearnings, actions, and our dark desires. They tap that emotional flow like a Swiss bank account, and drain it to pay for the servers, fiber, and acqui-hires behind it all. Because everything is a market, and there is always a way to make a market on human desire and our need to find out who we are — and what it all means — through connection with others.
This is a dilemma, however, not some problem that can be solved, like a jigsaw puzzle. A radical curtailing of how Google, Facebook, and Twitter access and analyze our social exhaust may lead to the death of how social works. I fear that like Rilke feared treatment for his schizophrenia:
If you rid me of my demons, my angels might take flight, too.
With one major exception: we can certainly force our governments to end their headlong quest to create a global surveillance state in the name of the endless war on those opposed to open, liberal societies. (Which means we would wind up where we are: at war with ourselves.)
If we each personally want to trade privacy for connection, to opt to live in a new world dominated by radical openness, a state of publicy, well, that’s our choice. If you dislike how Facebook defines its rights, drop the service (I don’t use it). But, as I said, that’s a choice: to live with the dilemma — inside the dilemma — and extract from it as much (or more!) than it demands from us in exchange.
Stephanie Fontanel, Life Without Sex
Ashkan Soltani, Technology, Not Law, Limits Mass Surveillance
Kenneth Roth, Rethinking Surveillance
Snowden’s recent disclosures about the pervasive abuse of the government’s power to collect metadata from internet services and phone companies has clearly demonstrated that everything about us can be known. Not just the metadata of our communications — the timestamps and routing information of our communications — but every word, every secret endearment, every revealing nickname breathed into a phone at a bar, every text keyed to a illicit romance a during a lunch break.
I turn Roth’s last sentence around: they are likely treating our metadata no differently than the data. Meaning: they are looking at everything.
We are living in an age of radical, savage publicy. The only secrets now are those we tell no one and never write down; and the merely private — where we are at the present moment, what books we are reading, or the sex toys we bought online — aren’t private anymore: we might as well be blogging it all.
Saw today that the US Postal Service is photographing the exterior of all mail, gathering the metadata of our snail mail, building a map of who is sending what to who.
In a climate of total information everything is known to the government, if they chose to look.
Total publicy is the end of liberty, and the proof that government is a dog off the leash, running free of the restraints that are explicit in our laws, constitution, and the foundation of our culture.
The public seems unmoved, almost accepting of this state of affairs. They shrug after hearing this news, and turn back to the reality shows — where we gaze into the awful, stilted lives of wannabees, watching like masturbating voyeurs — and cloak ourselves in the peculiar American sense of being better than everyone else and at the same time feeling cut off from the broader human experience by Atlantic and Pacific barriers. We feel safe, due to the American penchant for ignoring the outside world until we decide to invade it.
The real world is made into a reality show with the government watching all of us, while they tell us not to worry, no good people will be harmed, no one who has done nothing need be concerned. (Haven’t we all done something, though?)
Perhaps Americans like the idea that their government can gather a totality of information on our allies, on terrorists, on whistle blowers. They want a government who can track down anyone who has done anything. Even at the cost of anything like liberty and freedom.
Julian Assange, The Banality Of ‘Don’t Be Evil’
Hamza Shaban, Live in Infamy
Being a leftist in a conservative world of business caused me difficulties for decades, and as a result I was acutely aware of the need for multiple ‘me’s.
Now that I have come out (as a much-more-than-liberal leftist) I am not confronted with the same sense of self-concealment, but I remain aware of the multiphrenia latent in human existence, and the ways that social networking sites try to make us be one indivisible self, despite all evidence to the contrary.
The crisis of publicy is not just that we might be outed, but that a repressive social order can and will judge us, and exclude us from publics we want to participate in.
Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren argued for the right to privacy in 1890, and we are still struggling with the form of that, one hundred years later. Today, we need a stronger right, the right to publicy: we need to be allowed to share information online and not suffer retribution because of our activities, wants, connections, or thoughts, so long as we cause no harm.
But we live in a repressive world, a world of retributive sanctions, where a night of drunken rowdiness captured on a smartphone and published to the web can end a job, or wearing the wrong halloween costume can lead to a political candidate losing a race.
What we need is a more relaxed, less judgmental society, rather than better laws. We have a long wait, I’m afraid.
(PS The New Inquiry is a great publication, a must read for me.)
Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren, The Right To Privacy, 1890
Alessandro Acquisti, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University, has done great research into the conflicts we have over privacy and publicy: how willing are we to reveal ourselves.
Somini Sengupta, Web Privacy, and How Consumers Let Down Their Guard
Aiming to learn how consumers determine the value of their privacy, Mr. Acquisti dispatched a set of graduate students to a suburban mall on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. To some shoppers, the students offered a $10 discount card, plus an extra $2 discount in exchange for their shopping data. Half declined the extra offer — apparently, they weren’t willing to reveal the contents of their shopping cart for a mere $2.
To other shoppers, however, the students offered a different choice: a $12 discount card and the option of trading it in for $10 if they wished to keep their shopping record private. Curiously, this time, 90 percent of shoppers chose to keep the higher-value coupon — even if it meant giving away the information about what they had bought.
Why such contradictory responses?
To Mr. Acquisti, the results offered a window into the tricks our minds can play. If we have something — in this case, ownership of our purchase data — we are more likely to value it. If we don’t have it at the outset, we aren’t likely to pay extra to acquire it. Context matters.
It also matters how we define privacy. Conventional wisdom around Web privacy policies rests on the notion that consumers will make intelligent choices. At a recent industry conference in San Francisco, Erin Egan, the chief privacy officer for Facebook, defined privacy as “understanding what happens to your data and having the ability to control it.”
Mr. Acquisti, however, suggests that control can be false comfort. In one of his most intriguing experiments, he summoned student volunteers to take an anonymous survey on vice.
The participants were asked whether they had ever stolen anything, lied or taken drugs. Some were told that their answers would be published in a research bulletin, others were asked for explicit permission to publish those answers, and still others were asked for permission to publish the answers as well as their age, sex and country of birth.
The results revealed the imperfection of human reasoning. Those who were offered the least control over who would see their answers seemed most reluctant to reveal themselves: among them, only 15 percent answered all 10 questions. Those who were asked for consent were nearly twice as likely to answer all questions. And among those who were asked for demographic information, every single person gave permission to disclose the data, even though those details could have allowed a complete stranger a greater chance of identifying the participant.
Mr. Acquisti took note of the paradox: fine-grained controls had led people to “share more sensitive information with larger, and possibly riskier, audiences.” He titled the paper, which he wrote with his colleagues Laura Brandimarte and George Loewenstein, “Misplaced Confidences: Privacy and the Control Paradox.”
“What worries me,” he said, “is that transparency and control are empty words that are used to push responsibility to the user for problems that are being created by others.”
I see these behaviors from the perspective of the ‘continuation of self’. Once a person has provided detailed information about themsleves — and gotten the sense of reward that comes from talking (or thinking) about who they are demographically or narratively, they then will naturally want to share that, to continue the positive feelings of narrative about self. This is the publicy urge.
The first case I think hinges on the shift of emphasis in the $12 card. It seems to be affirming the value of information about the person’s choices, where in the case of the additional $2, my sense is that it makes the information seem cheap, since $2 is less than $10. A logical trap, yes, but again associated with the abiding desire for a belief in the value of self narrative, which is the best way to think of our data exhaust: it doesn’t seem like a possession, but a by-product of self-expression.
Jane Jacobs, “The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact,” The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)
In short, street life cultivates trust among the public towards one another. It may not be as intimate as the relationships we keep with our friends, family, or neighbors, but having faith in the public is something worth maintaining: one public sidewalk contact at a time.
The sense of a public identity, and their connectedness in place, in collaboration with the built spaces of the city, is the source of that trust that Jacobs writes about. And we lose that when we try to force people into private commitments, or private spaces.