Computers Freedom & Privacy conference at George Washington University

I don’t get invited to cool conferences to speak. I don’t live in Washington D.C. More importantly I’m a relative nobody and that empowers me. I have nothing to lose and I can be forthright in what I say. Heck I can’t get people to show up and listen to me speak unless I offer them booze! So though I don’t get invited that doesn’t mean I can’t address the issues.

Freedom and privacy are not givens in todays society. Freedom is constantly under attack by the minions of control. Privacy is a barrier to that control and literally crushed under the apathy of public and the denoument of government repression. Consider all of the areas we consider to be private and secure yet are relatively wide open to aggressive surveillance. We all know about closed circuit cameras but what about tracking your bathroom habits. As commerce drives the need to charge for the use of the restroom, the payment method becomes a method of tracking your utilization of the facilities. Because all transactions are taxed there must be a government tracking method of the cost of the bathroom visit. A simple piece of privacy eroded through the use of payment technology.

The principle is convergence. As technologies converge towards a digital culture simple things become public that were normally hidden away. The United States is a substantially puritanical culture with many body image and sexual taboos. Behavioral laws are in place to criminalize what was accepted behavior previously. Unlike other periods though computer systems and tracking technologies have made it possible to catch people doing “bad” things in the privacy of their own home. Technology has enabled police presence to creep from the sidewalk into the brain. Unfortunately law has not kept step with the technical trends. The personal computer and personal digital assistant has become an adjunct to memory and cognition yet nobody has applied the fifth amendment against one of these devices. Yet they most likely are extensions of the human brain and as such should not be used to compel testimony. A radical idea yet important step towards privacy and liberty.

The city of Chicago wants to record ALL license plates of cars, bounce that data off of registration and insurance databases, and automate insurance violations being written. Automation of inherent government authority with criminal and civil penalties where the burden of proof of guilt is shifted from the state to the individual proving innocence. Now think about this. There will be devices recording all traffic and license plates moving around the city. This kind of evidence was recently used to arrest a murder suspect who said he was elsewhere but was caught on a wide view camera driving down a road. The public likely has no issue with catching murderers. But, where does this stop? Will the records be subpoenaed by spouses to prove infidelity? Will political protesters or people from the other political party be targeted? Liberty is one heart beat away from intention to abuse authority. 

Governance and law enforcement is inherently a human event and effort. The use of technology should be limited to supporting that human effort. Concrete thinking and incremental legislation leads to abuse of technology in the process. The use of DNA evidence is a good example. The science places error rates at one in a billion, but the lab error rate according to a Chicago Tribune article was closer to 1 in 200 or 1 in 50. A Texas lab was decertified because the practitioners were to lazy to actually do the tests and guessed. Humans fail when technology takes on a preeminence of truth. Further there is no law that police must act. Police common sense and good conduct of neighbors is wiped away when technology becomes a tyranny. I can foresee a day when we need a Constitutional amendment from the tyranny of technology.

Returning to the nature of financial transactions and the tracking of those transactions. If you use a credit card or debit card, you use a store shopper card, or a checkbook your buying habits are being tracked. Even with substantive attempts at obfuscation the principles aggregation allow for your anonymity to be lost. All inventory is tracked through computers, all transactions are tracked through those same computers, the databases are linked, your history of purchases is linked, and you are targeted for sales. In several murder cases those transaction records have been used to prove (with associated digital time stamped security camera feeds) that a murderer has done a crime. How long until health insurance companies are buying those databases and increasing or turning down individuals for buying to much beer, cake, or ice cream? Automotive insurance companies already use credit scores as risk elements. 

These two key elements are the primary risks to liberty and privacy. Convergence and aggregation, these are blatant attacks, with no legal protections. Convergence of technology enables the aggregation of data. Convergence of technology as simple as your cell phone including an MP3 player, digital camera, recording devices, calendar, contacts, and email allows for one device to give a likely picture of you as an individual. If you are digerati and buy into the entire lifestyle you likely have given away that entire intelligence file and mechanisms for social control to a company like Google, or paid for it with Apple. Aggregation is the simple principle of data mining and evaluating your information to implement social controls. Companies like Choice Point do this kind of aggregation and then sell it to the government for a nominal fee. The government doesn’t have to do anything that is specifically illegal. Whether their purchasing of the information is ethical or within the spirit of the law that is matter for debate. Our tax dollars pay for the government to hire lawyers and fight against our rights. Ponder that for a moment.

On the one hand government and people will say these tools assist in national security, law enforcement, and keeping people safe. On the other hand people are driven by moral panic and respond to threats way out of proportion to the actual risk. Government gathers power and political force in the guise of doing for people when all agencies and governments exist to continue their existence no matter the expense to their population or consumers.  People will say, “Yes but our government is different”, regardless of the evidence to the contrary. Government is a necessary institution that should be treated as a skeptical partner in the welfare of public order. 

All is not lost though. Those tools of convergence and aggregation also work in the peoples’ favor. My blog viewed by at least a dozen people a day is a form of one to many communication, Twitter is the same, a cell phone recording police brutality is a witness to excess, computer records can be scanned and evaluated quickly. The evidence from a security camera was used to convict a Chicago police officer of aggravated assault who beat a female bartender literally half his size. A long time ago in Pierce County Washington the camera system of a mini-mart caught a person stealing donuts that were delivered early to the front door. The fact it was a police officer made the story humorous. The reality is that the same tools that impact citizens liberty and privacy also beget power to change and restrain government. The balance that is struck though should always be in the peoples favor.

That is the talk I would give, but I’m too ugly to get invited to those kinds of parties.

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