Seduction rather than policing

“The great majority of people – men as well as women – are today integrated through seduction rather than policing, advertising rather than indoctrinating, need- creation rather than normative regulation.”

Bauman, Z. (1998) On Postmodern Uses of Sex p.23

Tragic hitchBOT and Camera Surveillance

The hitchhiking robot and social experiment called hitchBot came to an end in Philadelphia this week. It had survived crossing Canada and being in Germany and Italy. But it turns out the US was not friendly enough for it to survive. Message from the family:

hitchBOT’s trip came to an end last night in Philadelphia after having spent a little over two weeks hitchhiking and visiting sites in Boston, Salem, Gloucester, Marblehead, and New York City. Unfortunately, hitchBOT was vandalized overnight in Philadelphia; sometimes bad things happen to good robots.

The bot was a relatively simple device with a vaguely human shape – or more like a rough robot shape; two arms and two legs a torso and a screen for eyes.

The robot was able to carry on basic conversation and talk about factoids, and was designed to be a robotic travelling companion while in the vehicle of the driver who picked it up. It had a GPS device and a 3G connection which allowed researchers to track its location. It was equipped with a camera which took photographs periodically to document its journeys. Wikipedia

It’s sad that the robot was destroyed and it could probably have happened anywhere – even if it did happen in Philly. The interesting part for me is that a couple of days later this surfaces: Here’s Video of the Jerk Who Killed hitchBOT talk about surveillance society.

There is always a camera somewhere. The question is: are we doing anything that makes it worth the effort to find the footage?

New York Times' prophetic 1983 warning about the NSA

The scary part about the whole NSA Prism story is the predictability, if not inevitability of the whole affair. The shock of the disclosure lies mainly in the hope that government will not do what they have the power to do.

Via BoingBoing comes this 1983 article from The New York Times written by David Burnham: THE SILENT POWER OF THE N.S.A.

No laws define the limits of the N.S.A.’s power. No Congressional committee subjects the agency’s budget to a systematic, informed and skeptical review. With unknown billions of Federal dollars, the agency purchases the most sophisticated communications and computer equipment in the world. But truly to comprehend the growing reach of this formidable organization, it is necessary to recall once again how the computers that power the N.S.A. are also gradually changing lives of Americans – the way they bank, obtain benefits from the Government and communicate with family and friends. Every day, in almost every area of culture and commerce, systems and procedures are being adopted by private companies and organizations as well as by the nation’s security leaders that make it easier for the N.S.A. to dominate American society should it ever decide such action is necessary.

Surveillance and hi-resolution

Huge hi-res images are fascinating and the London Panorama from the BT Tower is no exception. But the resolution got me thinking that this was an excellent visualization of what surveillance really can look like. It’s not only the barely visible images taken from cheap cameras on walls. Check out the zoom on this baby…

Do you see the man with the red shirt and glasses?

Looking for Orwell, missing Huxley, or Why privacy law is failing: Notes from a lecture

Being invited to talk somewhere else is always thrilling. Being asked to go to Berlin was even more so. The event was part of Internet und Gesellschaft Co:llaboratory who have been working on Internet & Human Rights. The event was a full day of talk (admittedly a lot in German but I had wifi and work to do so I was happy) followed by an open seminar with three talkers. These notes are from the presentation I gave at the seminar.

The lecture opened with a look at three historical highpoints of privacy regulation and thought. First was 1890 which was the year where Warren & Brandeis published their seminal paper The Right to Privacy which attempts to create a new right in society. Today, living in a rights-focused society arguing for rights seems natural (or banal) but what was it like to be the first to argue the right to privacy?

To exemplify the situation I showed the killer app of the 1890s. It was the Hollerith Tabulating Machine

Hollerith Tabulating Machine

The legal protection of privacy did not immediately spring to life and the next great step came in the 1970s where first the Lander of Hesse in Germany and the in 1973 Sweden created data protection legislation. The idea was to protect against the abuses of data collection but the state and large corporations.

The killer app of the 1970s is the impressive UNIVAC computer

UNIVAC image from Musée de l’Informatique

Kind of looks like the communal laundry room in my apartment building.

The next step was the European Data Protection Directive which attempted to harmonize data protection across Europe. It came in 1995 which as a killer app had the Windows95 operating system (couldn’t resist it!) and more importantly the first browser wars between Netscape and Internet Explorer (Microsoft released versions 1 and 2 in 1995). The browser wars are incredibly interesting as they show the importance of controlling the flow of information to the end user was not dependent on the hardware or operating system. It also shows that power consists of inserting oneself between the information and the end user – but I digress.

Before continuing I wanted to remind the audience that the law (and lawmaker) is behind the times so I quoted the late great Douglas Adams from his book The Salmon of Doubt

“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Following this I added a theoretical dimension to the lecture. The regulatory pyramid is intended to show that we focus on the law – this is what I was taught at law school. But the law is a self-sustaining system that ignores (or struggles to) the realities of social norms/rules and architecture. Social norms, not law, are what control most of our behavior the law is often too expensive, too drastic, too formal to be an efficient mode of conflict resolution. When someone “steals” “your” parking space, you don’t sue or call the prosecutor. You apply social norms. Your reaction depends on your upbringing and context – you may smile sweetly, flip them off or become verbally or even physically violent. Architecture is how the world works. It controls us by the rigidity of its being.

Regulatory Pyramid

If you want to slow down cars from speeding the law could be applied (a traffic sign will remind us of a pre-existing rule), or we use social norms by reminding drivers of accidents or children playing in the area. By implementing architecture we remake the physical environment and, for example, add bumps in the road – at this all cars must slow down. It is, however, important not to confuse the equal treatment with fairness. Architecture will prevent even an ambulance that may have good reasons to drive faster in a slow area.

As an example of my theory I show this wonderful/awful park bench in Tokyo.

image from Yumiko Hayakawa essay Public Benches Turn ‘Anti-Homeless’ (also recommend Design with Intent)

The bench is an example of outdoor public furniture known as anti-homeless technology or anti-bum benches. In order to prevent an undesirable group of people from using a public space we could create a rule against it – but by creating a law we need to accept the democratic constraints in rule making. Someone could remind us that in a democracy excluding people is inherently wrong. By choosing a bench that is unsuitable for sleeping the democratic process is bypassed. Additionally the park officials can always claim to have made an aesthetic choice i.e. we like this bench, rather than being against homeless people. This is control through design choice – imagine the control that may be created in manipulating communications technology.

The next segment is surveillance theory. As individuals we constantly leak and spread information. Most of us attempt to create strategies of control for our information flows. The most common is the process of compartmentalization which means that we present different information to different groups. I.e. the information you give about what you did over the weekend may be different when presented to your boss, wife, mother, children, best friend or lover. This is not necessarily lying but it is an attempt of controlling flows of information. Technology, and in particular social media, is all about losing the ability to practice this control.

Traditional surveillance theory is based upon Michel Foucault’s developments of Jeremy Bentham’s plans for the Panopticon prison. The concept is basic – if we are unaware of being watched we will internalize our own surveillance and become our own jailers. This is the whole premise of George Orwell’s book nineteen eighty-four: Big Brother is watching you. People under constant surveillance can be controlled. But is this really true? The control by the state is under constant refinement and yet citizens still attempt to cheat and steal – violent crime in general remains constant despite cctv. Could it be that Foucault (and Orwell) got it wrong?

The next step is technology. For me it’s the radical Huxleyian shift. What Orwell feared was totalitarian control via surveillance technology. But Huxley premised a more base society. Give people enough sex and drugs and they won’t care who controls them. Enter the convenient, comfortable, entertaining world of social media.

Social Media Timeline

Our newfound joy of communications technology has already changed our behavior in a major new way. Patterns of behavior that were deemed amoral, antisocial or even illegal have now become acceptable. Spending an evening looking at pictures of your ex-partners new partner would have been a textbook case of voyeurism and stalking. Today, its just Facebook. This reminds me of this early cartoon:

Additional changes in our behavior which should concern us are the fact that we can no longer refuse, ignore or exclude social media from our lives. Many claim they don’t have time for such nonsense but this will not be an efficient information control strategy. Even individuals outside social media use are being photographed and tagged by users and therefore identities are being created of them. These “friends” will also ensure that opting out is not a viable option.

The final level of surveillance is autoveillance. This is the self-chosen role of spreading information about ourselves. This is not the fact that my telephone stores and communicates my location information and more. This is part of the performance lifestyle which has created a performance anxiety, a need to present interesting inspiring activities from an ordinary lifestyle.

This may be silly, but is it harmful? Here it is not enough to study the moves of individuals (even millions of individuals).

Basically we are being seduced by technology, locked by licenses & killed by a lack of social responsibility. This creates four harmful outcomes that need somehow to be countered: Privacy, Personalization, Information obesity, & mind control.

As with the Japanese park bench above, understanding the users will not enable us to see the intentions of the manipulators. We must look to those with influence in social media and who can be more influential than Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg has been quoted as saying privacy is no longer a social norm

Which is interesting given the fact that he has created a system which helps us to forget our inhibitions about sharing personal information and that his business model is premised on our sharing. He has a stake in the removal of protections against privacy.

Zuckerberg on the topic of personalization of technology: “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa” (Pariser NYT)

Sure there have always been gatekeepers choosing which information is important for me or not. But these gatekeepers did not create a personal information resource only for me. The daily newspaper is created to appease a society of readers. I may chose to ignore an article but at least it’s there in front of me. In a personalized world I will no longer be confronted by any kind of information that does not fit my profile.

The Holy Grail of many Internet providers is to give us this kind of personalization. The problem occurs when this kind of convenience and service removes our ability to control our flows of information. We lose the ability to read information that we may need – because we are constantly being bombarded by the information Facebook thinks we want.

Information obesity: Our bodies crave sweet and fatty foods. One way of looking at this is through the lens of evolution. Finding fatty and sweet foods was key to our survival but these were not to be found everywhere or everyday. Today we are surrounded by fatty and sweet foods so access is not the problem. The problem is overindulgence and obesity due to accessibility. This forces us to think about diet, to think about exercise. Self-control is essential to our survival.

The same is true of information. The sweet and fatty information in a long historical context was an understanding of who was allied with whom? Who is sleeping with whom? And whom can I get my genes over to the next generation (obviously just a nicer way of thinking about getting laid!). This is why we today have a fascination about gossip. Which minor celebs are attempting to sleep with each other takes up an extraordinary part of our lives. But this was all ok since the access to gossip was limited. Today, however, we are connected to the largest gossip engine ever conceived. Facebook may try to hide it in its spin, but part of our fascination is all about looking at each other. The problem is that there is only a limited amount of time in life and spending too much time on gossip limits our ability for more relevant information. We are becoming information obese and the solution is to decrease fatty information intake and go to the information gym regularly.

The final concern is of mind control. This is all about what happens when a social media is told that you are interested in a certain thing. Say, for example, you have a secret pleasure in seeing videos of kittens being kicked. You would never say this aloud – and if you did your social group would correct you by telling you this is an unhealthy impulse. You may even manage to convince yourself that you have no sadistic urges in this area. However, social media knows the truth and will continue to give priority to information about kitten kicking. You may resist some of it but if you have an urge you probably will click on some of the information. By clicking you re-enforce the information algorithm and you will be sent even more kitten kicking information. A question of moral responsibility can now be posed: While your latent sadistic tendencies are being reinforced and enhanced – what is the moral responsibility of the provider? This is akin to asking whether a drug pusher has any moral responsibility to his clients. In your answer consider that many users of social media are very young and there is no general awareness or discussion on the harms of social media.

So what about regulation? Well the problem is that we are considered to be autonomous. In other words we are old and wise enough to live our own lives. Indeed we have all agreed to the terms of use of social media sites. We may not have read them, maybe not understood them, they may have changed drastically since we read them – but legal fiction is that we agree to them.

This shouldn’t be a problem. If society deems an activity harmful enough it can, and should, legislate against it – even if some may protest this regulation. There have been protests against: motorcycle helmets, seatbelts, hitting children and the right to smoke (makes you lose faith in human intelligence) but the social cost was deemed greater than the loss of individual autonomy. The problem with social media is that the social costs are not particularly visible.

Finally on the question of gatekeepers and Orwellian or Huxleyian control it is interesting to note that typical Orwellian control is easier to see and therefore easier to protest against. Therefore the cost of maintaining it against the wishes of the people is too high to bear in the long run. But Huxleyian control is based on making me happy, fulfilling my desires. Counteracting this requires that I first become aware and then exercise self control. This is difficult on an individual level and close to impossible on a social level.

Here are the slides which accompanied the lecture.

Because we can: comments from a lecture

The weekend and FSCONS is now over. This year my presentation was the last talk of the final session. It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it?

My presentation was on the topic of privacy and raised the question of whether it is possible to maintain ones privacy in the world of extreme technology dependencies and broad social technology adoption. The answer is, dependably & depressingly, negative.

The talk was entitled Off the Grid: is anonymity possible? And focused on different forms of surveillance that are in the hands of uncommon players today. This is not big brother society, this is not little brother society. What we have is a society were privacy is lost because our contacts inform their contacts of interesting details from our lives. These details are able to be spread further by my contacts contacts. Potentially reaching the ends of the Internet. Whether or not this happens does not depend on anything I control but the interestingness of the information.

To illustrate this I displayed this tweet:

Translation: Thing that can happen at #fscons: @Klang67 proclaims himself queen. A bit unclear over what.

This is a form of surveillance through acquaintances and therefore I have chosen to follow the French wording (surveillance is French for viewing from above) and called this connaivellance for the fascinating word connaissance or acquaintance. I find the French word more interesting than the English as its root connai is the word for knowledge. Therefore, the French connaissance (acquaintance) is someone who has knowledge of you. How very apt.

The next form of surveillance is the self-surveillance of the social media age where we tell the world of ourselves. Or as a professor I met earlier in the week protested, with absolute conviction: “Twitter? That’s only people telling each other what they had for breakfast!”

Another thing I find fascinating with social media is the way it shapes our communication. One part of this is the way in we move towards the extremes. Few people online drink coffee, read books, or listen to lectures… We all seem to read fantastic/terrible books, drink great or awful coffee and lectures are either inspiring or snooze fests. All this with a shower of smileys too.

Both this autoveillance (which I have written more about here) and this connaivellance filled much of my lecture. As the law fails to protect, and our acquaintances and ourselves enthusiastically push information the last lines of defense must be the attitudes and interests of the social media creators. What my lecture showed was that protecting us is not in their interest. Therefore we stand unprotected. The slides from my presentation:

This morning I came across a further example of surveillance which needs to be added to the list. The story comes from a Forbes article by Dave Pell, entitled Privacy Ends at Burger King. The short version of the story is that a man who heard a married couple argue at Burger King began live tweeting the event and added pictures and even video clips. He began his broadcasting with the tweet “I am listening to a marriage disintegrate at a table next to me in this restaurant. Aaron Sorkin couldn’t write this any better.”

Pell’s analysis:

In that Burger King, Andy Boyle thought he was listening to the disintegration of a couple’s marriage. He was really hearing the crumbling of his own ethics and self-restraint. We can’t stand by and let an alliance between technology and poor judgement disintegrate all decency, and turn every human exchange into another tawdry and destructive episode on a never-ending social media highlight reel.

This example provided an interesting additional example to my discussion on surveillance. For me, this example shows an additional reason why any attempts to control social media (legally, socially or technically) will fail. The desire of people to communicate the interestingness in their (and others) lives makes control a difficult affair.

FSCONS continued late into the night.

Surveillance, Sousveillance & Autoveillance: Notes from a lecture

The theme for today’s lecture was about online privacy and was entitled Surveillance, Sousveillance & Autoveillance.

The lecture had to open up with a minor discussion on the concept of privacy and the problem of finding a definition that many can agree upon. Privacy is a strange mix of natural human need and social construct. The former is not easily identifiable and the latter varies between different cultures.

It is not enough to state that privacy may have a natural component – sure, put too many rats in a cage and they start to kill each other – you also need the technology to enable our affinity for privacy to develop.

For example in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson writes that the hallway was absolutely essential for private life. Without the hallway people could not pass by other rooms to get to the room you need to go to – but they would have to pass through the other rooms. Our ideas of privacy were able to develop after the “invention” of the hallway.

In order to settle on a definition I picked one off Wikipedia …(from Latin: privatus “separated from the rest, deprived of something, esp. office, participation in the government”, from privo “to deprive”) is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively.

And to fix the academic discussion I quoted from Warren and Brandeis The Right to Privacy, 4 Harvard Law Review 193 (1890)

The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world…solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress…

I like this quote because it also points to the effects of modern inventions on the loss of privacy.

In closing the lecture introduction I pointed out that privacy intervention consists of both data collection and data analysis – even though most of the history of privacy focused on the data collection side of the equation. In addition to this I broke down the data collection issue by pointing out that integrity consists of both information privacy (the stuff that resides in archives) and spatial privacy (for example surveillance cameras & the “right” to be groped at airports).

For the next section the lecture did a quick review of the role of technology in the privacy discussion. Without technology the ability to conduct surveillance is extremely limited. The early origins of tax records and collections like the Domesday book were fundamental for controlling society. However, real surveillance did not really begin until the development of technology such as the wonderful Kodak nr 1 in 1888. The advantages of this technology was that it provided a cheap, easy to use, portable ability to take photographs. Photographs could be snapped without the object standing still. A whole new set of problems was instantly born. One such problem was kodakers (amateur photographers, see “’Kodakers Lying in Wait’: Amateur Photography and the Right to Privacy in New York, 1885-1915”, American Quarterly, Vol 43, No 1 March 1991) who were able to suddenly able to take photographs at of unsuspecting victims.

Surveillance: A gaze from above

The tradition concerns of surveillance deal with the abuse of state (or corporate) power. The state legitimizes its own ability to collect information about its citizens. The theoretical concerns with surveillance are the abuse from the Big Brother state and foremost in this area is the work of Foucault and his development of the Panopticon (all-seeing eye prison). Foucault meant that in a surveillance society the surveilled, not knowing if anyone was looking, would internalize his own control.

Sousveillance: A gaze from below

The concept of sousveillance was originally developed within computer science and “…refers to the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity typically by way of small wearable or portable personal technologies…” Wikipedia

But in the context of privacy the idea was that our friends and peers (especially tricky concepts in Social Media) will be the ones who collect and spread information about us online.

We are dependent upon our social circle, as Granovetter states: “Weak ties provide people with access to information and resources beyond those available in their own social circle; but strong ties have greater motivation to be of assistance and are typically more easily available.” (Granovetter, M.S. (1983). “The Strength of the Weak Tie: Revisited”, Sociological Theory, Vol. 1, 201-33., pp 209).

This ability of others to “out” us in social media will become more interesting with the development of facial recognition applications. These have already begun to challenge social and legal norms (Facebook facial recognition software violates privacy laws, says Germany – The Guardian 3 August 2011).

Autoveillance: a gaze from within

The final level is Autoveillance – this is obviously not the fact that we are looking at ourselves but attempts to address the problems of our newfound joy in spreading personal information about ourselves.

Is this a form of exhibitionism that enables us to happily spread personal, and sometimes intimate, information about ourselves? Is this the modern version of narcissism?

Narcissism is a term with a wide range of meanings, depending on whether it is used to describe a central concept of psychoanalytic theory, a mental illness, a social or cultural problem, or simply a personality trait. Except in the sense of primary narcissism or healthy self-love, “narcissism” usually is used to describe some kind of problem in a person or group’s relationships with self and others. (Wikipedia)

We have always “leaked” information but most of the time we have applied different strategies of control. One such strategy is compartmentalization – which is the attempt to deliver different information to different groups. For example my mother, my wife, my co-workers, my friends and my children do not need to know the same stuff about me. But social media technology defies the strategy of compartmentalization.

At the same time as this is happening our social and legal norms have remained firm in the analog age and focus on the gaze from without.

Then the lecture moved from data collection to data analysis. Today this is enabled by the fact that all users have sold away their rights via their End-User License Agreements (EULA). The EULA is based upon the illusion of contracts as agreements between equals. However, as most people do not read the license, or if they read the license they don’t understand it, or if they understand it the license is apt to change without notice.

Today we have a mix of sur, sous & autoveillance. And again: regulation mainly focuses on surveillance. This is leading to an idea about the end of privacy. Maybe privacy is a thing of the past? Privacy has not always been important and it may once again fall into disrepute.

With the end of privacy – everyone may know everything about everyone else. We may have arrived at a type of Hive Mind. The hive mind is a concept from science fiction (for example Werewolves in Twilight, The Borg in Star Trek and the agents in The Matrix). An interesting addition to this line of thinking is the recent work by the Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö who argues that it is information inequality that is the problem.

The problem with Tännsjö’s arguments is that he is a safe person living in a tolerant society. He seems to really believe the adage: If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. I seriously doubt that the stalked, cyberbullied, the disenfranchised etc will be happier with information equality – I think that they would prefer the ability to hide their weaknesses and to chose when and where this information will be disclosed.

The problem is that while we had a (theoretical) form of control over Big Brother we have no such control over corporations to whom we are less than customers:

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

The lecture closed with reminders from Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble that with the personalization of information we will lose our identities and end up with a diet of informational junk food (the stuff we maybe want but should not eat to much of).

Then a final word of warning from Evgeny Morozov (The Net Delusion) to remind the audience that there is nothing inherently democratic about technology – our freedom and democracy will not be created, supported or spread just because we have iPods…

Increased surveillance it obviously cheaper than social change

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain addressing Parliament during a special debate on the UK riots.

(via BoingBoing)

Increased surveillance it obviously cheaper than social change. Riots are bad but they are a incredibly potent symbol that something is wrong in society. So far the focus has been on “bad kids”, “bad parents” and “bad social media”. It’s all about blaming the individuals and preventing the possibility of rioting – Nothing about the need to create a society were people don’t want to riot.

Toilet brush covert surveillance camera

Via BoingBoing comes the story of a creepy man secretly filming women in a Starbucks restroom.

A 25-year-old man hid a video camera disguised as a plastic coat hook inside the women’s restroom of a Starbucks in Glendora, CA, and secretly recorded more than 40 women and children using the toilet over two days. The man “downloaded the device about every hour to his laptop computer while sitting in his car,” according to police. (LA Times)

Most of us would be in agreement that the actions of the man are creepy. But what I find interesting is the point that nowhere in the original story (LA Times) is the manufacturers responsibility discussed. What moral responsibility does a manufacturer/designer have for a camera, disguised as a plastic coat hook, that can be affixed to a wall?

The coat hook is – in this context – an almost a reasonable product. There is a whole range of hidden bathroom camera devices on the market. How about the toothbrush camera, toilet brush camera, shower radio camera, bathroom light camera, toothpaste camera, hair clipper camera, soap dish camera, shower mirror camera, shampoo bottle camera… (all from the same manufacturer)

There may be certain situations where invading someones privacy with the help of covert surveillance cameras is legitimate – maybe even necessary. But the mass market for goods to cover these situations is hard to envision. It is even more difficult for me to understand when it could be a legitimate need to covertly film people in the bathroom. And yet there are mass market cheap goods that cover this particular situation.

So when the creepy 25-year-old uses these products – he is being creepy. But when would the use of this stuff not be creepy?

Does the fact that these products exist and are easy to buy promote and encourage creepy behavior?