Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Day We Fight Back

This one's gonna be short, as I short-circuited trying to whittle down commentary on this situation we're in.

I counted and I have amassed 472 articles on mass surveillance in my "personal" files...since May 2013, shortly before the Snowden Era went supernova.

Yes, I apparently am some sort of maniacal hoarder of information written by others about how others are maniacally hoarding information about..."us?" (But then the NSA can tap this blog, so it's come full-circle!)

Some 20th Century Prophets: Huxley, Aldous
                                                        Orwell, George
                                                           Kafka, Franz

With our topic in mind: Here's what I consider a particularly fascinating article. It's by a George Washington U. Law Prof named Daniel J. Solove, who later published an outstanding book on the subject, Nothing To Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security.

His book is eminently readable, but if you don't have the time, most of his thesis is in this article, which I'll try to convince you to read:

"Why Privacy Matters Even If You Have 'Nothing To Hide'"

Solove shows how the "if you've got nothing to hide, well..." argument is not only pervasive, but frames the concept of privacy so narrowly that privacy advocates spend a lot of time fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.

Note the seven sample responses he received from commenters to the blog he contributes to, Concurring Opinions, about how to respond to "Well, I've got nothing to hide, so..."

I liked his example from Durrenmatt's play Traps: "A crime can always be found." We ought all to think about this more.

The extreme form of privacy and "Well, I've got nothing to hide, so..." cashes out to easy ones like, "Well, okay then: let me take pictures of you nude and give them to all of your neighbors." People will realize they take much of their ideas about privacy for granted.

I like how Solove extensionalizes the term "privacy" and shows that it is a complex term that's been unjustly narrowed by the "I'm not afraid of being wiretapped if it helps catch terrorists; I've got no secrets. I've done nothing wrong" types. He uses the Wittgensteinian term "family resemblances" but Korzybski would have said "extensionalization" of terms.

"Privacy" does not just mean "secrecy" or "hiding something that's wrong." What if a Peeping Tom looks at you through the window as you get out of the shower (author's admission: I actually enjoy this, but most people don't as I understand it): you haven't lost anything "secret" but your privacy seems to have been invaded, no?

If someone steals your diary and reveals your most personal secrets, this is an invasion of privacy and your own secrecy, but those secrets were not about doing anyone any harm. (Probably?) Solove says judges  and lawyers often overlook this semantic sense of "privacy" when they use to the term to defend the truncated ideas about dangerous secrets and "terror" (blood/death) that inform too many arguments about "privacy."

Blackmail and identity theft would also deserve consideration as "privacy" extensionalizations and they don't have to do with terror either.

I like how Solove sheds light on government surveillance  within the context of Orwell's 1984 and Kafka's The Trial. In the former, everyone knows they're being watched, so surveillance serves as a form of social control and inhibition. In a so-called free society, under the First Amendment (in Unistat), we have freedom of speech, assembly and the freedom of and from religion. In a surveillance state, these lawful activities can become inhibited so that the citizen's rights mean almost nothing, due to fear. In Kafka's novel, a bureaucracy with indeterminate purpose that can make decisions about your life detains you, but you can't find out why. This fosters hopelessness and powerlessness.

The stronger form of privacy argument, says Solove, is the "I'm willing to give up some of my privacy if it will save lives from a terrorist attack." I think Solove's unpacking of different types of mistaken and unjust dangers that could happen to anyone answers the "strong form" adequately. See for yourself...)

For me, the most interesting parts of Solove's argument about the damage of broad government surveillance are covered briefly in his short paragraphs about ideas all-too-often left out of the "privacy" discussion: aggregation, exclusion, "secondary use," and distortion.

Interestingly, something like the availability heuristic seems to inform our ideas about "privacy." When a horrific terrorist attack occurs, it's so vivid we can't think straight, and the enemies of individual rights and/or control freaks rush in to capitalize, as happened with the USA/Patriot Act. But Solove says the true dangers are in a "slow accretion of relatively minor acts," under confirmation bias, so we don't notice them, because they do not seem like significant emotional or legal issues to us, and he uses the analogy of environmental degradation: the oil tanker hits a glacier and ruins the ecosystem in some area of the world. That's bad, and very emotional. We notice it. We discuss it with colleagues and friends. But in actuality, most of the total damage done to the world's ecosystem is a daily, constant, mundane thing, and few of us can get worked up over it, much less "notice" it in significant way.

Finally: notice that the article was published in May of 2011, two years before the Snowden Era began. What was so striking about re-reading this article again recently - besides Solove's elegant arguments for a far more inclusive definition of "privacy" - was how utterly naive so much of it seems in light of what has been revealed by Snowden and others in just 31 months. Read the article and look at what seem to Solove as hypotheticals. It seems we now often find the reality to be far worse than even his hypotheticals. Solove seems to have thought he was positing fictional-but-possible scenarios; now we find out that while he was writing the article the reality was usually beyond/worse/more baroque than his imaginings...

Examples gratis:

"A Reason To Hang Him": How Mass Surveillance, Secret Courts, Confirmation Bias and the FBI Can Ruin Your Life."

"The NSA Has Probably Installed A Virus On Your Computer...And Everyone Else's"

NSA spied on porn habits in effort to discredit "radicalizers"

"Report Suggests NSA Engaged In Financial Manipulation, Changing Money In Bank Accounts"

"NSA's Elite Hacking Unit Intercepts Laptop Deliveries"

If you used the "secure" TOR webmail site, the FBI has your in-box

NSA Official: Mass Spying Has Foiled One (or fewer) Plots in Its Whole History

"111 Things We've Learned About the NSA"

We can be spied on via our webcams even when they're not on

"NYT: Snowden Docs Reveal NSA Has Radio Pathway Into Computers, To Spy Even When Device is Offline"

"New Algorithm Finds You, Even in Untagged Photos"

"NSA Uses Google's Tracking Cookies to Target and 'Exploit' Subjects"

"Snowden Docs: British Spies Used Sex and 'Dirty Tricks'"

"Snowden: The NSA is also Engaged in Industrial Espionage" (but there's so much of this now, Slate didn't notice this was olde news: From a few months previous:

"NSA and Canadian Spooks Illegally Spied on Diplomats at Canadian G-20 Summit"

"France's New Surveillance Law Creates a Police State"

"Spy Agencies Tap Data Streaming From Phone Apps"

"Data Broker Was Selling Lists of Rape Victims, Alcoholics and 'Erectile Dysfunction Sufferers'"

"NSA Harvested Contacts From Email Address Books"

"The Interest-Divergence Dilemma Between Tech Companies and the NSA"

"Death By Data: How Kafka's The Trial Prefigured the Nightmare of the Modern Surveillance State"

"NSA Award Winner Wants NSA Abolished"


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece, as usual. I just rewatched "Annie Hall" with its line, "Sex with you is a Kafka-esque experience."

I also think of Bob Wilson's comment about Welles' "The Trial" vis-a-vis the novel. The explosion at the end in the film has some ambiguity as to who dies. He saw the possibility that Joseph K may have escaped at the end of the film and blown up the cops. The book doesn't allow for this possibility.

Anonymous said...

My current metaphysical framework
is the casting of General Alexander
as "Spandam" of CP9 and the phrase
"Sogeking shoot down that flag" sums
up the appropriate response to out
of control governments.

(That's from One Piece, one of the
best animated cartoons from Anime.)

I never felt threatened by some
Arab who lived in a gopher hole in
Afghanistan, particularly since no
one ever presented any creditable
evidence against him. Propaganda
is not evidence, even if some had
a grievance against USA there has
not been any occurence that would
lend any credibility to the official
version of far too many things in
the last few years.

The idea that we should give up
our entire system of laws just to
save ourself from a few criminal
nuts is bullshit. It needs to be
identified as such and roundly
laughed out of adult discourse.

During the French Revolution the
"terror" was inflicted on those
who had mislead the people using
the media. Our current media needs
to stop pandering to the powerful
bullshitters and start reporting
on the awful stench of what has

Of course with examples like Webb
and Hastings, I can understand
why they aren't too keen on being

On another topic, I recommend
Davis and Hersh The Mathematical
Experience. It covers the why of
mathematicians ignoring things/
Godel in their day to day business
even though there are deep fissures
in math philosophy still unsolved.

At least you're smart enough and
concerned enough to want to make
sense of the world you live in.
Keep it up.

And remeber, if we can't see both
of Janet Jacksons tits the jihadis
have already won. : ^ )

michael said...

Eric- I love that line from Annie Hall.

Anon-I've been researching and collecting a list of names of fairly prominent people - mostly artists of some sort - who have been calling BULLSHIT on the idea that al-Qaeda was so horrific we need to suspend the Bill of Rights, even Habeus Corpus...forever.

With Wikileaks and Snowden and a few other revelations, it's time some of start saying the story was BULLSHIT and let's work to take back what they stole while most of us were cowering in fear.

Adam Curtis seems to have seen through the whole thing from the get-go. The Power of Nightmares:

Thanks for the tip on The Mathematical Experience; it sounds like the sort of math book that I find riveting. An earlier book like that, for me: Morris Kline's Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty.