“Just to be Clear, I Don’t Expect You to Embrace Any of This…

“I’m told a lot of lawyers tend to show up at these things, and my guess is the standard legal toolbox does not come with a middle finger to stick to the authorities. Then again, lawyers also know better than most what an ass the law is; they know that some are more equal than others, that cats write the laws for mice, that Bush and Cheney will never be indicted for war crimes no matter what the UN Convention Against Torture says. In this particular case, the goal is to blind Big Brother: does anyone seriously believe the law will ever smile on such a goal, when the people who write and enforce the laws are the same people who do the spying?

“Let’s just admit that almost by definition, any truly effective anti-surveillance measure is likely to be on thin legal ice, and proceed for the sake of the argument.”

Due to popular demand, as they say. One more voice in the chorus.

Not all of us are singing the same tune, mind you. The very day I first reported on my IAPP talk, a facebook buddy pointed me to this video of Rob Sawyer et al debating affirmatively (and ineffectively, as it turned out) for the motion that “Privacy is an outdated concept”.  The dude literally says “Big Brother got a bad rap”, which is pretty much verbatim what I remember him saying a decade and a half ago in Macleans— along with that old chestnut corollary that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.  In a moment of glorious serendipidity, the local media broke a series of stories the very next week about innocent hordes with nothing to hide— never even charged with a crime much less convicted— who nonetheless turn out to have police records even if they don’t have criminal ones. And these records are being used to fuck them over on everything from border crossings to education to employment. (Fortunately those late-breaking rejoinders weren’t necessary for purposes of the debate: Sawyer’s team got its ass handed to it even without them.)

Except it’s not really serendipity, is it? Serendipity is a fortuitous and unexpected coincidence of timing— but the timing of such revelations can hardly be coincidental when they happen all the bloody time. (I was going to throw in a bunch of links here about PIPEDA and CCLU lawsuits and the latest omnibus bills intended to loosen yet further the few fraying threads still holding our watchers in check—but dammit, there are just so fucking many of them.)

Anyway. tl;dr: It’s later than you think. Here’s the text of my recent keynote address to the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Get it from the backlist page (under “Commentary”), or just click on the gorilla…

The Scorched Earth Society: Click for pdf

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday May 26 2014at 01:05 pm , filed under evolution, just putting it out there..., public interface, scilitics . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

41 Responses to ““Just to be Clear, I Don’t Expect You to Embrace Any of This…”

  1. Magnificient.

  2. Great talk. Just one error I noticed in the last paragraph on page 10 – it says “cut off our noses despite our faces” rather than “to spite our faces”.

    Do other social species care about revenge as much as we do?

  3. That argument about having nothing to hide is such ridiculous garbage I can’t even wrap my head around it. I mean, I guess I can see the point of it if we were living in a flawless Utopia where mistakes were never made… but who thinks we live in that place? No one I’m aware of.

    Beyond that, anti-privacy people realize that it’s perhaps a little bad to discourage people from calling 911 or filing charges against someone? All the accused needs to do is claim something, no matter how outrageous, and you’re fucked.

    Sometimes I don’t like reading your blog because it disturbs my whole ostrich-zen thing. If I don’t know about it, it isn’t happening! … If only that were true.

  4. Shock the monkey!

  5. I like this. I like this a lot.

  6. Daniel:
    Do other social species care about revenge as much as we do?

    Oh, great question.

  7. Wouldn’t surprise me if they did, at least to a certain extent. I mean crows can hold grudges against individual humans who’ve messed with them and teach each other to do so as well, so why not?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/science/26crow.html

  8. another good talk (also with cute primate photo) about things like privacy and data and old cold war files

    The Internet With A Human Face – Beyond Tellerrand 2014 Conference Talk

  9. Years ago I worked with a guy from France that told me people there generally know how much money their co-workers make. I told him that sounded creepy. He said he thought that creepy feeling was something cultivated by employers because it helped them better negotiate with employees who had no real information to negotiate with. Someone making less than people doing comparable work would have a reference point to ask for more. Someone making more than the rest of his colleagues might be more content with his salary. I still don’t want to know what my co-workers make, but does that preference benefit me, or is it just what I’m used to?

    Recently I’ve been wondering if the same idea wouldn’t apply to personal relationships. If we knew each other’s secrets, our weird little rituals, vanities, and sexual quirks, would we be less likely to see them as weird? If we were functionally prevented for nurturing these tailored avatars of ourselves, would we find it harder and harder to ignore the common ground? Taken to some Strossian extreme where we were wired directly into each other, would our clinging individualism seem more and more like a quaint vestigial artifact of the millennia of zero-sum rock-fighting that no longer serves the communal thing we have become.

    Of course, none of this argues against the idea that the institutions of power will have better access to information (at least in the short term) and certainly won’t use it for the greater good. Most technologies seem to be born from the will of the haves to widen and cement the gap. But they sometimes turn out to be a good thing anyway.

  10. A passing sorta poetic thought: even gorillas know not to shit where you eat. Humans, not so much.

  11. I love you so much, Peter!

  12. Robert Berger,

    There is also the Nordic system of publishing the individually reported taxable income each year.

  13. David Brin responds http://davidbrin.blogspot.com.au/2014/05/brave-citizenship-beats-scorched-earth.html

  14. God, Brin is so cute.

    And naive.

    If he thinks this will end well, he hasn’t been paying attention.

    US security state won’t end, barring bankruptcy or partition..

  15. …and looking back.

    (rofl)

    Nanny cams can’t use audio in the US. Yeah. You can’t spy on strangers in your own house without their permission. True, one can record in public (unlike in the even more surveillance happy UK, where every photographers is treated like a potential jihadi scoping out stuff).

    But all the interesting shit someone might want to get for political reasons is highly illegal to record.

    And, considering who writes the fucking legislation, it’s no doubt going to stay that way. Same with legal insider trading for politicians. Same with the fuckupped healthcare system.. ..

    How can someone who wrote such fun books be so .. naive?

    The least-violent realistic option for getting rid of the SS in the US would be an ‘Unintended Consequences’ scenario, in which gov’t is paralyzed through random assassination of it’s mid and upper level personnel. LEO would be unable to both protect and trace the guerrillas. Only way for bureaucrats to stay safe would be to bug out of workplace, home and go hide.

    Which would result in indefinite gov’t paralysis, as I really doubt US bureaucracy is completely networked and paperless.

    Nah. Future, at least in the UKUSA is going to be about being observed, everywhere where there is a smartphone, CCTV, etc.

    But hey, believers have lived with the notion that someone knows their innermost thoughts for millenia.

    Perhaps it’s even good for people. Don’t know.

  16. whoever,

    Anecdotal example.

    One sysadmin I know of had a clever dog, an Alsatian/Dachsund cross. His neighbor wronged the dog once. The retaliation was that, on Christmas, as the neighbor put out the holiday cabbage soup to cool out on the porch, the dog sneaked up and pissed into it…

  17. Brin makes some valid points, though I’m not sure if he understood the deterrence aspect of your talk, if I understood it right, the tendency for self destructive or exaggerated retaliation is also a form of deterrence….

    I do like the notions of sousveillance and the transparent society making past deep dark secrets no longer matter, but it does seem a little too good to be true, too pat.

  18. Excellent piece.

    However, first I read this:
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/27/if-we-cant-change-economic-system-our-number-is-up

    Then yours

    And I kinda feel that we’re just not going to exit this century as any kind of a peaceful, industrialised society. Which is very bad news for my grandkids – and I am already scared enough for my kid (8).

    Peter, what is your thinking on this argument, applying your clear-eyed biologism: dystopic trends represent existential threats to my genes. My genes will not survive, therefore I need to take radical action to help them more.

    Is there a genetic warrant for bloody revolution against the neoliberal police state and/or Green, anarchistic revolt?

  19. Years ago I worked with a guy from France that told me people there generally know how much money their co-workers make. I told him that sounded creepy. He said he thought that creepy feeling was something cultivated by employers because it helped them better negotiate with employees who had no real information to negotiate with.

    That sounds right to me. When I started as an engineer the local employers shared salary data between themselves so that they had a much better idea of the ‘going rate’ than any of the individual engineers. (Who would have had to collect information themselves, pre-internet, by collecting and tabulating want ads.)

    More recently, I had a friend who worked at an engineering consulting office where they were told that discussing salaries was cause for termination. So she had no idea what her coworkers were making, but her manager assured her he was giving her the maximum increase every year.

    Then one day she got an offer from outside the company, for much more than her current salary. And suddenly her manager found the money for a 50% raise.

    So yeah, information asymmetry favours the large organizations. Which is one reason I’ve been happiest at unionized workplaces: less room for management to play dominance head-games with you, and a lot less internal competition.

  20. _________________________________________________________

    And I kinda feel that we’re just not going to exit this century as any kind of a peaceful, industrialised society

    What is peace good for? Does it separate the wheat from the chaff?

    1st world politics are going insane, and sticking to peace at any price is a sure recipe for oblivion. Smart and/or hard-working people are already being discriminated against in the name of equality. What kind of society does this?


    Is there a genetic warrant for bloody revolution against the neoliberal police state and/or Green, anarchistic revolt?

    Uh, no. Unorganized violence in response to slights has been largely bred out of the human animal, at least of the kind mostly found in police states.

    One would need to 1) develop a covert organisation 2) make the state angry and overly-violent, so people would get scared and pissed off 3) choke the internet and mess with the economy.

    As long as people have enough TV & porn, they won’t revolt.

    Voting with your feet is easier, though.

  21. Too good. I hear the wind rustling in the grass. It’s probably just the governments and corps frantically trying to come up with biological and neurological ways to mess up our privacy.

  22. I’m going to have to call Brin ignorant. The things revealed by Snowden and Manning were mostly done in secret.

    He’s ignorant for implying due process has had any connection to those cases-only after the government got caught looking over shoulders and lying about various items, and even then the debate was shallow and obfuscated or never appeared at all-and for calling the Snowden and Manning situations fringe.

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/08/21/what-bradley-manning-revealed/

    NBC reports on the Brit portion of the Snowden slides implied heavily that the real targets of the programs were actually the people known to stare back: reporters, dissidents, protestors, hacktivists, etc. and really, people at large. To imply that is somehow fringe is to say having any say at all in the actions of government is a trifle.

    The “back in my Egyptian slave driving days”/you-got-it-good-now-wimp-stop-complaining argument is the one some American politicians trot out when they want to fund stuff that kills and not fund stuff that feeds, heals, or educates. Always strikes me there’s more of a shortsighted financial gain motive combined with demonizing those who might otherwise benefit from not being murdered AND those who would from the other spending choice.

    People don’t normally complain about good news. Don’t know why that doesn’t resonate with some people. If he’s concerned about any dystopian future, I can’t see saying look back but consider those who do to be fringe. Rather, I think he’s in a government/mass media run info-bubble reinforced by normalcy bias or hasn’t grepped that our nations’ police forces are becoming militarized and have some degree of federal control through fusion centers. We aren’t talking about traffic stops. Though even those seem to be becoming more deadly as police are increasingly trigger-happy in otherwise routine situations.

    As for the kill-button, can’t say I was much on board with it because, how would you verify? He’s right on the cheap-to-copy point. I suppose a heavily watched and regulated “cloud,” but, man…

    As for the prey/predator stuff and that being key to the discussion, agree with Peter. Maybe that stress is what’s causing the tripling in shootings we’re seeing.

    I can’t see looking back on any equal footing without some kind of equal power, and broke people in a Citizen’s United/corporate NATSEC world don’t strike me as having much in the way of power.

    They don’t just feel like prey…they are prey.

  23. I don’t know if you bother to read your email, so I’m just going to leave this here.
    Amazon delivered Reach for Infinity today and I just finished Hotshots. It was great. Sweet and Uplifting. There have been times when I’ve been moved by tragedy and comedy in your writing, but this was very strongly hopeful.
    Thank you.

  24. Hello! I’m a regular over on MetaFilter, and I was thinking about some of the implications of surveillance, sousveillance, and data destruction. I was reading more on Google Glass, and the visceral reaction some people have to it, including so far as to engage in physical violence against the wearers. I didn’t realize – until I put it together with your “what happens when you look a gorilla in th eye” quote.
    It’s the eyes. Surrounded by a network of cameras, wireless devices, audio recorders, we happily engage in our everyday lives. But link tose recorder to a face, a pair of eyes, and suddenly people go.. apeshit.

  25. Hi everyone,

    Not ignoring all these comments, just kind of snowed under. But I will be posting again on the subject, so stay tuned: at least some of your questions will be answered.

    Seruko (Free Candy Inside Van): Amazon delivered Reach for Infinity today and I just finished Hotshots. It was great. Sweet and Uplifting. There have been times when I’ve been moved by tragedy and comedy in your writing, but this was very strongly hopeful.

    Glad you liked the hopeful and uplifting ending. Except really, it’s a hopeful and uplifting beginning. This is Sunday at the very start of the voyage. If you look ahead to “the Island”, you’ll see she loses that whole bright-eyed-bushy-tailed thing eventually.

  26. Gary Flood: However, first I read this:
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/27/if-we-cant-change-economic-system-our-number-is-up

    Yes. Exactly. But this is not a new argument; I was writing essays back in high school about the thermodynamics-breaking assumptions of conventional economic models, and I wasn’t inventing them; I was just parroting the arguments of the Limits to Growth crowd.

    Of course, those people have long since fallen out of favor. Too bad the facts persist.

    Peter, what is your thinking on this argument, applying your clear-eyed biologism: dystopic trends represent existential threats to my genes. My genes will not survive, therefore I need to take radical action to help them more.

    The problem is that we don’t care about our genes. If we did, fucking wouldn’t feel so good. The genes have to trick us at every turn by giving us little dopamine rushes every time we do something that increases our fitness.

    The problem, of course, is that now we can get all those rushes doing things that turn the planet into a fucking cesspool, and the genes don’t have nearly enough time to catch up and switch strategies. The only hope lies in our flexible, learning brains — but those brains were also shaped for self-gratification, so while the neocortex may reason that we’re headed for extinction, the brainstem will keep us from really believing that on the gut level necessary to produce effective change. Eventually, life will will be so miserable that our gut feelings will come around. But of course, by then it will be far, far too late.

    In fact, it probably is already.

  27. One more, this time about the border buildups and how staying at home may no longer prevent run-ins with DHS:

    http://truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/24167-border-patrol-nation-us-creates-war-zones-at-boundaries-with-mexico-canada

  28. Peter, you made it to Linux Weekly News. :)

    “Security quotes of the week”

    http://lwn.net/Articles/599930/

  29. ‘I was writing essays back in high school about the thermodynamics-breaking assumptions of conventional economic models, and I wasn’t inventing them… Eventually, life will will be so miserable that our gut feelings will come around. But of course, by then it will be far, far too late.
    In fact, it probably is already.’

    Mate: you must have been a bundle of joy in High School
    :)

  30. Y.:

    Crows, I’m told, have multigenerational revenge inclinations. If a farmer kills some, supposedly they will sabotage the place and teach their offspring to do likewise.

  31. @ whomever

    Crows are kinda complicated.
    There does not appear to be evidence for “vengeance plots” harbored by crows (then again, a vengeance plot that can be uncovered by a bunch of meddling boffins wouldn’t be a very good vengeance plot, would it, huh?) but they do possess capacity to remember human facial features and pass that information to “naive” crows which did not have personal encounter with that particular human (that does include passing down to offspring, but isn’t limited to it).

    It is thus theoretically conceivable that one could train a large group of crows to systematically track down and kill people who fit a particular faciometrical profile, and maintain this behavior throughout generations (as well as spread it to other, “neutral” crow groups)

    Funny that a large group of crows is called a “murder”.

    @Peter

    Yes. Exactly. But this is not a new argument; I was writing essays back in high school about the thermodynamics-breaking assumptions of conventional economic models

    The subtle problem with “limits to growth” argument is that, while it’s reasonable in the arithmetic sense, it does not specify when such a limit might be hit.

    It is a bit like Moore’s law – in theory it is immediately apparent that there has to be a limit to this law (Bekenstein bound, yada-yada), and exact limitations of current silicon-based integrated circuit production technology are rather well-understood, but since we aren’t limited to current production technologies (or, for that matter, to silicon) there is no telling when exactly would Moore’s law betray us.

    It’s even more muddy with “economic” “growth”, since typical economic growth metrics include “all recognized goods and services”, which necessarily includes cultural artifacts (such as works of art and various weird vanity services) which may have near-arbitrary valuation.
    Also one has to keep in mind that theoretically, our dependence on current ecosystem could get engineered away (together with other “things that make us weak and strange ;) “)…
    …but even if we put radical innovations (like space mining or human re-engineering) away, as long as cultural/service stuff is part of GDP, there ain’t no precise way to put a “cap” on conceivable growth (consider this – Mona Lisa is valued at about 700+ mil. USD, and from a “culturally alien” perspective it is little more than a bunch of pigments and an adhesive overlaid on top of a canvas)

    So yes, at some point we certainly will hit a “ceiling”. It might be tomorrow, or it might be when we finish devouring the last star in this galaxy. Or anywhere in-between.

  32. 01,

    but they do possess capacity to remember human facial features and pass that information to “naive” crows which did not have personal encounter with that particular human

    How do they do that? No one’s ever caught them handing out photographs.
    Do crows have a language or what?

  33. Attempted Murder:

    http://www.birdchick.com/wp/2011/08/attempted-murder-care-of-nbb/

  34. @ Y

    Well, there’s debate as to whether the thing crows have is a language (complicated linguistic shenanigans involved), but they do encode a wide array of information in their vocalizations.
    In fact, it is known that there is regional variation present in their vocalizations – which means that, for all practical intents and purposes, that crows can and do develop dialects.
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/06/060606-crows.html

    In my humble opinion, that’s “language enough” even if it doesn’t satisfy some contrived Chomsky-style criterion.

    So yes, if crows develop an attitude of animosity towards you, they will work to spread it among other crows and keep that attitude going essentially indefinitely, and there’s no telling when – if ever – will said animosity fade.

    The takeaway here is that one probably shouldn’t fuck with crows (crows do know where you live. They do.)

    And that genetically engineered crows would make pretty cool covert murder weapons (badum-tish!)


  35. The takeaway here is that one probably shouldn’t fuck with crows (crows do know where you live. They do.) And that genetically engineered crows would make pretty cool covert murder weapons (badum-tish!)

    Don’t think so.

    Very hard for a crow to kill someone.

    Also, shotguns. Cheap, effective, portable.

  36. Very hard for a crow to kill someone.

    Don’t underestimate birds.
    Especially if they come in packs that easily number in hundreds.

    And if we’re speaking “genetically improved”, well… there already are birds (not corvids though) that sequester neurotoxins found in food and excrete them to fuck up anyone who tries to mess with them (IIRC the phenomenon was discovered when an ornithologist observed that his hand went all numb and paralyzed after being scratched by a little tropical bird he caught)

    So as long as one is willing to engage in reckless military experimentation, one could definitely look into making poisonous crows with further enhanced reasoning and communication abilities (I wonder why nobody ever tried just using vanilla classic selection in order to breed some corvids for increased intelligence and cooperative problem solving…seems like a fun thing to do)

  37. Acoustic Kitty and Caustic Crow. Think that’s an idea for a graphic novel.


  38. Especially if they come in packs that easily number in hundreds.

    Belt-fed shotguns? You’d have to really modify them to override their self-preservation and loud-sound avoidance instinct.


    And if we’re speaking “genetically improved”, well… there already are birds (not corvids though) that sequester neurotoxins found i

    Wouldn’t, by that time, neurotoxin resistance be part of the basic package everyone’s genes would be improved with?

    In such a future, neurotoxin production would be way easier, thus it’d make some sense to protect people from wannabe mass-murderers..

  39. Belt-fed shotguns? You’d have to really modify them to override their self-preservation and loud-sound avoidance instinct.

    At that point, the target is entrenched (possibly behind some cover) and is busy shooting down anything that looks like a crow (which is a lot of birds, unless you’re particularly good at identifying species of birds while observing them from a distance).

    IMHO that already sounds like some sort of combat theater type of environment, while I was thinking more along the lines of surprise attacks and assassinations “behind the lines” as well as in non-combat settings.

    But even in combat (where a belt-fed shotgun or some other solution along those lines would actually be a thing), making the enemy worry about birds is quite useful, especially since “engineered crows” can forage from the environment in the same manner as natural ones, making their loiter time almost unlimited.

    I’d say it’s still pretty useful.

    In such a future, neurotoxin production would be way easier, thus it’d make some sense to protect people from wannabe mass-murderers…

    IMHO it seems that in a “reasonably advanced bioengineering” future, toxin/resistance race is more or less classic “armor versus munition” race (and those tend to favor munitions)

  40. How about mosquitoes? OPERATION BIG ITCH:

    http://www.theblackvault.com/m/articles/view/Entomological-Warfare


  41. IMHO that already sounds like some sort of combat theater type of environment, while I was thinking more along the lines of surprise attacks and assassinations “behind the lines” as well as in non-combat settings.

    You’d need to teach crows to open doors and stuff. Not easy.