surveillance

The censor and the eavesdropper: the link between censorship and surveillance

Cory Doctorow makes a simple but important point in the Guardian: censorship today is inseparable from surveillance. In modern media preventing people from seeing proscribed information requires systems that monitor their activity. To implement copyright-protecting censorship in the UK systems must be in place to track where people seek to access and compare it to a denial list, in whatever medium is used.

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Surrendering to big brother might be the least bad option

We’re probably approaching a point where blue-collar crime could be eradicated, one way or the other. But the way does matter: we could eradicate crime through ubiquitous surveillance, or through drug treatments/targeted lobotomies to remove the urges to criminality, or through effective early identification of potential criminals and preemptive measures against them, or through skilled large scale social manipulation of attitudes, or even through reducing all human interactions to tele-presence.

All these methods are unpleasant and undermine our current notions of democracy, but persistent fear of crime (despite the persistent reduction in actual crime) means that politicians will find it extraordinarily difficult not to implement one of these measures, were it to work. Humanity will likely find itself in a crime-free society; the question is how.

To my mind, ubiquitous surveillance is the least unpleasant of the possibilities – it’s non-discriminatory, doesn’t interfere with people’s inner motivations, doesn’t involve sinister manipulations of social norms or loss of human interactions. Assuming we can’t hold the line, that’s where I would want it to be broken.

But we might have more influence if we surrender early. Saying “we’ll allow surveillance, but fight you tooth and nail and claw on the other methods” would make it much easier to ensure those other methods were not implemented. In exchange for cooperation, we could also push the surveillance state into more positive implementations of the policy – maybe achieving 360 degree transparency (we watch the rulers watching us) or treating recording akin to electronic medical records, only allowing them to viewed in specific circumstances.

Cabs, censorship and cutting tools

The smith was working hard on making a new tool. A passer-by looked at his work and remarked that it looked sharp and dangerous. The smith nodded: it needed to be very sharp to do its work. The visitor wondered why there was no cross-guard to prevent the user’s hand to slide onto the blade, and why the design made it easy to accidentally grip the blade instead of the grip. The smith explained that the tool was intended for people who said they knew how to use it well. “But what if they were overconfident, sold it to somebody else, or had a bad day? Surely some safety measures would be useful?” “No”, said the smith, “my customers did not ask for them. I could make them with a slight effort, but why bother?”

Would we say the smith was doing his job in an ethical manner?

Here are two other pieces of news: Oxford City Council has decided to make it mandatory for taxicabs in Oxford to have CCTV cameras and microphones recording conversations of the passengers. As expected, many people are outraged. The stated reason is to improve public safety, although the data supporting this decision doesn’t seem to be available. The surveillance footage will supposedly not be made available other than as evidence for crimes, and not stored for more than 28 days. Meanwhile in the US, there are hearings about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act, laws intended to make it easier to block copyright infringement and counterfeiting. Besides concerns that critics and industries most affected by the laws are not getting access to the hearings, a serious set of concerns is that they would make it easy to censor websites and block business on fairly loose grounds, with few safeguards against false accusations (something that occurs regularly), little oversight, few remedies for the website, plus the fact that a domestic US law would apply internationally due to the peculiarities of the Internet and US legal definitions.

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The unexpected turn: from the democratic Internet to the Panopticon

In the last ten years ICTs (information and communication technologies) have been increasingly used by militaries both to develop new weapons and to improve communication and propaganda campaigns. So much so that military often refers to ‘information’ as the fifth dimension of warfare in addition to land, sea, air and space. Given this scenario does not surprise that the Pentagon would invest part of its resources to develop a new program called Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) allegedly to ‘to get better at both detecting and conducting propaganda campaigns on social media’ as reported a few days ago on Wired (http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/07/darpa-wants-social-media-sensor-for-propaganda-ops/on ).

The program has two main functions, it will support the military in their propaganda and it will allows for identifying the “formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes)” in social groups. Namely, the program will be able to spot on the web rumours or emerging themes, figure out whether such themes are randomly coming up or are the results of a propaganda operation by ‘adversary’ individuals or group. To any one even also slightly concerned with ethical problems all this rings more than one bell.

SMISC is one more surveillance tool empowered by ICTs. We all know that the information that we put on the web, on social networks or on websites, even our queries on search engines, is mined and analysed for second purposes. But it becomes more scaring when the analysis is done by government agencies, as in this case the Internet becomes a tool for surveillance. A surveillance, which may go far behind the one we may be already accustomed to. The unexpected turn is that the Internet, which has been for long time considered a ‘democratic place’, where anyone could express his/her thoughts and act more or less freely, could become the next Panopticon and provide the tool for monitoring both a wide range of information, from the newspaper one reads in the morning to one’s political commitment, and a vast amount of people, virtually all the web users.

This can have serious consequences. Consider the case of the recent riots and revolutions in middle East. In most cases, the Internet was the media through which people could talk about the political situation of their countries, organise protests and also describe their conditions to other people all over the world. What would have happened if middle East government could have spot the protest movements in their early days? Until now, governments, like the Egyptian one, have shut down the web in their countries to limit the circulation of information about what was happening; but the development of SMISC shows that there is a further step that could be soon taken, that is the proactive use of the Internet by governments for surveillance purposes. In this case, as the technologies for data mining evolves, the Internet may represent the most powerful surveillance/intelligence tool developed so far. If so, it seems that it is time to start worry about the rights of the Internet users and to find out ways of protecting them.

Panopticon Problems: Purists rather than Privacy?

Would a transparent society where we could all watch each other be a better society? A recent paper has made me wonder whether the big problem might not be privacy, but purists.

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