Remind me to never buy a Ford.
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.
"We—the dronesexual, the recently defined, though we only call ourselves this name to ourselves and only ever with the deepest irony—we’re never sure whether the humming is pleasure or whether it’s a form of transmission, but we also don’t really care…There are no dronesexual support groups. We don’t have conferences. There is no established discourse around who we are and what we do. No one writes about us but us, not yet."
Dronesexual — that’s a new usage.
Drones are the defining dark appliances of the postnormal. Not the tablets we hardly think about as we type, or the smart barnacles sticking to us and the walls of our homes. It’s the glitched video streams and the over-saturating images of rockets slamming into mud-sided buildings in the over-green darkness in the screens, the near-silent, near-insect whine of their roaming search. Will they find us? We know they can see us. We know we are known.
It’s not a sexual attraction for me, but I don’t kink for bondage, but I see how it could be a reaction to surveillance, some frisson of pleasure from being aggressively watched.
She goes on:
One of the things that we often see in dystopian fiction – at least, in dystopian fiction that deals with a god-like, usually fascist state – is the idea of sex-as-resistence. Sex is presented as something unregulated and unregulateable, at least when sex is the result of the personal desires of the protagonists. It’s not uncommon in older dystopian fiction to see sex made into a kind of state-mandated “mating” solely for the purpose of social control and reproduction, but that almost always exists to contrast with the kind of revolutionary sex engaged in by the heroes (or rather, the hero and the woman who just can’t keep her hands off him, because of course it’s always a man wearing the hero-pants).
But something you see less often is a story that deals directly with power – at least state power – and the eroticism of being known.
I’ve written about this before, the erotic aspects of the Gaze, the ways in which the predatory nature of being seen drifts into the territory of possessive sexuality. There’s an intimacy in being known, and – again, to reference Foucault on a basic level – we often assume that anyone who fucks us gets to know something about us, at least when the fucking is coupled with emotional intimacy and connection. Someone really knowing us is sort of supposed to make us want to have sex with them. When someone has sex with us, they know us. This is naturally a massive oversimplification, but these are powerful ideas that underpin not only how we tend to conceive of sexuality but what kinds of sexuality we tend to identify as desirable and appropriate.
Drones have become a symbol of contemporary surveillance, a thing that’s always there and always watching and always potentially capable of doing harm. Sometimes this harm is through direct violence, and sometimes it’s merely the delivery of data to people who can use it against you. But either way, there are two aspects to the erotic power of drones, and they’re interrelated: Being known, and being controlled.
Robin James wrote a fantastic response to my post linked above, wherein she discusses the idea of droning as a process of the regulation and control of people (emphasis hers):
So, where the gaze regulates people by fixing them as objects (as, for example, Frantz Fanon argues the exclamation “Look, a Negro!” does), droning regulates people by creating the conditions that lead them to exhibit the wrong (or right) sort of profile, the sort of profile that puts you on watch lists, that disqualifies you for “discounted” credit, health insurance plans, etc…The gaze and the drone are absolutely not opposed or mutually exclusive; more often than not, they’re deeply and complexly implicated in one another. That’s why super-panoptic surveillance is above or on top of regular old visual panopticism; it’s an additional layer, not a replacement.
What I think that characterization requires me to talk about here is the kind of power exchange that we find in BDSM and other forms of kink, which get their sexual power from the eroticism of surrender and dominance, laying yourself bare to someone else and putting your body under their control, for them to give pain or pleasure or merely orders that have to be obeyed. There are many, many kinds of kink, of course, and this is another oversimplification, but I think for a lot of people, this serves as much of the underpinning. Surrendering to someone else sexually is itself incredibly erotic, and even if one isn’t truly known or truly controlled, the pretense of it is powerful.
The act of surrendering to the drone might be an aphrodisiac, because we know they know us, and because to be known, deeply, is foreplay.
A hacker called Puking Monkey twiddled his E-ZPass to make it turn on an LED and moo whenever it was read and found it was being read in many unexpected places, and not just at toll booths.
Turns out the NY Department of Transportation runs a program called Midtown in Motion, which accesses E-ZPasses in midtown New York City for traffic analysis:
TransCore, a company that makes the RFID readers that New York is using to pick up on E-ZPasses, was more forthcoming. A 2013 case study from the company notes that the $50 million project to improve traffic congestion in New York also involved the installation of a network of traffic microwave sensors, and has been successful enough that the city plans to expand it another 270 blocks.
“The tag ID is scrambled to make it anonymous. The scrambled ID is held in dynamic memory for several minutes to compare with other sightings from other readers strategically placed for the purpose of measuring travel times which are then averaged to develop an understanding of traffic conditions,” says TransCore spokesperson Barbara Catlin by email. “Travel times are used to estimate average speeds for general traveler information and performance metrics. Tag sightings (reads) age off the system after several minutes or after they are paired and are not stored because they are of no value. Hence the system cannot identify the tag user and does not keep any record of the tag sightings.”
In other words, reading of the E-ZPasses won’t be very useful for uniquely tracking you or your speed, but it’s a reminder once again that if you accept some kind of tracking device, it may be used in ways you wouldn’t expect.
As for blocking that tracking, if you’re not excited about it, Puking Monkey recommends that you “bag the tag, and only bring it out when you want to pay a toll.” Most tags come with a “Faraday cage” type bag through which it can’t be read.
The unsettling aspect of this is that no one thought to inform us, and the state of NY believes it’s legal and ethical to do this. What we have learned is that ultimately, any means to snoop on us will be exploited by governments and they will subsequently a/ lie about it, and if caught lying, the will b/ make it legal for them to do it.
Next, they’ll make it illegal to hack your E-ZPass.
Ginger McCall, The Face Scan Arrives
This reasonable statement — A person in public may have no reasonable expectation of privacy at any given moment, but he certainly has a reasonable expectation that the totality of his movements will not be effortlessly tracked and analyzed by law enforcement without probable cause — may not be our future. They are watching, reading, and hearing everything they can.
Charles Stross, Spy Kids
Charles Stross is the author of masterworks of sci fi like Accelerando, and he thinks like a futurist. Here his ruminations about the rapidly shifting work compact between the intelligence services and its workers in an increasingly Benthamite surveillance state is dark and dead on.
Recycling bins in London are monitoring the phones of passers-by, so advertisers can target messages at people whom the bins recognize.Renew, the startup behind the scheme, installed 100 recycling bins with digital screens around London before the 2012 Olympics. Advertisers can buy space on the internet-connected bins, and the city gets 5 percent of the airtime to display public information. More recently, though, Renew outfitted a dozen of the bins with gadgets that track smartphones.
The idea is to bring internet tracking cookies to the real world. The bins record a unique identification number, known as a MAC address, for any nearby phones and other devices that have Wi-Fi turned on. That allows Renew to identify if the person walking by is the same one from yesterday, even her specific route down the street and how fast she is walking.Here, an image from Renew’s marketing materials makes it plain:
The Postal Service on Friday confirmed that it takes a photograph of every letter and package mailed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year — and occasionally provides the photos to law enforcement agencies that request them as part of criminal cases.
The images are taken at more than 200 processing plants around the country and are used primarily to help the agency sort mail, the postmaster general, Patrick R. Donahoe, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
But Mr. Donahoe said that the images had been used “a couple of times” by law enforcement to trace letters in criminal cases, including one involving ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York. The images of letters and packages are generally stored for a week to 30 days and then destroyed, he told the A.P.
» via The New York Times (Subscription may be required for some content)
27% of the poputation is right: the government is reading and listening to everything.
A majority of Americans – 56% – say that federal courts fail to provide adequate limits on the telephone and internet data the government is collecting as part of its anti-terrorism efforts.larger percentage (70%) believes that the government uses this data for purposes other than investigating terrorism.
And despite the insistence by the president and other senior officials that only “metadata,” such as phone numbers and email addresses, is being collected, 63% think the government is also gathering information about the content of communications – with 27% believing the government has listened to or read their phone calls and emails.
Nonetheless, the public’s bottom line on government anti-terrorism surveillance is narrowly positive. The national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted July 17-21 among 1,480 adults, finds that 50% approve of the government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts, while 44% disapprove. These views are little changed from a month ago, when 48% approved and 47% disapproved.
The horrible part is that 50% think it’s a good idea.